Why Every Grad Student Should Have a $1,000 Emergency Fund

If you’re not sure what financial goals you might want to set as a graduate student, look first at how your finances would handle an emergency. An emergency fund is a vital component of financial health; being a graduate student, whether funded or unfunded, does not exempt you from this basic requirement. If you don’t yet have an emergency fund, set a goal to save $1,000.

What is an emergency fund?

An emergency fund is a designated sum of money that has been set aside for use in emergencies only. The vast majority of the time, the emergency fund will appear to do nothing, but its only job is to be available to you. When an emergency occurs, you draw upon the money to pay for it. After the emergency ends, you rebuild your fund to its original level.

Emergencies are any necessary expenses that you have not anticipated in your planned spending. Depending on your insurance coverage and the level of your planning with your targeted savings accounts, an emergency might be a medical incident, a leave of absence from school, damage to your home or possessions, a theft, a car accident, etc.

Why have an emergency fund?

When an emergency occurs in your life, the last thing you want to have on your mind are your finances. It is an amazing stress-reliever to have a sum of money set aside for just these circumstances. You will actually have the ability to pay for emergencies that fall within the amount you have saved, which can help you mitigate the potential financial damage. You won’t have to weigh different pots of money or credit against one another in the midst of your trying situation.

Where should you keep an emergency fund?

Emergency funds should stay in cash-equivalents such as a checking, savings, or money market account.

According to Murphy’s Law, if you invest your emergency fund, the very moment you need to access it will be the moment that your investment drops like a rock. Similarly, you shouldn’t compound your emergency by using a line of credit as your emergency fund; this strategy will cost you stress and interest at the most inconvenient time.

You might keep your emergency fund in your checking account with your regular monthly income, in a designated savings account at the same bank as your checking account, or in a savings or money market account at another financial institution.

Funded and unfunded grad students

If you are living on your grad student stipend, you have a very limited amount of income each month. It can be quite difficult to cash flow larger expenses on your available discretionary income. Having an emergency can compound the problem of trying to cash flow the main expense as you may have no time or energy to devote to being frugal with your existing income – or you may lose the income itself. Although it is challenging, it is preferable to have the money for the emergency saved ahead of time in a designated fund.

Unfunded graduate students who are taking out student loans should also set aside a small emergency fund. It is a bit counter-intuitive to take out additional loan money, which is accumulating interest, just to set it aside, seeming to be doing nothing. But how would your finances play out in an emergency if you didn’t have some money set aside? Would you turn to a credit card, ultimately paying a much higher rate of interest on the balance? If your plan is to access additional student loans, what about the time it takes to be approved and for the paperwork to be processed? It’s preferable to keep that small cash emergency fund available.

Why is $1,000 the key number?

One thousand dollars is a fantastic initial emergency fund goal. If you haven’t yet put aside $1,000 in your emergency fund, make achieving that a top financial priority.

One thousand dollars is first and foremost a nice round number. It’s difficult to be specific about the ideal emergency fund size across a population, so a round number is as good as any to start with. It’s a great accomplishment to set aside a four-figure number in your savings.

One thousand dollars will also take care of a large percentage of emergencies. Big, catastrophic events are rare, but if you haven’t set aside $1,000 your budget can be busted just as easily by a small emergency as by a large one. One thousand dollars will cover a large array of low-level emergencies – the kind that are likely to occur over the period in which you’re in training.

What do you do after you reach $1,000?

After you’ve set aside $1,000 in your emergency fund, it’s time to turn your attention to other financial goals.

Certainly you can keep building your emergency fund above this starter level. The general advice for a full emergency fund size is 3-6 months of expenses. If that number seems daunting, work on saving $1,000 first, and then perhaps another $1,000. Working out that saving muscle means that you will achieve the next goal even faster.

But there are other worthwhile financial goals that may take precedence over bulking up your emergency fund. If you are in debt, especially moderate- or high-interest-rate debt, start whittling that down. It’s incredibly valuable as well to start investing at a young age to allow compound interest ample time to work. You could even turn your focus to building up short-term savings to handle your irregular expenses to take that burden off your emergency fund.

