In this episode, Emily interviews George Walters-Marrah, a rising first-year PhD student in biophysics at Stanford. In the last year, as George has been applying to and preparing to attend graduate school, he’s been on a financial journey as well. We walk chronologically through the financial steps he’s taken this year, from applying for fellowships last fall to taking a personal finance course this past spring to drafting a budget this summer for how he plans to use his stipend in Palo Alto. Additionally, Emily and George have an insightful conversation on what George learned about investing in his personal finance course and how he’s already implementing some of the strategies.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- PF for PhDs Podcast Grad Student Fellow Examples
- List of portable fellowships
- PF for PhDs Community (Discount Until August 15th, 2020!)
- George’s Personal Finance Document
- MIT Living Wage Calculator
- PhD Stipends Resource
- Quarterly Estimated Tax Article
- Quarterly Estimated Tax Workshop
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe
00:00 George: I’ve been investing for a while now. And it’s like, it’s not really time-consuming at all. I kind of like check it at least once a day just because I like looking at it. But other than that, it’s not like I’m constantly fidgeting with my stuff. And I think the more you fidget with it, the more fees you get. So, it’s like, it’s kind of like passive investing. It’s kind of like a win-win.
00:21 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 six, episode 15, and today my guest is George Walters-Marrah, a rising first-year PhD student in biophysics at Stanford. In the last year, as George has been applying to and preparing to attend graduate school, he’s been on a financial journey as well. We walk chronologically through the financial steps he’s taken this year, from applying for fellowships last fall to taking a personal finance course this past spring to drafting a budget this summer for how he plans to use his stipend in Palo Alto. Additionally, we have an insightful conversation on what George learned about investing in his personal finance course and how he’s already implementing some of the strategies. This is a perfect episode to listen to if you are near the start of your financial journey, whether that’s at the beginning of graduate school or further on in your career. Without further ado, here’s my interview with George Walters-Marrah.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:26 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today George Walters-Marrah. He is a rising PhD student. We are recording this interview in July, 2020, and within the next month or two, he’s going to be starting his PhD program at Stanford. And he’s already been on a financial journey. So, we’re going to talk through about the last year, how he’s been preparing financial aid to go into his PhD program, as well as he’s done an awesome amount of career preparation to get to that stage as well. So, George, it’s a real pleasure to have you on the podcast. Would you please introduce yourself to the listeners?
01:58 George: Thank you for having me. So, I just graduated with my bachelor’s in molecular microbiology, and I have a research interest in interdisciplinary sciences. But I’ve also been kind of really obsessed with personal finance over the last year. So, I’m glad to be able to talk about it. Because whenever I get the chance, I kind of get excited because I’ve been so involved and kind of like consumed with it for a while. So, thanks for having me.
Financial Preparation Before Grad School
02:28 Emily: Well, it’s really exciting for me as well. And the way we actually met was over Twitter, and you prepared this fabulous document of personal finance resources and included a lot of mine in there, which I’m really grateful for and you shared it. And I happened to see it and was just so flattered that you did that, and it was a fantastic document. So, I’m really excited that you have been sharing this material with your peers. We’ll get into that, why you’re doing that during the course of the interview. So, let’s take it back to almost a year ago. How were you starting to prepare financially for graduate school even, you know, well, well, before you finished your undergrad degree?
03:05 George: Yeah. So, about a year ago I was like kind of oblivious to personal finance. But what I did know was that there were things called fellowships and scholarships and stuff that I could apply to. So, like about a year ago during the summer, I was looking into scholarships and fellowships and I applied, I was starting to apply to the NSF GRFP, the Ford Fellowship, and other things like that. So, I started that pretty early and I would suggest to start that over the summer, if you can. If not, start it at the beginning of the fall, because I was able to get a couple of fellowships and I think a really big reason I was able to do that was because I started so early, kind of like reaching out to my letter writers and starting my personal statement and kind of like collecting the different, like papers that I would need to write my research proposal.
