What Grad Students Can Learn from the FIRE Community

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

Further Reading: Early Retirement Isn’t for Us

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

3) They work their tails off.

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

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

4) They are uber frugal.

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

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

5) They save like mad.

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

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

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

Budgeting Methods


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

Line Item Budget

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Unique Budget Every Month

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

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

Envelope Method

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

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

Targeted Savings Accounts for Irregular Expenses


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

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

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

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)

Bring Savings to Grad School


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

Why Does It Take So Long to Get Paid?

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

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

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

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

Further reading: Why I’m Voting Yes

What Will My Expenses Be Before I Am Paid?

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

1) Normal Expenses

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

2) Moving Expenses

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

3) Housing Start-Up Expenses

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

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

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

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

4) Transportation Start-Up Expenses

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

5) University Expenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Should I Build Up My Savings In Advance?

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

A Low Income Is a Blessing in Disguise


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.

Buying a Home


Some graduate students may have the option of buying a home instead of renting. A graduate student in this position must weigh all the typical factors that any prospective homeowner would, plus additional considerations due to her student status.

All prospective homeowners must assess how long they plan to stay in the home, whether the property is intended for living or for investment, and whether they can afford the down payment, mortgage, and maintenance.

Further reading: Can You Afford to Buy a House Right Now?

On top of the typical concerns of someone considering buying a home, graduate students must ask themselves an additional set of questions because of their unique life circumstances.

Not many graduate students are logistically and financially prepared to become homeowners without outside help due to their low income, typical lack of liquid savings, and plans to leave their cities within a few years. However, some graduate students are capable of buying homes on their own, and others will receive mortgage payment or down payment assistance from a family member (spouse, parent).

For those students who can buy in a financially responsible manner and are a bit lucky, their homes could be great financial boons by the end of grad school if they have built equity or at least kept ahead of renting costs. In particular, graduate students who rent to roommates may have quite low ongoing housing costs, though they will have capital tied up in the property and must keep a large emergency fund for maintenance and vacancy.

Further reading: 5 Reasons Why Home Ownership Can Be a Financial Disaster

Should I Buy a Home?

Graduate school is a somewhat unique life situation, so graduate students must ask themselves a number of questions above what is typical for a person considering buying a home.


How many more years of school do I have? How likely am I to finish the program? Will I stay in the area when I’m done?

The broad rule of thumb is to only buy a home that you plan to stay in for at least 5 years (however, the exact breakeven point will vary with the local market and individual purchase). If you plan to stay in the same city post-grad school, buying is a more viable option. If you plan to leave the city and do not want to become a long-distance landlord, buying near the start of a PhD program is most advantageous.

Keep in mind that the overall PhD completion rate is only somewhat north of 50%; grad students who leave grad school earlier than anticipated may feel saddled with a home at an inopportune time. If you plan to rent the home after you move on from it, whether the property is a good investment must be considered before the time of purchase. Be as realistic as possible and consider the best- and worst-case scenarios with respect to a home purchase.

Further reading: Rent vs. Buy Calculator

Will I live alone, with my family, or with roommates/renters?

With whom one lives certainly will influence the size of the home and the mortgage cost. If living alone is your priority, it is more likely that you will find an affordable rental than home for purchase. If you are open to living with roommates and have enough savings to afford the home on your own if necessary, buying a multi-bedroom home may be a good option. If you want to live only with your family, you will have two incomes to consider when looking for a mortgage and need to seek an appropriately-sized home.

Will my housing needs change in the next few years?

Graduate school often corresponds with a period of life with many transitions, such as family formation. Will the home purchased at the start of graduate school as a single person serve a married couple and/or a child just as well in a few years? What if you tire of living with roommates?

Do I qualify for a mortgage (income type, job history, credit)?

Whether or not a graduate student can qualify for a mortgage is much more of a question mark than a person with a typical job with the same income. First, graduate students are relatively young, so they may not have the necessary credit score and length of job history and credit report preferred by some lenders. Second, the way graduate students are paid (particularly fellowships) and that the income is not from a normal type of job may disqualify you with some lenders. However, if you shop around for a mortgage thoroughly you should be able to find a lender that is willing to scrutinize your situation and determine that you are a good risk if you are confident that your income will be steady. Try lenders that are slightly less mainstream like online banks and credit unions.

