Why and How I Eliminated Eating Out for Convenience in Grad School (and You Can, Too)

Shortly after my husband and I got married and combined our finances, we faced a reckoning in our budget. As we created our first combined spending plans and started our system of targeted savings accounts, we realized that our month-to-month spending was out of sync with our values and short-term goals. Chiefly, we wanted to put aside more money for travel spending, which meant that we had to find other areas in our budget to cut back. On the chopping block: eating out for convenience.

While our restaurant spending was never astronomical, we had each fallen into a pattern of buying convenience food on a regular basis. Among other reasons, I tended to buy a quick dinner on campus when my lab experiments ran into the early evening, my husband bought a fast food dinner every week on his way from campus to an evening activity, and we also occasionally went out to dinner just because we didn’t feel like cooking.

We determined that these convenience meals were not a great use of our money, especially in light of our travel goals. So we made a spending rule: We only ate out with other people on social occasions; we eliminated eating out alone or with each other. We held to that rule almost perfectly for our last few years of grad school, though I admit we started deviating a bit while dissertating!

In this post, I’ll share our strategies for sticking with our no-convenience-eating-out rule. I know this topic is of high interest to grad students (with busy schedules!) who are looking to reduce their spending. Most recently, we discussed it at length in Grad Student Finances’s monthly live money chat. (If you want to join our next money chat, sign up for the mailing list here to receive more information.) Even if you don’t want to eliminate eating out for convenience entirely, implementing these strategies will help you to enjoy eating out more when you choose to because it’s not done out of desperation.

Further reading: Give Yourself a Raise: Prepare Your Own Food Even with a Busy Schedule

Identify Your Patterns

The very first step to eliminate eating out for convenience is to take note of when and why it happens. In all three scenarios I listed for my own life, dinner was the issue. My husband and I never ate out for breakfast and rarely did for lunch, as we were consistent brown-baggers. Since dinner was the problem time for us, that was where we focused our energy for creating solutions.

I realized that I tended to get hangry and need to eat right away; if there’s not ready food available, I would buy something because I couldn’t wait an hour or two to get home/shop/cook. So part of my solution was to keep homemade food available (more on that next).

The pattern you identify in your convenience eating could relate to any meal or snack of the day or more than one of them. Maybe you’re not a morning person so you habitually stop for a coffee and bagel on your way to work. Maybe you like to take a nice break for lunch, and part of that is leaving your office to go to an eatery on campus. Maybe you need a pick-me-up snack in the mid-afternoon to keep from nodding off while reading. Maybe you tell yourself you deserve a night off from cooking after a long day in the lab. Work first to identify the situations in which you habitually buy convenience food or are tempted to, whether those are based around a meal, a time of day, a feeling, a stressor, a regularly scheduled meeting, etc.

Keep Food on Campus

If you are buying convenience food on campus or on your way to on from campus, like my husband and I were, the easiest solution is to keep food on campus in your office, department lounge, or whatever personal space is available to you.

Further reading: Make Your Stipend Go Further: Bring Your Lunch to School

We were consistently bringing our lunches with us every day and keeping them in our shared refrigerators. After identifying dinners as our weak point, we started bringing in dinners as well. On the days of the week that we knew in advance that we would need to eat on campus (like before a regular evening activity), we just brought in our lunch and dinner together. But I also started bringing an extra dinner in with me on Monday to stay in the fridge for the week to be eaten on whatever night I happened to stay late (and if that was early in the week, I’d bring in another the next day). In this way, I planned for the eventuality of needing to eat on campus, even though I didn’t know exactly when it would happen.

You don’t necessarily need to bring in a full extra meal to make this work. If you just need to tide yourself over for an hour or two, a snack will do just fine. If you choose shelf-stable foods or long-lasting refrigerator foods, you don’t even need to change them out every week.

Batch Cook

No kidding, batch cooking changed my life. When I first started eating out of my own kitchen and learning to cook, I prepared one-serving meals, which was very time-consuming and didn’t allow me to use frugal strategies like buying in bulk. I also ate a lot of pre-prepared foods and meals out because that kind of cooking was so exhausting. Our slow cooker changed all that for me.

While batch cooking is not limited to slow cookers, it is a good entry point. I started making 8+ servings at once of hearty chilis and soups in our slow cooker, which were easy to toss into a Tupperware and bring to campus for lunch or dinner. From there I moved on to other styles of cooking, but always making at least 4 servings at once. Batch cooking is perfect for a busy grad student as it is so time-efficient.

Batch cooking was key to eliminating our convenience eating out because 1) it created those meals that we wanted to keep on campus and 2) we always had food ready for reheating at home. Gone were the days of convincing ourselves to eat out because we had no groceries at home or cooking would take too much effort.

Further reading: Eliminate Eating Out for Convenience with Batch Cooking

Eat Before You Cook

Batch cooking also leads easily into this tip: eat, then cook. When I arrive home from work hungry, the last thing I want to do is spend a bunch of time cooking! People are always saying “don’t grocery shop while hungry” because it leads to poor decisions, and I apply the same logic to trying to cook while hungry. I get impatient and am liable to go off-plan.

So my (largely unconscious) strategy became to eat a pre-prepared meal upon arriving home, then do any necessary cooking for the following day(s). I did try to batch cook on the weekends, but usually I also needed to do it once or twice during the week, so I made sure that I had a dinner already available on those nights so that cooking could be put off until the later evening.

Use Your Freezer

Tying in closely with batch cooking and always having a meal available to you is freezer cooking. This is not a strategy I personally employed, but it works amazingly well for many people. Basically, you prep/cook one or more meals that are to be immediately frozen and then reheated/cooked at a later time. If you have a meal available in your freezer, you will never have an excuse to stop for convenience food on your way home.

This strategy also works very well for people who want to batch cook but don’t want to eat the same thing every single day. You can cook a four-serving meal, for example, eating one and freezing three. Rotating through that a few times will give you a selection of different freezer meals so you can spontaneously choose which to eat for any given meal.

Meal Planning

I’m a big believer in creating habits to avoid decision fatigue. I do not want to have to think about what I’m going to eat 3-4 times per day, 7 days per week. Eating the same meals over and over again makes my life so much easier. Grocery shopping, cooking, and eating all become consistent and decisions are minimized. If I have my meals planned out and food available to me, such as through batch cooking, I don’t have the opportunity to decide to eat out for convenience.

Luckily, my personality allows for eating the same dinner multiple nights in a row without becoming dissatisfied. If you crave more variety, meal planning can help you preserve that while still eliminating on-the-spot decisions. When you meal plan, you decide in advance what you’ll eat throughout the week. Often, weekends are used for shopping and prepping/cooking all of the meals, so all you have to do during the work week is carry out the plan with minimal effort.

