Grad School Living
February 4, 2005 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Financefilter: I am about to begin grad school, and I am wondering how on earth I am going to live on dramatically reduced funds. Any former starving students out there with tips? [+]

I am going to begin grad school shortly, where I will be studying to be a physical therapist. I will be living entirely on loans for the 3 years in school. I have figured on about 15,000 a year for everything outside of tuition and fees and books – I am going to a state school, so tuition is relatively inexpensive – but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I can actually swing it financially. Oh, and I’m in Brooklyn, so the cost of living is pretty high.

I have been making, and spending, 25-27 grand a year for the last few years. I can see shaving fifty to a hundred dollars off of my budget a month, but that certainly does not add up to ten grand a year. How do I find areas in my budget to shave off ten thousand dollars? I don’t buy music, I have a cell phone that’s pretty inexpensive and a necessity, I will be cooking for myself while in school but I do that a lot anyway. I don’t spend a lot on entertainment. My rent is 600 a month and can’t go down further than that – again, I live in Brooklyn.

Any advice from those of you who have been in the same boat would be mightily appreciated.
posted by jennyjenny to Work & Money (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
25-27 grand a year, and rent is $7,200 of that. Well, there's some expenses in there that I don't see myself. If you're interested in sharing more detail about your budget, I'd be glad to offer more specific advice.

However, things to note. Alcohol and tobacco are prohibitively expensive. Especially in New York. A smoker can drop $50/wk, or $200/month easily. A night a week at a bar can add up fast as well.

In any case.. Even in Brooklyn, you should be able to get by on under 25 grand a year if you're frugal. Are there necessary expenses that some of us just might not guess you have?
posted by Saydur at 8:36 AM on February 4, 2005

Usually schools have a good estimate of what a cost of living estimate is for students per year, and they offer that much in loans for the year. There are ways to cut money, but it sounds like you're aware of most of them; you may just have to borrow more. If your rent is $600 and you're not able/willing to change apartments, move into a place with another roommate, etc...

Rent is usually supposed to be 1/3 of your total monthly budget; with $15,000, it's almost half. You can eat slightly less, buy in bulk, go out less, etc., but I don't think your current situation is going to cut it. But then again, I don't know the ins and outs of Brooklyn.

What about taking up a part-time job? Or TAing? I do both to help decrease my loans/increase my spending money, and I'm a medical student.

on preview: Saydur's right; you're spending $18-20,000 outside of your rent right now. Where's that all going?
posted by gramcracker at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2005

Let's see... I don't smoke, and I bartend on weekends occasionally (unpaid -- long story) so the booze is free. It's funny -- I can't seem to find any recurring expenses that could possibly add up to ten grand a year.

I imagine a fair amount of that money is going toward meals out -- I work and go to school full-time right now, so there's no time to actually make food. That will change in grad school. But ten grand? Yipes.

I am planning on learning to love beans and rice and homemade soup. I will be cancelling all of my optional stuff, like netflix and....well, that's about it. I don't have cable, or even a TV. I'm really not sure where I can save any more money. Maybe I will have to take out more loans.
posted by jennyjenny at 8:48 AM on February 4, 2005

I've had years of experience of this ;) My income was about the same, although my rent was about $200 less. You sound like you're doing the right things. Anyway here's how I budgeted:
- Eating in was key. Even if you eat at cheap places, add a beverage or two and a tip and it starts to look ugly to a student. I used to cook big pots of stuff at the start of the week, and eat over the next few days, with rice/pasta. Being vegetarian helps here - cheaper to get good quality/organic produce, and also I'm more confident eating veggie stuff that's been in the fridge for three/four days, rather than meat. Also, you can be super busy as a student, so having nutritious/tasty stuff waiting when you get in to heat up, before you write that paper, is good. Also, if you want to do it, make nice sandwiches/bagels to take for lunch.
- Buy as much as possible, including clothes, second hand (thrift stores, yard sales).
- Make friends with similar returning students, who will also be having to budget. Have pot lucks, organize fun things to do together that do not involve huge amounts of money.
- I had no tv/cable, cell phone, isp/dsl (I used the school's dial-up).
- I also had no car (or car insurance), and biked/used transit.
- A big expense was books, but they may be deductibles for you, so you can pick up a refund in April.
- Summer job!