If you are a graduate student who does not have $1,000 in a designated emergency fund, make saving that up your top financial goal! Not only will you have peace of mind that your finances can handle a low-level emergency, but you will also put yourself on a path to financial health. The strategies you implement to save up your first $1,000 can then be applied to your next financial goal.

Do you have a $1,000 or larger emergency fund? How did/will you save up your first $1,000? Have you had any emergencies occur that $1,000 could have handled?

Your Most Important Budget Line Item in Graduate School and Why You Need to Re-Evaluate It

The largest line item in nearly every graduate student’s budget is housing. Whether you own your home or rent, whether you live on campus or off, whether you live in an apartment/condo, townhouse, or single family home, unless someone is subsidizing it, you are almost certainly spending the biggest chunk of your income on your abode.

If your rent is $400 per month and you spend five years pursuing your PhD, over the course of your studies you will spend $24,000 on rent. If your rent is $1,000 per month and you spend six years pursuing your PhD, you will spend $72,000. These are staggering numbers, especially when you compare them to your annual stipend. Your decision of where and with whom to live is almost certainly the most financially impactful budget decision you will make during graduate school.

Housing is a very tricky expense category to budget. There is no argument that you need somewhere to lay your head. A certain fraction of your housing spending is simply a baseline that covers a necessity. (That is, unless you can get really creative, such as by living in a van.) But you can’t write off your entire housing expense as a “need,” especially if you then let yourself off the hook from evaluating its cost carefully. A fraction of your housing spending is “want” as well. Perhaps you are paying a bit more for a desirable location, an amenity, extra square footage, updated features, a parking spot, or solitude. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to upgrade from a Spartan home, but you must be honest with yourself about what aspects of your housing you could dispense with if push came to shove.

What makes housing even more special in terms of your budget is that it is a fixed expense. Once you settle on where you’ll live, your housing costs are locked in for the term of your contract. It’s difficult to change your housing costs because that involves moving or adding/subtracting a roommate. That means that you can lock in a high rate – or a low rate. Fixed expenses represent excellent opportunities for cost reduction. If you are looking for a simple, long-lasting way to reduce your spending, target a fixed expense. You have to make the decision to reduce it and put in the effort one time to carry out your decision, but after that you have the lower rate set every single month in perpetuity. And what better fixed expense to target for reduction than your largest one, housing?

The most remarkable aspect of your housing decision is that you typically have to make its first iteration before matriculating into your graduate program. If you are moving to a new city, you have to search for and secure your housing with next to no knowledge of the rental market, possibly sight unseen or after one scouting trip. Therefore, your first dwelling in graduate school may not be the most optimal for you financially. Although you should ask for advice from older graduate students when you make that initial housing decision, nothing is as informative as actually living in your city for a few months or a year.

If you haven’t yet moved once within your grad school city, take the opportunity right now to re-evaluate your current living situation. You likely have a totally new perspective on the decision compared to the last time you made it. Even if you have moved once with an intimate knowledge of the local housing market, your financial goals and budget evolve with time; perhaps you are different now and you require a new housing arrangement. It takes some patience and commitment to decide to move and then wait several months to follow through, but a significant enough reduction in housing expense makes the process worthwhile.

[The decision to purchase a home while in graduate school has an enormous financial impact. There is a great amount of financial risk associated with buying a home (both upside and downside). Buying a home is more expensive in the short term while renting is more expensive in the long term. The problem is that no one can predict whether your time in graduate school is short-term or long-term. The housing market could boom or bust during your tenure at your university. You might end up with a home that needs a lot of costly repairs. You could arrange for renters who essentially pay your mortgage for you, or end up with a landlord’s nightmare. You have to make careful calculations and considerations, but there is always a gamble involved. If you are already a homeowner, there are still a few ways for you to reduce your housing costs, such as selling and moving, taking on a roommate, or refinancing your mortgage.]

Have you re-evaluated your housing costs since you moved to graduate school? If you were able to reduce your spending on housing, what would you do with your extra cash flow? 

