When you first receive your offer letter from your graduate program, it may be difficult to determine what kind of lifestyle you’ll be able to afford, especially if you don’t have previous experience living on your own in that city. You may not be able to tell if you’ll need to take on debt or if you’ll be able to live on just your stipend. If you can live on your stipend, it won’t yet be clear how high or low on the hog you’ll be living or what kinds of savings goals you’ll be able to set, if any.
The best way to put your stipend in context is to talk with other students at your university who receive a similar stipend who are a few years ahead of you. Find a few students who are in your program or your lab or have your same fellowship and ask them if they find the stipend livable. Graduate students who receive stipends are more open about money than most others because we are all in the same boat, so to speak. They will be able to give you advice on where to live to keep your rent reasonable and let you know how tightly you’ll have to manage your income.
If you aren’t able to get in contact with any other students, you can compare your stipend to the living wage in your local area. The living wage should give you an idea of how much is needed for basic living expenses. If your stipend is above the living wage, you should be able to get by without taking out any student loans. If your stipend is well below the living wage, you might consider taking out loans or finding a very inexpensive living situation.
Also check out this database of grad student stipends. If you search for your university, you will be able to tell if your offered stipend is above, below, or in line with what other students are receiving, and the comments may let you know how livable the amount is.
Once you know that you have a livable stipend, you can start to create financial goals for your time in grad school, such as living within your means, saving a certain percentage of your pay, or paying down a lump sum of debt. Before you arrive on campus, you can even sketch out a budget.