To combine decision elimination with batch and freezer cooking, you can create a pattern of eating one type of meal every Monday, a different one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, etc. An even more advanced level of meal planning coordinates the ingredients in the meals you eat throughout the week. The different meals will all draw from a common set of ingredients, which allows you to buy in bulk. (Combine that coordination with the sales cycle at your local grocery store and you are a super-frugal meal planning genius!)

It’s a tough adjustment going from eating family meals growing up or dining hall meals in college to cooking for one or two as a young adult. There is absolutely a learning curve, and sometimes convenience eating is part of that. But as you gain skills in the kitchen and clarity on how you want to use your money, you can make the decision to eliminate eating out for convenience. Start with identifying when convenience eating crops up in your life, then apply these strategies to combat it.

What strategies do you use to avoid eating out for convenience?

Independent Research Coordinator and Consultant

Today’s post is by a PhD who had extensive work experience prior to starting grad school, which she leveraged into several relatively remunerative part-time jobs. She shares honestly about the effect her extra work had on her personally.

Name: Marika Morris

Institution: Carleton University

Department: Canadian Studies Ph.D.

1. What was your side job?

  • Research Coordinator, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), on a part-time basis
  • Research consultant – I produced research on contract for Health Canada which was an overview and analysis of gender-sensitive home and community care research, with policy implications. Part of that contract involved travel to be a keynote speaker at a conference on that issue.

2. How much did you earn?

About CAD $30,000 the first year of my Ph.D., not including academic funding. This was much less than I had earned the previous year full-time in the labor market.

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

Not very well. It was very stressful, because I was also a teaching assistant at the university. I had to start on anti-anxiety medication. I eventually resigned my CRIAW job, and took on further research contracts only after my scholarship funds ran out.

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

Yes. Although my academic research was not on the same topic, the publication for Health Canada has been widely quoted and expanded my professional networks. The CRIAW job provided me with a sense of community which was lacking at the university, and both the Health Canada and CRIAW jobs provided me with a sense of accomplishment and value as a researcher. I had already been working as a researcher for 14 years before starting the Ph.D., but this experience did not seem to count for much with some professors.

5. How did you get started with your job?

I was already Research Coordinator at CRIAW when I reduced my hours to complete a Ph.D.. The Health Canada contract came from previous gender and home care research I had done.

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

Looking back, it’s amazing that I did not have a nervous breakdown. It was a mistake to take a full course load and have three part-time jobs. However, it was very interesting and valuable, and it would have been hard to give up any of those opportunities. It is very important to gain/maintain work experience outside academe.

Marika Morris has worked as a Senior Policy Research Advisor in the Government of Canada, as a Researcher/Legislative Assistant for two Canadian Members of Parliament, was Research Coordinator for the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women and did a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Faculty of Education, Western University. She now runs Marika Morris Consulting, which specializes in research, evaluation and training services. She is also an Adjunct Research Professor at the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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

How to Manage Irregular Expenses with Limited Cash Flow

A version of this article was originally published on GradHacker.

Irregular or non-monthly expenses can be difficult to weather for anyone, but even more so when you have a low income or little to no discretionary income. Irregular expenses are a nearly universal pain point among graduate students. Any (relatively) large expenses that crop up once or a few times per year can pose a problem, and common examples include school fees, taxes, car registration, car repairs, travel, conference expenses, entertainment, electronics, clothes, home furnishings, insurance, gifts, and medical expenses.

For grad students without much available non-emergency cash, there are limited options for paying for these types of expenses that don’t involve debt: increasing ‘income’ or decreasing spending. A grad student with a side income may be able to ramp up work when an irregular expense crops up. Another grad student may be able to clean out a closet and generate some quick cash on Craigslist or eBay. Frugality in variable spending areas, such as shopping, groceries (eat down your pantry!) and restaurants/bars, entertainment, gas/parking, and personal care, may be sufficient to pay for the expense. An undesirable idea that grad students may consider is to rely on credit cards to float or spread out the expense. This is a dangerous strategy because it is easy to let a balance accumulate, credit card debt is very expensive, and the cycle is hard to break for people with low incomes.

Instead of being forced to make difficult last-minute decisions or put themselves in financial jeopardy, grad students can get ahead of irregular expenses by generating short-term savings that are earmarked for the specific expenses.

Building up cash to have available for these types of expenses certainly takes planning, self-control, and sacrifice in the short term, but it is well worth the long-term benefits of reduced stress, increased confidence in spending decisions, and the ability to say yes to unexpected opportunities.

My husband and I reached a point of frustration with the irregular expenses in our lives about halfway through our PhDs. We had to decline some wedding invitations that we really wanted to accept due to the cost of traveling. This distress spurred us to try to save ahead for the travel we anticipated in the upcoming year. We soon applied this strategy to other areas of our budget.

If it were easy to build up significant savings with a low amount of available cash flow, everyone would have it in place already. For those people, like my husband and I, who don’t naturally live well below their means and watch their checking account balance grow, certain strategies and psychological tricks may make this process more palatable.

The key strategy we used was to set up a system of targeted saving accounts or sinking funds. With this strategy, you essentially convert irregular expenses to regular expenses by spreading out their impact on your cash flow over several months or a year. Targeted savings accounts are either literally distinct savings accounts or simply notations within a single savings or checking account. (If your bank doesn’t allow you to open multiple savings accounts for free, look into an internet-only bank like Ally or Capital One 360. Nickname each account with the category of spending it represents.) The money in each account is designated only for its individual purpose. To fund the account, you anticipate the expenses in each category over a period of time (e.g., a year) and set up a monthly savings rate to pay for the expenses. When an expense occurs in the category, you draw money from the account to pay for they expense.

Returning to the travel example that inspired my own finances, to implement this strategy my husband and I projected all the traveling we expected to do over the course of the upcoming year. Generally, that included a few trips to see one set of parents or the other, travel to a few weddings, and sometimes travel for a special event like a reunion. We assigned an amount of money that we would need to each event and used the total amount of money we expected to spend to calculate a monthly savings rate. The exact number of out-of-town weddings we attended were difficult to pin down a year in advance, but we took a guess based on the previous year’s spending. As the year progressed and the events came into focus, we adjusted our cost estimates to be more accurate and changed our savings rate.

