In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Rachel Blackburn, an assistant professor at Columbus State University. Rachel’s PhD stipend at Kansas State University was approximately $1,000 per month and her rent claimed half of that, but she resolved to do more than scrape by financially. Emily and Rachel discuss in detail how Rachel optimized her pay rate in her side hustles, generated extra income through credit card churning, and travel hacked her personal and professional trips. By combining these techniques, Rachel not only contributed to her Roth IRA during grad school but also paid down student loan debt. You won’t want to miss the excellent insight she shares at the end of the interview.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- VIPKid Website
- Personal Finance for PhDs Interview with Aubrey Jones
- Rover (Pet Sitting App)
- TaskRabbit (Neighborhood Services App)
- Turo (Personal Car Rental App)
- Fat Llama (Personal Item/Electronics Rental App)
- Instacart (Grocery Delivery App)
- Personal Finance for PhDs Interview with Dr. Shana Green
- Personal Finance for PhDs Article: Perfect Use of a Credit Card
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Tax Center
- STA Travel Website
- Hostelworld Website
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Rachel: Don’t underestimate your own creativity. One of your strengths and skills as a PhD student is researching, so why not take that same skill and apply it to your financial life?
00:18 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season five, episode 12, and today my guest is Dr. Rachel Blackburn, an assistant professor at Columbus State University. Rachel’s PhD stipend at Kansas State University was approximately $1,000 per month, and her rent claimed half of that. But, she resolved to do more than just scrape by financially. We discuss in detail how Rachel optimized her pay rate in her side hustles, generated extra income through credit card churning, and travel-hacked her personal and professional trips. By combining these techniques, Rachel not only contributed to her Roth IRA during grad school, but also paid down student loan debt. You won’t want to miss the excellent insight she shares at the end of the interview. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Rachel Blackburn.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:17 Emily: I have with me on the podcast today, Dr. Rachel Blackburn, and she has a really exciting story to tell us from back when she was in graduate school, how she managed to generate extra income so that she was able to start a Roth IRA which is just an amazing goal and I’m so excited to hear more about the story. So, Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today, and would you please introduce yourself to our listeners?
01:40 Rachel: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. So, I am Dr. Rachel Blackburn, and I am currently an assistant professor at Columbus State University, which is in Columbus, Georgia.
01:51 Emily: Great. And where were you in graduate school?
01:55 Rachel: So, I did a Master of Fine Arts degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, and then I did my PhD at the University of Kansas.
02:04 Emily: Excellent. So, you’ve moved around quite a bit, it sounds like.
02:08 Rachel: Yeah, I have.
02:11 Emily: Tell me about your stipend during graduate school and why you needed to look outside of that–why you ended up generating extra income.
Grad School Stipend at Kansas University
02:20 Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. So, during my MFA program, it was all student loans. That’s all it was. And when I got to my PhD at KU, I was really determined to not take out any more loans no matter what my stipend was. And my stipend was basically $1,000 a month, and my rent was of course about half that. And so, I realized that if I ever found myself in a situation where–it was okay to scrape by, like if I budgeted really carefully, I knew I’d be okay. But I was worried about unforeseen elements like a car breaking down, a major hospital visit. You know, something that would really require me to come up with a lot of money at once. And that’s what I was concerned about.
Balanced Money Formula: Necessary Expenses = 50% of Pay
03:08 Emily: A couple of points in there that I just want to follow up on it because I think it’s a great example for anyone who’s maybe looking at a stipend offer letter or maybe you’ve just started graduate school and you’re kind of still figuring out what your budget’s going to be. So, you just mentioned your rent was about 50% of your pay, which is sort of widely considered to be too high. Right? So, according to the balanced money formula, which to me is a good reference point, all of your necessary expenses should be about 50% of your pay. So, not only rent but also utilities and paying any contracts that you’re in and your transportation and your basic food–all of that stuff is supposed to be within 50%, which is actually a high bar for many graduate students to reach, but it’s just kind of a good reference point.
03:53 Emily: So, you knew seeing rent at 50%, this is going to be pretty challenging. And like you said, you also were anticipating having occasional large, hard to cashflow expenses, which is so, so commented. Anyone who lives for about a year or longer, you’re going to realize you have these large expenses sometimes. So, that’s why you turned to generating extra income outside of your stipend. So, did you start that right from the beginning of graduate school–or, rather at the beginning of your PhD program–and I’m wondering, was this a common thing among your peers? Did your advisor know about it? Was this a thing that people did and they were open about or was it more kept quiet?
