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.

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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.

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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.

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