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Some universities operate food banks, which can help graduate students and postdocs who are struggling to meet their living costs.
Peter Rios thought his finances were under control when he joined a biomedical engineering lab in 2011 as a graduate student. He had a three-year fellowship and two years of university funding for his five-year programme, as well as savings from a consulting job. He didn't foresee trouble with meeting living expenses or debt from a car loan, and he had deferred thousands of dollars in loans from his undergraduate studies.
Still, he tried to live frugally because the cost of living in Chicago — near the campus of Northwestern University in Illinois where he is studying — isn't cheap. His fellowship stipend rose from US$30, 000 a year to $34, 000 by 2015, and he applied for supplemental scholarships, which helped to pay off his car loan and boost his savings.
But he's struggling now. Last October, his fiancée moved to the east coast for a job, and without someone to contribute to the bills, rent and utilities eat nearly 40% of his monthly stipend. He can't move because he's nearly finished his programme, his studio apartment is too small to share and his fellowship bars him from taking outside work unrelated to his PhD programme. He couldn't help his parents much with the cost of their visit this month for his thesis defence, and he can't save for his wedding in a couple of years. “I had never thought in a million years that I'd be living off this amount of money — especially coming from industry pay, ” he says. “When we start school, we have a seminar about rent in different areas. But no one really teaches you how to manage your money.”
Rios' financial laments are hardly rare. A 2012 survey by Inceptia, a division of the US National Student Loan Program, found that finance-related issues account for 80% of the top causes of stress for US graduate and undergraduate students. And many graduate students said that those worries negatively affected their grades and the time it took to complete their programmes.
Indeed, financial management is no simple thing for junior scientists whose income is both limited and spotty. Although many students are now more financially savvy than previous generations — financial-management plans and resources are easily accessible online, and student debt is all over media feeds and the headlines — many, like Rios, find that it is hard to save when they can barely afford to pay bills and expenses. Graduate students and postdocs who hope to avoid disaster must watch their spending carefully, seek ways to economize and educate themselves on taxed income and services. In some cases, it may be worth judiciously considering jobs outside the lab.
Trainees should consider calculating their monthly and quarterly bills and expenses (see ) and looking for ways to cut these outlays. Ruth Howe, who is in her fourth-year of a predoctoral fellowship in cell biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says that she tracks everyday expenses in her head, but works out more complicated matters, such as undergraduate-loan payment plans and income-tax deductions and reimbursements, on paper. She uses her bank's online calculator to determine how much she needs to save each month for retirement and for a nest egg to help her parents.
Box 1: Follow the money
The best way to avoid being caught out by expensive surprises is to build a budget, says Laura Shin, a financial journalist based in California. She suggests doing the following:
- Calculate your monthly take-home income — the amount after all taxes and insurance deductions.
- List your basic monthly expenses: housing (rent or mortgage), utilities (gas, electricity, water, telephone and Internet), groceries, transport (car loan, petrol or public transport) and childcare. For variable expenses such as groceries, commit to an amount and record it. Restaurant and takeaway meals are luxuries and should not be included here.
- If these expenses total more than 50% of your take-home pay, aim to reduce them by getting a roommate or finding less-costly services, such as for your mobile-phone plan. To track budget leaks, use free online money-management services. Mint.com is available in Canada and the United States, and Buxfer.com worldwide.
- About 20% of take-home pay should go towards reducing debt and building up savings. Unexpected outlays such as medical expenses or car breakdown should not become credit-card debt.
- The remaining 30% should cover things such as clothing, travel and entertainment.
- Graduate students can check out the budget calculator at GradSense.org, which is designed for them by the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC.