Financial considerations for graduate students becoming parents.
If your relationship with your graduate advisor can be compared to a marriage, the dissertation you create together is your child. You conceive it together in early days and then spend 5 (or 6 or 7 or…) years raising it up until it can make its way into the world independently. That creative process is time-, energy-, and emotion-intensive, not to mention financially limiting due to the small stipend you receive in those years.
Is it possible to bring a human child into your family in the midst of your graduate degree and still see it to a successful completion? Plenty of newly minted PhDs celebrate their accomplishment alongside their children. But having a baby during graduate school may be even more of a challenge to your time and finances than doing so before or after.
When you are deciding whether to have a child during grad school or preparing for one already on the way, the two key areas in which you need to make space are your time and money. In this article, I outline the largest monetary costs that you will incur in the first year of your child’s life and discuss ways to minimize those expenses. The first things to come to mind when you think of these costs may be clothing, toys, or a crib, but those are actually among the more minor expenses.
Medical Care and Insurance
Prenatal, postpartum, and ongoing medical care are necessary for mother and baby, so check your insurance policies. Research the out-of-pocket costs for an uncomplicated birth with each of the providers and settings you are considering, and ask your insurance company about your deductibles and co-pays. Midwifery care tends to be less expensive than obstetric care, but that may or may not be in line with your birth preferences or affect your bottom line. You have time to save up a fund to pay for your part of the birth expenses. You should also make sure your emergency fund is a healthy size in case mother or baby experiences complications that will add to the expense.
After the birth, you can choose to add the child to either parent’s insurance policy; assuming the care options are comparable, you can choose the one that you expect to be less expensive to you between the premiums and the out-of-pocket costs. An open enrollment period prior to or during pregnancy also provides an opportunity to switch the mother’s insurance provider if that is advantageous.
If you are adding the baby to your graduate student insurance policy, expect to pay a (higher) premium. Also be aware that while a typical health insurance premium would be paid incrementally with each paycheck, your grad student insurance might require a lump sum up front for each term or year.
Your university or department may have a parental leave policy in place. It should outline the amount of time you are permitted to take off; whether the leave will be unpaid, paid, or at partial pay; and whether benefits such as insurance will continue. If there is no official parental leave policy, there may be one regarding leave for a medical or an unspecified reason that will apply or a vacation policy. Failing that, it will be down to you to negotiate your leave with your advisor and possibly department. This is also a great opportunity to negotiate a different schedule for after the baby arrives.
The reason leave is included as a major cost is because of the potential loss of income. The length of your leave might be influenced by what you can afford. Similar to your medical expenses, use the time you have leading up to the birth to save a dedicated fund out of which you can pay your expenses during your unpaid or partial-pay leave.
Childcare is easily one of the largest costs you will incur in the first year of your baby’s life, and it can be paid in either money or the caregiver’s time (i.e., opportunity cost).
If you are going to pay for childcare, compare all your local options: daycare, a nanny or nanny share, or babysitters. As a graduate student, you may be eligible to receive a subsidy for daycare on- or off-campus. Consider whether you need full-time or part-time care; if you have flexibility in when you work and money is more scarce than time, perhaps you only need part-time care.
Some families may be able to arrange for childcare that does not involve an exchange of money. One parent can cease working or move to a part-time schedule, both parents can work different ‘shifts’ so one is always with the baby, or another family member may donate his or her time. This is highly dependent on your existing resources, the flexibility of your work, and how you want to spend your time.
Be very cautious about assigning your time a value equal to that of your stipend ‘hourly rate.’ This line of thought leads many lower-income workers to the conclusion that it is financially advantageous to quit a job to become a full-time caregiver rather than to pay for childcare. This is short-sighted because it does not consider future career advancement and income increases. While you are in graduate school, your income is suppressed, but you can greatly increase it by finishing graduate school and moving on to a higher-paying job. It can make financial sense to pay a comparable or higher rate for childcare than you earn from your stipend if it speeds your progress toward your post-grad school job.
Just about every year a new ‘cost of raising a child’ calculation is performed. For example, in 2015 the headline cost of raising a child to age 18 was $230,000 (this is an average over all income levels and parenting choices). The largest component of that cost calculation (29%) was for housing. If you decide to move to a larger dwelling to accommodate your new child, you must account for that additional monthly cost. Depending on your parenting decisions, that’s not necessarily a cost you will incur immediately – the American Academy of of Pediatrics recommends sleeping in the same room as your infant for the first year – but eventually more space will become necessary.
If you have not yet had reason to purchase life insurance, the birth of your first child will almost certainly motivate you to do so. The purpose of life insurance is to provide for anyone who would be financially impacted by your death. The most cost-effective type of life insurance to buy is term life insurance, not whole life or universal life. You can shop online or through an independent insurance broker to find the best policy and price for you.
While the average American spends less than 10% of their disposable income on food (both at home and out), I consider food to be a major regular budget line item for graduate students (often third-largest after housing and transportation). Therefore, an infant’s food could also have a significant impact on the family’s budget. The choice to breastfeed or formula-feed – to the extent that it is a choice – is a parenting decision that has a monetary cost either way. Expect to spend some money in this category, whether on formula, bottles, breastfeeding supplies, or extra food for the mother. Starting between 4 and 6 months of age, you’ll also start purchasing solid foods for your child.
Further reading: Breastfeeding Ain’t Free
Another significant cost in a baby’s first year of life is waste management, i.e., diapers, wipes, diapering supplies, etc. This cost is less avoidable than some of the previously listed ones (except by practicing elimination communication and potty training early), but it can be minimized. If you are using disposable diapers, it’s all about sourcing the least expensive diapers that work for your baby. Cloth diapering requires an up-front investment, but becomes less expensive than disposable diapering within the first year and realizes large savings in subsequent years and for subsequent children.
Further reading: Cloth Diapering in an Apartment
Most of the remaining money that you will spend in your child’s first year of life are one-time purchases of various items, such as a car seat, stroller/carrier, furniture, linens, clothing, toys, and books. If you receive gifts or hand-me-downs, they will likely be in this category, so some of the cost might not be borne by your budget. You might even be able to borrow many of these types of items from a family with a child slightly older than yours. A parents’ group at your university could be a great resource in this respect. Whatever you do need to buy can be bought used, though be careful for highly regulated items like car seats and cribs that they are compliant.
Further reading: Outfitting Our Baby with Hand-Me-Down, Borrowed, and Used Stuff
While this list may appear overwhelming, not every cost may apply to your family and there are ways to minimize each one. For the costs that you expect to incur, the best way to decide if you can afford them is to pretend that you are paying them now. Draft a post-baby budget that includes your monthly additional cost for housing, childcare, purchases, etc. and see if you can live on the remainder right now. Funnel all the cash flow you are trying to do without into a dedicated fund for your child that can ultimately pay for your start-up costs.
What was the toughest financial aspect of having a baby while in grad school and how did you work through it?