You could project an entire year’s irregular expenses all at once and start saving immediately for everything, but there is an easier and more gradual way to get started with targeted savings accounts. Each time you encounter a difficult irregular expense, figure out the next time it will occur and in what amount. Calculate your required savings rate by dividing the amount of money needed by the number of pay periods you have to prepare for it. Then, set up a recurring automatic transfer from your checking account to the appropriate targeted savings account (create a new one if needed). You will be prepared for that expense the next time it arises.

You can create as few or as many of these accounts/designations as your lifestyle suggests. By the time my husband and I finished grad school, we had proliferated our targeted savings accounts to cover travel, car, medical, community supported agriculture, electronics, entertainment, appearance, and tax expenses.

Converting irregular expenses to regular doesn’t make money magically appear out of thin air, but we did find its structure helpful for motivating us to find ways to cut our spending in certain areas or earn extra money. The main benefit we experienced was reduced stress and a feeling of more control over our money as we moved from being reactive toward our irregular expenses to proactive.

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)

How Graduate Students Are Financially Distinct from Young Professionals

Two young adults graduate with the same major from the same college in the same year. One of them gets a job and the other enters a funded graduate program. Their financial lives have just diverged, despite their similar professional starting points, and it’s not because the graduate student lacks an income.

Here are the top ways graduate students are financially distinct from their young professional former peers.

Limited Income, Unlimited Training

Graduate students are among the best and the brightest college graduates, but that isn’t reflected in their stipends/salaries.

The value proposition of graduate school is that the student will be provided with training, and therefore the stipend is only intended to cover living expenses (more or less) to keep the student from undertaking outside work. (Of course, some students undertake unfunded PhDs or lose their funding at some point.) So the grad student’s income is suppressed, and there is little opportunity to increase it without engaging in a side hustle. This is very different from a regular job, where there is a chance for promotion or at least opportunity to take a different job with a better salary without derailing your career trajectory.

by Jorge Cham

A compounding factor in this situation is the uncertainty of the length of the training period. It’s unusual for a PhD in the U.S. to take less than five years, and apparently the average is 8.2 years. This is such an issue that asking a PhD student when she’s going to graduate is viewed as a faux pas. It takes an unusually driven graduate student and motivated advisor to accurately set the end date for the graduate degree more than a year in advance, let alone at the start of grad school. And even the end of graduate school doesn’t mean the student will get a big income boost, as 65% of PhDs will continue their training as postdocs.

These factors together mean that a grad student has a low salary for an uncertainly long amount of time: at minimum half a decade, and for many a decade or more.

Not a Full Employee

The exact nature of the relationship between the university and the graduate student is being reinterpreted at many universities around the US due to the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that allows the unionization of graduate student assistants at private universities.

Graduate students are certainly “students” in the eyes of the university, and graduate assistants are also considered “employees” secondarily. The benefits offered to graduate students therefore often straddle these two statuses; they receive some or all of the benefits that undergraduate students do, but virtually always less than other classes of employees like faculty and staff.

Commonly, graduate students take part in the student health insurance plan, and the premium might be partially or completely paid as one of their benefits. Beyond that, benefits vary widely by university, school, and program. Some graduate students may have defined vacation policies while others’ are left to the discretion of advisors; some get dental and vision insurance alongside health insurance; some receive subsidies for housing or childcare; some receive a free or subsidized gym membership; very few even have access to a 403(b).

Common financial advice to young professionals to take full advantage of employer benefits by contributing to a 401(k) at least to the full match amount and maximizing the value of life, disability, health, dental, and vision insurance benefits therefore does not apply to graduate students. Conversely, graduate students may access to student benefits that are very unusual outside of universities, and it’s very important in those cases that the students are aware of all their benefits.

Fellowships Do Not Provide Taxable Compensation

While grad students receiving stipends have an income, they don’t all have “taxable compensation” or “earned income.” Graduate students (and postdocs) whose salaries are paid by fellowships are not being compensated/earning their income. (Their income is still taxable, however.) They are not employees, but neither are they self-employed. Therefore, they are not eligible for tax benefits that are tied to having compensation or earned income, such as IRA contributions and the earned income tax credit. Having an income that is not reported on a W-2 also may throw a wrench into the process of taking out a mortgage. This situation is very hard to wrap your mind around when you first hear about it because it is so different from what (self-)employed people experience.

Low Taxes

The silver lining to having a low income is that you don’t have to pay much in the way of income taxes. Nearly all graduate students whose only income is their stipend will fall into the 15% marginal tax bracket or lower. Therefore, tax reduction strategies that might be recommended to young professionals are not as beneficial for graduate students. For example, contributing to a Roth IRA is a great idea for a graduate student with taxable compensation, while a young professional with a higher income might benefit more from using a traditional IRA or 401(k).

The unexpected bonus to being in the 15% tax bracket or lower is that the current federal tax rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends is 0%. Therefore, even graduate students who are saving for retirement outside of tax-advantaged retirement accounts can minimize the tax bite on their investments.

Finally, graduate students do not have to pay FICA tax, either because they have a student exemption or because they aren’t receiving compensation. Young professionals can’t easily avoid that 7.65% tax bite.

Access to Student Loans

Lastly, graduate students have the option to take out student loans. If the student experiences an income drop or a personal emergency, they could take out a student loan to cover it, whereas a non-student would more likely turn to credit cards or personal loans. While using a student loan in these circumstances might be advantageous in some ways (for example, the interest rate is almost certainly lower than the interest rate on a credit card), student loans are more uniquely dangerous than other kinds of debt because they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. A graduate student, because of this access, therefore needs enhanced information and counseling when looking to take out a new loan.

In what ways are graduate students financially different from their age-mates who have real jobs?

Perfect Use of a Credit Card

Graduate students have a pretty good handle on financial literacy topics like credit cards. In fact, 85% of graduate students have a credit card (Council of Graduate Schools’ Financial Education). But it’s one thing to understand how credit cards work and another to actually practice perfect credit card usage.

When I signed up for my first credit card after college, I thought of it as a form of an emergency fund. While I never ended up carrying a balance, on a couple occasions I used it to push paying for an expense from one month to the next. I thought I was being responsible by choosing a credit card with a relatively low interest rate (only 10%!) in case I did ever carry a balance.

With a lot more financial savvy and years of experience under my belt now, I can appreciate both the benefits and dangers of credit cards. If you follow the rules of perfect usage, credit cards can serve you well and benefit your life in small ways. But if you deviate from perfect usage, credit cards can bite – and it could be a tiny nip or a scarring chomp. The downside potential is definitely larger than the upside potential, so you must toe the line carefully!

Further reading: Don’t Buy into the Pro- or Anti-Credit Card Hype

Here’s how to use a credit card perfectly so it never bites you.

