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Finances for Graduate Students: an Oxymoron?

Updated: Jun 10

I finished my PhD in 2024 and I’m passionate about personal finance. 

That might sound like an oxymoron. I mean, no one goes to graduate school in the humanities for the money. And aren’t academics supposed to “be above” finances? It’s about the pursuit of knowledge, not money!

Surprise – even graduate students have (or should have!) financial goals beyond having a place to live and enough to eat. Money can be a big stress and an added consideration in pursuing higher education. It can even be taboo and not something talked about openly in your field. I needed someone to help me understand money during my years of graduate school (alongside graduate school generally). I've spent hundreds of hours of researching the world of personal finance (particularly that directed at women) as well as pulling from my own experiences.

You may be surprised to find out how excited I was to be making 20k a year through my graduate student stipends upon starting my program. That didn’t seem too much less than a teacher’s salary and I was on my way to the blessed land of Midwest America where the cost of living was much lower than the Mountain West where I had spent most of my life.

I worked for a few months before graduate school, saving up around $10,000 for what I planned to be a down payment on a small townhouse. That was about all I had to my name and after purchasing a $81,000 townhouse mortgage and doing some renovations, I had $500 in my bank account when my first semester started. 

Many things changed over my seven years spent as a full time graduate student. I got married, adopted a German Shepherd, sold my townhouse and bought a house, spent a summer in Germany, and had two kids and one late miscarriage. Without other full-time employment but many temporary side gigs, I finished my PhD with a six figure net worth (combined with the assets of my husband, who was also working on a PhD). I do want to acknowledge that I am also indebted to family in town for helping with childcare as I completed my program, which is not a privilege everyone has to offset childcare costs. Financial "success" is often a combination of dumb luck, generosity from others, and then, of course, your own managing and practical knowledge of money and work.

My biggest tips for graduate students?

  1. Look into travel hacks.

    1. Participating in a conference usually means you can apply for funding for travel and accommodations. You might be able to combine this with a visit to family or just a vacation. There are several credit cards out there that can also get you a lot of free travel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has an amazing sign on bonus and is one I would recommend starting with (sign up with my referral code here)!

  2. Apply for extra fellowships, grants, or teaching.

    1. There are lots of ways to increase your base stipend or fellowship. Ask your advisor and colleagues what sources they may know about. This is especially important if you don't have guaranteed summer funding.

  3. Cut down on housing expenses.

    1. If you can find a friend or colleague to share space with, your cost of living can be significantly lower. If you have a partner or kids, consider looking at neighborhoods a bit farther from the university that will be less-expensive and offer a more balanced community.

  4. Start an IRA and contribute as much as you can.

    1. You might be entering the workforce late as a result of furthering your education. Giving your invested (tax-free!) retirement money time to grow and compound as long as possible means setting aside money now, even if It doesn't mean like much. Future you will be so thankful you invested some of your sacred stipend.

One of the biggest advantages I had during my years of graduate school was a community. I hope that you find your people along your graduate student journey and that your years of further education inspire you not only to live a full life and prepare for the coming years, but also to find or build a community of people who support you in living the life you want to live.

There is a great scene in an old Simpsons episode about what a terrible financial choice graduate school can be. Overcoming stereotypes happens through sharing successes and failures with others to keep growing!

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