The Best Kind of Frugality for a Busy Grad Student

When you live on a stipend, frugality is a way of life. You know you can’t live a freewheeling lifestyle on your grad student income, at least not without racking up massive debt. But the approach you take to frugality has an enormous effect on how restrictive you perceive your lifestyle to be and how much time you spend on spending less. When you have a dissertation to write, you don’t want to be spending hours each week scrimping and saving. Effective frugality for a grad student has to be automatic.

The best kind of frugality minimizes spending on what’s least important to you so that you can divert your money to what’s most important to you – without you compromising the time you’re suppose to devote to your studies. And practicing frugality doesn’t mean that you will feel deprived or be living paycheck-to-paycheck. You can use frugality to give yourself a leg up on wealth creation, even during grad school.


What is the best kind of frugality?

First, we recognize that the best kind of frugality is unique to each individual. Frugality is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Yes, there are popular approaches and strategies, but you still get to pick and choose which practices you will adopt. If spending money in a certain category enables you to live your values – and cutting back in that area would impede that – keep spending there. Move your search on to another category for potential cuts. Of course, the reality of living on a stipend may force you to revisit your valued category, but it should be last on the list for cutbacks.

Second, the best, most effective frugality preferentially targets your largest expenses. Third, once you do the work to reduce those expenses one time, your frugality keeps the expenses low in perpetuity, either because they are fixed expenses or because the frugal practice has become habit (ideally, an effortless habit).

Think of frugality as an 80/20 problem. You can get 80% of your total reduction in spending from 20% of your expenses, if those expenses are the largest ones in your budget. You can eliminate 10 small expenses that won’t add up to as much as one partial cut to a large expense.

Target your largest expenses first

When you’re searching for places to cut back in your spending, start at the top. Using your budget, any past spending data you have, or your memory, rank your expense categories from largest to smallest. Your largest categories likely include rent/mortgage, transportation, and groceries, and other possibilities are eating out/alcohol, entertainment, travel, utilities, childcare, and shopping.

Once you have your ranked list, process each spending category from largest to smallest, brainstorming ways you could reduce your spending in that area. Use resources like our Frugal Practices or frugality websites to target each spending category. Seriously evaluate if you can implement one of your ideas in each category.

Sometimes the prospect of reducing your spending on a very large expense is quite daunting. You may have contracts in place that limit your ability to change the expense for up to a year. Often, reducing a large expense will take quite a bit of work. People tend to be very psychologically resistant to change as well. But you have to focus on how much your quality of life can be improved in other areas by taking those steps.

There may be quite a delay from the day that you decide to reduce your spending on a large expense to the day that you accomplish it. Deciding to reduce this kind of expense isn’t as immediately rewarding as implementing a frugal strategy that you can benefit from immediately. But don’t let that deter you from planning and following through on your idea. While you wait out the contract or research the decision, keep track every month of how much money will be freed up by the change and imagine what you could be doing with it.

Reduce your fixed expenses

The best kind of frugality happens in the background of your life without you having to pay any attention to it whatsoever. When you reduce a large fixed expense, you practice that frugality without even noticing it. (The corollary is that fixed spending is easy to let inflate, as well, since it’s not an active decision.) If it was difficult to reduce that expense in the first place, like getting out of a contract, it’s pretty difficult to reverse the measure, too.

This is unlike any strategy that takes willpower or time to enact. In a tough or busy moment, you could easily forgo that strategy and return to your higher-spending ways. Reducing a fixed expense locks in that lower rate, at least for a period.

Make a habit of reducing your variable expenses

Some of your larger expense that are ripe for reduction are variable expenses, so you lose the benefit of locking in the lower rate like with a fixed expense, but they are still worth pursuing when you’re looking to reduce your spending.

The key to reducing a variable expense is to make your frugal strategy a habit. After establishing the strategy, you should automatically follow it unconsciously and without having to use willpower. Until you reach that point, you should use whatever prompting strategies work for you to remind you to follow the strategy. It won’t feel natural at first, but keep at it.

However, if you continue to chafe against the habit after weeks or months of trying it out, it’s probably not for you. Don’t use your limited time and energy forcing a frugal strategy that refuses to become a habit or takes up too much time or energy.