Side Hustles and Financial Situation Often Kept Quiet
04:34 Rachel: You know, it was really kind of kept quiet. I don’t know how many students revealed to faculty that we were all taking on side hustles. I think maybe later on it did when push really came to shove and things like my advisor saying, “I think we need to look to defend your dissertation in the following semester instead of this one.” And me being like, “I literally cannot afford another semester of tuition. You’re going to have to help me get this done now.” So, things like that. I think when push came to shove, we probably revealed a little bit more about our financial situation, but really the only people that were doing okay in grad school and didn’t need to side hustle were frankly people that had two-income households. So, most often married couples. Yeah.
05:25 Emily: Yup. Super common there. I mean, really, paying $1,000 a month. The faculty should be aware–I mean also living in the same city, right? And presumably having a much higher income. They should be aware that that is not enough to live on without either taking out student loans, which as you said, people have enough experience with student loans to know that they should avoid them if at all possible. No, it’s really not enough to live on. So, it should be no surprise to anyone that this is going on. Yet, as you said, most of the time, it’s not really something that is talked about very openly, at least between students and their advisors or students and the administration. Maybe students, among themselves, talk to each other. Okay. So, thanks for giving us kind of the picture for being on the ground there. So, just give me a quick overview. What were your methods of generating extra income that we’ll then dive into?
Primary Side Hustles: House and Pet Sitting
06:15 Rachel: I would say, primarily, my side hustles were housesitting and pet sitting. Those were easy to do, and what was great about them is that if you did a decent job with one, that professor would recommend you to other professors. And professors are always going out of town for guest lectures and conferences. A lot of them have pets. If you have a halfway decent sense of compassion as a human being, you’ll be fine taking care of a pet. Some just want their plants watered or some just want their home to look lived in while they’re away. So, falling into that circle is a really great thing. And that was a lot for me. Also, I did some teaching online and there are various ways to do this. So, I actually taught online for a community college in just outside of Lawrence (KS). And also, another hack about this is that if you’re interested in possibly teaching English online, for whatever reason, there are a lot of companies specifically for Chinese and Korean and Japanese students who will advertise their online teaching English programs, but they will do so on the New York City Craigslist. At the end of the day, you only need be online. You don’t have to live in New York City, but they’re targeting those bigger markets because they’re just expecting to have more people that they can interview. And so, I honestly went on to New York City’s Craigslist a number of times and found online teaching that way as well.
Secondary Side Hustles: Online Teaching and Waiting Tables
07:43 Emily: Just to jump in there, I have another interview where another grad student is currently side hustling with VIPKid, which is one of the companies that you just described that offer that kind of work. So, if anyone’s specifically looking for a company that’s going on right now and we’re recording this in July, 2019, check out VIPKid and check out that other interview. Yeah. Any other online teaching besides that, that you did?
08:08 Rachel: Those mainly comprised what I did online. Now, some people are a fan of waiting tables. This is also something I did. And, really, the only hack there is that if waiting tables is something that really takes it out of you, energy-wise–and it can, you’re on your feet the whole time–I recommend if you can only do it like once a week, do it on a Friday or Saturday night when the restaurant is busiest, that’s when you’re going to make the most tips. Doing a Wednesday lunch is not going to help you out. Doing a Friday night dinner might actually cover your groceries that week, or what have you. So, that’s the hack there. Try and get signed up for the busiest times.
08:48 Emily: Get that hourly rate up as high as you possibly can so you can minimize the number of hours you actually have to do it. Okay.
Side Hustling Apps
08:56 Rachel: I will just add really quickly that there are a few apps out there that can help you generate income as a side hustle. I made a list of some that I’ve used. So, Rover is a pet sitting app, so sign up to petsit. TaskRabbit is basically anything. So, somebody in the neighborhood needs help painting a fence. That’s TaskRabbit. Turo, you can rent your own car out to other people. That’s T U R O. Fat Llama is where you rent out your own possessions. So, say you have a Nintendo Wii sitting around not being used. You could rent out your Nintendo Wii for a weekend to some kids. So, there’s that. Also, Instacart is where you shop for other people. So, anyway, those are some of the ones that I’ve tried.
09:44 Emily: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for adding those specifics. In fact, I guess I talk about side hustling a lot on this podcast because in fact we have another interview where someone’s talking about using Rover and another interview where someone is discussing Instacart. That’s season three, episode two with Shana Green. That one’s already out. So yeah, to follow up on any of those, but thank you so much for giving those specifics. That’s a really great next step for anyone looking to those side hustles. And we also wanted today to talk about credit card churning and travel hacking. So, the listeners may not be very familiar at all with what credit card churning is, what travel hacking is. So, can you start with some basic definitions here for, let’s say, credit card churning first?
