5 ways to save money while you do your PhD

Money has been on my mind lately.

For one thing Family Thesis Whisperer have just been overseas and spent a great deal of it. When we got home we visited the accountant (always an eye opening experience). Lastly we are contemplating moving to another area for Thesis Whisperer junior’s schooling, which sharpens the mind about income and expenditure.

For some years now Mr Thesis Whisperer and I have frustrated our family and friends by being, well, notoriously frugal. We got rid of our car and refused to go to weddings overseas, or visit family living in foreign locales for about 7 years (sorry Rebekah and Judy!). The reason for this was simple: we had one steady income and a PhD student in the house.

Money was tight in those lean years. When I did get academic work it was casual / adjunct and lasted for 3 months at a time at most. Thesis Whisperer Jnr’s childcare centre was not as casual as the University about the hours he attended. We had to pay fees to keep our booked days, and the possibility of me going to work, even if I didn’t have any.

In Australian culture we are uncomfortable talking about money. In the absence of a frank discussion, there continues to be a view that it is a rite of passage to starve in your garret while you do your PhD, which I think is an entirely wrongheaded way to treat some of your nation’s smartest people (are you listening Julia Gillard?). International students are particularly hard up; I honestly don’t know how they do it.

If you are a struggling PhD student, some members of the academy can seem remarkably unsympathetic to your plight. I remember telling one of the Professors at a work function that I had clocked up 10 years of casual work in his department. He expressed surprise I had been “around so long” and told me I was lucky to be a casual staff member, because tenure was like “golden hand-cuffs to someone with your talents”. Inwardly I seethed, but I knew I was achieving some measure of adult maturity when I was able to calmly sip my drink and explain to him exactly why the bank didn’t want to give me a mortgage instead of stamping my feet and screaming.

I’m sure the professor was uncomfortable about the structure of the contemporary academic workplace and meant the comment as both compliment and reassurance.”Lock me up and throw away the key!” is my position on tenure now I have it (or the Australian equivalent at least, which is not nearly as good, but I’ll take what I can get right?). Talk to any group of PhD students and it’s likely they will say the same.

I don’t want to spend the whole post whingeing about my past life. It’s no secret that doing a PhD is expensive; if not in fees than certainly in the income forgone while you do it. But as Maia reminded us last week, at the other end, hopefully, is a new life, or new career; it just may take awhile.

I happened to be up for the live #phdchat on Twitter about finances and the PhD, where students compared experiences and made suggestions – a very interesting session if you can get access to the scroll back. I was inspired by this session to share what I learned about money during my PhD, in the hope that you will share more ideas:

1. Do you really, really need a car?

Our first car was an Audi S3. It was lovely and zippy, but oh my goodness. So expensive. One year that thing cost us $3000 in tires ALONE. We were dual income no kids at the time, so this was annoying rather than a disaster, but that didn’t last. When Thesis whisperer Jnr arrived we sold it and copped a $23,000 financial hit (!) trading in on a reliable Subaru.

The subi was a great car, but when it came out of lease we thought we might try not replacing it and see what happened. Revelation! We realised it wasn’t the car, but the lifestyle it enabled which was the real problem. A shopping trolley and a walk home forces you to think about whether you need to buy things. On family outings we packed sandwiches because you can’t ask the train driver to stop when you are feeling peckish, which leads me nicely to my next point,

2. Watch the ‘walk around’ money

When you have  a disparity of incomes, putting the money all in one bucket makes for marital harmony as there is only ‘our money’. We used to just throw Our Money into a bucket and draw it out as we went, hoping for the best. This does not work. We lost track and we argued about what it was spent on.

We took advice from some more financially savvy friends and started giving ourselves ‘pocket money’. An equal sum of money goes in each of our private bank accounts each month, while the rest goes in the shared bucket. Pocket money is ‘walk around money’ which can be spent on a whim; the other person is not allowed to judge, or even see the accounts. We have very different approaches to money, so this works for us.

