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.

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.

Travel

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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.

Eating Out

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To reduce your spending on eating out, you can either eat out less frequently or choose less expensive foods when you do. You choose the approach that is most consistent with your values.

Further Reading: How to Cut Your Food Spending – Scaling Back on Eating Out

Eat Out Less Frequently

If you are in the habit of eating out alone for convenience, it is simple to replace those meals with ones you prepare at home. On campus, you can still eat with your peers even if you brown bag your lunch. You could try to replace social eating out with hanging out with your friends in less expensive venues from time to time, or skip dinner and join them for the next activity.

Further Reading: Get Rich With: The Secret Food ‘Stash

Spend Less When Eating Out

When you have influence over where you eat out, choose less expensive restaurants. When ordering, pay attention to prices and consider ordering less expensive entrees or replacing an entree with an appetizer, soup, or salad. Skip or order fewer appetizers, drinks, and desserts. Take your leftovers home to replace a second meal. You could also choose to frequent restaurants that offer student discounts or accept coupons or discount gift certificates.

Further Reading: Sometimes I Don’t Eat. Is that Rude?; 10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants

Cooking and Meal Planning

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Often, grad students are inexperienced with cooking and think that they don’t have time for it. The student who eats out frequently for convenience and buys prepared foods from the grocery store has great potential to reduce his spending on food by starting to cook and prepare his own foods. Students already experienced with cooking but looking to take it to the next level may find additional savings with batch cooking and meal planning.

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

As a beginner cook, you should start slowly with learning various techniques and recipes so as not to become overwhelmed. Try to master only one recipe at a time and choose simple recipes that involve a small number of ingredients and no difficult techniques. Cooking doesn’t always have to involve elaborate dishes or adding heat. To make this process seem less intimidating, think of it as food preparation or food assembly rather than cooking, e.g., salads, sandwiches. You also don’t have to eat something different for every meal out of the week. Having a few recipes that you rotate through for each of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, can take the pressure off of masting new recipes while still giving you some variety.

Further reading: 5 Tips for Saving Money on Weekday Lunches; 5 Ingredient Recipes; 39 Beginner Cooking Tips for Kitchen Scaredy Cats, Bargain Breakfasts

Batch cooking can be a major time-saver for busy students. Batch cooking is when you cook more than one meal at a time, which enables you to eat leftovers on subsequent days and spend a comparatively small amount of time reheating the food. You will likely have to be amenable to eating the same or similar meals multiple days in a row if you are cooking just for yourself. Freezer cooking is a form of batch cooking in which you freeze the meals you have prepared to be eaten weeks later. Batch cooking is also a frugal choice because you can spend less money on food by buying in bulk and using the ingredients you buy fully, and you will be less tempted to eat out for convenience if you have food already made.

Further reading: Eliminate Eating Out for Convenience with Batch Cooking; Best List of Easy and Delicious Freezer Meals

Meal planning can be valuable for reducing impulse purchases and waste. To meal plan, you simply decide what you will eat for each meal during a week or month, assemble a shopping list with only the food you need for the plan, and buy and eat that food. When you meal plan, you can make sure that you are buying exactly the right amounts and types of foods so that extra ingredients neither build up nor go to waste. Meal planning and batch cooking work very well in concert.

Further reading: Meal Planning: The Definitive Guide to Planning Your Meals Stress-Free;

Buying Groceries

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How to spend less money on groceries is one of the most well-trod frugal subjects, so there is an abundance of resources available online to help you. In general, the more value you add in the cooking process, the less you will need to spend on the food itself. Many students enter graduate school without knowing how to cook, but it is a skill that will help reduce the amount you spend on food enormously.

Further Reading:

Retailer Selection

There is a wide range of prices available at different types of retailers on the same or similar food items. Specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods are likely to be more expensive than discount, warehouse, or ethnic grocers. You can even buy from local farmers or check online retailers for low bulk prices. If you are willing to devote the time, keeping a price book will help you determine which groceries to buy at which stores at certain times.

Further Reading: Is a Costco Membership Worth The Cost?

Stick to Your List

Create a grocery list before heading out to any retailers and stick to it once you’re there. You can cultivate your list throughout your week using an app such as Our Groceries. A complete and firm grocery list gives the simultaneous advantages of eliminating impulse purchases, minimizing food waste at home, and preventing last-minute trips to the store for forgotten items.

Buying Less Processed

You are likely to stretch your dollar further by buying fresh base ingredients and constructing your own dishes. The classic suggestion here is to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, which generally tends to include the produce, meat, dairy, and bakery sections, and to buy few items from the interior of the store, which is where the more expensive products are housed.