Credit Card Churning Fundamentals
10:29 Rachel: Yeah. So, credit card churning is the idea that you take advantage of credit card signups who are offering major big signup bonuses for when you sign up for that credit card. Now, let me preface and say that I’m really just a beginning level churner, like beginner-level churner. Some people are really sophisticated with how they’re tackling this. And I’ve seen spreadsheets of multiple cards when you’re signing up, when you’re canceling the card and things like that. In a nutshell, that’s credit card churning.
11:10 Emily: There’s suddenly a huge subculture within personal finance that is specifically about credit card churning and maximizing credit card rewards. So, if people want to dive, dive, dive into this, that is available. We are fine with the beginner level here. So, whatever you’ve been doing is great. I want to specifically point out that there’s a difference between credit card churning and having credit cards on a longterm basis that give you ongoing reward. So, what we’re specifically discussing today is getting, as you said, those signup bonuses. And so signing up for new cards fairly frequently, doing whatever you need to do to get the signup bonus. And then usually either moving on–keeping the card open, but not using it anymore–moving onto the next card in your churn list, or, potentially closing it pretty quickly. So, just wanted to clarify that for the listeners. So, can you tell us how you got started with this? What was the first credit card you opened for this purpose, for example?
12:06 Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. So, my first year in my PhD program, I was friends with a guy who was an entrepreneur and he was opening his own business. And he fell into the credit card turning scene because he was starting to try and figure out, “How can me and my business partner fly around the US? Because we anticipate that we’re going to fly a lot. So, how are we going to cover all of those tickets?” And so, he really introduced me to the world of credit card turning. So, I should say from the very top that if you’re someone who has trouble paying off your credit cards every month, if you have not so good credit, it’s not the best thing. It’s really ideal for someone who’s really good at paying off the full amount every month, who’s really good at not spending a credit card on things that either you don’t need or things that may be superfluous to your daily life. And so, the one that I opened was Chase.
Disclaimer: Use Credit Card Churning Wisely
13:10 Emily: I want to jump in a second and just emphasize that point because credit card churning and using credit card rewards is really a fairly advanced strategy. I would not recommend this for anyone who is new to using credit cards. My personal rule on this would be use credit cards in your life, in your regular budgeting for at least one year before you even attempt something like this. Because you need to have a lot of confidence in yourself, as you were just saying, that you’re going to be paying off that card in full every month, that you’re not going to be spending any extra money just for convenience factor or whatever it is because you’re excited about the rewards. You need to be a super, super good budgeter and super, super organized before you jump into this world. And it can be really lucrative, as we’ll get into in a moment. So, it’s very tempting, but show restraint. Hold back. Be sure you have your budget totally aligned before you try to attempt it. I’ll link in the show notes, I have an article that I wrote previously called, “Perfect Use of a Credit Card.” So, that will outline what you need to master in terms of using a credit card before you jump into what we’re talking about now. So, thank you so much for emphasizing that. Now, you were just mentioning that you opened a Chase card, first.
14:18 Rachel: Yeah. So, when I first started to get into this–now, like I said, I just wanted to take baby steps. I have used credit cards for most of my adult life, and I feel pretty confident with my use of credit cards that I don’t really have an addictive personality. I don’t go gambling or drink alcohol very much. I’m just kind of pretty unattached that way. So, I felt confident starting to do a baby churn with just one card. I should also mention by the way, that if you open too many cards within the space of 12 months or 24 months, some credit card companies will take note of that and they’ll say, “Okay, don’t give them any more cards.” And it can damage your credit that way. So, that’s just something to be aware of.
15:03 Rachel: So, I recommend, personally speaking, I would probably top out at three in the space of one year. I think that’s plenty to keep up with. So, Chase, for example, had a credit card, and often what they are is that there’s a signup bonus and in order to achieve that signup bonus, which is usually in the value of points and then those points can be exchanged for either travel points, like they can translate to air miles. They can translate to gift cards. Sometimes they can translate to cash back. With Chase–and I did this a few years ago, so I can’t speak to what it is now, but–when I took the Chase card a few years ago, I crunched the numbers and I basically found that gift cards was my biggest bang for my buck. So, I exchanged my signup points all for gift cards for things that I would spend money on regardless, like grocery stores, gas stations, things like that, Walmart, those kinds of things.