The best traits to cultivate with respect to your frugality are creativity and daring. Especially with respect to your variable expenses, ask yourself what you really have to lose by trying something new. If possible, give each frugal strategy a one-month trial. That should be enough time to get over your resistance to change, evaluate the strategy, and possibly create a new habit. If it doesn’t work out – and if you get really creative, not everything will – you can go back to your old ways. Of course, if a strategy requires becoming locked in or an up-front cost, do you research before leaping.

A PhD is a long haul in grad school. If you adopt the attitude toward frugality outlined above, think how many different frugal strategies you can try out over the years. Even if you only made habits of 20% of them, that could impact your spending enormously. One of the great benefits of living on a stipend is figuring out what is important for you to spend on and what isn’t. If you maintain the comfortable but low lifestyle you fine-tune in grad school after you start earning more from your real jobs – probably with a few judicious upgrades! – you can start making huge strides in increasing your net worth.

What fixed expenses have you reduced during grad school? What frugal strategy did you try out that eventually became a habit?

Check back to this post on 3/22 for a video on reducing spending on transportation and on 3/29 for a video on reducing spending on food!

What Grad Students Can Learn from the FIRE Community

At first blush, graduate students and the FIRE community don’t have much in common. FIRE stands for Financial Independence/Retiring Early; it is a movement to retire or reach financial independence (working becomes optional) very early in life, often by age 30 or 40. FIRE aspirants usually have high-paying jobs that they wish to stay in for only a handful of years, whereas graduate students are taking a large (theoretical) pay cut to acquire training that will set them up for long, productive, not necessarily high-paying careers.

Further Reading: Early Retirement Isn’t for Us

However, I think there is a great deal that graduate students can learn from the FIRE community (and vice versa), financially and otherwise, even if they do not have the same goals.


1) They have a clear vision of what their future will hold.

FIRE people regularly fantasize about what they will do in retirement/upon reaching financial independence. They do so in detail. They have a plan for where they will live and travel, how they will fill their days, what skills they will use or learn, who they will spend time with, and how they will serve their communities. This detailed picture steels them for the sacrifices they are making in the present and motivates them to reach their goal on schedule.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly common for graduate students to apply because graduate school is the next step in their educational progression or because they haven’t been exposed to careers outside academia. Even those who matriculate with a career in mind (usually research and/or teaching) decide against pursuing it in the course of their training. This lack or loss of career focus usually results in students languishing during their training or wasting effort on projects or skill acquisition that won’t serve them later on – not to mention the time not spent on appropriate networking. The clearer the career goal, both for students pursuing academia and those pursuing alternative careers, the more effective the student’s training can be.

2) They have a roadmap to their goal and obsessively track their progress.

Another lesson along the same lines is that FIRE people have a detailed plan for how and when they will reach financial independence. They know exactly how much more money they need to earn, into what vehicles they will save and invest, and how they are going to maintain their lifestyles in the meantime. They track their financial progress on detailed graphs and spreadsheets.

Grad students do create, from time to time, plans for their research progress, but then the plan always seem to go awry or get delayed. That is the nature of research. But the more closely a grad student can stick to a detailed plan, checking off experiments or sources one by one, the better off she will be in terms of keeping her motivation and productivity high. There should be an increasingly clear picture of what the end point will be as time goes by.

3) They work their tails off.

FIRE people tend to be super hard workers. They often have demanding primary jobs, on top of which they might add one or more side income streams to get to financial independence even faster. FIRE bloggers additionally document their experience online.

There is no doubt that grad students can work hard, but many fall into a pattern of working in fits and starts, such as in advance of deadlines. The uncertainty of the progression through grad school exacerbates this tendency. It’s very difficult to push yourself to work hard when you’re not sure where the hard work is leading (see points above).

4) They are uber frugal.

When I jonined the financial blogging community and started reading about other people trying out frugal strategies and challenging themselves to no-spend weeks and months, I wasn’t very impressed. That version of frugality was just my normal life living on a stipend!