Balancing Coursework with Grad School Applications
03:54 Emily: Yeah. We’ll link in the show notes because I’ve done a couple other interviews with fellowship winners and that was a common thread of advice: start early. So, even right now, you know, July for the people who are going to be applying in the upcoming, you know, starting about six months from now, they need to really be working on this, you know, the preparation process getting started now. How did you–so I applied for graduate school and all of these fellowships after I finished my undergrad, I had a post-bac year–how did you manage sort of balancing your coursework, your thesis work, I assume, with doing these, you know, intensive applications?
04:30 George: So, full disclosure, I was a fifth year student, so I graduated in five years. So, I had most of my class requirements done. So, I had the luxury of kind of decreasing the amount of classes I had. So, I still had 12 credit hours, but I was able to kind of like pick and choose classes that weren’t like super intensive. So, I kind of did that. And I also had the luxury of having a class that could be like a placeholder and I could use that time to do my personal statement and prepare to apply to graduate school and fellowships. But I would say that, try to decrease the amount of classes that are super intensive. Try to kind of pick classes that, you don’t have a lot of, like, time-consuming, like it doesn’t consume a lot of the your time, and kind of learn how to say no to things.
05:25 George: If you can kind of just say no to a few things so you can use that time to kind of work towards your fellowship applications, work towards your grad school applications. I think that would kind of like, it builds up, like when you keep saying yes. So, if you kind of learn how to say no to things that may not be helpful to you in the future, or may not be worth the time, I think that would kind of really be helpful with allowing you to find that time to kind of complete all that you need to do that last semester.
Which Fellowships Did You Win?
05:54 Emily: Yeah. I think it’s a great idea that you actually had space in your core schedule for doing these applications, because that’s really how you need to treat it. You need to treat it as at least one class, if not multiple classes. That’s the amount of time it’ll take. So, you were successful in winning some of these fellowships. Which ones did you win?
06:12 George: So, I was able to get like three fellowships. It was kind of like three different types of fellowships. So, I had got an external fellowship and two internal fellowships. So, I got the NSF GRFP, which was external, it kind of followed me wherever I went. And then I got an internal Stanford fellowship, which is, they kind of reviewed my application and you kind of get considered for this just by applying. And they gave me that fellowship based on my application. And then my last fellowship is one I got actually pretty recently. And it was a fellowship that I got by applying to a program, a first year program, after I got accepted and after I decided to come. So, it was kind of like the first one, I applied to it way before I applied to grad school, and then I got the external one. The second one, like they considered me just by applying, and I got that one. And the third one, I applied to it after I actually got into the program. And it was like a separate first-year program at Stanford. So, like, there are kind of several different ways that you can try and get these fellowships, which I think is like really nice.
07:16 Emily: Yeah. So, the fellowship applications did not stop, you know, just after the fall of your application season. That’s awesome that you won so many different ones. I have a post that I’ll link to in the show notes where I list a bunch of these portable external fellowships, like the NSF GRFP. So, I’ll put them in the show notes if people want to kind of peruse through. A lot of people know about the NSF fellowship, but there are some other ones that are a little bit less known. You mentioned Ford earlier. That’s another great one. So anyway, there’ll be a list there, several ones you can probably apply to, you know, in the year that you’re applying to graduate school and then in a few years after that, but you’re taking care of for a few years. So, that’s amazing.
Lessons Learned from Undergrad Personal Finance Course
07:53 Emily: Okay, so now we’re going to fast forward, you know, that was kind of the fall of your last year of undergrad. And then I believe in the spring semester you took a personal finance course. So, tell me a little bit about that course. Like why did you elect to take it, and maybe like two to three big takeaways from the course that you think would be really instructive for other PhDs to know?
08:14 George: Yeah. So, my school like offers this course called Personal Finance and Investments. I actually learned about it the fall that I was applying to graduate school. And I always wanted to take a personal finance class because I didn’t really know anything about personal finance. I didn’t know how to invest. I didn’t know how to make a budget. I didn’t know any of that stuff. And in my first few semesters, I thought of like, “Oh, maybe it’s microeconomics or macroeconomics or something like that,” but I read the summary and it didn’t make sense. So, I finally found this class and that’s like, “Oh, this is the class.” So, I took it and it was a great class. Like, it was a kind of a learning curve. You had to kind of learn the language of personal finance. Like what’s a dividend and all these different stuff.