Do I have sufficient savings to cover a down payment, fees, repairs, and vacancy?

Buying a home is very expensive in the short-term, and some homeowners are unlucky to live in a home in just the period when it needs a lot of care.

First, there is the down payment and cost of purchase. Depending on the permissibility of the lending environment, it may be possible to get a home loan with little to no money down, but that is almost never a good idea. Assembling a larger down payment (10 or 20% of the price) gives instant equity in the home, proves to yourself and the lender that you are capable of saving money, garners better loan terms, and avoids paying Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) (> 20%). Closing costs are 2-5% of the home’s value ($3,700 on average) and are typically paid by the buyer (source), while realtor fees are typically paid by the seller.

Second, a home requires ongoing maintenance. A rule of thumb is that you should expect to pay on average 1% of the home’s value per year in repairs. However, as that is only an average and an estimate, a homeowner’s emergency fund should be sufficient to cover several ‘years’’ worth of maintenance at once. If you are renting to roommates, the responsibility to keep a sufficient emergency fund is even greater for more immediate repairs and to cover vacancy.

Further reading: How Much Does It Cost to Maintain a House?

Am I prepared to care for a home?

This is a lifestyle question. Some people are very excited to maintain their own homes, while others lack the knowledge, skill, or time to do so. If you are a first-time homeowner, you need to consider what the home will require of you and whether you can provide it.

Can I afford to furnish the home?

Unfortunately, owning your own home is sometimes accompanied by the pressure to upgrade. Suddenly, the secondhand furniture from Craigslist doesn’t mesh with your new home, and you have additional rooms and a backyard to furnish. Whether or not you choose to buy additional or newer furniture is up to you, but just be aware that if you can’t afford to you may have to overcome some temptation and perhaps social pressure.

How strong is the market historically, both for selling and renting?

It’s not possible to predict which way a housing market will move; you should be financially and emotionally prepared for your new home to dramatically drop in value right after you purchase it. However, you can look at the history of the housing market in your city to see how the patterns of boom and bust have played out locally – some areas are more stable or tend to recover more quickly than others. College towns, generally, have a stable demand for housing, if you plan to rent your home while you live in it or after.

Whether or not you will be able to buy a home as a grad student depends both on the local housing market and the resources available to you (a second income, savings). While not many graduate students are homeowners, those that are have a great opportunity to grow their wealth through (possible) equity and/or rental income, at least in comparison to what is spent on rent.

Credit Cards


Depending on who you ask, credit cards are either dangerous or lucrative, a great convenience or a terrible temptation. What they really are, at their core, is a debt product. The credit card issuer has extended you a line of revolving credit in the amount of the card’s limit.

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

When you make a purchase using a debit card, the funds are immediately or within a few days transferred out of your account to pay for the purchase. When you make a purchase on a credit card, you are incurring debt to the credit card issuer. Between the time you make the purchase and when the payment is due, the credit card issuer is giving you an interest-free loan. If you fail to pay the balance in full by the payment due date, the credit card’s interest rate then applies to the balance.

Credit cards can be very dangerous products, especially for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, are inexperienced with money and banking, or are unorganized. This is because credit cards typically have a very high interest rate (the average rate is 15%), meaning that if you carry a balance on your card beyond the grace period that debt will become very expensive. (In today’s low interest rate environment, it’s difficult to think of any other debt product aside from payday loans that typically has interest rates higher than those on credit cards.)

However, when used with discipline, credit cards can confer some benefits, such as fraud protection, additional insurance, and rewards (in the form of cash back, airline miles, goods, etc.). The exact benefits the user gains from using a credit card can be learned from the terms and conditions. The terms and conditions will also detail how expensive a mistake can be in terms of the late fees and interest rates.

You must determine for yourself if credit cards are a useful product for you. Credit card companies make money not only from charging interest and late fees, but also from merchants. There is a percentage fee that credit card companies collect from every transaction, so you need to realize that their rewards structures and so forth are set up to induce you to spend more than you intended to. Credit cards can also be very tempting for people who don’t have any cash reserves in the case of an emergency or a month that is more expensive than anticipated, but these people are highly susceptible to getting stuck in a debt cycle with credit card balances that they have difficulty paying down. It may be better to avoid using credit cards entirely, because their very convenience ends up being a trap.