But FIRE people really know what they are doing when it comes to frugality – they are an extreme breed. The bar for frugality was set early on by Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme (a PhD scientist!), who lived in an RV for a time. While not many FIRE people go that far, they have become masters of lifestyle cost minimization in a variety of creative ways. Grad students looking for ways to cut their lifestyles further can take some pointers from other FIRE bloggers like Mr. Money Mustache and the Frugalwoods.

5) They save like mad.

There is no doubt that FIRE people understand the power of compound interest. They have taken it completely to heart. They are mad for investing and building up a large portfolio quickly so they can utilize the 4% rule to fund their lifestyles in perpetuity. Certainly many graduate students understand the power of compound interest as well. But some grad students I talk with just haven’t gotten around to starting to invest yet. Some think it’s not really worth getting started because they could only invest a small sum or a small stream. But the fantastic thing about compound interest is that, given enough time and a decent rate of return, it can turn even small sums into staggering ones. A FIRE person knows that putting away an extra $10, 50, 200 or whatever amount really does make an impact. Your savings rate is the most important factor in determining your ultimate portfolio balance, not the rate of return that you get on your investments.

Further reading: The 4% Rule and the Search for a Safe Withdrawal RateHow Important Is Your Rate of Return?; Starting Down the Road to Financial Independence? Don’t Obsess Over Investment Returns, but You MUST Obsess Over This.

Graduate students really have stepped off the beaten path when it comes to education and career, even though it doesn’t feel like it inside academia. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a look at other unusual but highly successful communities to adopt their best practices. Grad students would certainly benefit from taking a few pages out of the FIRE community’s book, even if their objective is not financial independence and early retirement.

Circuit Board Designer

Today’s post is by a PhD student who learned an important lesson about setting boundaries as a contractor with an employer.


Name: Mark

University: University of Illinois

Department: Mechanical Engineering

1) What was your side or temporary job?

PCB circuit board design for a small local company. Designed and tested a small electronic device. Then I sent out for a PCB to be made, and I personally assembled and QA checked the devices. Finally, I provided product support for when the prototype devices were field tested.

2) How much did you earn?

$25/hr, ~0-12 hrs a month, sporadic hours typically on weekends.

3) How did you balance your job with your graduate work?

This work began as I was getting near to finishing up my graduate work, but before a timetable had been set for my preliminary exams. I made clear that my education was my first priority with limited number of hours/week, that at times I would be unavailable due to school, and that during school hours (regular work hours where I had a TA/RA position) I was generally unavailable. There were no cases where my education was hindered by the side job, since it always had priority. However, the limited availability for working on the side job did cause some friction. These are very restrictive conditions for an employer, and do not work well with time sensitive work such as providing product support.

Make a clear boundary between when you are working at school vs working on the side job. Likewise, though I used my apartment to do work for my side job, I chose to maintain boundaries by never meeting my employer at my apartment, instead booking meeting rooms or choosing a public place. While the limited hours worked well for the research and development phase, some issues arose in product field testing. When the company was testing devices while I was at school, they occasionally had issues that required immediate responses. This is difficult to do while maintaining separation between graduate and side jobs, and would be better served by a full time employee.

Despite the limited involvement of my advisor, his friendly relationship to the CEO of the company meant that it was possible at times for a conflict of interest to arise. Ideas from the CEO could make it to my advisor who would then want independent (but ultimately related) work for graduate research. This did not occur for me, but did for a lab-mate who was also working in a similar capacity.

4) Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

There was no direct correlation to my graduate work. However, it added real-world project experience in a related field. Although the money was nice, I was mainly pursuing it because I was interested in the project and because I wanted the experience. Most importantly, as the primary engineer on the device I learned the value in extensive QA of the design and assembly.

5) How did you get started with your job?

The position started through a one-time introduction by my advisor. His involvement in the project was limited to the introduction to avoid a serious conflict of interest.

6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

Ultimately what my employer wanted was a full time professional, but for the cost of an undergraduate intern. While a professional engineer could probably have completed this project quickly compared to the average intern, the cost was considered too much. I possessed a masters degree even at the start of the work, but in mechanical engineering instead of electrical engineering. I requested to be paid at a discount to the going rate for an experienced electrical engineer due to my inexperience, but was unwilling to accept undergraduate intern level pay. As mentioned above, I was interested in the experience more than the extra money. In some instances, I refused work different aspects of the project because I was unqualified for it, suggesting he find a more qualified person.