Lesson 1: You Don’t Have to be an Expert to Invest
08:55 George: But after I got the hang of it, it kind of went very smoothly and I got like way more invested in it. And if I was to say to like three things that I thought that I learned from that class that were very helpful to me, the first big one is that to invest, you don’t really need to like follow the stock market and be like an expert and kind of like, look at it every single second of every day. There are like a lot of different kinds of innovative ways that allow kind of like people who are super busy or people that are kind of inexperienced to actually have a good experience investing.
09:29 Emily: If I can summarize that first point or what you were starting to say, it’s that, I mean, I love the way you phrased it. Like investing does not have to be something that you are paying attention to all day long every day in and out. I think that is an image that we have in our culture of what investing is, maybe from like, I don’t know, the eighties or the nineties or something, like it’s kind of archaic at this point. Because index funds, which I think was what you were starting to talk about there. They’ve been around for, I don’t know, four or five decades at this point, but only have really been gaining in popularity in the last couple of decades. But index funds, like you were saying, just are a diversification. Like you get a lot of different investments, stock investments often in one bucket and it’s representative of kind of the whole market or an entire sector of the market. And so you can buy, you essentially buy everything when you buy an index fund and it’s in a given market sector. That means you’re buying the winners. It means you’re buying the losers. But it turns out that that’s a more effective strategy than trying to pick the winners and avoid the losers. Is that what you were learning through your course?
10:31 George: Yeah, so, it was big because like, I think like a lot of people think they have to beat the market, but if you match the market, you kind of avoid that pitfall of like losing to the market. Because it either could go really bad or really good, or you could just match it. And then the market kind of like trends up. So, I decided to go that way, kind of like passive investing. So, that’s like the one, the first big thing that you don’t have to, it’s not a full-time job to invest, which is really nice, since as a grad student, I’ll be very busy.
11:04 Emily: Actually, if I could expand on that for one more second. So, I also tell people like investing should not be your side hustle. Like you should not be spending a ton of time working on your investments. And I always say to them, like, if you want a full-time job doing investing, get a full-time job as an investor, be a hedge fund manager or go do that kind of thing. Like, make a ton of money off of this. Don’t just play around with your own money. If you’re going to be, you know, actually investing that kind of time into the process, which again, I don’t think is necessary or a good idea. So to me, investing is kind of like learn about it for a little while, you set up what you need to set up, and then you just let it run and you just do maintenance and you don’t have to, you know, mess around with it a whole lot.
Lesson 2: Make an Emergency Fund
11:45 George: Yeah. I totally agree, because like, I’ve been investing for a while now and it’s like, it’s not really time-consuming at all. I kind of like check it at least once a day just because I like looking at it. But other than that, it’s not like I’m constantly fidgeting with my stuff. And I think the more you fidget with it, the more fees you get. So, it’s like, it’s kind of like passive investing. It’s kind of like a win-win. But I guess two more points that I would say that are really nice that I got out of it is that kind of making an emergency fund. I never really thought of that. Kind of like before, an emergency happens, you just have the money in your savings account. So, I’ve been trying to get my emergency fund kind of like they say at a minimum is three months but I’m hoping to get it like higher, maybe to nine months, if possible.
Lesson 3: Time Value of Money
12:29 George: And I’m kind of slowly building towards that. And another thing that I learned that was pretty interesting is that, kind of like this thing called, I think it’s called time, money value, a time value of money. It’s kind of like a dollar today is worth more than a dollar a year from now. So, if you can get money today and kind of put it in your investments or put it into your savings account, maybe like a high yield savings account, that will be worth more than kind of like $50, maybe a year from now, that you weren’t able to get that interest off of by having it in your account. So, I never really thought of it that way. I kind of, I always thought that like, “Oh, if I have a thousand dollars today, it’s the same as having a thousand dollars in 10 years.” So, those are kind of like the three big things that I would think of that I got from the class.