Credit Card Churning: Timing is Everything
16:05 Rachel: A lot of these signup points are dependent on you spending a certain amount of money within the first three months, that’s often the typical amount of time. So, I would time my opening a credit card with an event in my life where I knew that I’d be spending more money than I typically do. So, say for example, I think mine was $1,000. I had to spend $1,000 within the first three months of opening this card. And if I did, I was given a reward of 50,000 points, which ultimately translated to my plane ticket to a conference I was presenting at. So, I timed this for when I had been to the doctor and I’d had a hospital visit and I knew I was going to be paying off a lot of doctor’s bills. So, I knew I’d be spending that money anyway. So, that’s how I timed it.
16:53 Emily: We use the exact same strategy–I wouldn’t say we were credit card churning, but signing up for signup bonuses from time to time–doing the exact same thing as you did, like looking at our upcoming six months or a year, whatever, and identifying a few points in the year where, “Okay, we are going to pay our car insurance once every six months.” So, that’s like a pretty big bill, we can put that on the card. “Oh, we’re going to have to buy a flight to here or there. We can put that on the card.” All within a window that was the window that we needed for achieving the signup bonus. So, we did the exact same thing. I think that meeting those minimum spending requirements can be, very typically, a challenge for someone who lives on a lower income, right?
17:31 Emily: Because you don’t have a lot of spending that goes on in a given month, let’s say. Most people will not be paying their rent with a credit card. Usually you have to pay a fee or something to do that. So, if you’re going to exclude rent from this calculation, then there are not that many other things, maybe, that will help you achieve this minimum spend. So, definitely looking your calendar and anticipating upcoming expenses, signing up for a card that’ll give you the right window when you’re going to have to pay those expenses. There’s a little bit of a trick to it when you have a lower-spending lifestyle.
18:00 Rachel: Absolutely. Timing is everything. I also didn’t realize, even for myself, how much I spent cash on lots of things. When I started really concentrating and focusing and saying, “Okay, I could pay cash for this, but I could pay a credit card. Let me just pay with a credit card.” I’m starting to realize that there are very few instances in which it benefits me to use cash, to be honest. Now, I do keep cash on me at all times, just in emergencies. Who knows. But I did start using a credit card for a lot more things than I had. And I find that the rewards do come back to me. Yeah. But no, that’s a fair point. Timing is everything with the credit card churning. When you open the card, when you decide to cancel the card, that kind of thing. Yeah.
Credit Card Points for Gift Cards and Air Miles
18:50 Emily: So, you said that for you, you probably max out at about three cards per year. That’s what you’ve decided you can handle in your personal spending and tracking everything. Other people do a lot more, but that’s what works for you. And that, when you first started doing this, you would trade these points you generated for gift cards because that was what you figured was going to be maximizing those points. Has that continued to be the case? So, do you always do gift cards, or have you redeemed for other types of rewards?
19:18 Rachel: At one point, I did redeem for travel points because, like I said, I was paying for a plane ticket. So, it was easy to translate those to air miles and to do that. What I have found, in my experience–what’s helpful is letting life happen and determining, “Oh, okay, you know what? This month, I have a lot of unexpected expenses. So, actually what I could do to save myself some money this month is go ahead and redeem some points for, say, a grocery store gift card or a gas station gift card. Because that helps offset the unexpected expenses that I’m having.” However, later on down the year, I might find like, “Oh, I really need to take a trip to this conference,” or, “I need to go on this research trip.” And at that point, maybe the air miles are more helpful.
20:10 Rachel: So, it just depends. The nice thing about gift cards too is that if you want to, dare I say, splurge, and get yourself a gift card to like AMC Theatres so you can see a movie, or something that’s like a small, not too expensive luxury. Later on, when you go use that gift card to go see that movie, you don’t really feel as guilty about it because you’re not spending your own money. You’re actually just spending the rewards that you’ve already incurred from paying on your credit card. So, that’s kind of a nice thing that I feel like is a guilt-free way of treating yourself to the occasional movie, or what have you. Because, as we all know, grad school is so stressful. Yeah.
Credit Card Churning: Spreadsheets Are Your Friends
20:53 Emily: I really like that strategy that you’re using the points or whatever that you build up as almost kind of a piggy bank that you can then deploy as needed in the future. And of course, using it for lifestyle upgrades, like going to the occasional movie or whatever you want. When you have your stipend paying your baseline expenses, then you can use your side hustle money, the credit card rewards, whatever it is, for big expenses as they come up to ease your stress or just more of life’s pleasures. So, I really like that strategy. Any other things you want to share with us regarding credit card churning?
