Saving money for a PhD program
June 4, 2013 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Hi everyone, I'm entering a PhD program in statistics starting this August. I just finished off paying CC debt a month ago so I'm now starting to save up some money before I head out to California to start the program. I'm fully funded, but I was thinking about saving $9000-11000 before my program starts (I currently work at a 65k/yr job). Has anybody else done something similar, and if so, could he/she tell me about how having some money buffer changed the grad student experience? My other option would be, since I'm fully funded, enjoying my time traveling and doing fun stuff for a bit. Then I'd probably have a good 5000 to 7000 saved up instead of around 10000. Just wanted to see your thoughts. What would YOU do?
posted by molamola to Work & Money (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Live cheap and save up. Lack of money will control your life while in grad school, or debt will control it after you graduate. Do your best to avoid both situations.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 3:16 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

How much is your stipend? Usually they're not exactly lavish. In general I'd favor saving up as much as you comfortably can, both to adjust to a lower-income lifestyle and to have a cushion available for things like travel, new computers, emergency car repairs, etc.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:43 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

That said, if you're not going to get another chance to travel, that's a great way to spend your last month or so before grad school.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:46 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

So 10,000 should be a good goal to reach for?
posted by molamola at 3:47 PM on June 4, 2013

From a personal standpoint, I've found that my savings and lack of debt have really made my PhD experience a bit smoother than that for some of my peers. In particular, getting reimbursed for things like conference/research travel where you may need to drop 2-3k of expenses up front and not get reimbursed for some weeks (so I don't put it on a CC and worry about interest, etc). Or computer hardware. Or other necessities of life. Or just treating myself to take-out during crunch times and not worrying if instead of adding to my saving that particular month I'm withdrawing a bit.

I also like to travel though, and well I save money on a monthly basis, on a yearly basis most of my PhD stipend savings disappears into plane tickets and hostels. Your time will get taken up pretty quickly once it starts, most likely.
posted by McSwaggers at 3:50 PM on June 4, 2013

So 10,000 should be a good goal to reach for?

That also depends to a large degree on the cost of living near your school. Will you be living in an urban or semi-urban area where housing is expensive and scarce? Students drive up rents no matter where they live. If I was still living near the school where I worked last, I would actually aim for something closer to $20 in savings for a five-year doctoral program. The local rent alone would eat up most of the stipend students there got.
posted by Nomyte at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2013

I'm going to assume you don't have any savings currently. If you have a decent emergency fund, you're probably fine only saving $5k or so.

This also really depends on what your stipend is like and how used to a 65k/year lifestyle you are. UC and CSU stipends suck right now, so if you're going there I'd definitely save up. That said I'm able to save (or really pay down student loan debt) on a moderate phd stipend without feeling deprived, so it's not impossible. The tricky bit in California will be your housing expenses, which are probably way higher than mine, even if you have a roommate.

That said, the first year of your phd generally sucks, so I'd lean towards taking some time off and relaxing in preparation for the next year. So maybe try and save 7k (so the higher end of your range) and spend the rest on travel.

Keep in mind that stipend income is a bit different than other income, in that it's usually guaranteed, so you don't have to worry about suddenly losing your income.

Oh and feel free to memail if you want more details from someone in the field.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 4:04 PM on June 4, 2013

I was in a PhD program and I was happy that I saved a few thousand going in, and I was making no where near your pre-grad salary. Sometimes there are funding gaps in summer and winter between semesters, sometimes when you switch funding sources there is a gap month where you don't get a paycheck, etc. I was also able to take cheap vacations and fly home more often, and the stipend would never have covered those things.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:24 PM on June 4, 2013

I suspect the right answer depends a lot on your temperament. But, as someone who spent a few years in a fully funded PhD program with a slightly-negative bank balance, and a few years in the same program with $20K in the bank, I'd definitely advise myself to travel instead of saving, were I in your shoes.

A cash buffer is handy, but it's not vital. Take a long trip to a cheap place. In gradschool you'll have little money, but you'll have far less time. An extra $80/month spread over the course of your graduate program won't even be noticed. On the other hand, starting a new graduate program fresh from a two month trip abroad rather than having come straight from demanding job could be very significant.