If you don't know where the money is going, keep an itemised list of all expenses for a few weeks, organize it by category. Then you'll see how maybe some little things are really adding up.
posted by carter at 8:50 AM on February 4, 2005

Go to Half Price Books (or whatever the equivalent is out there), get a 1- or 2-year old copy of Quicken, and start tracking every penny you spend. You have to figure out where it's going.
posted by matildaben at 8:51 AM on February 4, 2005

I was in this boat - and I had to support my Wife and son on about that. Which means we were totally broke, all the time. I got a job working with high functioning disabled people on the weekends - 24 hour shift, and I can do most of my reading etc. there, so it is perfect for me. In fact - I look forward to the quiet "study" time my job affords me.
posted by Quartermass at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2005

Have you written up a budget, and carefully evaluated each line item? (rent, electric, water, phone, laundry, food, clothing, entertainment, travel, home, medical, etc.) In my experience, this is critical. And you must be brutally honest with yourself.

Then, once you're set up, track your spending. Everything - a cup of coffee, a newspaper - everything. Whenever you spend, write it down. I use Excel (meticulously customized), but I hear Quicken is also good. That way, you can see where the money goes, where you need to adjust the budget, if things get out of hand, etc.

Did you have a budget before? How were your estimates then? How well did you keep to it?

Doing a very quick guesstimate (I assume you don't have a car), I think you could get by for under $15K.

(On preview, it looks like you have not budgeted before. So you might be hard pressed to get things to work for you. This budgeting/financial responsibility thing is not easy - but it is simple, if you catch my meaning.)
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:57 AM on February 4, 2005

Agreed -- you must track expenses and keep a budget. Otherwise you're just guessing how much money you can spend at any time -- and it hurts to guess wrong.

I'd wager that a major culprit here is the eating out. Sit down and do the math to figure out what a daily cup of coffee costs you over a year - surprising. Factor in slices of pizza, sandwiches, dinners out, and you'll realize what a waste all this is. Cooking at home really doesn't take more time than waiting to be served in a restaurant. For the cost of one restaurant meal, you can buy a great variety of ingredients that will see you through several meals at home - and not just plain rice, I mean good stuff. $10 in groceries is a much greater value than $10 for the pleasure of a restuarant sandwich and Coke. Cooking in bulk -- planning meals ahead for the week -- is a great idea. Bean soups, curries, stews, taboule, big salads, and pasta dishes are all one-pot style meals that can be very tasty and cheap and provide days' worth of eating. Package them in small servings and freeze them; then you can carry them around and nuke them for lunch or dinner anytime.

Bartending for free doesn't make that much sense to me. Bartending can be very highly paid work, especially in New York. If you have the skills, try to integrate this into your life as a second job. If you won't have the time to make a regular weekly shift, then apply to some catering firms. Bartending with a catering company is an excellent second job, because the schedule is not rigid and you can accept or turn down gigs according to your schedule.

Rent is usually supposed to be 1/3 of your total monthly budget

This figure is one you often hear from financial planners, but it's simply not realistic for low-income workers (a category which includes lots and lots of college-educated non-profit workers, academics, and the like). Half your income in rent leaves less to live on, for sure, but rent is one of life's least flexible costs. There is so little inexpensive housing stock in this country's major cities and thriving areas that many of us just have to accept this large chunk of our budgets. The only way to cut that cost would be to get roommates.

I am sure, because you live in Brooklyn, that transportation is costing you something noticeable. How much do you spend getting to/from work and around the city? Add that to the cost of your rent. Could you live within walking distance of school on that sum, or less? Sometimes there's a hidden cost in saving on rent -- more MetroCards, gas, whatever. Alternatively, maybe you can get around on your bike more often.

