Personal Finances and Shopping

Personal Finances

  • Try to focus on the bigger picture when it comes to saving money. For example, don't spend a bunch of time clipping coupons and making your own laundry soap while you ignore bigger potential savings. The biggest portions of your budget will be: housing costs, utilities, food, and transportation. Focus on those areas to have the biggest impact.

  • Get an accountant! If your graduate education is a way to advance yourself in an existing career, you may be able to deduct a lot of expenses. If you do freelance work (e.g., copyediting professors’ manuscripts), set this up as your independent business and then more of your school expenses may also be deductible. The money a good accountant will save you is usually more than their nominal fee.
  • You should be able to deduct the cost of books even if you don’t set yourself up as a business or itemize expenses
  • Family and friend support: As with your advisors and professors be honest. If they are in a position to help some or spread stuff around put books or supplies on an Amazon wish list, as for gift cards to Staples, or the local grocery store. Every little bit help. Family may not be able to buy big things but a $25 grocery card can be a life saver.
  • Don’t buy stuff. Seriously. I was in a car with two friends once. One made in a couple of weeks what we made a year. She asked how we survived. We said: “We don’t buy anything.” It was true, and it worked.
  • We found free stuff (furniture on the curb) or thrifted when necessary. Clothing exchanges were great too.
    Craigslist FTW! My wife and I furnished our entire apartment in Los Angeles for less than $400, including bed & mattress (California King, both from IKEA), dressers, chairs, desks, couch, TV stand, filing cabinet, bookshelves, microwave, lamps, etc. Freecycle is also great!
    • That said, don’t deny yourself little pleasures sometimes. Get a treat when you can.
    • Try not to guilt yourself for those purchases--they can be crucial to self-care!
    • Cultivate fun & free non-academic activities. Hiking was a good one for me. It cost only the shoes, and kept my stress way down.
  • Also check with your university offices because they often have a second-hand store for furniture and appliances they’ve collected from undergrad housing at the end of each year. You can often get these for pennies on the dollar and get great appliances!
  • Thrift stores are a great source for inexpensive, good- quality furniture and household products.
  • Ask about your university’s surplus. All those abandoned office chairs, monitors, bookshelves, lamps, etc. usually go to some central location that staff and students can buy from.
  • Except buy a new, reliable laptop with a good screen. Offices sometimes come with crappy (or no) computer. Set it up for VPN (or proxy) access to the university’s library and related sites.
  • If you don’t know how to already, learn how to set and follow a budget right now. Excel, Google Sheets, Mint, etc. are all free/almost free. YNAB is free for college students. Or try an “envelope” method. Many people think budgets are only something to worry about after a PHD, but practicing this skill & avoiding unnecessary debt are important NOW. Don't fall into the trap of thinking "I have no money, so I don't need to do a budget".
  • Educate yourself about finances as much as possible. If your grad school offers workshops on budgeting/taxes/etc., enroll in them. Credit unions also often sponsor workshops or offer free financial advice. Even if you feel you have a good handle on personal finances, you may learn something new.

Daily Expenses
  • Learn to cook. Seriously, not only is it better for your health (which may take a nosedive during your grad school tenure, as stress, depression, and weight gain happen a lot) but you can save a ton of money. Invest in a good basic cookbook, like a Betty Crocker or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, which will explain things to you and provide you with manageable recipes (ePub versions of these books can also be located fairly easily online). And the ability to bake cookies(or bread) comes with the benefits of a) stress relief, b) a feeling of competency when your world goes to hell, and c) networking/bribe material that doesn’t leave a paper trail. Honestly, you can find recipes for absolutely anything online--just type in what you want to make and a thousand recipes will pop up, most of them very simple to follow.
    • Local libraries and even university libraries have good cookbook collections, including digital editions.
    • Learn to cook from scratch rather than using prepared foods.
    • Invest in a small crock pot. These are fairly inexpensive and can make meals go a long way. Also, it can help save time by having your meal ready when you return home.