Have a credit card

It is a good idea to have a credit card as (when used perfectly) it will benefit your credit report and score. If you have never had any debt, opening a credit card will generate a credit report and score for you. (Make sure your first credit card is one you can keep open indefinitely, as it will establish the beginning of your credit history.) If you already have a credit score due to installment debt, such as student loans or a car loan, adding a revolving debt like a credit card will increase your score.

Further reading: Reader Request: Credit Scores and Credit Reports“I Want a Credit Card, But I’m Scared”

The main reason to have a high credit score is to obtain favorable terms when you take out new debt, such as a mortgage. (The time to be concerned about maximizing your credit score is when you’re approaching taking out new debt, but other than that it’s not a big concern.) Some landlords also check credit scores, so a good score can be beneficial to a renter.

Further reading: 7 Ways to Improve Your Credit Score

If you have ever failed to make payments on a debt or have carried a credit card balance, don’t use a credit card. Give yourself time (at least a year) to ingrain good financial habits using only a debit card before returning to credit.

Never pay interest or fees

Your credit card should never cost you any money. Perfect use of a credit card means that you never carry a balance or pay any kind of fee (with one possible exception).

Pay off the entire balance by the due date

To avoid ever paying interest on your credit card, you must pay off the balance in full by the due date.

42% of graduate students with credit cards carry a balance on their credit cards, and 9% only make the minimum payment (Council of Graduate Schools’ Financial Education)! These students are paying a ridiculously high interest rate (15% on average) on this debt, which in many cases could be avoided entirely by better money management practices. With credit card debt, compound interest works against you with amazing ferocity.

Make it an unbreakable rule to always pay off your entire credit card balance before the due date; it’s a slippery slope from allowing a balance to carry over in one month to being saddled with thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt that just keeps growing. The average American household with credit card debt has a balance of $16,425. Having this rule in place will force you to get creative about ways to cut your spending or earn extra money before the deadline.

A great way to make sure that you never miss a payment and incur a late fee or interest charges is to set up your card to auto-pay the entire balance before the due date. Just make sure that you always have enough money in your checking account to cover your credit card bill or you risk getting slapped with a fee by your bank instead.

Don’t Spend Ahead of Your Income

To use your credit card(s) perfectly, though, you have to go a step further. It’s not quite enough to pay off your credit cards when they are due. If you get sloppy with this practice, your spending can actually get ahead of your earning by 1-2 months, which can really put you in a bind if an emergency occurs.

To use a credit card perfectly, treat it like a debit card: only spend money that you already have in the bank, not money you expect to receive before the bill is due. That means that you will earn money, then get paid, then spend the money. To keep your credit card bill in sync with your budget, pay it off in full at the end of every month/budgeting period. You could even pay it off a couple times each month to keep your utilization ratio low.

Further reading: Living on Time with Your Credit Cards

Gain Benefits and Rewards… But Don’t Go Crazy

All the points above are about avoiding the downsides of credit cards, but now we get to the fun part – the upsides!

Credit cards are safer than debit cards for fraud protection, and they also often confer benefits in the small print like rental car insurance.

Further reading: Credit Card vs. Debit Card: Which Is Safer Online?; Renting a Car? Know Whether Your Card Adds Insurance

But the really big draw is the rewards. When you have a good credit score, you will be eligible for all kinds of rewards credit cards. These rewards come in the form of a signup bonus (usually after meeting a minimum spending requirement), ongoing rewards based on your spending, or both. Credit card rewards are actually one of the top ways my husband and I ‘saved’ money while we were in grad school, even though we rarely spent enough to meet minimum spending requirements.

Signing up for credit cards for the bonuses and strategically using certain cards for certain purchases to rack up points is a great way to score some free money or free travel. But you can’t get so caught up in the bonuses that you overspend or deviate from perfect use.

Credit card companies use rewards to prey on your psychology. The rewards make spending feel even better than it normally does, so you’re more likely to spend lots of money on their particular card. In that way, the company gets the transaction fees from the merchant plus a greater chance that you will overspend, not be able to pay off your balance, and end up paying interest.

Further reading: Think about It: Why Would the Credit Card Company Give You Cash Back?

If you want to go after credit card rewards, great. Just put in place strict boundaries such as a budget to constrain your spending, the habit of paying off your card every month, and autopay. If you juggle multiple cards at once, consider signing up for account aggregating software like Mint or You Need a Budget to help you keep track.

I said earlier that you should never pay a fee for a credit card. The one exception is a fee for a rewards credit card when you are dead certain that you will gain more in rewards than you are paying in an annual fee. If you’re at all unsure about the ROI of the fee, don’t get the card. A credit card with a fee should also not be the first credit card you open (or probably your first rewards card, either) as you should feel free to close it whenever paying the fee no longer makes sense. If that is your oldest credit card, your credit might take a small hit upon its closure.

If you’re going to use a credit card, use it perfectly. Credit card fees and interest are too detrimental to your financial health to play around with! Just treat your credit card like a debit card and you’ll be fine.

Are You Ready to Invest Your Grad Student Stipend?

Having been sufficiently convinced that it is a great idea to start investing during graduate school, you’re eager to get your money working for you. But as beneficial as investing is for the long-term growth of your personal net worth, you must make sure that your finances are sufficiently prepared in the here and now. Once you can answer “Yes!” to the five questions below, you’re ready to start investing your stipend.

Do you have excess cash flow/cash savings available to invest?

Right off the bat, of course, you have to have some money to invest. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money by any means, but you must have either some cash flow available every month or savings that you are willing to devote to investing. If you are going to invest on a regular basis, write your investing goal into your budget and pay yourself first through an automated transfer. Investing a lump sum of cash savings at one time is a fine approach as well, though you must make sure that you still have enough cash on hand (more on that in question 3).

Do you have zero high-interest rate debt?

Even if you’re super gung-ho about investing and highly optimistic about your prospective long-term rate of return, it’s not the best idea to put money into investments while you have high interest rate debt. When you pay down debt, you receive a guaranteed “rate of return” on your payment that is equal to the interest rate of the debt. On the other hand, investing comes with a degree of risk and you are not guaranteed any specific return, especially in the short term. Given an interest rate on debt equal to or slightly less than the expected long-term rate of return on your investments, mathematically it makes more sense to pay down the debt.

Generally speaking, you should pay credit card debt down immediately and with gusto (even 0% introductory offers) before beginning to invest. Any car or personal loans that have a very low interest rate and subsidized student loans can take a back seat to investing if you like, though it’s also a great option to pay them off before beginning to invest if they weigh on your mind. Unsubsidized student loans can fall into either category. The interest rate tipping point above which you should pay off debt and below which you should invest is up to you and will be related to the long-term rate of return you expect on your investments.