Instead of NetFlix, get DVDs from a library. And entertainment? Geez, ya live in New York. There are a dozen free or cheap activities every night. Booze it up at home or at friends' houses rather than going out. Or do a combo -- get your drunk on on bottled beer at home, then by the time you go out you can slow down and pay bar prices for only a couple drinks, and alternate with water.
posted by Miko at 9:12 AM on February 4, 2005

Eating in is definitely key- I've just recently discovered the joy of spending extra on groceries, because in the end, it saves me from going out due to food boredom. If you do have to eat out, find cheap options- on my school days, I get the small soup combo at a local place- $3.25 for a small soup, roll and fruit. Healthy and cheap. And not drinking (alcohol or even sodas or bottled drinks) definitely saves $$, too.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:37 AM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

I imagine a fair amount of that money is going toward meals out

As everyone seems to have noticed, this is precisely the problem. Learn how to cook good, cheap meals and you'll make your money go much further.

Can't do much about transportation costs, unless you're willing to ride in NYC traffic, which can be harrowing for the uninitiated.

Entertainment costs should be zero if you don't smoke and alcohol is provided free. Don't go out to other bars, though. They will suck your wallet dry. Get a library card and rent movies. See if a neighbor has a wireless access point for you to piggy-back off of.

You have to get into a mentality of "I do not spend money unless there's a damned good reason."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:00 AM on February 4, 2005

Good point about the drinks, it isn't just alcohol that is overpriced, and eating out isn't always _that_ expensive if you are careful.

$15k/year with $600 rent should be very feasible. My girlfriend and I have been doing that for years in Toronto. Our rent is similar, we have cable and high speed internet (those are cheaper in Canada I think) and your American dollars should carry further...

No more loans, figure out where the money is going first!
posted by Chuckles at 10:07 AM on February 4, 2005

I find carrying a small notebook at all times makes it easy to track spending, since you can write down everything you spend money on when you're spending it. I would surely forget without it.
posted by too many notes at 10:09 AM on February 4, 2005

A good way to get a handle on how you spend money starts with one of those 99 cent mini-spiral notebooks. Carry it around with you everywhere, and write down everything you spend money on -- 25 cents for a gumball, however much you spend for the subway or a taxi, everything.

After a month, you should be able to add it all up and get a good picture of where you can cut.

In some areas, you can probably afford your current habits if you don't mind tweaking them a bit.

Two cups of $1.50 coffee each day will cost more than $1,000 per year, for example. Invest in a coffee pot or French press and a good thermos and you can probably save $700 or $800 of that without giving up your habit.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:09 AM on February 4, 2005

Okay, having heard that you eat out, I'll chime in and say that's a primary culprit. In a high-expense area such as Brooklyn, you can easily drop $15 for a meal that really isn't that great.

As a student, my food budget never needs to go over $200/month, and that includes eating out. Eating out meaning Taco Bell or McDonalds, or if I feel like treating myself, a $6 sub sandwich.

Even then, yeah. I'd say you still have to be dropping $5k or more somewhere that it just doesn't need to be spent. If you have credit cards, pay them off and shred them all except one for emergencies. If you have a car and can make do without, DO SO. Car insurance, especially for the younger crowd, adds up fast, as does fuel and maintenance. If you need a car, take a look at what you have, you can likely trade in for something with less insurance cost and better gas mileage. Note- Silver cars cost less to insure, far less than the ever-popular red cars.

Otherwise, everyone else has said it. Track your spending, every last dime. Do that for a month, and add up all the little expenses that you know you won't even miss. Being nickel-and-dimed to death really does happen.
posted by Saydur at 10:12 AM on February 4, 2005

Repeat after me: "...And may I have the receipt, please."

Get a receipt for absolutely everything. It's easy to forget your little notebook or not have a pencil handy when you need it. With a receipt, there's always a record. When every dollar spent is precious, it makes a big difference to know exactly where each dollar went.

At the end of the week, enter your expenses into your (notebook|Quicken|spreadsheet). The important thing is to remember to break down the expenses into meaningful categories, which sometimes means receipts gets broken down into smaller amounts.

Look for significant items being "hidden" by your purchasing habits. For instance, do you buy a bunch of stuff from the supermarket's ready-to-eat case, deli, and frozen meals section? Start lumping those costs in with "dining out" instead of "groceries" to get a better picture of how much room you have to save by cooking your own meals.