13:15 Emily: Yeah. I think the time value of money is also just a, it’s a mind-blowing concept. Like once you kind of understand like compound interest and how much your money can work for you. And I think the point that, you know, graduate students especially should take away from that is it’s okay–it’s great–to start investing now with a very small amount of money. It will not be a small amount of money decades from now when you actually reach retirement. So, what I like to say is that graduate students should not dismiss whatever tiny amount of money they might be able to start investing right now. Maybe it’s $10 a month. Maybe it’s $50 a month. That money will add up over time with this factor of compounding with the time value of money applied to it. And so, yeah, it’s not something that you should just say, “Oh, well, I can’t really save that much, so I’m not going to bother. Like, it’s still something you should pursue, even if it’s a small amount of money today.
14:05 George: Yeah. Totally agree.
What Financial Changes Did You Make?
14:08 Emily: And so, what did you actually, you know, you took this fabulous course, you learned a lot from it. What changes did you actually make? So, you’ve already mentioned that you started investing. Can you talk a little bit about how you started down that road?
14:20 George: Yeah, so I started investing well, like the first thing I did was I tried to get my financial life together, trying to get like my financial health in order because I didn’t really know anything. So, I started tracking my finances. So, I got the Mint app. I started tracking how much money I spend in a month. And the first month I wasn’t really trying to make a budget. I was just trying to understand my money habits and see what I could change. See what I wanted to keep. And then I started thinking about budgeting. And then after that I started my emergency fund. I also started collecting all of my important documents, like my birth certificate and my social security number and putting them in one place. They were kind of like scattered around. So, I wanted to put them in one place and kind of like, just get all of my stuff, like organized, like the first few months.
15:05 George: And then after I got myself situated and kind of like knew what was going on financially, that’s when I started investing. I decided to do a Robo Roth at the start until I get kind of like experienced with the stock market. And then I plan to transfer it over to a manual one to kind of like start my own Roth. So, my manual Roth–I mean not my manual Roth, my Robo Roth, I’m kind of like, “invest stuff for me,” and it’s kind of in the safest way possible. So, I don’t kind of like put it in something that kind of like blows up in my face and I lose all my retirement money. And my brokerage account is kind of just, it’s a tax account, but I only put money in there that I put in there so I can kind of gain experience with buying stocks and selling stocks and stuff like that.
15:50 George: So, and now that I think about it, one other thing that I learned from my class is that, when I’m looking at stocks and stuff, there are these things called like target-date retirement kinds of funds, which is like kind of nice. And I plan when I make my manual Roth, I actually planned a large part of it to be a target-date fund, which will kind of like change based on how close I am to retirement. And so after I did all of that, I kind of like started thinking about like different things that I learned about in my class that I should think about when I’m kind of like investing my brokerage account. Like don’t invest what I’m not willing to lose. And like, if you don’t understand it, don’t invest in it. And I started kind of like building up my portfolio and now I have like a pretty decent nest egg. So, I’m pretty proud of how I’ve gotten so far in the last few months.
Choosing a Robo-Advisor
16:42 Emily: I know, you haven’t even started graduate school yet. I mean, which is arguably I guess not a job, and you’re just getting out of undergrad, and I don’t know, it’s a fabulous amount of progress that you’ve made in this time. Which robo-advisor did you choose to start with?
16:57 George: Oh, so I actually chose Betterment. So, there are several different websites, I think there’s NerdWallet, that kind of review all these different things. Something else I learned from my class is don’t take it from one source alone, kind of go to multiple different sources and then based on all the sources together, make a decision. And kind of like across the board people suggested Betterment. So, I kind of went with Betterment since it had such great reviews all across the board.
17:31 Emily: Mhm. I think, I don’t know specifically, this is true for Betterment. It might be because you chose them. But one of the advantages that robo-advisors have is that they often have $0 minimums to start investing. So, it’s a great place like you’re doing when you’re just at the very, very start of your journey to use something like that, as you were saying, sort of some more familiarity, get some experience. And then you can switch over as you were planning on doing to a Roth IRA that you manage yourself through one of like the discount brokerage firms, like Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab. I’m sure you’re looking at one of those three, if not something similar, for once you switch, but those often have some kind of minimum. So, I know like my strategy when I started my Roth IRA was I started with Fidelity because they, at that time, they waived their minimum if you had a $50 per month automated investing plan. So, I did that until I had $3,000 and then I switched over to Vanguard, because that’s where I really wanted to be, once I had the Vanguard $3,000 minimum. So, it sounds like you’re probably doing something similar with your robo-advisor to, you know, a Roth IRA that you’ll manage yourself strategy. Is that right?