Do you have sufficient short-term reserves?

It’s important to have some cash savings available to you before you begin to invest. Even though that money will not earn much of a return sitting in a checking, savings, or money market account, it serves as a safety net. You don’t want to have to go into debt or pull out the money you already invested if a short-term problem pops up. It’s much better to have cash available to smooth out any rough patches.

There are two forms of short-term reserves that you should build to a sufficient level before you begin to invest: an emergency fund and cash for short-term spending. Every grad student should have at minimum a $1,000 emergency fund and perhaps even a larger one before moving on to any other financial goals. The other type of cash to keep available to use is money to use for irregular expenses, which are expenses that occur once or a few times per year that are difficult for you to cash flow.

If you’re incredibly eager about investing, you can build these two types of cash funds to a fairly low funding level – perhaps just $1,000 in your emergency fund and $1,000 for short-term spending. But as you grow your investment accounts, consider continuing to build your cash reserves as well.

Do you have an investing goal?

Before you begin investing your stipend, you have to be very clear about what you are investing for. The most common investing goal for grad students is for retirement. It’s rather counter-intuitive, but you should actually start investing for your longest-term goal first. Some grad students may also create a mid-term goal for about 5 years out. The time horizon of your goal will determine your asset allocation (the level of risk you want to take for the amount of return you want to get). You should invest as aggressively as you are comfortable with for your retirement/long-term investments, but somewhat more conservatively for your mid-term investments.

For the specific goal of investing for retirement, you will need to decide whether to invest inside a tax-advantaged retirement account like an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA). If you decide to use an IRA, you will have the choice between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. In my experience, virtually all grad students choose the Roth IRA.

Do you know where and in what you will invest?

Your final decision before beginning to invest your stipend is what brokerage firm to invest through and what specific investments to put your money in. When you are deciding on a brokerage firm, look at their selection of investments, cost, reputation, and minimum balances. Passively investing in broad index funds is the most effective and time-efficient approach. You can learn all you need to about passive investing in as little as an hour or two, so don’t let yourself get bogged down in analysis paralysis. Getting started investing with a good but imperfect strategy is better than waiting around to develop a perfect strategy.

Once you have five ‘Yes’ answers to the questions above, don’t delay your first contribution to your investment account! You are well prepared to take the next step with your finances.

If your answer to one or more of these questions was ‘No,’ don’t despair. Put the energy and excitement you have toward investing into turning your ‘No’ into a ‘Yes.’ This might take as little as a couple hours of contemplation for the last two questions or as much as months or years of refining your budget and diverting your cash flow for the first three questions. But if you apply yourself diligently, you’ll be ready to start investing before you know it.

Are there any additional steps you with you had or hadn’t taken before starting to invest your stipend? What steps are you working on before you begin investing your stipend?

Why Pay Down Your Student Loans in Grad School?

While you’re in graduate school, you have the option of deferring payments on the student loans you have previously taken out. This is a very standard procedure that your lender should have no trouble helping you with once you make the request. Deferment means that you are not required to make payments on your student loans. You are allowed to defer student loans when you are enrolled at least half-time in graduate school.

That’s where many graduate students stop thinking about their student loans. “I don’t have to pay? Awesome!” But just because you defer your student loans does not mean that you should ignore them. Even in deferment, you have the option of making payments of any size you choose on your student loans. Depending on the rest of your financial landscape and the interest rate of the loans, it can be a good idea to pay down your loans while you are in graduate school.

When your student loans enter deferment, you don’t have to make payments but the loans still accrue interest at their given rate. In the case of federal subsidized student loans (which are now only available to undergraduates), the federal government pays the interest for you, so your loans don’t grow any larger. In the case of federal unsubsidized and private student loans, the accrued interest adds to your balance due. When your loans exit deferment, the interest capitalizes, which means it becomes part of the principal due, making your accruing interest and minimum payments even higher.

Interest rate is crucial

The higher the interest rate on your unsubsidized loans, the faster the loan balance will grow during the deferment period. Let’s look at a few examples. Direct unsubsidized loans for undergraduates are offered at 4.45% and direct unsubsidized loans for graduate students are offered at 6% (as of June 2017). Private student loans might be offered anywhere from 3 to 12%.

This table illustrates how much your loan balance would grow at the given interest rate if you made no payments (deferred) for five years.

You can see how much the interest rate itself affects the balance after five years. And remember, interest will continue to accumulate throughout the entire life of the loan! Not making payments just allows the problem to grow larger.

If your student loans are currently deferred, you have a decision to make: Should you make payments on your student loans even though you don’t have to, and what amount should you pay? There are different answers depending on your exact situation.

You can’t pay – period

Some graduate students have no choice here; they are simply unable to make any payments on their student loans. This might be because they are taking out more student loans or consumer debt during graduate school or because their stipend only just covers their bare-bones living expenses. This is a situation in which deferment is sorely needed. The best course forward is to finish graduate school in a timely manner, get a well-paying job, and start repayment when the deferment ends.

You might be able to pay, but you’re reluctant to free up the cash flow

Many graduate students who receive stipends technically have the ability to make payments toward their student loans if they want to, but they either don’t recognize their ability or are unmotivated to make the sacrifice to their lifestyles. When you’re not compelled to put money toward your future, it’s easy to let your lifestyle inflate to your income level.

When you’re dealing with compound interest, like with debt repayment or investing, the question comes down to how much you value an amount of money now vs. a larger amount later. How much larger an amount depends on the interest rate. Yes, it would be a sacrifice to cut $50/month from your budget, for example, to make a regular payment on your debt, and it would almost certainly be easier to sacrifice $100/month out of your larger post-grad school income. But remember that we’re not comparing $100 now to $100 later – more like $100 now with $120 or $140 or $160 later.

What the tipping point is between those two options is up to each individual to decide based on his risk tolerance, post-graduation income prospects, and lifestyle desires.

You have available cash flow, but you’re not sure if it should go toward the loans

Other graduate students have already identified some amount of cash flow each month that they want to put toward their financial goals, but they’re not sure if their loans should be their top priority. Maybe they feel they could also use some additional cash savings on hand or are excited about investing.

As long as the student has a satisfactory emergency fund and/or cash for short-term spending and no higher-interest rate debt, putting the cash flow toward either the debt repayment or long-term investing is a good choice. Which one comes out on top should be determined based on two primary factors: the math and your personal disposition.