To take a slightly more economics-inspired approach: let's assume gradschool will eventually allow you to do work that you either enjoy more or that pays more than what you're doing now. (In the unlikely event that neither is true, then I'd stop and think carefully about whether gradschool is worth doing at all.) In that case, the time you spend at work right now is worth the least that it's ever going to be worth. Postponing your vacation until your time is more valuable would be silly.
posted by eotvos at 4:29 PM on June 4, 2013

My stipend the first two years is $24,500 each year on a fellowship. Then I'll be on at least $20,000 for the last three.

Does that help at all?
posted by molamola at 4:29 PM on June 4, 2013

...and what's the cost of living like in this location? Do you anticipate being able to live on that stipend without taking on debt?
posted by kickingtheground at 4:31 PM on June 4, 2013

Saving money, in my mind, is usually the right answer. I'm finishing my PhD this summer, and while I didn't have savings like you will have, I lived very cheaply for the past six years. I'm very thankful for that now, as I have saved enough to get me through this summer without funding, move across the country, and not get my first real paycheck until the end of September.
posted by quodlibet at 4:33 PM on June 4, 2013

To more directly answer the question - if your stipend will be enough to live on, and you don't anticipate having to spend beyond your income in graduate school, then I would say $7-8k is enough of a buffer, and you're better off clearing your head a little and doing something fun. I spent a few weeks in Peru right before entering grad school, and am glad I did.

If, however, you anticipate being very strapped for funds the whole time, and potentially taking on credit card debt, the calculation is very different. Everything depends on how you compare your stipend to your anticipated expenses.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:34 PM on June 4, 2013

I figure my rent will be $1000 monthly and my car payment is $390. Fellowship checks are probably $2722 monthly so I'm good for the first two years. I also get a summer stipend of $4000 my first two years, I should add.

It's the last two to three years that concerns me. I'm going to try for an NSF Fellowship.
posted by molamola at 4:41 PM on June 4, 2013

OK, so you'll make 2k/month the first two years.

In Los Angeles, near UCLA, you can expect to pay $1200 for a one-bedroom apartment with parking a 45-minute bus ride/30 minute drive from campus, or $1200 for a shared bedroom in an apartment within walking distance of campus (with no parking).

If you are going to UC Irvine you can get a 1-bedroom apartment alone within walking distance of campus for $600.

So you see where you live will matter A LOT: the difference between $800/mo or $1400/mo to cover everything outside rent, and this is only ~50 miles apart, I have no idea about the north side of California. Give a general location (metro area) and you'll get better answers.
posted by holyrood at 4:43 PM on June 4, 2013

Don't forget taxes on your fellowship, which the University won't take out for you.
posted by The Michael The at 4:46 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Berkeley/Oakland area. I've already started looking for places.
posted by molamola at 4:46 PM on June 4, 2013

If you can be sitting on $10,000, do it. Moving will cost money. You may not be paid until several weeks into the semester.

I'm a grad student and I inherited a non-trivial (for me anyway) sum of money two years back or so. For me this was a pretty big deal because I'm way less financially precarious than I was before. I was fine budget-wise, but I didn't have much insulation against god knows what expensive disaster occurring. (Last summer, I was probably around $2300 out of pocket before being reimbursed. Being able to spend $1600 on a plane ticket to Japan and not having that be most of your emergency fund is a big deal.)

I figure my rent will be $1000 monthly and my car payment is $390. Fellowship checks are probably $2722 monthly so I'm good for the first two years. I also get a summer stipend of $4000 my first two years, I should add.

Word to the wise: figure out if your fellowship is taxed and, if it is, don't opt out of withholding. I know someone who opted out and goes "Why the hell did I do that?" every year at tax time, but hasn't figured out how to opt back in (partly through lack of effort).
posted by hoyland at 4:48 PM on June 4, 2013

Having money in the bank during grad school is awesome. Fall-back cash means that you don't have to worry about fronting money for conferences, if stipend distribution gets delayed, if you have to change apartments and need 1st and last before you get security deposit back, etc. etc. If something comes up like a good deal on a car you have the opportunity to take it. You are going to be living on less money real soon, so getting used to it now while you have a little leeway is a good idea.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:49 PM on June 4, 2013

Rent in the Berkeley/Oakland area is very expensive. Save as much as you can.
posted by twblalock at 4:53 PM on June 4, 2013

Berkeley/Oakland area. I've already started looking for places.