21:27 Rachel: I really do recommend keeping a spreadsheet with all of your information, just to make sure that you’re keeping track of what you’re spending, you’re keeping track of, “Is this really for sure financially benefiting me? Am I getting rewards?” Versus, “Am I tempted to spend more money just because I’m trying to meet some kind of signup reward, or something.” Also, don’t be afraid to cancel credit cards. A lot of these cards start off free the first year, but then have an annual fee that they’ll charge you. And sometimes those annual fees hit you and you go, “Oh no, I didn’t realize I was already a year out from when I started this card.” So, you know, make sure that you keep a tally of dates of like, “Okay, I need to make sure I cancel this card by this date,” and so on and so forth. Just to keep yourself on the straight and narrow with the churn.
22:18 Emily: Totally. Totally agree. I have to admit myself, just last month I had an annual fee for one of my cards hit, and I was kind of like, “Oh I guess I’m keeping that card another year.” I mean, I could probably still call and get out of it, but I was kind of debating, “Should I cancel it before the year is up or should I keep it?” And then the year was up before I had my bearings about it. So, I’m going to start a spreadsheet and put that in because I’m definitely canceling it by the end of the second year. In fact, it’s already on my calendar as a reminder to do that. So yes, being very organized, super, super crucial with this strategy.
22:57 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. Tax season is upon us, and while no one loves this time of year, it’s particularly difficult for post-bac fellows, funded grad students, and postdoc fellows. Even professional tax preparers are often thrown for a loop by our unique tax situation. And don’t get me started on tax software. I provide tons of support at this time of year for PhD trainees preparing their tax returns, from free articles and videos, to paid at-your-own-pace workshops, to live seminars and webinars for universities and research institutes. The best place to go to check out all of this material is pfforphds.com/tax. That’s P F F O R P H D S.com/T A X. Don’t struggle through tax season on your own. Visit my website for the exact information you need in the most efficient form available. Now, back to the interview.
Let’s Talk More About Travel Hacking
24:01 Emily: So, let’s talk more about travel hacking. And you already mentioned using the credit card signups to then generate points that can be translated to different airlines depending on the card and who their partners are. So, that’s definitely one way to go about travel hacking. But you said you had a few other travel hacks that you like to use.
24:19 Rachel: Yeah, I do. So, okay. So, some of these are really simple and kind of a onetime thing. Some of these are a little bit more “shady,” if you will. Not shady, I’m not going to recommend anything illegal, but a little sneaky. So, one of the sneaky things that I did, and I’m sure I can’t be the first person to do this or come up with this, but I would be very careful about timing my applications for funding within the university, because some funding applications will say, “Are you receiving funding for many other source?” And I want to be able to say, “No, I’m not.” And that’s true if I have not yet received official funding from another source. So, I was very careful to time my applications in such a manner that allowed me to always be able to say, “No, I’m not receiving funding from another source.” And if I then applied to another source after I submitted that application, well you know, who could have foreseen that I would do that. So, that’s one. Yeah. Another smaller hack is that a lot of us, I think, forget that as grad students, we’re still entitled to student discounts. So, things like STA Travel, which is the Student Travel Association. They have a website where you can look up airfares and all kinds of things. That’s something to take advantage of in addition to all of the sort of usual suspects like couchsurfing and Airbnb, and things like that.
25:52 Emily: I don’t know about Student Travel Association. Can you say more about that?
STA Travel and Hostelworld
25:56 Rachel: Oh yeah, sure. Student Travel Association. I discovered them when I was in college, actually, because I was studying abroad and I was looking into airfares and things and wondering if, “Is there a way I can hack my way into traveling more beyond my study abroad semester?” So, that’s when I discovered STA Travel. STA Travel covers a lot of things. They also, and I could be wrong on this, but I believe they are the same company that issues international student identification cards. That’s the ISIC card, International Student Identity Card. And that has some benefits to it. In fact, recently they’ve started making them like a credit card so you can even add money onto them and use them as a form of payment. But yeah, STA Travel has a lot of different options. And some of the airfares might be, the stipulation is merely just that you’re a student. Some of them might be, you need to be 35 years and younger. So it kind of depends. You have to check it out. But it’s at least another source.
27:00 Emily: This reminds me, and maybe this is part of that association, but just about hostels–like some of them are only open to students or maybe people of a certain age; not super common in the US. But abroad, much more. So, is that kind of the same idea?