The math: Compare the interest rate on your debt with the average annual rate of return you expect on your investments. If your interest rate is much lower than your expected average annual rate of return, that’s a big argument in favor of investing over debt repayment. If your interest rate is comparable to or higher than your expected average annual rate of return, that favors debt repayment.

Personal disposition: How you feel about this investing vs. debt repayment decision matters, too. If you can’t sleep a night for thinking about your looming debt, just work on paying it down. If the math doesn’t sway you strongly to one side and you are super excited about starting to invest, go ahead and do that (but keep in mind that losing money is a distinct possibility).

Remember that subsidized loans are effectively at a 0% interest rate, so repaying those loans would only be a top priority for someone who really hates their debt.

Payment strategies

If you have decided to repay your student loans to some degree during grad school, you have some options on how to do so.

The first is that deferral decision that we assumed at the beginning. Even if you don’t feel you have to defer because you can easily afford the minimum payment, deferring still may be advantageous for two reasons: 1) If something ever came up that prevented you from making your required payment, your credit score would take a hit. 2) With no minimum payment required across all your loans, you can choose to pay down one loan at a time.

Second, assuming your loans are deferred, you can make regular payments or save up for some time and make larger, lump-sum payments. It might be easier to make fewer payments over the course of a year, but if your loans are unsubsidized you would lose a little bit of money to interest accumulation. Talk with your lender to see how willing they are to accept payments of variable amount and at irregular times. For subsidized loans, you wouldn’t be penalized for building up your payoff money in your own coffers up through the entire deferment period as long as you paid the sum before the loans exit deferment.

Third, within your set of student loans, you may have multiple different interest rates, perhaps including both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. If you have decided to commit a certain amount of money to loan payment, you should put the whole payment toward the unsubsidized loan with the highest interest rate (the debt avalanche method).

Pay just the interest

One option that I haven’t yet mentioned is the common suggestion to pay off only the accruing interest during the deferment period so that the loan balance you have upon exiting deferment is exactly the same as the loan balance that you had upon entering deferment. While it is a fine idea to pay some amount toward the loans during deferment, I don’t see a compelling reason why that number should exactly equal the amount of interest accruing. If you have the ability to make interest-only payments, why stop there? You should pay as much as your budget allows.

I do think it’s a good idea to defer your student loans while you are in graduate school. And on top of that, to the greatest extent you are willing you should put your money toward increasing your net worth. Both debt repayment and investing fulfill that goal well, and which one you choose will depend primarily on the math and your personal disposition. The higher the interest rate on your student loan debt, the more compelling the argument for paying it down while you are in grad school.

Birthing a Baby Before You Birth Your Dissertation

Financial considerations for graduate students becoming parents.

If your relationship with your graduate advisor can be compared to a marriage, the dissertation you create together is your child. You conceive it together in early days and then spend 5 (or 6 or 7 or…) years raising it up until it can make its way into the world independently. That creative process is time-, energy-, and emotion-intensive, not to mention financially limiting due to the small stipend you receive in those years.

Is it possible to bring a human child into your family in the midst of your graduate degree and still see it to a successful completion? Plenty of newly minted PhDs celebrate their accomplishment alongside their children. But having a baby during graduate school may be even more of a challenge to your time and finances than doing so before or after.

When you are deciding whether to have a child during grad school or preparing for one already on the way, the two key areas in which you need to make space are your time and money. In this article, I outline the largest monetary costs that you will incur in the first year of your child’s life and discuss ways to minimize those expenses. The first things to come to mind when you think of these costs may be clothing, toys, or a crib, but those are actually among the more minor expenses.

Medical Care and Insurance

Prenatal, postpartum, and ongoing medical care are necessary for mother and baby, so check your insurance policies. Research the out-of-pocket costs for an uncomplicated birth with each of the providers and settings you are considering, and ask your insurance company about your deductibles and co-pays. Midwifery care tends to be less expensive than obstetric care, but that may or may not be in line with your birth preferences or affect your bottom line. You have time to save up a fund to pay for your part of the birth expenses. You should also make sure your emergency fund is a healthy size in case mother or baby experiences complications that will add to the expense.

After the birth, you can choose to add the child to either parent’s insurance policy; assuming the care options are comparable, you can choose the one that you expect to be less expensive to you between the premiums and the out-of-pocket costs. An open enrollment period prior to or during pregnancy also provides an opportunity to switch the mother’s insurance provider if that is advantageous.

If you are adding the baby to your graduate student insurance policy, expect to pay a (higher) premium. Also be aware that while a typical health insurance premium would be paid incrementally with each paycheck, your grad student insurance might require a lump sum up front for each term or year.

Parental Leave

Your university or department may have a parental leave policy in place. It should outline the amount of time you are permitted to take off; whether the leave will be unpaid, paid, or at partial pay; and whether benefits such as insurance will continue. If there is no official parental leave policy, there may be one regarding leave for a medical or an unspecified reason that will apply or a vacation policy. Failing that, it will be down to you to negotiate your leave with your advisor and possibly department. This is also a great opportunity to negotiate a different schedule for after the baby arrives.

The reason leave is included as a major cost is because of the potential loss of income. The length of your leave might be influenced by what you can afford. Similar to your medical expenses, use the time you have leading up to the birth to save a dedicated fund out of which you can pay your expenses during your unpaid or partial-pay leave.


Childcare is easily one of the largest costs you will incur in the first year of your baby’s life, and it can be paid in either money or the caregiver’s time (i.e., opportunity cost).

If you are going to pay for childcare, compare all your local options: daycare, a nanny or nanny share, or babysitters. As a graduate student, you may be eligible to receive a subsidy for daycare on- or off-campus. Consider whether you need full-time or part-time care; if you have flexibility in when you work and money is more scarce than time, perhaps you only need part-time care.

Some families may be able to arrange for childcare that does not involve an exchange of money. One parent can cease working or move to a part-time schedule, both parents can work different ‘shifts’ so one is always with the baby, or another family member may donate his or her time. This is highly dependent on your existing resources, the flexibility of your work, and how you want to spend your time.

Be very cautious about assigning your time a value equal to that of your stipend ‘hourly rate.’ This line of thought leads many lower-income workers to the conclusion that it is financially advantageous to quit a job to become a full-time caregiver rather than to pay for childcare. This is short-sighted because it does not consider future career advancement and income increases. While you are in graduate school, your income is suppressed, but you can greatly increase it by finishing graduate school and moving on to a higher-paying job. It can make financial sense to pay a comparable or higher rate for childcare than you earn from your stipend if it speeds your progress toward your post-grad school job.