Further reading: “I Want a Credit Card, but I’m Scared”


Seonwoo, Georgia Tech, electrical and computer engineering – Moving credit card due dates

I have eleven credit cards. I also maintain about 45 active accounts in You Need a Budget (great budgeting software you should check out – it’s free for students!), so I’m no stranger to managing multiple accounts. But even though I can manage all of those accounts without undue burden on myself, even I would drive myself crazy if I didn’t consolidate my credit card due dates to be on or around the same day, and in all likelihood I’d probably miss a payment. It makes your cash flow management easier when you have one consolidated outflow. Some banks let you change this online, but most of them will require a phone call. Typically you end up with one longer statement cycle when you do this, as opposed to one normal length cycle and one short cycle.

Perfect use of a credit card, or it never costing you more than cash would, entails always paying the balance off in full on or before the due date and never spending more than you would if you were using debit or cash.

One of the most important attributes of credit card usage to be cautious about is its ability to dissociate the act of making a purchase from the consequence of paying for it. Even if you pay off the balance in full every period, it is possible to get 1-2 months behind in your spending in comparison to if you used debit or cash because of the grace period credit cards give you. Even if you never actually pay fees or interest, this is an undesirable position to be in because you are borrowing from your future paychecks when you make a purchase.

Further reading: Living on Time with Your Credit CardsCredit Cards Are a Necessity, If You Are Responsible



Grad students, like other young people, often have a desire to travel, whether it is to visit far-flung family and friends, to experience new adventures, or to immerse themselves in other cultures. While some grad students have a great amount of time flexibility to travel if they want to, they usually don’t have a lot of money to spare for this purpose. Fortunately, there are many low-cost or even free ways for graduate students to indulge their wanderlust.

Further reading: How to Spend Less When Attending Out-of-Town Weddings; 33 Travel Tips For Seeing the World on a Budget; How to Travel on a Budget and Still Have the Time of Your Life

Plan Combined Trips

One of the least expensive ways to vacate is to add a side activity to an already planned trip.

Grad students should attend at least a few conferences while they pursue their degrees, and these trips are often partially or fully paid from research grants, departmental funds, or conference scholarships. You can ask your advisor for the flexibility to extend your trip to more fully experience the city or country that the conference is in; in this case, you would likely only have to pay for the additional lodging, food, and entertainment costs as the transit itself is already paid for. You can employ the same strategy for other research-related travel you might need to do, such as visiting collaborators or accessing remote resources.

Even if you are paying for a trip yourself, look for ways that you can get the best value out of your stay. You may not be able to choose your destination for obligation travel, such as to weddings, but you can make the most of the trip by planning extra activities in the city you are visiting or traveling to a nearby attraction.

Spend Less on Transit

Getting to and from your destination is sometimes the largest cost when booking travel, but flexibility can help you reduce the price quite a bit. Slower forms of transit are usually less expensive than faster ones, so if you can take extra time away from work or work remotely you may be able to reduce your overall trip cost enormously. Look for carpooling options when your destination is within driving distance to avoid paying for individual seats. You can consider discount companies such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines; just be sure you calibrate your expectations for the lack of amenities and unusual fee structure.

Transit is also usually cheaper off of peak times, so consider weekday, holiday, and overnight travel. When you book your travel also can affect the price you pay. Booking well in advance (but not too far!) usually gets you a better price, and Tuesdays or Wednesdays are often rumored to be the cheapest days to book flights. Companies like MegaBus offer heavily discounted fares for the first people to book when a trip is listed.

Further reading: Secrets to Booking Cheap Flights: 12 Dos and Don’ts; Cheapest Days to Fly and Best Time to Buy Airline Tickets

Spend Less on Lodging

Once you arrive at your destination, you will have to find somewhere to lay your head. Crashing with friends or family is a great option if they are willing to host you as it is generally free and you get quality time with enjoyable company. Couchsurfing with strangers is also a free option, often facilitated by hospitality websites, but comes with risk. If you have to pay for lodging, look to lower-cost alternatives like hostels, camping, and individual renters like AirBnB or VRBO. If you want to stay in a hotel, book early and shop around for the best price. Booking hotels judiciously may help you spend less money in other areas of your trip, such as food (complimentary breakfasts) and local transportation (airport and nearby shuttles).