Finally, make clear at the start what the scope of your work is and whether you are acting as an employee or contractor. Get it in writing, along with what your compensation will be. As an employee, you are working under the direction of your boss to fulfill work needed by the company. As a contractor, you negotiate what services you are providing before doing the work, leading to well defined deliverables. I would suggest acting as a contractor if possible, though in my case I ended up acting as an employee due to my inexperience; I was unsure as to how to appropriately estimate the extent of the work required and I didn’t want to seriously underestimate number of hours needed.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Budgeting Methods

Your budget and budgeting method will be unique to you as an individual. You need to find a method that serves the purposes you set for it without being too onerous for you to follow. Below are a few common ways to budget – you can mix and match as best suits you.


Line Item Budget

The line item budget is probably what you think of when you hear the term “budget.” You start with your net income each month and create a line item for each goal or expense that includes the category and amount. The expenses included are your fixed and variable expenses that occur every budgeting period. This type of budget will be the same every month, only evolving as your expenses change with time, so it works best for people who have very regular income and expenses.

Your objective is to spend exactly (fixed expenses) or less than (variable expenses) the amount of money allocated in each of your line items. Be sure to keep a line item for miscellaneous/unanticipated expenses as well; expenses always pop up that don’t exactly fall into one of your categories. This budget resets between each budgeting period, so you’ll need a plan for what to do with your excess money when you come in under budget or your deficit when you come in over budget.

If you want to keep a monthly line item budget, Mint is a great tool to help you track your spending and match it against the line items in your budget.

One of the pitfalls to line item budgeting for a graduate student is the periodic occurrence of large irregular expenses that overwhelm your miscellaneous line item. One solution to this issue is to use targeted savings accounts.


The unbudgeting method is about as simple as a budget can get. From your net income, you set up a savings rate for one or more of your goals and let the rest of your money be unstructured. The only tricky part is to keep from overspending your remaining money in each pay period. In this method of budgeting, you can be confident that you are meeting your goals, yet you don’t feel restricted. This kind of budgeting is great for people who want to work regularly toward goals but don’t want to feel limited in how they spend their money each month.

You don’t really need budgeting software to unbudget, but it is helpful to track your expenses manually or automatically so you know when to stop spending.

Further Reading: 4 Easy Money Management Solutions for Anti-Budgeters

Unique Budget Every Month

If you want to be more exact and directive about your budgeting, you can create a unique zero-based budget every month (aka the Dave Ramsey Method). Every month (or every pay period), you calculate your unique income and project your unique expenses. You give every single dollar an assignment for the month and make sure that it is carried out. This is on the intensive side for budgeting because it requires scrutiny of the coming month and must be completed fresh every month. This budgeting method is great for people who have irregular income, are intensely repaying debt or saving, or have relatively large discretionary income month to month.

Dave Ramsey’s budgeting software that follows this method is Every Dollar.

Envelope Method

The envelope method is a longer-term spin on the line item budget. You divide up your net income into envelopes (categories) for all your fixed, variable, and irregular expenses, then spend down those envelopes. With this system, the budget doesn’t have to reset after every month, but you can continue to accumulate money in your envelopes until it is needed. You can also smooth your spending in your regular budget categories over a few months. For example, you could stock your freezer and pantry in one month of high grocery spending, then eat it down over a few months of lower grocery spending as you build up cash for the next stockpiling month. This budgeting method works well for people whose expenses are not very regular.

One example of software that uses the envelope method is Mvelopes.

Targeted Savings Accounts for Irregular Expenses

Irregular expenses – expenses that occur only once or a few times per year – are the bane of the grad student budget. As stipends are so limited, it is rare to find a graduate student whose money management system hasn’t been stressed by an irregular expense. Examples of irregular expenses common to grad students are quarterly or yearly tax payments, university fees or research-related expenses, travel, insurance premiums, repair/maintenance costs, shopping (electronics, clothes, home, etc.), entertainment, and gifts.