Mischief managed. I happily spend all of my money, every month, on clothes, haircuts, books and various other fripperies while Mr Thesis Whisperer buys clothes once a year and saves up to treat himself to a fancy GPS for his bike.

3. Learn to love a budget – even if you don’t make it yourself

I hate doing budgeting. It brings me out in a rash. Lucky for me, Mr Thesis whisperer is awesome at it. I started to love the budget, if not the budgeting process, as the money stacked up in the bank and my stress levels went down. I’m still hopeless at doing a budget, but I accept the limits it places on me are Good, so I don’t fight it.

4. Don’t buy books until you are sure you will read them

Books are the academic’s crack cocaine. If you are anything like me even the smell of a bookstore gives you a rush. But those blasted academic books are expensive my friends. The problem is that “I gotta have it NOW” feeling. Answer? Borrow them first. If a bookstore have it, the library can get it for you if you are prepared to wait. If I have extend it more than 3 times and it has sticky notes all over it, then I buy it.

5. Marry Rich (if you don’t manage that, marry Kind)

Now I get to the end I realise that Mr Thesis Whisperer features heavily in this post. He’s always had a decent, steady income and been willing to share it. Without that support I would surely have gone broke long ago. I know there are many partners out there like Mr Thesis Whisperer; your country salutes you.

It’s tougher financially, I think, to do it on your own. However there are other benefits to solo study, such as being (largely) the master of your own social life. If you are single and crap with money, don’t despair. Someone, somewhere in your social circle is great at it. Spend some time learning from them and, hopefully, some of the canny PhD student saving secrets, which I hope will appear in the comments!

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51 thoughts on “5 ways to save money while you do your PhD

  1. A.L. McMichael says:

    Dear Inger,
    I will officially start my dissertation tomorrow (!) but I have been happily lurking around this blog for months. This entry is especially useful in its advice to resist the urge to buy so many books and to have separate pocket money if you’re half of a couple. Beyond this entry, though, I just wanted to say thanks for the constant encouragement regarding this grand and bizarre adventure that is grad school.

  2. Dominic Furlong says:

    Great post, Inger. My top tip re. surviving the PhD & money: those with marketable expertise should consider consultancy.

    On the upside, the money is better than adjuct teaching/GTA work — while acknowledging you might want to do the latter to gain experience if thinking of an academic job post-PhD. On the downside, it is tends to be less flexible than university-related work and will lightly delay thesis completion. But like any work experience, consulting also builds transferable skills and puts you in people’s networks.

    But if you have to keep yourself afloat, and without a cash injection you’re not going to survive to have a a thesis to submit, then you will need an income to keep a roof over your head. I think consultancy can offer a time an cost-effective way to do this. Your supervisor may well tell you it would be a disasterous for your PhD progress to do a consultancy. But often these are the same people who wouldn’t think twice about offloading some of their marking or teaching onto you under the guise of “gaining experience”/rites of passage stuff — if you do go down this route, by the way, make sure you have a written contract, one which acknowledges that preparation is also work and not just contact hours!

    At the end fo the day, you are an adult. It is your thesis and your responsibility to get yourself to the end. Only you can decide the choices about how best to do that.

  3. Cristina Costa says:

    yep – I gave up my car when I moved to the UK. Decided not to get one when I started the PhD. I walk everywhere. Keeps me fit!

    for me, the other trick that works for me … that is when I do it, and I must say I am really crappy at it because I don’t see the joy of cooking, is: pack your own lunch and snacks. It’s amazing how much you can save!

    I am crap with budgets too. But I have started the pocket money thing a couple of months ago. It works most times, but more practice is needed!

  4. Boris P. says:

    Great post!

