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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Unbudgeting

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

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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.

A note from Emily: I’ve released a short course titled “How to Manage Irregular Expenses with Targeted Savings” that provides practical details on how to implement this method. Check it out below!

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

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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!

A Low Income Is a Blessing in Disguise

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Believe it or not, the time you spend in graduate school earning a stipend – the very challenge that can make this period so infuriating – might very well become, in retrospect, one of most valuable times in your financial life. The value will not primarily be in the money you earn but rather the financial lessons you learn through the struggle.

(I am not calling an insufficient income – an income that doesn’t pay your basic expenses – a blessing in disguise. While it may teach you some valuable lessons, the bad certainly outweighs the good when you can’t buy food or clothing or you are racking up debt. In this post I am referring to low but sufficient stipends that are more or less living wages.)

In some cases, grad school can be a monetarily fruitful time, such as if you use your stipend to increase your net worth. But even without setting intentional financial goals, every grad student who is challenged by her stipend will learn financial lessons. These hard-won skills can be carried forward into your post-grad school life to benefit you immensely – whether or not you experience a big jump in income.

1) Budgeting

Every grad student with a low income develops a budget mindset, whether it is explicit or implicit. There is no out-earning poor spending decisions in grad school as there might be with a higher professional income. Many grad students become quite skillful with creating and sticking to an official budget, which is a wonderful habit. Even those grad students who don’t have written-down budgets naturally learn the limits of their income and how to stay within them.

2) Frugality

Living well on a stipend almost certainly involves a degree of frugality, whether or not the student knows that’s what he’s practicing. Frugality doesn’t have to look like extreme couponing or hypermiling or living in a van or any one particular strategy. It can be as simple as employing a couple easy tricks in one area to facilitate spending in another. Your limited stipend gives you the motivation to explore what frugal tactics work well for you and the time to make them habits. You won’t lose those habits when you move on to your first post-grad school job; you can choose which ones to continue with and which to conclude.

3) Discover the Fine Line Between Wants and Needs

Budget-ers usually think of needs as food, housing, transportation, utilities, clothing, etc. But those of us living on limited stipends discover that each of those types of expenditures likely involves both “need” and “want” components, i.e., some of your spending fulfills the basic need and some of it exceeds it. When you’re looking for ways to cut your spending, you become start putting expenses previously thought of as necessities on the chopping block. This is really tough to do at first, but just being aware of spending areas that you don’t truly need is immensely helpful if you ever return to a time when you have to cut back, such as during an emergency.

4) Combat Lifestyle Inflation

I think that “live like a grad student” is much better advice than “live like a college student.” I’m sure I’m not the only person to experience lifestyle deflation during graduate school. Many of our peers who went straight from college to a real job put themselves immediately on a treadmill of lifestyle inflation: every year as their income increases, their living expenses increase commensurately, so that their potential for growing their wealth or putting their money into their values is squandered or hampered. Those of us who are spending many years living on a (likely static) stipend experience a solidly deflated or non-inflating lifestyle. It’s difficult to live through, but intimately discovering this deflated lifestyle is incredibly powerful once your income increases post-graduate school. You will have an internal check against mindlessly inflate your lifestyle year after year. If you continue with your deflated lifestyle to any degree when your income is higher, you can make quick progress in building your wealth.

Further reading: Is “Live Like a College Student” Good Advice?; Earning More Does Not Cure All

The theme among all these advantages is that they confer lessons and skills over a period of time that is long enough to deeply learn but not indefinite. Of course, if your income remains low, you’ll need to keep using them. If your income jumps post-graduation and you employ the skills, however, you can gain much more satisfaction from your money than someone who doesn’t have the skills. You have the option of keeping your baseline expenses low while using the rest of your money in ways that are of high value to you.

How to Calculate Your Net Worth

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You calculate your net worth by preparing a balance sheet. Your net worth is the sum of your assets minus the sum of your liabilities, which are listed on your balance sheet. Your net worth and balance sheet are snapshots in time and do not directly reflect your monthly income and expenses.

First, list all of your financial assets by type and amount. Financial assets might include the money in your checking and savings accounts, investments, your home, your car, other valuable property, etc.

Second, list all of your financial liabilities or debts by type and outstanding balance. Your liabilities may include student loans, your credit card balance(s), your mortgage, your car loan, personal loans, etc.

Third, subtract the sum of your liabilities from the sum of your assets. This number is your net worth.

It is useful to track your net worth so that you can see how it changes with time. While some financial software may report your net worth daily, to make fair comparisons, it is most useful to update your balance sheet and net worth on a monthly, quarterly, or yearly basis.

Resource: What is my current net worth?

What Is Net Worth?

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Your net worth is a single number that describes how (monetarily) wealthy you are at one point in time. It is calculated by subtracting the sum of your liabilities (debt) from the sum of your assets (also known as a balance sheet). In other words, your net worth is what you own minus what you owe. As a graduate student, your net worth might be negative, close to zero, or positive.

Your net worth is only a snapshot in time, so it is useful to track how your net worth changes with time – both the direction and rate of change. If you are taking out student loans to fund your graduate education and/or living expenses, your net worth is likely decreasing. If your stipend barely covers your living expenses, your net worth is likely fairly static. If you are currently saving money, paying off debt, and/or your investments are increasing in value, your net worth is likely increasing.

To build your wealth over time and to eventually become financially independent or retire, your objective is to increase your net worth by increasing your assets, decreasing your liabilities, or both. Due to the power of compound interest, as your total invested assets increase, your net worth on average also tends to grow even faster.

Further reading: What is Net Worth?, What Does Your Net Worth Really Mean?

While it is useful to know your net worth, do not allow its absolute value or even its direction and rate of change to impact your emotional self-worth. Your net worth is not a reflection of your value as a person. While achieving (or being given) a positive and/or increasing net worth during graduate school gives you a nice start in life, it alone does not determine your continued financial success. Likewise, having a negative or decreasing net worth in graduate school does not doom you. As a graduate student, you are just starting your career, which ideally will be long and financially prosperous. If you are taking out student loans during graduate school, the liability side of your balance sheet is growing, but the asset side does not take into account the knowledge, skills, experience, and network that you are currently gaining that will help you greatly increase your income and net worth in the future.