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Living with Less in Graduate School

It wasn't long ago that my partner and I were graduate students at the University of California San Diego. Like many graduate students, we struggled as we watched friends from high school and college get their first jobs, enabling them to buy cars, houses, boats, iPhones, and generally spend money like an average American would.

My partner and I lived on tiny graduate student stipends of only $27k and $30k each. Worst of all, we lived in the very expensive city of San Diego where the median rent for a 1-bedroom is $1510, but the actual pricing near campus tends to be closer to $1800.

The experience of living on such a small paycheck shaped the way I spend money today and gave me a deep appreciation for the things I really need to live a happy life. During graduate school we survived and even racked up a sizeable savings account! If you’re dreading the transition to a tiny graduate student paycheck yourself, I hope some of this advice can help you enjoy your graduate student experience without stressing over your financial situation:

1. Set Up Your Mint Account Now

You’ll need to make a budget. Mint is by far the easiest way to track your spending on a daily basis. If not Mint, there are tons of apps out there that can help you track your spending. But beware: the last thing you want to do is track your budget in a spreadsheet. You’re a graduate student! You’re too busy for that! You have to automate your budget tracking as much as possible.

2. Start Cooking All Your Meals

From now on, all food that goes into your body should come from the grocery store. Make it easy on yourself at first: start by buying pre-cooked or easy-to-cook meals. (PB&J, anyone?) As you get more excited about cooking (and you WILL when you start to realize how much money you’re saving), start cooking from scratch. This will consume more of your time in the evenings, but you can cook really healthy meals for really cheap! Try cooking in bulk and packaging several meals at the beginning of each week. Several of the recipes on this website were staple recipes of ours. In our experience, eating out regularly can cost between $3-4k/month, whereas cooking our own meals costs between $500-750/month.
Potential Savings: ~$1500/month/person

3. Live with Roommates

If you don’t have the option of University-subsidized housing, rent an apartment with as many of your graduate student friends as you can. If you can find a 3 or 4 bedroom apartment and split the cost of rent and utilities amongst 3-4 people, you’re going to save several thousand dollars every year. Having trouble finding roommates? Often, Universities provide online tools to help new students find roommates and housing. Contact the graduate student advisor in your department for help finding graduate student roomies.
Potential Savings: ~$1200/month, depending on city & rental rates

4. Stop Buying Stuff

As we already covered, the only regular time you should be pulling out your credit card is at the grocery store. Are you at a place other than the grocery store? Then, it’s time to really deeply consider why you’re buying whatever you’re planning to buy. Can you survive and be happy without this thing? If the answer is yes, then why are you buying it? Will buying this thing save you a lot of money over the long-term? Then, you can start to consider buying it, with the caveat that you should vet your ability to follow through on your savings plan. (A concrete example of a “smart” purchase in this category would be a coffee maker, but only if you can be confident in your ability to ditch your morning Starbucks and make your own coffee at home.)
Potential Savings: Depends on how much you used to spend on “impulse” purchases in the past

5. Ditch the TV

Televisions are expensive and so is paying for cable. Plus, you’re a grad student now! You don’t have time for TV! If you HAVE to watch your favorite shows, get a subscription to Netflix of Hulu, or make sure to budget for small, regular television show rentals through services like Amazon.
Potential Savings: $15/month, plus several thousand dollars every few years

6. Make a Budget & Review Bimonthly

Before you make your first budget, try living your life as cheaply as possible by following the tips above for two months. Take a look at your Mint account to see where you’re spending money and how much. Is there anywhere else you can save? After you have a handle on your regular expenses and set some new goals for yourself, THEN create your budget and re-visit your budget every 2 months to see if there are any other places you can save.

The hardest part about being a diligent saver as a graduate student is the social impact it can have. It’s sometimes difficult for family & friends to understand why you won’t go with them to Disneyland or why you won’t fly back home for every holiday. More often than not though, I would just project those feelings onto my family & friends. My best advice here is to “own” being a graduate student and everything that comes with that decision. Be open with your friends & family about how you just don’t have a lot of money to spend because you’re a poor graduate student. Your friends & family will understand!