Further reading: Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay; 14 Ways to Save Money on Hotels for Your Next Vacation

Play the Rewards Game

If you are a frequent traveler, especially one who is brand-loyal, there is no harm in signing up for the rewards programs associated with the airlines or hotel chains that you use. You can build up rewards over time and ultimately score a free flight or free night’s stay.

If you are a responsible credit card user and have good credit, you may consider using travel rewards credit cards. There are general cards that give travel benefits of many types and also branded cards available for specific airline networks or hotel chains. Using these types of credit cards for travel purchases and sometimes everyday purchases helps you accumulate points or miles that you can redeem for free flights or lodging. Maximizing your rewards while minimizing your costs can be very time-consuming and tricky, requiring a lot of research and careful planning, but it becomes like a hobby for many enthusiasts. The rewards potential is there, even for graduate students who are often low spenders, but recognize the downsides of the time investment necessary and the potential for messing up.



Some young people can find themselves spending tens or hundreds of dollars on entertainment on a regular monthly basis, yet it is a truly discretionary expense. Your entertainment budget is therefore one you can rather easily expand or contract based on your values and your other expenses. Use these frugal practices to get the best of both worlds – lots of entertainment for free or low cost.

Further reading: Give Yourself a Raise: Find Inexpensive Entertainment on or near Campus

Local Events

Most cities host free or low-cost events throughout the year, and with a higher density of events in the summer. These events include concerts, outdoor movies, festivals, theater, sports, etc. Find a comprehensive calendar of events for your city and check it regularly for new additions. You can also ask other grad students what their favorite yearly free public events are.




Subsidized Basketball Tickets

Emily Roberts

Duke University

Biomedical Engineering

Basketball is a way of life on Tobacco Road. Even though I wasn’t a sports fan coming in to grad school, getting connected with the basketball culture really opened up my social life. As grad students, we have the easiest/cheapest route into Cameron Indoor Stadium of anyone – and our section is right behind one basket! In September, we camp out in groups for 36 hours and those who make it to enough checks are entered into a lottery for season tickets. A season ticket cost $250 in 2014, which works out to about $14/game. We share the season tickets within a group and watch many of the games together on TV when we aren’t attending. Over the years, my basketball group has become my closest friends in my city. Considering that the undergraduates have to camp out for months and others have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for season tickets, we really get a great deal!

One of the benefits of being a grad student is that your university and department provide free or subsidized entertainment options throughout the school year. From sports to theater to concerts to celebrations to happy hours to movies, you should be able to find something to do just about every week on campus if you like.

Graduate student organizations on campus also may host social events off-campus and subsidize the cost to attendees.

Student Discounts

Check for student discounts and free days at movie theaters, museums, performing arts centers, and other local establishments.


Millennials are forgoing cable TV at an unprecedented rate in favor of alternative video delivery. If you do want to watch television, only buy as much as you’re really going to use and reevaluate frequently as new options come available.

  • Netflix/Hulu Plus/Amazon Prime: There are many options for subscription video services with slightly different catalogues. You probably don’t need more than one!
  • Single-network packages: The cable goliath is starting to fall. You can now purchase access to single channels or sports packages such as HBO Go and Sling TV.
  • Viewing parties: If you’re willing to leave your home, you can join other people to watch popular TV shows or sports for free. Find a friend with a similar obsession who is willing to let you crash or .
  • Bunny ears: Don’t forget that TV is still available for free over the air in very high digital quality. All you need is the one-time purchase of an antennae and you will have indefinite access to a number of stations.

Further Reading: How to Cancel Your Cable When You’re Addicted to a Show; Our Best (Pain-Free) Money-Saving Moves


As a graduate student, you should have access to both your university library and your local public library. These days, you can check out a lot more than books from libraries. Instead of paying for Redbox or Netflix, you can get movies and TV shows for free from the library.

Further Reading: Why Are We Spending $155.76 with Netflix When Our Queue Is Available for Free?; 10 Library Freebies You Might Not have Known (or Forgot) About