Before you even move to your new city for graduate school, you will likely make decisions that will affect your financial life for possibly years to come. You can set yourself up for financial success by laying out your spending at a high level, including your “big rocks.” Two of the biggest “rocks” in any budget are housing and transportation.
As students generally set up their housing before arriving on campus, it’s the first opportunity you’ll have to make a financial decision. While you might be able to afford the rent in a posh apartment by yourself, think about how that will impact the remainder of your cash flow. A good rule of thumb is to spend less than 25-30% of your gross income on your rent or mortgage. That may not be possible in the highest cost-of-living cities or on less generous stipends, so it’s even more important in those cases to economize where possible.
Having at least one roommate will dramatically bring down your housing costs. The best deals may be found in renting with multiple other roommates, for example in sharing a single-family home. Also carefully consider the amenities that you are paying for in apartment complexes or neighborhoods like gyms and pools and make sure that you will make frequent use of them before you let them inflate your rent.
Owning a car can be one of the most expensive line items in your budget throughout your whole life. If your university is in a city with good public transportation or is highly walkable/bikeable, a car may not be necessary. Ask current graduate students if everyone has a car or if it’s possible to live without one. International students will likely give a different perspective than domestic students so be sure to ask both. If you do need a car during graduate school, be careful not to buy one that will saddle you with high debt payments or that will require expensive and frequent repairs. The best value you can get from a car is to buy a 5-6 year old used vehicle and drive it into the ground. Also consider the gas mileage of the vehicle if you anticipate driving long distances, as the amount you spend on gas will be a factor in your budget.
Sketch out the big fixed expenses in your budget before you sign a lease or buy a car. All of your needs – your rent/mortgage and utilities, all debt payments, grocery costs, insurance, etc. – should not amount to more than 50% of your take-home pay according to the Balanced Money Formula. If your needs amount to much more than 50% of your take-home pay (that’s after taxes and giving), take another look at your housing and transportation costs and consider reducing one or both.