    When I came to the UK to do my Masters, I was on a very specific budget. I knew how much I had to pay for housing and tuition. I was using personal savings to pay for ‘everyday life’. Therefore, I calculated how much money I could spend per week for food and everything else. So I strictly stuck to my budget. There wasn’t too many nights out and things of that nature. I just had to be very disciplined. One of the techniques I used when I went grocery shopping is I never took a trolley and instead took the hand carrier because that automatically placed a physical constraint on how much I could buy.

    I am now in my second year of the PhD and still use that technique for saving money. Other sacrifices in order to save money have been living with housemates instead of having my own flat, not having a car just to mention a couple. I was never a huge spender so saving a bit of money wasn’t a problem.

    I think overall it’s a matter of trade offs. I sacrifice on certain things so i can enjoy others such as going to football matches.

    Overall, it’s all about self-discipline (not unlike doing a PhD).

  5. Brooke Boland says:

    Never underestimate the power of a money box!! Those big ones from the two dollar shops that need to be cut open with the can opener are the best – write the date on top and see how long you can keep it going!
    Also, my partner and I do the pocket money thing with separate bank accounts, but we also opened an extra account which is our “joint spendings”. We each put around $50 a week and only use it to cover groceries or necessary house items. Knowing we have a limit keeps us from spending too much on our shopping.

  6. Krystle Gatt says:

    Great post Inger!

    I have had to buy many books through the duration of my PhD and the cheapest way I have found by far is to purchase them from Amazon.com. I have brought all of my books for a fraction of the retail cost, and if your willing to buy secondhand books (which is alot better for the environment I might add) most of the time you can nab what you need for around US$1, or less! You will have to pay around US$10 on postage, but it is delivered straight to your door at still a much much lower price.

    Hope this helps some of you 🙂


  7. M-H says:

    I love ‘Marry Rich (if you can’t manage that, marry Kind)”. You really can’t do this without the support (financial and otherwise) of your partner if you have one. I’ve had to take two periods of leave without pay (so far), and my partner hasn’t minded that I’ve contributed a little less to household finances during those periods.

  8. Mrs A says:

    As a full time student, I get a concession rail pass, and I use whenever I can; in fact most of the time. It’s just one of my economy measures.
    I do like the idea of ‘walk around ‘ money, and my husband and I have operated along a similar system since we have been married. And I married kind …

  9. Katrina says:

    I never felt too poor during my PhD when I was on my stipend – especially once I stopped comparing myself to friends with much higher paying jobs. The APA stipend is low, too low maybe, but on the upside it is steady and I was luckily sharing costs like rent and bills so it was manageable. Whenever I had income envy I would also remind myself that I was doing something I loved (most of the time) and in control of my own timetable and didn’t have to get up at 6:30am every morning and could work in cafes whenever I wanted and that tended to make me feel much better.

    Also it has taught me to be an extraordinarily good budgeter and saver. I still don’t have a proper steady income but over the past year post PhD I have had a lot more work and have saved lots of money while still having a good social life.

    Still one day I would like a job with no time sheets and a paid holiday…. one day.

  10. Jacquie Tran says:

    Great to get an insight into others’ financial experiences as a PhD student! Hard to avoid feeling “poor” when many of my friends have started full-time work in the past two years, while my stipend covers my rent and necessary expenses but not much more. But I agree with Katrina’s comment about remembering the flexibility of our working conditions. While my friends are turning up 9-5, M-F, I get to sleep in if I want and work whatever hours I want (sort of)!

    I would definitely advocate keeping a budget and regularly updating it. I’ve kept a monthly balance sheet since first or second year undergrad, and I log everything. I mean everything! It helps me stick closely to my frugal ways because I can see exactly where my money is going (based on categories like rent, bills, eating out, entertainment, etc.), and I know where I need to tighten the strings if I’m stepping out of line. Also helpful for decreasing feelings of guilt when I have the odd splurge, because I can look at the figures and know that I am meeting/exceeding my savings targets. Finally, the trick for me is to have something to save for. In my case, I save up my pennies for travelling abroad! 🙂

  11. Helen says:

    Learn to make home-made daal! Dead simple, dirt cheap, damn good! Also, so easy to vary.