If you have to incur a certain expense (such as the previous example of commuting because of where you live), lump it in with the category that makes it a requirement. You'll get a better picture of the true cost of that choice, which lets you make realistic comparisons to alternatives. For instance, maybe there's another apartment that's priced the same but is signficantly better insulated, thereby cutting down on your mandatory heating/cooling costs.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:18 AM on February 4, 2005

For instance, do you buy a bunch of stuff from the supermarket's ready-to-eat case, deli, and frozen meals section? Start lumping those costs in with "dining out" instead of "groceries"

A frozen meal at the grocery is $3 or $4- still considerably cheaper than dining out. I buy a lot of them, because I'm a bad cook- but I'm still saving money over going out.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:43 AM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

A frozen meal at the grocery is $3 or $4- still considerably cheaper than dining out. I buy a lot of them, because I'm a bad cook- but I'm still saving money over going out.

Yes, you probably are. But the point is that it's more expensive than cooking your own. (Also more salt, fat, nitrates, preservatives, etc., but that's not the main issue here.)

If prepared meals are necessitated by your lack of cooking skils, then compare your annual cost of prepared foods against the cost of a cooking class (could be as little as $50 at a local adult ed center or community college) plus a year of raw ingredients. You stand to save money this year, and even more in subsequent years. It's another example of a "hidden cost" jennyjenny can be looking out for.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:03 PM on February 4, 2005

I'd recommend picking up a copy of 'Your Money or Your Life'; it has some fantastic tips for living frugally, and it's really helped my wife and I find out where that money that just disappeared went.
posted by AaronRaphael at 12:24 PM on February 4, 2005

Learning to cook inexpensive (but hearty) meals that give you leftovers is a major key to budget living. Chili, beans & rice, stir fry, casseroles, etc. can be made quickly, easily, and for not much more than a single frozen meal. (I just made a pot of chili the other day for about $7 -- a pound of ground turkey [on sale], a can of tomatoes, a can of beans, a packet of spices, and a little sour cream on the side -- and got four meals out of it.)

Also, when you see something good on sale that you can freeze easily (I'm thinking of things mostly like meat and bread), get enough for several meals worth -- it's handy to always have a spare chicken breast (or whatever) in the freezer that you can thaw, saute with some veggies, and be done with it.
In general, try to eschew the expense of convenience as much as possible -- 10 individual yogurts (unless they're on sale) can be a lot pricier than one big quart of yogurt. Same with things like packets of pre-grated cheese, pre-made salads at delis, instant oatmeal, etc. I'm not saying you can't ever buy stuff like that, but rather to be aware that it adds up surpisingly quickly.

Try to get in the habit of planning at least some of a week's worth of meals ahead of time when you go shopping -- it helps cut down on impulse buying in general, plus saves you money when you don't have to regularly rely on pre-made food. It also means you can plan ahead to use coupons, if you really want to get serious about it -- just avoid the ones for the overpriced junk you wouldn't buy otherwise, and clip the ones for the basics (bread, dairy, etc.). Cereal, for example, can be pretty pricey, so getting a buck or two off whenever you can makes sense if it's something you eat a lot of.
posted by scody at 1:20 PM on February 4, 2005

If you really can't do without the cell phone, consider dropping your regular phone service. Or change your service plan to metered (a limited number of local phone calls included in the base charge, then pay beyond that), if that's an option in NYC. Or you may be able to drop the long distance phone call option, and lose the access charge. (Only your phone company knows for sure - check the front of your phone book, and give them a call.)

As for a budget, while that's good in theory, I strongly recommend starting by recording all your expenses for two months or so (see good suggestions above). You may find that's enough in and of itself, without having to set goals/limits within individual categories. (In any case, it's hard to do realistic budgeting with limited data.)