Just about every year a new ‘cost of raising a child’ calculation is performed. For example, in 2015 the headline cost of raising a child to age 18 was $230,000 (this is an average over all income levels and parenting choices). The largest component of that cost calculation (29%) was for housing. If you decide to move to a larger dwelling to accommodate your new child, you must account for that additional monthly cost. Depending on your parenting decisions, that’s not necessarily a cost you will incur immediately – the American Academy of of Pediatrics recommends sleeping in the same room as your infant for the first year – but eventually more space will become necessary.


If you have not yet had reason to purchase life insurance, the birth of your first child will almost certainly motivate you to do so. The purpose of life insurance is to provide for anyone who would be financially impacted by your death. The most cost-effective type of life insurance to buy is term life insurance, not whole life or universal life. You can shop online or through an independent insurance broker to find the best policy and price for you.


While the average American spends less than 10% of their disposable income on food (both at home and out), I consider food to be a major regular budget line item for graduate students (often third-largest after housing and transportation). Therefore, an infant’s food could also have a significant impact on the family’s budget. The choice to breastfeed or formula-feed – to the extent that it is a choice – is a parenting decision that has a monetary cost either way. Expect to spend some money in this category, whether on formula, bottles, breastfeeding supplies, or extra food for the mother. Starting between 4 and 6 months of age, you’ll also start purchasing solid foods for your child.

Further reading: Breastfeeding Ain’t Free


Another significant cost in a baby’s first year of life is waste management, i.e., diapers, wipes, diapering supplies, etc. This cost is less avoidable than some of the previously listed ones (except by practicing elimination communication and potty training early), but it can be minimized. If you are using disposable diapers, it’s all about sourcing the least expensive diapers that work for your baby. Cloth diapering requires an up-front investment, but becomes less expensive than disposable diapering within the first year and realizes large savings in subsequent years and for subsequent children.

Further reading: Cloth Diapering in an Apartment


Most of the remaining money that you will spend in your child’s first year of life are one-time purchases of various items, such as a car seat, stroller/carrier, furniture, linens, clothing, toys, and books. If you receive gifts or hand-me-downs, they will likely be in this category, so some of the cost might not be borne by your budget. You might even be able to borrow many of these types of items from a family with a child slightly older than yours. A parents’ group at your university could be a great resource in this respect. Whatever you do need to buy can be bought used, though be careful for highly regulated items like car seats and cribs that they are compliant.

Further reading: Outfitting Our Baby with Hand-Me-Down, Borrowed, and Used Stuff

While this list may appear overwhelming, not every cost may apply to your family and there are ways to minimize each one. For the costs that you expect to incur, the best way to decide if you can afford them is to pretend that you are paying them now. Draft a post-baby budget that includes your monthly additional cost for housing, childcare, purchases, etc. and see if you can live on the remainder right now. Funnel all the cash flow you are trying to do without into a dedicated fund for your child that can ultimately pay for your start-up costs.

What was the toughest financial aspect of having a baby while in grad school and how did you work through it?

Why the Roth IRA Is the Ideal Long-Term Savings Vehicle for a Grad Student

You’re a graduate student with the means and desire to save for your future. What is the best way to do so? If you have taxable compensation, the Roth IRA is an awesome choice. IRAs confer long-term tax advantages so your money grows at its maximum possible rate. The Roth version of an IRA is very well-suited for people who currently have a lower income than they expect to have in retirement. And if you decide that your goal is not saving for retirement after all, you can still access your money!

Further reading: Even Grad Students Should Have a Roth IRA

Tax Advantage of the IRA

If you keep your investments in a taxable account, whenever a taxable event occurs (like you sell an investment or receive a dividend) you will have to pay tax. Year after year, those taxes erode the gains in your account. In any given year, this may seem like a nibble, but when you consider that you will stay invested for decades, taxes become quite a big bite.

As a simplified example, compare the account balances of two people who invest $5,000 per year at a 10% rate of return over 40 years. The person whose account is not subject to tax ends with $2,434,259.06. The person who pays a 20% tax on the gains yearly ends with $1,398,905.20, 43% less!

The way to keep from paying tax on the gains in your account is to use a tax-advantaged retirement account. This deal does presume that you will not access your money until retirement (exceptions are below). There are many types of tax-advantaged retirement accounts out there, but they all depend on your workplace offering them to you or you being self-employed. Virtually no universities extend their 403(b) benefits to graduate students. Luckily, there is one tax-advantaged retirement account that is independent of your workplace or self-employment income, which is the IRA (Individual Retirement Arrangement).

The IRA is a wonderful vehicle to invest through. As it is independent, you can open this type of account at just about any brokerage firm and can put just about any type of investment inside of it. The world is your oyster when it comes to investment choice inside an IRA. In 2017, you can contribute up to $5,500 per year to an IRA.

There is one catch that will trip up some graduate students. You can only contribute taxable compensation to an IRA (yours or your spouse’s). With respect to your grad student stipend income, if you receive a W-2, you have taxable compensation, and if you do not, you don’t.

Further reading: Fellowship Recipients Can Save for Retirement Outside an IRA

Pay Tax Now, Not Later with the Roth

Tax-advantaged accounts currently come in two flavors: traditional and Roth. The main difference between the two is when you pay income tax on your money. While your money is inside the IRA, it grows tax-free, as discussed above. But you also get a tax break upon either contribution to or withdrawal from the account.

With a traditional IRA, you take an income tax deduction on the money you contribute to the account and pay ordinary income tax on the distributions you take in retirement. With a Roth IRA, you pay your full income tax on the money you contribute and do not pay income tax on the distributions.

When choosing between the traditional and Roth, the idea is to pay tax when you will be in a lower tax bracket. The typical graduate student has a low income during graduate school but expects a higher income later in life and in retirement. Therefore, the Roth option is the more popular for graduate students.

The Roth promises that you will pay tax on your IRA contribution now at your marginal income tax rate (likely 15% or lower) and never pay tax on that money again, no matter how much your investments grow!

Flexibility for Non-Retirement Goals

I’m an advocate of clearly defining your goals and choosing investments appropriate to your time horizon. For this reason, I think that you should only contribute to an IRA if you intend to use the money in retirement. But the Roth IRA rules allow for some flexibility. If the idea of absolutely not being able to use your investments for anything other than retirement is preventing you from starting to invest, you should know that you can access much of the money in your Roth IRA early should you change your mind about your goal.

Usually, when you pull money out of an IRA early, the distribution is subject to a 10% penalty. However, there are big exception categories for the Roth IRA. You can remove the contributions you made to your Roth IRA at any time without penalty. When it comes to your earnings, your distribution becomes qualified and therefore not penalized if you use it for the purchase of a first home (up to $10,000) or for higher education expenses.

