Living on a Grad Student Budget

PhD comics_Reimbursement

“Three to five weeks” – originally published 4/13/2011

It is all too easy for graduate students to reach a financial breaking point. No matter our field, we are all overworked and underpaid, even those of us who are lucky enough to be funded with assistantships and covered by university health insurance (thanks, union!). Focusing on our academic work, which we all want (and our professors expect) to be our number one priority, becomes incredibly difficult when we are wondering how we’re going to make rent, pay the credit card, and eat three meals a day this month. Sometimes, you don’t actually manage to do all of those things because the funds just aren’t there.

Of course the ideal solution to this problem is for all universities to pay graduate students what they’re really worth, and graduate students across the country have been unionizing and striking for a living wage…but that’s a whole other can of worms.

You don’t need me to tell you that making a budget is important, or that you should do your research and find cheap housing, because you are a grad student and thus a Very Smart Person. Instead, let me share a few (maybe less obvious) tips and tricks that have helped me stay afloat through four years of living on a half-time stipend.

  1. Grocery shop smarter: I literally cut my grocery budget in half when I stopped shopping at the close-by, convenient Hy-Vee (the midwestern Kroger) and started driving a bit further to Aldi. The name brands may not be snazzy and it might take an extra hour per month of your time to bounce between stores, but not paying for convenience saves you a heck of a lot of money.

    I will say that in my case, this was made possible by greater mobility: our city bus stops at Aldi, and after my first couple of years I bought a car, which allows me to shop where and when I want; I usually go to three different grocery stores. Not everyone has this option. But wherever you shop, sign up to get their weekly ads in your email; cut coupons, sign up for the store rewards program. Plan your meals around the sales and the seasonal (cheap!) produce.

  2. The drinks are free at home: This one might be the hardest. Turning down social events for financial reasons is embarrassing. There are multiple blog posts out there about how to do it without feeling like crap. I am definitely guilty of saying no to a night out without explanation, because usually the explanation is I’m broke and tired and I’d rather fall asleep on the couch with my glass of $3 wine from Aldi.

    night cheese
    But cohort bonding is important, and venting about that one guy or that awful class over drinks is a key component to said bonding. Real friends will understand if you tell them you’re trying to save money, and they’ll be willing to accommodate you. Try hosting happy hour at your home once a month — you provide a couple snacks, everyone brings a bottle or six pack of their choice, and you can have just as much fun as you do at the bar for a fraction of the cost.

  3. Treat yo’self!: I’m not trying to tell you that you have to be a buzzkill in order to avoid crippling credit card debt. If you feel like you’re living the Spartan lifestyle constantly, you’ll end up depressed, or spending $150 on an impromptu shopping spree, or both. When you make a budget for yourself, set aside $50 or $60 per month for fun stuff — a fancy coffee, drinks with the cohort, concert tickets, whatever. I have a coffee maker at my desk in the department offices, but last weekend I bought myself a $5 fancy latte because it was raining and working on a Saturday is no fun. And that latte really did help!

    mimosas tys

  4. Meal plans are your friend: Now when I say meal planning, I do NOT mean prepping an entire week’s worth of meals in a weekend, nor do I mean locking yourself into a set meal schedule for the week. I just mean taking time to look in your pantry and at the weekly grocery ads, and then planning 4-5 days worth of meals around a similar set of ingredients, so that you can use stuff up instead of letting that half jar of marinara rot in the fridge.

    I keep a list of meals for the week on my fridge, which I can rearrange to cook different days according to my mood or how much time I have on my hands. About 2/3 of the recipes in my regular rotation are from Budget Bytes, a food blog devoted to affordable meals (she breaks down total recipe cost by ingredient) that are also actually good. I usually cook enough that the hubs and I can take the leftovers for lunch the next day, which means 1) we can pack lunches instead of buy them and 2) the lunch-packing is easy because the meal is already prepared!

    I know it sounds like just one more chore on your laundry list of s%*t to do, but even a half-hour of planning on a Sunday afternoon can save you a lot of food waste during the week — which also saves you money.

  5. Seriously, don’t be afraid to ask for help: Sometimes you do everything right and your bank account still comes up short. When we moved into our current apartment last year, my parents gave me a fairly hefty loan for the security deposit. I was super embarrassed to ask for it, but my mom was so understanding, having been in the broke-grad-student situation herself, and paying her back over the next 6 months was much less depressing than seeing interest pile up on my credit cards. Not everyone has friends or family who can render financial aid, but if you do, ask.

    And if you’re in Classics or a Classics-adjacent field, make use of The Sportula! Named for the dole that Roman patrons gave to their clients each morning, The Sportula is a student- and junior-faculty-run organization that distributes microgrants of up to $300 so that “students from working-class and historically looted communities (like the ones we ourselves come from) don’t fall through the cracks left by traditional scholarship programs; all too many of which have a poor understanding of what our lives are *actually* like and what we *actually* need” (description from their website). This organization is seriously incredible; if you don’t know how you’re going to pay your utility bill this month or buy the new critical edition your professor insists you use, send them a microgrant request. And if you find yourself in a financially stable position down the road, give back by donating to their cash fund and helping some other broke student make it, too.

I know the strategies I’ve suggested here take mental energy and time, but you’re probably already spending that mental energy worrying about how you’re going to make it through the month, and living off the free food from campus events will only cover you so far. Channel that stress energy into taking steps toward saving and making your budget work for you: when you get freaked out, go look at the grocery ads, or set up a small monthly transfer to your savings account, or find a dinner recipe that uses only what you have on hand. And say yes to brunch with your cohort every once in a while — you’ll be glad you did.