18:34 George: Yeah. And there are like multiple different reasons as well. Like a big one is like the minimum so that like I could start investing now so that even if it’s a little bit, I could still start growing my investments. And also, when I get to a decent amount, I’ll be able to get, like, I think there are minimums in mutual funds as well. So, it’s like in order to invest in mutual funds, you need to have a certain amount of money. I’m not there yet. So, I think I’ll keep it in my Robo fund, which is kind of very low expense. Very kind of like, easy to, well, not low expenses–you can put as little money there as possible, and then it starts going in investments. But I feel like with the robo-advisors, I don’t want to keep it in there too long because they have these expense ratios. And if I have a large amount of money, I kind of start eating at my investments. But I think early on in the process that this was the best decision for me.
19:25 Emily: Yeah. And expense ratio, for those in the audience who haven’t started investing yet, is a representation. It’s a percentage representation of the total cost of owning whatever the investment is. So, with something like a robo-advisor, they usually add to the expense ratio of the underlying funds that you buy. Maybe about a 0.25% fee, which is sort of low. It sounds like pretty low. But you can get quite a bit lower if you just manage it yourself. Like you’re planning on doing, you know, in a few months or a year or whatever. You can get down under like 0.1%, 0.05%, even down to 0% expense ratios. So, there are very, very low expense ratios out there, even though the robo-advising fee doesn’t sound very high. Over time, as you were saying, it really does add up. Whatever you’re paying in expenses compounds, as we were talking about earlier, and it could end up being quite a bit of money over your entire investing lifetime. But your plan sounds really great to me. It sounds like you’ve gone about it in a totally intelligent way. So, that’s awesome.
20:27 Emily: Emily here, for a brief interlude. I am just bursting with this news. I have launched a Community for Personal Finance for PhDs. The Community is for PhDs and people pursuing PhDs who want to level up their practice of personal finance by opening and funding an IRA, starting to budget, aggressively paying off debt, financially navigating a life or career transition, maximizing the income from a side hustle, preparing an accurate tax return, and much more. Inside the Community, you’ll have access to a library of financial education products I’ve made in the past. And I’m going to add new trainings to that library every month. There is also a discussion forum, monthly live calls with me, a book club, and progress journaling for financial goals. Basically, the Community is going to help you reach your financial goals, whatever they are. Go to pfforphds.com/community to find out even more. If you’re listening to this in real-time, you have the opportunity to become a founding member of the Community at a discount. The price is going up on August 15th, 2020, so don’t delay. Go to pfforphds.com/community for all the details. I can’t wait to help propel you to financial success. Now, back to the interview.
George’s Financial Resources Document
21:47 Emily: Could you share like why you created the document that you did? Because I think it came out of the course, right? What you were learning from the course?
21:57 George: Yeah so, I was learning all the different stuff and I started kind of looking up all these different, like websites and I found your website and many other websites and I started bookmarking them. And then, since I was kind of so engrossed with it, I would talk about it. So, I’m a McNair scholar at University of Central Florida, and we’re in this kind of like community together. And I always talk about it to other McNair scholars, and they ask me for advice, they ask me, “Oh, what can I learn about this?” And then I would kind of like blow them up with links. And I didn’t think it was kind of the best way to go about it. So, I decided to make an easy to read document with like the links, kind of like embedded in words.
22:36 George: So, you can read through it in kind of a relaxing way, and then click a link if you want to learn more about what I was talking about. And then I posted this in our McNair group chat. But then I thought it would be nice for other people to use this as well as they wanted to. So, I posted it on my Twitter, and I think a few people were able to like use it to learn more about personal finance.
22:58 Emily: Yeah. And we’ll link to the document in the show notes as well because I thought it was really well put together. So, thank you for doing that. Thank you for that, like, community service.