27:14 Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. And actually when it comes to hostels, if you haven’t discovered Hostelworld–hostel W O R LD.com–they’re a great source for housing. And I’ve used them abroad a lot. But in the bigger cities in the U S you’ll find Hostelworld locations, too. And it’s amazing how cheap you can get. A lot of people say, “Well, I don’t feel comfortable sleeping in a room with 10 other people that I don’t know for $10 a night.” A lot of properties on hostelworld.com do offer private rooms, and they’re still cheaper than what you would find on Airbnb.
27:54 Emily: I actually used Hostelworld–I think it was through Hostelworld–when I traveled to Chicago one time when I was in graduate school. And my husband and I, who had no interest in staying in separate rooms with many other people, were able to book a private room together at the hostel, which worked out really well for us. It was very inexpensive. So yeah, thanks so much for mentioning that. And also STA Travel. I spent 10 years in college and graduate school and I’m really kicking myself that I did not know about this. So, thank you so much for mentioning it. What’s the next travel hack on your list?
Budget Airlines, Driving, and Incognito Browsing
28:26 Rachel: Yeah. Okay. So, some of those websites also worth mentioning briefly if you ever are traveling abroad. Ryanair and EasyJet are budget airlines and they’re really inexpensive. That’s helpful to know. But unfortunately, those seem to be limited to Europe. Okay. So, I’ve also crunched the numbers on this, and if it’s possible to drive and if you are receiving funding for say a conference or a research trip, driving actually optimizes the money that you’re spending because you might actually get more back. A lot of universities have a really nice high mileage reimbursement for driving. And so if you can drive but you were thinking of just taking a plane just because, it might actually be worth your while financially to drive. Another thing is, I don’t know if this is widely known, but browsing “incognito” on your browser when you’re looking at flights and hotel rooms and things like that.
29:27 Rachel: So, with most browsers, you just go to the settings. I use Google Chrome. So, for Google Chrome, it’s the upper right-hand corner, and you pull down the dropdown menu and you just say that you want to browse incognito. And what that does is it sort of erases all of the memory and cookies that are stored in your browser. And for whatever reason, say like Orbitz for example, if they know that, “Oh, Rachel Blackburn comes to us and she buys plane tickets through Orbitz a lot, we can probably charge her just a little bit more because she’s likely not going to look at any other sites for fares.” And so browsing incognito takes away their ability to do that.
30:12 Emily: Yeah, really good tip. Anything else in that travel hacking list?
For the Bold and the Brave: Motel Pricing Negotiation
30:18 Rachel: Okay. So, one thing I’ve done–and this might be a little on the riskier side, and I certainly would never, ever blame anybody for not wanting to do this–but, let’s say I’m driving long distance and I know that I’m going to have to crash somewhere. If you feel comfortable, and especially as a single woman, maybe you feel more comfortable doing this if you have a friend with you or something like that. A lot of hotels that are these kinds of like motels that you see on the side of the highway when you’re driving long distance and you’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. They will lower their fares quite a bit if you show up late at night and you’re like, “Hey, I need a room.” And they’ve only got like maybe 10 other people in the hotel and they’ll say, “Okay, it’s $99 for the night.” And I’ll say, “Oh, you know what? I’m sorry. That’s a little bit more than I was wanting to spend. So, I’m just going to go on.” And then they’ll say, “No, no, no, no, wait.” Because who else is going to drop by late at night to stay? So, a lot of them will actually negotiate fare with you, and they’ll drop it down, say like, “Okay, well can you do 75?” “Yeah, that’s better.” Okay. Now, that does mean that you’re not making a reservation ahead of time. You also run the risk that they may not negotiate with you. That can happen too. So, if I’m taking this route, I try to always stop off in a town that’s large enough to have at least three or four off-the-highway motels where I can try that tactic.
31:52 Emily: I’m really glad you mentioned that because we have so few opportunities for negotiation in the US for these types of sales. So, yeah, that never occurred to me, but I really like this strategy. I can’t say I’ll necessarily do it, but I like the idea.
32:08 Rachel: Yeah, it’s for the bold and the brave for sure.
32:11 Emily: I mean, if there is a town where there are two, three, four of these, then they know that you can just walk down the street and try the same tactic. It’s not going to cost you hardly any more time. So, why not? How late is late at night by the way, for you, after what time?
32:25 Rachel: Hmm, that’s a great question. Most people, especially thinking of highway driving, a lot of people like to be in a motel before it gets dark, especially people with families and stuff like that. So, I would say any time after sunset you’re good to negotiate. Yeah.
