Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Grad School Budget

My post the other day about how I almost quit grad school has received tremendous support, and I hope that these types of situations become part of the conversations grad students, as well as their professors, have.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about a university's program that I was accepted to, and would have been a great fit but because they didn't offer me any support, I chose a program that came with a TA ship. I do agree with advice that you shouldn't go to grad school without support. I have it and I've still had to supplement with loans.
I do know that most of the people in my program have boy/girlfriends, fiancees, spouses and I'm sure that splitting bills makes TA ships go further. But that's not all of us. And even if you're in that situation, money is a rarely talked about issue in grad school.
Money in general is not a topic covered with grad students. Whether it's what a TAship looks like in real life, how you pay bills when you're not paid during the summer, or how you need to save, it's not a topic that comes up much. I can't recall a single post I read as prep for grad school or book or article that discussed it.
I had a conversation this past semester with my director about how my finances affected/influenced my intended timeline- I need to finish this year because I cannot afford another year. I think it's important that grad students have these conversations with their directors. My director now can keep that in mind as we work through my drafts, and keep me in mind in case she knows of or comes across opportunities for me.

So I thought I would share my budget, and what my grad school expenses look like. I've noted below where it's typical, where it's not.
Monthly Budget
$158 Dish Network:  this is my wi-fi and cable. I keep going back and forth on canceling the cable, but a lot of my work is folklore and popular culture and I worry I'll miss things if I have to rely on time lagged streaming. However, my promotional package runs out in October, and I may cancel, or cut down then.
$75 NM Gas
$50 PNM Utilities are pretty cheap in NM because gas heat is effective, and I have a swamp cooler, not AC which is also cheaper.
$100 Nehi is my dog. She has monthly medicines and monthly food.
$500 Groceries Some weeks this is more, some less. I don't eat processed food, and real food is more expensive. But I'm trying to focus on my long term health so that's a trade off.  I also try to buy meat and seafood when on deal and freeze it to save money.
$200 Gas I'm only 9 miles from campus, and tend to go down for long days and then back, so not a lot of unnecessary back and forth. However, filling up once a week at $30 x 4= $120. I'm usually under budget on this one. But this is also regular maintenance, so it evens out.
$180 Capital One credit card. I pay it off every month. My cell phone deducts from here ($70), my Amazon Prime account links to this ($85/month, mostly school books), $10 Hulu, $15 Netflix. The only time I carry a balance is when conferences go on here and I'm waiting to see if there's reimbursement from research/travel grants
$70 Renter's and Truck insurance

This comes to $1333.00
I try to put aside $100/month into savings
That's $1433 and that's my TA Ship

This upcoming year my TA ship should go up a little because there's a small pay bump now that I've passed comps. I have no idea how much it is, I just know it's more. But "more" is a relative thing in grad school.

My rent is $650/month. That's high for most people, because I have a house with a yard because of Nehi. I also have a small two bedroom (one room is an office) because at 39, and knowing I was going to be working all the time, I made the decision not to have a roommate. It's a trade off- I don't have to accommodate someone else, but it is more money.

When I had my online teaching job that covered my rent. That was my first year of the program. But last summer I lost that job, so I had to take out $8000 of student loans to cover it this past year. Before I started my PhD I had $16,276 in student loan debt from my Masters from Bread Loaf. My student loan debt is now at $39,276 because of the $8,000 last year and this year I originally asked for $10,000 for the rent, and to cover conference travel like MLA for the job market. I had to up that to $15,000 because of serious, expensive truck repairs this week that made me very nervous.

That means in three years I have more than doubled my student loan debt. If I get a job this job market cycle, then that's not a huge deal (particularly with higher ed counting as public service and ten years of on time payments equating loan forgiveness in most cases). But it becomes a major concern when my loans come off deferment and I'm looking at a $300+ monthly payment and no job.

So let's talk about the things not seen here.
I get paid August-May which means there is no paycheck in June and July and I have to pull that money out of savings and budget with that in mind.

My university has some opportunities to make more money- stretch classes, FLC, and summer teaching. I teach a FLC (First Year Learning Community- an English class paired with another course like Theatre or GEO or HIST). This course is only during the fall. We have PD during the summer, and get $1000 during the summer for this, which I put towards rent. During the fall semester it's a little less than an extra $200/month added to your check.
Stretch classes require extra training, which with my timeline I've not done.
I put in to teach summer school which is $2000 for roughly six weeks of classes. I wasn't awarded it.

We have a GPSA (Graduate and Professional Student Association) which gives up to $500 in Research Travel Grants and there is some money within the English department for conference travel. There are some larger university monies as well that you can apply for.
I usually attend a conference in the fall and one in the spring. I always put in for reimbursement from a combination of these associations. I usually get one covered, but not both. This past semester I attended four conferences, two out of the country, as prep for going on the job market and got two covered.
While some are more expensive than others, most of conferences run around $1000 including airfare, 3-4 nights at the hotel, and meals.

I don't really have any other expenses. I don't travel. I don't go out. For me this austerity is a short term solution, and worth the sacrifice, as hopefully I'll have a job next year.
There are other issues that younger graduate students may not be aware of. Things like the impact of your credit score on your future life. If you're taking on a lot of student loan debt, that perhaps you can't pay your monthly payments later, that will have a huge impact on your credit score (large balances already tank it). If you have a credit card and don't pay it off every month, keeping a large rotating balance on it, that also negatively affects your credit. While these seem like things to think of down the road, if you get a job upon graduation and want to buy a house, or finance a vehicle, these things can prevent you from doing these things. They can also affect how much you need to put down for down payments for utilities, rent, etc.

If you're researching grad school programs there are some things I'd look for financially:
  • make sure you have a TA ship
  • compare the amount of your TA ship with the cost of living in the town.
  • ask about additional opportunities to make money and how competitive these opportunities are (i.e how likely are you to get them?)
  • are there other opportunities to make money (adjuncting at neighboring schools, the writing center, tutoring, etc.)
  • how understanding is the staff and faculty about financial issues?
And of course, the end result of these financial conversations should be questions about job placement within your program, stats of graduates. My program has roughly a 1 in 8 ratio of graduates who get jobs in academia. While not everyone can choose jobs based on this, for a variety of reasons, it's worth asking the questions.

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