The best way to handle irregular expenses is to save for them in advance. First, you’ll have the cash on hand when the irregular expense occurs, eliminating the need to scramble to find additional cash flow that month or to carry a balance on a credit card. Second, anticipating your irregular expenses forces you to budget over the course of a year instead of just a month, which means you can better weigh your spending options against one another instead of making last-second calls on what to purchase and what to forgo.

A system of targeted savings accounts organizes your savings for irregular expenses. From each paycheck, you save a small amount of money into each targeted savings account, which are designated according to their expense category. Then, when an irregular expense occurs, you pay for it using the money that has built up in the targeted savings account.

Would you like a one-page worksheet that helps you brainstorm your irregular expenses? It includes the three questions to ask yourself to map out your upcoming year and a list of the most common irregular expense categories. Sign up below to receive your worksheet!

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Further Reading: Weather Irregular Expenses on Your Grad Student Stipend with Targeted Savings Accounts (a Grad Student Finances Guide); A Simple Trick to Save More Money (It Isn’t Automating)

Pay Yourself First

The strategy to “pay yourself first” is among the most powerful of any in personal finance.

Pay yourself first means that you make reaching your financial goals your top priority each time you are paid and before you start paying any other bills. Right after you are paid, you make sure that you transfer the proper amount of money toward your savings accounts, IRA, or taxable investment accounts. If your top financial goal is to aggressively pay down debt, that would be your first action as well. This should happen first thing before you pay your rent, put gas in your car, buy food, or do anything else.


The rationale behind pay yourself first is that if you leave meeting your financial goals until last each month, you will never achieve them. Your money will disappear into the ether as you are paying your bills and going about your life. You will tell yourself that next month will be different because xyz won’t happen again, but every month plays out the same way.

The best way to pay yourself first is through automatic, scheduled transfers. After you set those up, you won’t have to use your memory or willpower at all to pay yourself first. It will just go on in the background, and pretty soon you won’t even miss the money.

Resolve to pay yourself first from this month forward!

(No one is advocating that you fail to pay any of your other bills. If paying yourself first causes a shortfall that you cannot allow, transfer the money back from your savings to cover it. This is a budgeting issue, not an issue with the strategy itself.)

Bring Savings to Grad School


Even if you are earning a stipend during graduate school, it’s essential to have some savings already when you start graduate school. In all likelihood, you are going to wait several weeks before you receive your first paycheck or fellowship disbursement, and those particular weeks are going to be unusually expensive ones.

Why Does It Take So Long to Get Paid?

Processing payroll takes time, and you probably won’t even start setting it up until after you arrive on campus.

If you are working for your university (receiving compensatory pay as an RA, TA, or GA), you will have to perform some work before you are paid. It is most typical for graduate students receiving compensatory pay to be paid monthly, so your first paycheck will arrive near the end of your first or second month after starting grad school. While you may be required by your program to be on campus for orientation, unless you are concurrently starting your RA or TA duties, you may not be paid for that time.

If you are receiving a fellowship stipend, you may be paid monthly or in lump sums. Either way, the disbursement from your funding source has to be processed by your university before it is sent to you, so you will also be paid after the start of the school year.

Unfortunately, while your pay won’t arrive until some weeks after you start grad school, your start incurring your expenses well before.

Further reading: Why I’m Voting Yes

What Will My Expenses Be Before I Am Paid?

Not only do you have to sustain yourself normally before you are paid (food, housing, transportation), you have additional start-up expenses associated with the beginning of graduate school.

1) Normal Expenses

If you’ve never tracked your spending before, you may be surprised by all the different expenses you have each month. Your basic needs are food, housing, transportation, clothing, and insurance. On top of those, you may have some discretionary expenses such as restaurants and bars, entertainment, and shopping.

2) Moving Expenses

Many if not most graduate students move to their university towns prior to starting graduate school. Your costs to move may be as low as only gas money or as high as flights and shipping, depending on the distance moved and the amount of possessions being moved.