32:44 Emily: Yeah. Sounds good. Any more travel hacks?
Inviting (non-PhD) Friends to Conferences
32:49 Rachel: One thing I have done, and I wouldn’t exactly call this a hack, and anytime I have done this, I’ve been totally upfront with my friends about it. If I’m going to, say, a research conference or a research trip or something. I’m going somewhere, I can anticipate I’m going to need a hotel room or an Airbnb. I will often invite my friends along, and not friends who are PhD students, but just friends of mine. And I’ll be upfront and I’ll say, “Listen, would you want to come hang out with me in this city for a weekend? We can split an Airbnb, and when I’m at my conference, you can do your own thing. And when I’m not at my conference, we can hang out together.” And I’ve done that before and it’s great. It’s a double benefit of getting to see friends that you wouldn’t otherwise see. But also, you have someone to share the conference with who’s not necessarily associated with the conference. So, I did a research trip to LA at one point and I invited two of my girlfriends along, and I said, “Hey, I’m going to be in LA for a long weekend. Come hang out with me. There’s going to be times when I’ll have to be at this conference, but most of the time I’ll be free to hang out.” And so they shared an Airbnb with me and immediately split my Airbnb three ways instead of one way. So yeah, that’s another hack, sort.
34:06 Emily: Yeah, why not? If you’re going to a desirable location and you like your friends and like to hang out with them, no harm in suggesting it, certainly.
34:13 Rachel: Yeah. I mean, I know so many people that go, “Oh no one else is going to this conference. I guess I’m footing the bill for the whole hotel room by myself.” And it’s like, “No, you might have some friends who like to travel and who would love the excuse to just get away for a weekend.” So, yeah.
34:33 Emily: Yeah. I like that idea.
Prefixes: To Doctor, or Not To Doctor
34:35 Rachel: Okay. Last one. This is the last hack. I often, when I’m booking a hotel or a plane, I have read that specifying your prefix as doctor can make a difference. Even if you’re not a doctor yet, what are they going to do? They’re going to go find your transcripts? Probably not. I don’t think American Airlines has time for that. So yeah, start using doctor as a prefix. It couldn’t hurt.
35:03 Emily: So, when you say that it can help, what do you mean? Would that actually change the rate that you’re paying, or what difference would it make?
35:13 Rachel: Yeah, well I’ve read stories of people saying that they got a better seat or they got a better rate. Sometimes it might just be like, “Oh, you’re a doctor? Continental breakfast is free for you,” or whatever. Or maybe it’s just a few dollars off your bill, or something. But my guess is that this only leads to really minute differences, but again, every little bit helps. Why not? Worst-case scenario, somebody calls you Doctor?
35:44 Emily: Yeah, I think I may try this out. I’m trying to remember. I think in most cases when I travel, I don’t use doctor as a prefix because I don’t want to be approached with a medical situation on a plane. Of course, I’ve never even seen that happen. So, the chances that it would are really, really, really tiny. But I think that’s been my reason to shy away from using my proper title. But now that I know that I may actually get something out of it, I might try using it consistently going forward. Okay. So, we’ve talked about your side hustling. We’ve talked about how you’ve generated other extra income and how you’ve reduced expenses with your associated travel and so forth. And you told me when we started preparing this episode that all this allowed you to open a Roth IRA during graduate school, which, if you told me I’m being paid $1,000 a month and I’m going to be living in Lawrence, Kansas, I’d be like, “Good luck with that.”
36:46 Emily: You know, who would ever think that that would be possible? Yet, it sounds like through these different mechanisms that you were able to. So, tell me more about why you decided to start saving for retirement while you were in graduate school and why in particular you used a Roth IRA?
Why Start a Roth IRA in Graduate School?
37:00 Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m in the humanities. I was a theater professional, theater artist for many, many years professionally before I decided to go back to school, years later. And because of that, I was a freelance contractor for a lot of my life–a lot of my working adult life. So, I was never hired on a permanent full-time basis. I was often hired on a full-time basis for the next three months, you know? And then I was again hired somewhere else for the next three months. And I think in the back of my mind, I kept hoping, one of these days, surely, I will get a job that will offer me benefits and savings plans and things like that. And after a few years, I realized, that’s not going to happen. And then when I went back to school, I didn’t know what my options would be there, either.