    • Many thrift stores will allow you to return anything electronic - including crock pots - if it doesn't work. And crockpots are easy to find and clean!
  • If you have space, a small balcony garden (tomato plants do well) can help save costs of some fresh produce. This also cuts down on waste if you’re only cooking for one or two. Things stay fresh on the vine longer than in the fridge.
  • Don’t be afraid to get together with friends and share meals/resources. You contribute tomatoes from your garden, they bring onions and a box of pasta. Someone else turns up with olive oil. Also, don’t be afraid to cook in bulk - one big pot of something saves time and will last a while
  • Cooking can be very time-consuming. Potluck to save time and share the load (and also to hang out with other grad students so you’re less likely to fall into a deep, dark, scary hole of work).
  • Prep a meal on a less crazy day with plenty of leftovers to bring to campus, rather than buying over-priced lunch (or other meals…) on campus. I used to make a big meal on weekends and divide leftovers so they were ready to pull from the fridge quickly in the morning.
  • Buy one or two rice cookers (can be found cheaply on craigslist etc), and make a large batch of rice and beans once or twice a week. Saves on time and money.
  • It is worth it to buy one with a timer if you can find it cheap enough. You can delay the start of the rice cooking so it is ready (and still hot) when you walk in the door. Same holds true for the slow cooker/crock pot- although those timers switch the cooking to "keep warm" from cooking so your food isn't mushy.
  • Try to get a rice cooker with a removable steaming dish. Then you can cook rice AND steam healthy vegetables or meat at the same time.
  • If there is a Chinatown near you, stock up - prices are usually more reasonable for ingredients there.
  • I would extend this to any “ethnic” grocery store. Indian, Middle Eastern, and Pakistani stores have spices and ingredients more familiar to most Westerners since that is where a lot of spices came from or came through into Medieval Europe.
  • Butchers and fishmongers sometimes have lower prices than standard grocery stores. They also can set aside scraps that you can use for stock/stew/etc.
  • Dollar stores often carry a variety of spices, and have good deals on sauces, canned veggies, pasta and other self-stable good.
  • Although cooking for yourself is cheaper, you won't have much time to do this during the semester. Grad students resort to eating crap or nothing at all (to save money). I highly recommend batch cooking before each semester and freeze it all. That way you have healthy, fast meals for almost the whole semester. Invest in a high quality lunch box you can use the entire time and that can hold more than one meal at a time.
  • Try not to get into an "all or nothing" mindset. You don't always need to either cook everything from scratch, or eat out. For example, eating a microwaved veggie burger with a salad, while maybe not as "ideal" as roasting a chicken with vegetables, is still (generally) better for your health and wallet than eating out at a restaurant. If you need it, allow yourself a shortcut.
  • Alternately, you can learn a handful of easy, quick, healthy recipes that you can make through the week, making enough for leftovers. There are recipes out there for meals that will take less time to make than it will take you to go to and sit through a drive-thru. Once you’ve got the recipe memorized, it takes no time at all to cook simple meals from scratch. Try Rachael Ray’s 30-minute meals for ideas.
  • To save time and money, always try to cook enough for 2 days. Eat the leftovers the following day.
  • Sometimes you'll spend the entire day on campus. See if your department has a grad lounge with a fridge.
  • Spices in the Mexican food section come in little baggies and cost a fraction of the price of the ones in little bottles.
    I just discovered that if you visit farmer’s markets right before they are about to take things down and close up for the day, you can ask for their “sale” prices. Last week I got a bounty of organic veggies for half-price and it was thrilling. I was even given several free items.
  • Don't be ashamed to go to the local foodbank if things get really tight. We had to do that a couple times when medical bills cut into food purchasing ability. Faith based ones don't usually have a proper application, they just limit how often you can come.
  • Look into SNAP eligibility as well, even if not a lot, it can help offset some of the costs as well.