So if you want to invest for the long-term but the idea of absolutely not being able to touch your money until retirement puts you off, rest easy that the Roth IRA is a great option for you. If your financial goals change in the next few years, you do have the ability to use the money in your Roth IRA for something other than retirement.

Between the tax-advantaged status, the option to pay tax now at a low rate and never again, and its flexibility to be used for multiple goals, the Roth IRA is just about a perfect retirement investing vehicle for graduate students! The only things I would change about it are: 1) fellowship stipends would be eligible to be contributed and 2) the contribution limits would be higher. But grad students with taxable compensation have very good reasons to contribute to a Roth IRA

Why You Should Invest During Grad School

Graduate school is a financially challenging time even if you are fully funded. Your stipend isn’t intended to do much more than pay your basic living expenses. You are likely young and relatively inexperienced with managing money, especially for long-term goals. You’re short on time to learn about financial best practices, and you may even be suffering from analysis paralysis. Investing may be either the furthest thing from your mind or yet another item languishing on your “To Do” list.

I believe that if you fully understood the benefits of investing right now, you would be chomping at the bit to get started. If you have the means, investing for the long term is one of the best possible uses for your money during graduate school. Of course you should cover your basic living expenses and live a little, but you can simultaneously begin building your lifetime wealth. It’s worth starting to invest during graduate school even if you can only put away a small amount or a small percentage of your income. Your status as a graduate student is even an investing advantage in some ways!

Below are four reason why you should start investing for the long term during grad school.

The Time Value of Money

In investing, time matters a ton. There are three key components to increasing your wealth: how much money you invest, what you invest in (i.e., the return you get), and for how long you invest. The first and third are the most important, believe it or not, because they are the most under your control.

Compound interest, or the time value of money, is the magic element that makes investing so powerful. Well, it’s not magic, it’s math – exponential growth. Here’s how compound interest works: Assume that your invested money gives a modest return each year. In your first year, your money grows by that return. In your second year, your money grows again, plus you get growth on last year’s growth. In the third year, you get growth, growth on growth, and growth on growth on growth. This continues (on average) for the entire period you are invested. Growth on growth ad infinitum!

One of the most powerful actions you can take for your net worth is to get the compound interest clock ticking for you as early as possible. Say, for example, that you need to invest regularly over 40 years to fund your retirement. Would you rather start that clock right now or wait until you’re done with your training?

You might think that starting to invest during graduate school is a big sacrifice that won’t amount to much because you won’t be able to save nearly as much now as you will on your future Real Job salary. This is a dire misconception!

Let’s take Tom as an example graduate student. Tom receives a $30,000/year stipend and invests 10% of it every month throughout his five years in graduate school. Over those five years, he contributes $15,000. Given an 8% average annual rate of return (very reasonable for a long-term investment), at the end of graduate school Tom’s account balance has grown to $18,353.49. If we leave that sum of money alone to continue to compound at 8% (no additional contributions), the balance grows tremendously. After 40 years, it has become $398,720.79! That’s an extra $400,000 for Tom’s retirement that he wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t started investing during graduate school.

Ingraining Positive Saving Habits

Incorporating regular long-term investing into how you manage your money during graduate school creates a powerful habit. Not only are you experiencing the benefit of compounding interest on the money you invest during graduate school, but you have created a habit of investing that will carry forward throughout your whole life. In fact, by doing so you have changed your identity to that of an investor!

Investing during graduate school is a sacrifice, of course. But to be honest, it’s going to be a sacrifice at whatever point in your life you start to invest. People always think that it’s going to be easier to start saving later, when x, y, and z in their life has changed; this mindset is not unique to graduate students. Yes, in a few years you’ll have a Real Job’s salary, which will make saving easier, but perhaps you’ll also experience other life changes like having a family or want to pursue other financial goals like buying a home, which will add financial constraints.

If you start investing during the objectively difficult period of graduate school, you’ll always be able to say, “I was able to save during graduate school, so of course I can continue to save now.”

Tax Advantages

Another big argument in favor of starting to invest during grad school is the tax advantages. In this case, having a low income actually works in your favor! (And not because of the Saver’s Credit.)

Graduate students with taxable compensation are eligible to contribute to an individual retirement arrangement (IRA). An IRA is a wonderful vehicle for anyone with the goal of saving for retirement. The big upside to using an IRA (or 401(k), 403(b), etc.) is that your money won’t be taxed while it’s growing inside the IRA. If your money were invested outside the IRA, the yearly taxes would essentially erode your rate of return and lower your balances.

When you open an IRA, you have the option to make it a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. With a traditional IRA, you take a tax deduction on the money you contribute and pay ordinary income tax on the IRA distributions in your retirement. With a Roth IRA, you pay your full tax on the money you contribute and the distributions are tax-free.

For the typical young graduate student in the 15% (or lower) marginal tax bracket who expects a much higher income post-graduation, a Roth IRA is a fantastic choice. You pay your 15% income tax on the money you contribute to your Roth IRA, and that money is never subject to income tax again! It’s a great idea to add to a Roth IRA when you’re in a low tax bracket like while in graduate school. If you do have a higher income after graduation and a higher marginal tax bracket, you’ll either pay a higher tax rate to contribute to a Roth IRA or switch to a traditional IRA. When you consider that some people contribute to Roth IRAs when they are in much higher tax brackets, a 15% tax rate seems like a deal!

Even if you do not have taxable compensation, your low tax bracket is still an advantage for long-term investments. If you are in the 15% tax bracket, you have 0% federal tax on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends. This means that investing outside an IRA is not such a terrible fate because of your low tax bracket as long as you use a tax-efficient investing strategy such as index fund investing.

Further Reading: Fellowship Recipients Can Save for Retirement Outside an IRA; How Fellowship Recipients Can Save for Retirement (video)

Post-Graduation Flexibility

If nothing else, having money increases your options. Exiting graduate school with savings and investments gives you more flexibility when it comes to financially motivated decisions like where to work and how to live. If you already have a nest egg compounding in your corner, you can consider the lower-paying job that fulfills your passion or the high cost-of-living city that you love. You are no longer hamstrung into maximizing your salary and minimizing your lifestyle so that you can compensate for the opportunity cost of your graduate training.

Further reading: What We Did in Graduate School to Enable Our Risky Career Decisions

I hope that considering all the benefits of investing has motivated you to start investing or increase your contributions during grad school! It’s amazing to graduate with not only a degree but also sure financial footing.