Budgeting at the doctoral school
I’m keeping the theme of my last column on higher education and this time I’m giving an introduction to budgeting for higher education. If you’re starting grad school this fall (or summer), you’ve probably already started thinking about the things you’ll need and how you’ll navigate the new reality of being a student again (or, for others, to continue to be a student). Columnist Elizabeth Stivinson (now covering The Pace of Alternative Careers) wrote about the number of PhDs. the programs are free, but it’s no secret that the stipends included are usually low.
If you’re like me and come out of college with a lot of student loan debt, the idea of going to school for free is very appealing (plus, as a student, your federal loans will probably stay suspended, further delaying those dreaded monthly payments). But even so, having that financial obligation on hold can be stressful, and for me that meant obsessively poring over all the financial advice I could find online.
Even if you go to school with no loans or debt, college finances can be daunting. As costs for just about everything keep rising, you may be wondering how you’re going to manage your allowance. While everyone’s financial situation is different, here are some points that might help graduate students think about their finances in a productive way.
A quick note: This list isn’t inclusive of all budgeting approaches and won’t apply to everyone’s financial situation, so keep that in mind as you read. Also, I am not a financial advisor! These are just things that I have experienced myself or researched over the years.
Graduate scholarships vary widely. They are not the same from one end of the country to the other and sometimes are not even the same between the different programs of the same school. For reference, the University of Iowa Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology offers an annual stipend of $31,000; similar programs at Boston University and the University of California, Los Angeles provide about $37,000 and $34,000, respectively. In addition, tuition fees and health care are usually fully or partially covered.
Getting out of any type of school with no student loan debt is great, but the stipends themselves usually don’t leave much wiggle room and may require some financial planning to avoid going into debt or incurring debt. loans. If you’ve never had to live on a budget before, the good news is that there are a million tips online. From apps to news articles to social media, a simple Google search can give you an idea of how to budget.
Before using these budget tools, think about taxes – consider your total allowance and calculate the taxes that will come out. Each school handles taxes differently, and this is something that is important to know up front. Some schools automatically deduct taxes from every paycheck, and others require their students to pay their own taxes on a quarterly or monthly basis. If you are responsible for your own taxes, I recommend that you set aside your tax money with each paycheck so that you don’t fall behind and have the funds to pay your taxes each year.
Since I’m not a finance expert, I won’t go into the specifics of how to budget (search online for free tools like budget calculators and tips on how to budget), but I strongly recommend you make one. For me, budgeting was crucial so that I could feel a little in control of my finances. I tried to save money by living with roommates in affordable neighborhoods but close to school, and I also didn’t have a car, which was a big savings in terms of parking, gas, maintenance costs, etc. I know this isn’t a viable option for everyone, so if you’re heading to campus, be sure to ask about parking rates and student garages (they’re often cheaper).
Making the budget was easy, but sticking to it was a different, less successful story. I’ve used Excel to manually track my finances each month (with varying consistency), but there are also free apps like Mint or other budget trackers that can help automate budget tracking. Having a live preview of your budget can help ensure you’re sticking to your allowance.
Big cost planning
Once you’ve covered your basic costs, it’s time to think about savings. Higher education (and life) can pose financial challenges for you, and it pays to be prepared. I bought not one, but two laptops while in college (maybe I should take better care of my electronics – don’t be like me, get this waterproof laptop sleeve). These are big expenses that I had not anticipated, which made the task even more difficult. Try to think about possible costs like this, or other similar costs like car repairs that may be on the horizon, and start saving for them slowly.
Also consider school-related expenses. For example, not all programs or mentors will cover semester fees – these are fixed fees at the start of each semester that are not covered by tuition. Sometimes programs and IPs cover these costs for their students, but this is not always the case. For me, this fee is about $600 per semester. I paid them for the first three semesters or so until I officially joined a lab and my principal investigator kindly offered to pay them. It may seem inconvenient, but it’s worth asking your IP if they will cover these costs after you join.
Conference fees are another important cost to consider. I hope you will have the chance to attend a conference during your graduate studies, and how this is paid for may vary. For me, my PI could use their department’s credit card to pay for my conference registration fees (which can vary widely), but I was responsible for paying for my hotel and travel. These were reimbursed, but not before after the conference was full. This meant that I had to have the money to pay my credit card bill for these charges before I received the refund to avoid going into debt on my credit card. This can be difficult for those without excess savings or additional financial assistance and is something to plan ahead.
You can also ask your PI if they are able to pay for travel accommodation – each school and department has different rules, so you may not have to pay the money and avoid this headache. head. Either way, find out early about how conference travel and payment will work so you can plan ahead.
When you need extra help
For those of you with dependents, health issues, or other financial obligations that exceed the funds available to you, there may be options for supplementing your allowance. Start by talking with your program director or coordinator. Some schools and programs have started running student emergency funds. Others have food pantries or similar programs that can help students obtain necessities when funds are low. These may not be limited to the Ph.D. students. Student government leaders may also be able to guide you to these resources.
Although I firmly believe that the Ph.D. allowances must provide a living wage, which is often not the case. If you find that you just can’t make ends meet with your stipend, try talking to your program director or advisor (or another mentor you trust). They may be able to help you find teaching gigs or other high-paying jobs to help supplement your salary (although if so, try to set realistic limits and expectations about the how it will affect your lab work so that you are not working double time).
Finances for graduate school can be a major source of stress (at least they were for me). Although I wish the stipends were higher, having budget tools on hand can help students work with what they have and live within the stipend. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on graduate school retirement options!