3) Housing Start-Up Expenses

You should expect to pay your rent for each month up front (e.g., pay for September’s rent by the end of August), so at a minimum you will pay for some housing expenses before your first paycheck. On top of first month’s rent, you may be required to put down a security deposit and possibly pay last month’s rent as well; policies vary by location. Some rental companies in college towns offer discounts on these types of expenses.

After you get into your new home, you will need to furnish it to some degree (either you will pay to move furniture or you will buy furniture in your new town) and stock your fridge/pantry. You should also purchase renter’s insurance, possibly paying for the whole first year at once.

Further reading: My Beloved Air Mattress: An Anti-Debt Story

If you have chosen to buy a home prior to starting graduate school, of course you will have much higher housing start-up expenses.

4) Transportation Start-Up Expenses

If you will own and use a car during graduate school, you will have to register the car in your new location and update your insurance policy. Buying a car for graduate school will involve either paying for the car up front or taking out a loan, possibly with a down payment.

5) University Expenses

You are likely taking classes in your first year of graduate school, and your courses may require you to use certain textbooks. You might also be responsible for paying some fees or even partial tuition near the start of the school year.

What Are My Options for Paying My Expenses Before I Am Paid?

First, minimize your expenses to the greatest extent that you can by using frugal strategies. Some tips that are relevant to the start of the school year are:

  • accept as much free food as you can
  • borrow your textbooks from the library or older graduate students
  • delay buying non-essential furniture to spread out the cost and buy used
  • try living car-free if you are not certain that you will need a car

Second, by far the best way to pay for your expenses before you receive your first paycheck is to use savings. It would be ideal to have a least a couple if not several thousand dollars on hand for your transition to grad school.

If you don’t have the cash available, you’ll likely have to take out debt of some kind. Some graduate programs offer short-term loans to their students to help them through these kinds of transitions. Another option might be a personal bank loan. Accruing credit card debt should be a last resort; not only will you have to use your first paychecks to play catch-up, your debt will almost certainly generate a lot of interest charges in the meantime.

How Should I Build Up My Savings In Advance?

If you are already saving money for other purposes, divert some of it to a special transition-to-grad-school fund. If you do not currently have the excess cash flow to save money, you need to either increase your income or decrease your expenses to create some. Check out our side hustle series and “How to Increase Your Income as a Graduate Student” for ideas for increasing your income and our frugal practices for ideas for decreasing your expenses.

Hairstyles YouTuber

Today’s post is by a PhD student runs a YouTube channel about her passion-hobby, which also happens to bring in some money!

shannonName: Shannon

University: University of California, Los Angeles

Department: Social Psychology & Neuroscience

1) What is your side or temporary job?

Making hair tutorials on YouTube.

2) How much do you earn?

$200-250 a month

3) How do you balance your job with your graduate work?

My work and my YouTube channel are pretty darn orthogonal, haha.

4) Does your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

Because my work and my channel are so different, it’s difficult to balance. At the beginning of grad school I was able to put out a new video every week because I could film on the weekends and edit in the evenings during the week. However, now I’m involved in a lot more projects at work, so I’ve been failing to meet the every-week benchmark. Since this is my hobby, I always have to remind myself “if I feel like it’s something I have to do instead of something I want to do, then I need to back off a bit.”

5) How did you get started with your job?

I started my YouTube channel somewhat accidentally back in undergrad. I recreated a bunch of Game of Thrones hairstyles for fun and posted them to reddit, which went viral. Lots of people were asking for tutorials, so that’s why I created my channel and it’s been steadily growing ever since. That big boost at the beginning was really important to making this channel monetized, because for most channels it’s really difficult to get past the first 5k subscribers.

6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

I definitely recommend finding something in grad school that’s unrelated to the work you do, monetized or not, so that if all your experiments fail one week, you still have something meaningful to throw yourself into. YouTube is a difficult way to make money on the side, though, I will say. I was really lucky with it. It takes a lot of work to make it monetized, and at times it’s been like another full time job. So I wouldn’t recommend this route if you’re just looking for money. But if you have a passion that you like sharing with others through video, it can be very fulfilling while still getting you money for groceries!

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!