Nick Giangreco is a second year PhD candidate in Systems Biology at Columbia University in New York City.
Graduate school is an enriching and rewarding time in one’s career, especially in the biomedical sciences. As I’m pursuing my PhD in Systems Biology at Columbia University, I get the chance to hone my skills and, using more glamorous terms, reach for becoming a biological data scientist. But as every graduate student knows, though we get paid during this stage in our careers, it pales in comparison to the paychecks of those working as employees in companies.
In this reality, it helps to be mindful of our financial situations and practice good habits. I’d like to share some tips that I follow as a research trainee. These tips have helped me over the past couple of years, so hopefully they will be helpful for you to extend your income while living on a meager stipend.
Watch your income and spending
I’ve made excel spreadsheets and google sheets that detail my monthly income and expenses, as well as trends in spending and savings over time. This has made me more aware of where my money is coming from, where is it going, and managing for expenses in the future. For example, to pay off a large sum of student loans, I budgeted an amount every month and saw a trend of paying “x” amount of money every month to pay it off by a certain date. I became debt free recently because of this consistent payment over a couple years.
Eat in rather than eat out
I tend to spend more buying food at restaurants or fast food chains than if I were to buy food to make meals for the week. An alternative to eating out and spending a lot having a night out with friends is having a dinner party or game night in your home or apartment. I hosted multiple of these with my group of friends-they are a lot of fun-and they typically cost a lot less than buying drinks at bars or having late night snacks at restaurants. Also, a big money saver is taking advantage of the (ubiquitous) free food offered at school events. **Tip: Always have Tupperware on you!
Join groups on social media or email
Schools often have listservs that allow you to sell items or to buy items for cheap. This may save you a lot compared to buying new at a brand-name store! Also, metropolitan cities or areas often have social media groups such as Facebook groups that post on free events in your area or offer a marketplace for selling and buying items for cheap. Instead of buying a new Ikea set at the store, someone might be selling a gently used set for 2 or 3 times less!
Set your priorities
Is it important to you to live in a studio apartment? A nice neighborhood? Close to work? Do you want to travel on the weekends or vacation often? Do you have to see a healthcare specialist? Need a medical or dental procedure? Want to try cross-fit? Foresee other large bills coming up in the future? All these things should factor into your budget. You may be able to live somewhere that’s cheaper and allows you to do more costly events or activities. Or you may value a nicer living situation, but this may mean substituting weekly for monthly or bimonthly trips to see friends and family. Some people can’t stand eating the same thing for lunch everyday and need to buy more variety at the store or eat at restaurants, while others may be fine with eating low cost meals with low variety and can save for larger purchases in the future. Know where you fall on the spending and saving spectrum and see where you can save and need to spend according to your preferred lifestyle and budget.
Save for a rainy day
Setbacks happen unexpectedly all the time. You may need to see a specialist for a health issue, maybe family requires you to do frequent travel, your phone or laptop may break, the car may need repairs, and much more. For the time when you’ll need to make that purchase or pay that bill, have enough cash reserves for that situation and allow yourself to grow it again for the next setback.
Keeping these tips in mind has helped me to realize what are my lifestyle priorities, luxuries, and disposables. Saving during the week on meals allows me to have upwards of 50 to 100 dollars cash for brunch and events on the weekends. Living in a metropolitan city, when I opt for public transportation over a taxi, I can save considerably when practiced over many weeks. If putting in another amazon order is within my planned budget, I don’t feel bad about spending the money. If I need to make large purchases for pilates sessions, travel or lodging for an out-of-town wedding, or just travel to see family, I may dip into my rainy day funds and then set a course to replenish how much I took out. Practicing these and other conscientious financial habits have helped me over the years; hopefully now they will offer you perspective for adjusting and living your preferred lifestyle based on earning a graduate student stipend.