And if you're not proud, you might check if the phone company or utility company has any provisions for low-income residents.
posted by WestCoaster at 1:29 PM on February 4, 2005

I'm living on about the same in brooklyn, having slightly cheaper rent for the moment, but that may change soon. Keeping track of the details is really important. Things that seem minor add up quickly - lightbulbs, batteries, detergent, toothpaste, yadda yadda, are all more expensive if you buy them when you need them instead of when you find a deal, e.g. Electric & phone can be reduced if you're careful about it. You can do internet from school or public library or wireless spaces if you have a laptop (and take advantage of student discounts on computers & books, too). E

Eating out can add up without your noticing it - $10 per day is over $3500 by the end of the year, and you can spend $10 without noticing ($2 on coffee, $5 for lunch, $3 on snack or juice...). Obviously you can't make food costs disappear entirely, but track what you currently spend, and give yourself a limit that reduces your spending (going with a weekly budget is generally the best way - try to do groceries once a week, and then whatever of your allotted grocery budget you don't spend at the grocery, becomes your eating out/picking up coffee/etc allowance.
posted by mdn at 1:32 PM on February 4, 2005

Things that seem minor add up quickly - lightbulbs, batteries, detergent, toothpaste, yadda yadda, are all more expensive if you buy them when you need them instead of when you find a deal

Great advice. Buy this stuff when it's on sale and/or with coupons (and in larger sizes, too -- the up-front price is higher than the small size, obviously, but your per unit cost is lower). They also tend to be cheaper at Target than at a grocery store, so you may want to plan a once-a-month trip there just for non-food essentials like this.
posted by scody at 1:40 PM on February 4, 2005

No kidding, you can make some serious inroads that way. The drugstore had a wicked good deal on compact fluorescents last year. I now own a lifetime supply, and every fixture in the house has one. Those suckers make for real savings on the electric bill. And if the entire stock eventually gets shattered in a 'quake, no huge loss. The total cost was under $10. Have you seen the normal retail price of those thing?? Heck, I'm already into profit on that investment. *sigh* If only stocks did as well...
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:24 PM on February 4, 2005

We've focused a lot on cost cutting, but don't forget to look at the other side of the equation.

This is FAFSA season. Do not delay sending that in, because early submitters do get more grants than latecomers (federal loans never dry up; grant funds do get depleted).

Talk now with your financial aid officer. What can you do to maximize grant/scholarship opportunities? What recommendations can s/he offer to someone in your position?

If a teaching assistantship or other grant isn't likely, seriously consider applying elsewhere. A state school with loans can wind up being a lot more expensive than a pricey school with a generous endowment for funding grad student education.

If you must take a job, see if you can get equivalent pay from a work-study job. All things being equal, the work-study is preferably because it isn't counted against you as badly as regular income.

Read the IRS's booklet on education tax breaks, and see if there are any changes you need to make to ensure the maximum deductions.

If you're planning to live off of any savings, it might be worthwhile to pay for professional advice on how to invest the money so that it doesn't hurt your financial aid score and the gains don't get dinged by the tax man.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:38 PM on February 4, 2005

I've always had fantastic luck with resident assistantships/tutorships. I'm not sure if any are available at your school (and they would require you to give up your apartment) but RAs generally receive free or reduced rent apartments.

While a majority of these positions are in first-year halls, I've worked quite happily in upper-year undergraduate and postgraduate halls (which, most of the time, require less work). Further, working as an RA has allowed me to get through school debt free.
posted by lumiere at 6:32 PM on February 4, 2005

Are you making $25k before taxes? If so, that's where your missing money is. $15k in actual cash is equivalent to about $22.5k salary. You definitely won't be rich as a student, but if you've got a full $15k in cash per year without taxes, you won't be down to beans & rice every night.
posted by spaghetti at 10:04 PM on February 4, 2005

Thank you all so much. There is really great advice here, some of which I knew but didn't want to know I knew, if you know what I mean.

Also, spaghetti, thank you. That is indeed the case. I hadn't been looking at it that way. That takes a bit of the pressure off.

I'm going to look at this as an experiment in living the way I have wanted to live for a long time anyway. Making most of my own food, being a lot more creative about my entertainment, and having lots of potlucks. And thank you, Civil_Disobedient, for "I do not spend money unless there is a damned good reason." That's fantastic advice.
posted by jennyjenny at 10:10 AM on February 5, 2005

Do you buy a lot of books? A lot of music? Go to the library for both.
posted by NickDouglas at 8:27 PM on February 8, 2005

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