Coupons

Couponing has been recently popularized by shows like “Extreme Couponing,” which has resulted in both heightened interest and criticism. The more organized and comprehensive your couponing system, the more savings you can potentially realize. However, some are critical that couponing is time-consuming and does not facilitate buying healthy, non-branded items.

Substituting Out Expensive Food

Depending on your dietary preferences, you may try to substitute lower-cost foods for higher-cost foods. Normalize the cost of the food you eat by the calories, macronutrients, and/or micronutrients you receive from it. One common suggestion in this vein is to eat less meat because meat is quite expensive; instead, seek our lower-priced sources of protein.

Free Food

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It is often possible for grad students to feed themselves for free for at least a couple meals per week, should they want to defray costs in that area. Grad students who are food insecure also have university- or government-sponsored options to feed themselves for free.

Further reading: 10 Ways to Legally Score Free Food; How to Eat for Free – 12 Ways to Score Free Meals

University and Departmental Events

Universities offer free food frequently at events to incentivize attendance or to show attendees appreciation, such as at seminar series, workshops, and conferences. Opportunities will be most plentiful for first-year students and near the start of the school year. If you plan to attend such an event, the free food can often replace a meal on that day. If there are leftovers, ask if you can take a second box or plate for a meal later in the day. It is also possible to create meals from the leftover food from catered events that you didn’t attend, if it is made available to non-attendees. Being on the right email listserv or having the right personal connection can alert you to these opportunities before the free food is nabbed by other students.

Restaurants

Many restaurants offer free or partially free meals for promotional reasons, such as for your birthday or for signing up for a mailing list.

Further reading: How to Get Free Food at 156 Restaurants without Getting Arrested; 400+ Restaurants that Offer Free Birthday Food

Food Pantries

If you are food insecure, there may be an on-campus food pantry from which you can take food for free. Your city likely has food pantries available to the public as well.

Further reading: Food Pantries on the Rise at College Campuses as Tuitions Increase; Colleges Launch Food Pantries to Help Low-Income Students

Food Stamps

Some graduate students may be able to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet the citizenship, work, and income qualifications. This program provides a certain amount of money each month into an account that you access with a specialized debit card. The money can be used toward eligible food in grocery stores and other retailers. Each state runs its own program, so you will have to check directly with your state to determine your eligibility.

Further reading: Can Graduate Students Get Food Stamps?

Dumpster Diving/Freeganism

You can also score free food by dumpster diving, if you are adventurous and it is legal where you live. This form of dumpster diving is when you recover perfectly good food that has been discarded, generally by grocery stores and institutions. About 50% of food in America is wasted. Most people who dumpster dive do so as part of the larger food rescue movement, but a side benefit is that you can feed yourself partially or completely (freeganism) without paying any money. Of course, you have to have a certain constitution to employ this method, and it is advantageous to learn from an experienced mentor.

Further reading: The Food Waste Fiasco: You Have to See It to Believe It

Food

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Food spending is one that students often turn to when they want to free up money for other areas of their budget. While a certain amount and quality of food is a necessity, for most Americans much of their food spending is a ‘want.’ There are several approaches a grad student can take to spend less on food while still meeting needs.

Cooking and Meal Planning

Buying Groceries

Eating Out

Finding Free Food

Further reading: 15 Simple Ways to Spend Less on Food and Still Eat Well; Our Complete Guide to Frugal, Healthy Eating

The Ultimate and Ever-Expanding List of Frugal Practices

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When money is tight, as it is for many grad students, frugal practices are necessary just to stay in the black. But everyone should consider being frugal in certain areas of her life just so she can put her money where it matters most and prevent herself from spending where it doesn’t matter as much (based on her individual values). Frugality prevents waste, which means there is more money available for the important or fun things in life.

Further reading: Frugality, What Is It Good For?

This set of pages will be continually updated with frugal tips and stories of how individuals implemented them. If you have a frugal practice to add (and especially if you can share a story), please email contact at gradstudentfinances dot org or leave a comment.

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Further Reading (Meta-Lists):

Transportation

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For most people, transportation is their second largest single expense after housing. Owning a car is incredibly expensive, especially if you are making debt payments on a newer vehicle. Anything you can do to move away from the solo car commuter model is likely to be a frugal choice. Luckily, car-free or car-minimal lifestyles are often easier for students than other workers.

Commuting without Your Own Car

Buying and Maintaining a Car

Further reading: The Most Powerful Tool to Cut Miles Driven, Gas, & Vehicle Costs (and it’s Free)