37:54 Rachel: I knew it was going to be a tight budgeting situation. I was not under any illusion that I would be–I mean, the idea of like saving for an IRA was completely out of my mind. But somewhere during the PhD–and at this point in my life, I’m like early thirties, 32, 33–and I thought, “If I don’t make this happen for myself, it might never happen.” We all know the statistics about finding a tenure-track job after you graduate. And I just thought I can’t keep telling myself, “Don’t worry. One day you’ll get that job. Don’t worry, one day you’ll get those benefits.” I thought, “Okay, it’s up me. It’s up to me to do it. So, I just need to really be creative and smart about how I’m saving money.”
Know Yourself to Choose Which IRA Works For You
38:42 Rachel: I was able to open a Roth IRA with Vanguard. Now, there again–and for those listening, PhD students who are great at research–just research around, figure it out. One thing I liked about Vanguard was that they seem to have, I believe–and I don’t want to misspeak because I could always be wrong. There could be information I don’t have–they seem to have kept their nose clean, relatively, through the recession. And that was one thing that really attracted me to them. I also spoke to friends and family that were involved in business and they all said, “Oh yeah, Vanguard’s a great company.” So, that’s how I chose them. I also just researched financial products and I said, “Okay, what makes the most sense to me?” I wanted something that would hold onto my money and wouldn’t let me at it. Because if I could pull it out without penalty, I probably would. And that’s just a personality assessment on myself. So, I wanted a financial product that I could put money into anytime. I wasn’t worried about being taxed on it. So, that’s why I chose the Roth IRA that I did. And, it would give me incentive to not take the money back out. So, yeah.
39:53 Emily: That sounds perfect. I think you had great insight there. If you don’t make this happen for yourself, it may not happen. Now, we know that you now have that tenure-track position. You’re one of the lucky few, right? But so many people, so many people currently in grad school or maybe in a postdoc or something–yeah, you don’t know what your job is going to be in the future. And kind of the way things are trending is, not only are pensions in many cases a thing of the past, even having what would be full-time benefits, like having access to a 403(b) or 401(k) or whatever, that is disappearing too as more and more people are entering the freelance market, as you said, or doing contract work. So, really, at some point, as you just said, you just need to make it happen for yourself because you can’t necessarily rely on an employer to do this for you anymore.
40:50 Emily: So, it’s a hard realization, but it’s one that if you do have it early on, like you did prior to graduate school or maybe during graduate school or during a postdoc for other people you know what, go ahead and get started. Because now is always kind of the best time to do it, right? Like best time to start saving for retirement. Well, that was 10 years ago, but the second best time is right now. So, go ahead and get started and don’t let, “Oh in the future things will be different hold you back from that.” So, I really love having the story from you of, “Yeah, my stipend was very small, not really sufficient for even a relatively low cost of living area. Yet, this is what I did to change this. I hustled in this way. I was super smart about deploying my credit score in this other way. I kept my travel expenses down in this way, and look at that. I was able to start saving for retirement based on all those strategies.”
Best Financial Advice for Early-Career PhDs
41:39 Emily: And now of course you have the full-time job and things are working out very well, it sounds like. So, love this story and thank you so much for this interview. And as we kind of sign off here, I just wanted to ask you, what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD?
41:55 Rachel: Don’t underestimate your own creativity. One of your strengths and skills as a PhD student is researching. So, why not take that same skill and apply it to your financial life? If you had told me when I was in my MFA program, “Hey, guess what? In a few years, you’re going to make up your mind that you’re bound and determined to open an IRA.” I would’ve said, “That’s crazy. How am I ever going to save for an IRA on a stipend that I have?” And my other best piece of advice, I decided that because your loans are deferred while you’re in school, if you can pay on your loans while you’re in school, you’re only paying principal. So, that was my other goal throughout grad school. Financially speaking, I was bound and determined, even if it was $10 a month, that was still $120 less on my principal at the end of the year. So, however small it is, just chipping away at those student loans while you’re in school will really help you by the time you’re out of school.
43:01 Emily: I love both pieces of advice. Deploying your creativity and your research skills to your finances as well as your academic interests. And then, just because your student loans are deferred doesn’t mean you have to ignore them. Go ahead and start paying on them to whatever degree you can or are interested in. And/or do this retirement investing. Both of them are going to greatly benefit you by the time you finish up with graduate school and start having to make payments on the student loans. So, Rachel, thank you so much for this interview. This is really, really insightful and I enjoyed speaking with you.
43:34 Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was great talking to you.
43:38 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. There, you can find links to all the episode show notes and a form to volunteer to be interviewed. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple podcast, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media or with your PhD peers. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode. And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington Bear from the free music archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.