UC Berkeley, I'm guessing. Crappy stipend, high rent - $1000 is a pretty accurate estimate. Save as much as you can. Also, you don't need a car and parking on campus sucks.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:56 PM on June 4, 2013

Hm. Most people I know managed to get along fine on their stipend, particularly one as good as $24,000. The thing is that there are unforeseen expenses that might come up: dental work, car repairs/car deaths/etc. where a savings buffer really makes a difference.

my car payment is $390

Pay off your car. Or go carless. Or sell your car and by a cheaper car that's already paid off.

Seriously, nothing is going to be more stressful in graduate school than having $400 a month already spoken for when you're living on just $24k/yr.
posted by deanc at 4:57 PM on June 4, 2013

Yeah I'm considering that. I had to buy a car here because I didn't have a way to get to work. I guess I'll have to get rid of it now.

I also found places going for 600-700 a month so I may just do that and keep the car.
posted by molamola at 5:10 PM on June 4, 2013

It's the last two to three years that concerns me.

You will probably be able to get teaching positions, and almost certainly be able to get cash tutoring.

I'd try for 7k saved and a last big trip.
posted by jeather at 5:32 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The good news is that it is totally possible to live in Berkeley/Oakland area and pay much less than $1000/month in rent, depending on where you live. You also don't absolutely need a car in the area, but I highly recommend it -- it made my life much easier and more flexible.

One other point: it looks like you have calculated your income per month excluding summer months. If you are paid for doing research or teaching over the summer, that's a 20-30% boost in annual salary. If you do a paid internship over the summer, you could do much better still (bay area tech companies pay annualized salaries of up to 100k for PhD student interns).

So save some money, but your situation will probably not be as tight as you imagine it may be.
posted by zxcv at 5:32 PM on June 4, 2013

Travel. A few extra thousand dollars in the bank won't make much difference when you a) already have some savings to fall back on b) are going for a lucrative PhD like statistics, and c) coming from a lucrative job as you are. But a few months off will make a HUGE difference.
posted by 3491again at 5:34 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

For me, this one is a no-brainer: travel.
While in grad school, I wanted guilt-free time off waaaay more than I wanted more money. And I even started fresh off a 10-week trip to South America!

As others have pointed out, the amount you'd save by not traveling will wind up giving you a buffer of ~$100/month over the course of your program. Given a stipend of ~$2k a month, a several thousand dollar reserve fund, and no out-of-the-ordinary expenses, that isn't that big a deal.
posted by Metasyntactic at 5:38 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that it's not that uncommon in statistics for students to do a summer internship in their later years, depending on what your subfield is. Nor is it uncommon to get summer funding from your adviser once you're an advanced student. You'll likely be fine. I would take the time off and minimize your burnout going into the program.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 6:05 PM on June 4, 2013

My parents grad school buffer was a freezer and a side of beef. No lie.

Extra money in the bank is a blessing. Save up!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:06 PM on June 4, 2013

It's worth noting that some departments at UC Berkeley don't pay grad student stipends monthly - they come through every six months.

I'd suggest you ditch the car and sign up for zipcar (students used to get a discount on this).

If I could do my PhD again (though I did mine in Australia, not the States), I'd start off with money in the bank, a new laptop and my household set up properly. Instead of travelling, maybe get to the Bay Area early, find and settle into your new place, and then have fun by having a 2-4 week home 'vacation'. Go explore, figure out your local shops, spend some time in the city etc etc etc. Basically get rested and ready for a fun but extremely challenging next 5 years.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 6:31 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Save up. What's the worst that can happen? You have extra money and you can take the big trip in 3 years.

3 years of scraping by is a LONG time, especially when you had the opportunity not to.

(And yes, pay all your bills in advance with your stipend money when you get it, if it's an every 6 months thing. Makes keeping your budget easier. "OK, I'm all paid up for 6 months on everything, and I have $3000 left over. If I spend less than $500 a month on food and incidentals, I break even. Yay!")
posted by gjc at 6:40 PM on June 4, 2013

$600-700 may be a reasonable rent if you are fine with roommates - you don't mention this above, but just wanted to make sure you're aware. If you are not willing to share, a one bedroom in a reasonable neighborhood (i.e. your car isn't broken into on a monthly basis) will run you $1200 or more.