  • Most supermarket chains have a rewards card that both gives you access to their sales and offers some kind of incentive when you’ve purchased enough, make sure you have that card for each store you shop in, and use it every time you shop. Also, several supermarket chains have student discounts, so check about that also, and shop where they’ll give you a 10% discount with your student ID.
  • As a supermarket “doorbuster”, a cooked rotisserie chicken from the deli is usually cheaper than the same raw chicken. Buy a rotisserie chicken and freeze half, or split with a roommate. Microwave frozen veggies as a side, and you have a very inexpensive meal with almost no prep time.
  • Free food on campus isn’t just for undergrads. There are lots of opportunities for grad students to get food on campus as well. Also, some professional development opportunities may have food, or may earn you money for participation. You should make it a point to go to all department receptions/programming, or at least as many as you can reasonably accommodate in your schedule, not only for the networking and relationship-building opportunities, but because there will almost always be food. Consider starting a free food alert group via facebook messenger or what have you to tell others about free food on campus (and hear about it yourself).
  • Cable/Internet: Internet is more important for your work. TV...not so much. By law, major U.S. channels (ABC, CBS, PBS, etc.) have to broadcast over airwaves, so you can invest in a $15 antenna and watch local channels for free. Besides, you aren’t going to have time for TV, anyway.
    • Also: do you really need your own dedicated internets? I mean, are you a game developer or something? If not: check to see if you live near public wifi (or, you know, “free” wifi). If all you’re doing is browsing the net, reading articles, and using gmail and google docs, you’re not using very much bandwidth, and the internets are expensive. BUT if 8you need to do extensive online research, or be reached at all hours via email, or do last-minute grading, you’ll want internet at home.
    • Many fields do indeed require frequent and extensive online research. If you are in one of these disciplines, your own dedicated wifi is not an area in which you should compromise or attempt to save money. Your professors will expect you to have constant and reliable internet access.
    • Should you use public/free wifi, it would help to connect through your university's Virtual Private Network (VPN) for added security. Check if your university offers this service.
    • If you live in an area with hotspots like xfinitywifi, which is prevalent in Massachusetts, it might be a costsaver to split one of these subscriptions with multiple friends, allowing you to essentially have wifi anywhere in the area you go, and allowing you to cut down on your cellular data plan.
  • Heating and cooling can be expensive, depending on where you live. Figure out in advance, as much as possible, what you can afford. Get a hat and layers, put blankets on the bed.. Only heat necessary areas (electric plug-in heaters cost a lot to run). Insulate your windows with plastic. If it’s cheaper, cool or heat only one room or go work at a cafe or library with A/C or with heat. Sometimes keeping the house at a particular temperature is cheaper than turning things off and having to get it back to normal again. If you are living with others, make sure you are all on the same page re: energy usage and bills. Some places have a service at the utility company where you can either get cheaper energy or you can pay in a way that helps you budget; so maybe you pay $150 a month instead of $38 in the summer and $300 in the winter. Call and ask.
  • If you are moving to the upper Midwest/other cold climates, ask if heat is included in the rent.
  • Some states and localities have public services (e.g., through the Department of Economic Security in NY State) that provide utilities assistance on a need basis.
  • Carpooling can make a real difference on gas costs to and from campus if you are in an area where public transportation isn’t possible. Finding out who is in your area can also help build a local network, especially in non-urban university locations. Riding into campus together can also build in social time during a commute you’re already building into your day!
    • Public transportation. Motorcycles and scooters. Bikes.
    • For cars and motorcycles, ask what the costs are per semester for parking stickers. You can save a lot by parking off-campus and walking.
    • If you need to choose between a nicer place to live with a longer commute, go for the nicer place. You will spend countless hours working in that room or apartment, often late at night. If it’s a dump or a hovel, it will impact your work. And happiness.
  • Rent in places further from the city is significantly cheaper, and the places roomier. While an extra 20 min on the train may seem bleak, it will be worth it. And you can use the commute time to read, mark papers, etc. if you are not driving for the commute.