    Recipes all over the web, but basically: cook red lentils, chana dal, or some other similar in water with some combination of garlic, ginger, tumeric, chilis, and salt. Then the fun part: oil or ghee to saute onions or shallots and garlic with your favourite Indian or Asian spices. Stir into the lentils just before eating. Variations include tomatoes and/or squash or spinach mixed in. Recipes all over the web . . . Very healthy, lots of protein, and makes you feel warm inside and out!

  12. DSS says:

    Great post! It’s all these issues that made me decide to keep my job when I did started my PhD. While just about everyone I’ve spoken to has told me that working full time while doing a PhD is completely insane, I feel like I’m coping well and not having the stress of money concerns on top of the PhD stress is a bonus for me. I wasn’t eligible for a scholarship or stipend either, so I’m not sure there really was any other option. Of course it has its downfalls as well. Having to organise time off in advance to get on campus is somewhat restrictive.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Good on you – it’s hard work doing both. I kept my 2 day a week job during study so I had something to go back to. Watching my peers job hunting after made me glad I did… luckily all of them are gainfully employed now, 3 years down the track, but it took a while for some.

  13. El says:

    Can’t relate! 🙂 Before i started my PhD I spent 20 years as a professional musician (by professional musician read very occasional work with prestigious orchestras, many many unpaid gigs and the kind of teaching where you teach a small child a woodwind instrument for a term and then the parent bounces the cheque) . This scholarship represents the first time in my life that I have received a salary (I’m almost 40!). I have earned more steady income these past 2 years than I ever have before. Oh PhD stipend, I will cry when you end! 🙁

    • ingermewburn says:

      Oh my goodness! Hopefully the PhD will ensure that you have a better time of it in the future. I was working as a casual academic for 11 years before I got my PhD. The degree enabled me to ‘jump the ditch’ so I am eternally grateful.

  14. Andreas Moser says:

    Good point about the books. They are the most expensive things in my life, after tuition fees. I seriously spend more on books in some months than on rent.
    It doesn’t help that much because other people are stingy or broke too, but I have put my wishlist of books on my blog – http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/books-my-wishlist/ – and whenever there is a birthday or Christmas, I ask my family members to pick something. Much better than getting another sweater or a pair of gloves.

      • Katrina says:

        Same here, though studying art history meant that I never really got into the habit of buying books as most were hideously out of reach (think $100+ for each book), especially before Book Depository and cheap amazon shipping. However, I discovered (partly through having a partner in a uni library) that many uni libraries will buy most books you ask for, no matter how niche. I used to just send in suggestions through the web form. My supervisor was also happy to suggest the books through the department. It seems many uni libraries have large-ish book buying allowances that often aren’ tapped into by either students or staff.
        Also make use of inter library loans, they tracked down so much stuff for me, I am eternally grateful.

      • Krystle says:

        Yes Katrina, your right, the document delivery service at RMIT is fabulous; they usually get any book out to you within the week, and unless the lending library needs the book back right away, you can usually re-borrow it a couple times before having to take it back 🙂

  15. Kathryn Daley (@Kat_Daley) says:

    I received a really useful piece of advice when I started my PhD: Save as much money as you can now, so that you can afford to live without having to do any paid work for six months. That way, if your scholarship runs out (I do appreciate that I’m fortunate to have one) you don’t have to work full time at the end of your candidature when it is most critical to be able to sit down and write every day. I can’t stress enough how helpful this advice was. People so often end up broke at the end, right when they have the least amount of time. (Why does the APA fund 3.5 years, but you have a 4 year candidature? Forced starvation, perhaps?)

    Additionally, I’m fortunate enough to have a supervisor who monitors my paid work closely, with my best interests in mind. He does not allow for any of this ‘come-and-be-my-RA-because-being-my-slave-will-help-your-career-even-though-it-means-you-will-prolong-your-PhD-by-two-years-because-of-it’ business which seems endemic in the PhD student experience.