If I were in your shoes, I would save up as much money as possible before starting school. Keep in mind that you do have to pay taxes on your fellowship money, so that monthly check is more like $1700-$1800 spread over 12 months ($2K if the summer money does come through). Here's the thing: Berkeley is TERRIBLE at paying people money on time. I once had a 4 month delay in receiving funding because of a computer system snafu. Many other grad students I know have experienced pay delays of anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. It's ridiculous, but you don't want to be accumulating credit card debt during that time, because the university will not pay it. It is super crucial to have a buffer.

Also - there is so much awesome food and so many fun things to do here - it's so nice to be able to treat yourself sometimes. Believe me, if you haven't lived in the Bay Area before, it will feel like a vacation in a lot of ways! I'd save up, and then use those savings to provide yourself with a generous emergency fund and also to allow yourself to live a little more comfortably while in school.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:59 PM on June 4, 2013

Do you all think 10,000 is enough? Or too little. I was thinking about deferring a year to save even more money but then I would have lost my fellowship...:(.
posted by molamola at 7:06 PM on June 4, 2013

Don't defer a year to save more money. Everyone could always benefit from having more money, but $10,000 is fine for grad school, and you'll be in a better position than most with full funding. I think Alice-Russel Wallace has the best idea - move in early and have a stay-cation instead of blowing the money travelling, but otherwise, don't worry too much about it.
posted by permiechickie at 7:26 PM on June 4, 2013

Nobody's mentioned that you'll possibly / likely have a gap in employment at the end of your program, and want to factor that into your savings. 10k is about a five month cushion based on your stipend income. Whether that's more than enough depends on your field and risk tolerance. However, I definitely don't think you should defer - most grad students get by on les/no savings and make it work. I've been able to pick up side income in grad school, which can also build your cv.
posted by momus_window at 7:27 PM on June 4, 2013

Do you all think 10,000 is enough? Or too little

It is more than enough, assuming you live within your means as a graduate student. Stipends don't have FISA taxes withheld on them, and you probably aren't going to be saving for retirement. As long as you live modestly and don't spend too much on rent, 24k with 10k savings in reserve will be PLENTY of money.
posted by deanc at 7:28 PM on June 4, 2013

Don't defer. Do save $10,000, if you can. Although your federal and state taxes won't be withheld if you're on fellowship, they ARE technically taxable and should be reported; you will end up owing money each year, so you will want to make sure you're putting aside part of your $2700 aside each month.

Having a buffer will make a huge difference, especially if you have a car & anything goes wrong with it. Having the ability to travel during the summer or winter would be wonderful. Not spending the last week of any month eating only rice and chickpeas would also be wonderful.
posted by munyeca at 5:50 AM on June 5, 2013

First two years I can TA/RA for a semester each year for an extra ~$9000. I might do that and stash all that money away into my savings as well. Then I'll have at least $25K by the end of my second year, assuming I don't go over budget on my fellowship stipend.

This doesn't factor the summers, where any money I make over RA/TA/internship goes into my account and not rent ($4K summer stipend as part of the fellowship the first two years covers car/rent)

Hmm...maybe the car could then be paid off in full without a problem after year 2. I'll probably sell it afterwards.
posted by molamola at 7:27 AM on June 5, 2013

I have been through a PhD in CA. In general, I would save about $7-10K. It's good to have for emergencies, if you get into a car accident, if you need to travel for family emergencies, if you havHuang large medical bill from an accident, or if you just want to have a slightly better standard of living than the average of your cohorts. Having a monetary buffer will make your life just that much less stressful, since you can't be counting on that much money coming in.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 11:23 AM on June 5, 2013

I would travel. There are not many times in your life where you have free time and cash at the same time. This is a unique time in your life. Enjoy it.

I did grad school in a physical science with zero money saved up (right after undergrad). I thought the stipend was fine, and did not feel stressed about money. Maybe because no one has money!

I have a pretty well-paying job right now, and a husband and kid. With family that always wants to see the kid, I can't go to the same kind of places I used to. I am glad I traveled early on in my career, even when it wasn't that affordable.

How much can you afford? Well, you just have to write out a detailed budget to figure that out.
posted by pizzazz at 11:36 AM on June 5, 2013

I feel a little pathetic only saving ~$10K at a $65K/yr job too but that's another story altogether...:(.
posted by molamola at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2013

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