    He was helpful in making sure I didn’t teach in the first year (‘too many people waste the first year of PhD with teaching commitments – lay the foundation of your PhD, and take a small teaching load in your second year for experience, but not as a full time gig’). I would have loved to teach, but in hindsight, can see that his decades of experiences have made him very wise and that there’s no shortage of teaching work around when you can manage it.. He also understood when I needed to take on consultancy work to pay for an unplanned mortgage, or when it was going to have long term benefits (i.e. potential post-phd jobs). He has been very helpful indeed.

  16. Anonymous says:

    We have had one steady income in our house (2 kids and partner) for 7 years – mine. this has not changed since my PhD! What you may say. but I think those planning to do a phD should really look into it – with the scholarship, a top up and working one day a week as an academic B we are only abour $100 week down from what we were when I was a full time academic. Also there is family tax b and a. So perhaps another tip should be: have kids???

  17. Rosette says:

    I dont understand all the talk about lack of money while being a PhD student. I just rely on a scholarship and try to live accordingly. I do TAs and casual work when work is available. I have some savings, not a lot but enough to get myself fertility treatments.. Yup, PhD probably made me infertile and I have to salvage my remaining good eggs before they ran out. Using my savings I might opt for a privately funded IVF soon.

    What I’m saying is that this financial struggle of PhD students is very overrated. I’m sure u make much more money than me, I dont publish, I’m basically a mediocre student, and I dont reimburse my travel expenses. I just do logical budgeting every month.

  18. thegradstudentway says:

    Hey Dr. Inger,

    Great post. I am a 5th year PhD student in Cellular and Molecular Pathology. I cannot disagree more with Rosette. The lack of money and forgoing a real income (you could be making double or even triple if you went into the work-force) while in grad school almost made me drop out with a Master’s. If it wasn’t for the support of my parents, I don’t think I would have made it into the start of my 5th year. Most people these days don’t have savings accounts. And the stipend that I live off barely leaves me enough to even drive home to see my friends or family on a weekend.

    Basically you can live dirt cheap and be content. But not if you want to keep your sanity. The problem is people cannot get through a PhD program without doing other things. You need to take vacations, go out with friends, and just plain get out of lab and away from the lab bench. Some people think that the suffering and lack of income has to be something that goes hand-in-hand. But I’m arguing that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

    I especially like the “Do You Need A Car?” Lol why should grad students because they are so poor have to sacrifice their independence? If I didn’t own a car I think I would go crazy having to wait for the bus to go everywhere. I like your blog post because it sort of gives a solution for those who need to ‘save money’ from what little they have in the first place. It is no surprise that a lot of grad students are married towards the end of their graduate career because they need the support of their spouse (financially) to get them through. My only criticism is that you don’t really provide a real solution. I struggled for 4 years. I could save as much money as possible but it doesn’t really matter because the money isn’t there in the first place.

    I finally stepped up to the plate. I wrote a book to help grad students, post-docs, college students, and scientists truly understand their options, create an informational product, and sell it online. It’s not a huge income but it is definitely a step in the right direction and helps grad students and others get through a PhD program a whole lot easier.. Anyone interested, check it out. I truly want to help people who suffer with finances: http://www.thegradstudentway.com Thanks Dr. Inger.

  19. Nita says:

    I am about to start a PhD, and luckily I’ve been awarded a scholarship. Although the annual sum is much smaller in comparison to the wages of my full-time working friends, it is still higher than what I was earning as an undergrad student. So I figure if I did it back then, I can definitely do it in the future. At least now some of my travelling will be compensated!

  20. Phd Notebook says:

    Great! I love the points you listed. Very informative. I decided I will do consulting on the side to earn an extra coin while helping Phd students to write notes and retrieve them with ease while using my Phd Notepad software

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