Factors in Choosing a Graduate School
23:06 Emily: Okay. So, now we’re in the spring semester, you have, you know, you have applied to your fellowships, you’ve applied to graduate school. You’re being admitted to different programs. And of course, you know, we’re considering a lot of things when we choose a graduate program, the quality of the research, the mentor that you might work with, maybe overall the program, the structure of it, where it’s located and so forth. But you know, the stipend, I think should be one of those considerations. Did you factor in the finances when you were choosing which graduate program to attend, or were you able to make the decision based on those other factors?
23:41 George: So, I applied to like nine graduate schools, and I think from eliminating the first ones, it was mostly based on like the research and like the faculty and the resources and stuff like that. But then when I got to the end, it was kind of hard to decide. It was a very hard decision. And when I was down to two, like based on cost of living of the two areas, the stipends were very similar, the research interests were really similar. Like everything was very similar. So, it was kind of hard to kind of make that decision. So, I think what it came down to was kind of two things. The first thing was that one school was kind of like calling me and checking up on me, answering my questions and that kind of like had a really good impact on me.
24:27 George: But then the last thing is that the school that I decided to go to, which is Stanford, they offered transitioning costs. So, like transitioning funds. So, I think transitioning to grad, I mean, I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve heard that transitioning to grad school can be really expensive. So, that they offered kind of some funds to allow me to kind of like take that stress off of me was kind of like, I think that’s what kind of pushed me to choose Stanford since it was a really hard decision.
24:58 Emily: I think that’s an excellent, I mean it’s a really, really good insight into your decision-making process. It sounds like, you know, these final two schools, it was really close. What tipped you over was, you know, people at Stanford were really attentive to you, checking up on you, and then they offered you this moving fund. And I mean, that’s something that graduate programs should know about. If something that minor, a few thousand dollars I assume?
25:19 George: It was actually $500.
Consider Stipends AND Cost of Living
25:20 Emily: Oh, $500? Okay. Right. So, $500, which is like nothing to the graduate programs, could tip an excellent candidate like you, you know, you won this outside fellowship, you’re bringing in money. If something like offering you $500 could tip the scales in their favor, that’s something that they all should be doing, frankly, at this point. So, I think you mentioned something in there really quickly, but I believe you said something like after you factored in the cost of living of the two different places, the stipends were similar, is that right? So the stipends themselves weren’t actually the same, but they were similar to another, once you factored in the cost of living, is that right? Can you talk about how you did that?
25:57 George: Yeah. So, like the cost of living at Stanford is much higher. So, the two schools, I guess, were Stanford and Cornell. So, the cost of living in Palo Alto is much higher than the cost of living in Ithaca, New York. So, the Stanford stipend was much higher than the Cornell stipend, but there are different websites where you can put in the location. I think it’s a cost of living calculator. You could put in the location where you plan to live and then the money that you’ll be bringing in, and there are also like tax calculators, because there are different tax rules. So, you can calculate how much tax will be coming out of your stipend. They can calculate how your stipend compares if you were to live in another area. And I kind of compared the two stipends and they were very similar, like almost identical, once you took into consideration cost of living. So, I couldn’t really use that as a reason to choose one over the other.
26:53 Emily: Yeah. Thank you for pointing that out. Like, I mean, even, you know, I also was sort of getting into personal finance in the year that I was applying to graduate school, and I didn’t even do that step that you did of taking that into consideration. I was just kind of looking at, “Oh, the stipends are all sort of similar. I don’t know. I assume the cities are different, but I never sat down and like actually did that little, little bit of math that you did. So, it’s a great idea just for the audience, anyone else going through this. I really like to use the MIT Living Wage database or calculator, livingwage.mit.edu. And it shows you what the living wage is for every, you know, county or metro city area in the U.S. And so, that’s the factor that I like to use.
27:31 Emily: That’s what we use in phdstipends.com, which is my database website where people enter their stipends and then we do this little division, like you were just saying, of divide the stipend by the local cost of living from this database and spit out this like factor, you know, is it more than one? Is it less than one? So, exactly what you were doing, maybe using a different calculator, but I think it’s really, really smart.
Housing Budget and Taxes
27:51 Emily: So, okay. You’ve chosen to go to Sanford, and you already were just mentioning some of the basic building blocks of the budget that you’ll have once you start graduate school. Like you were talking about taking into consideration how much your taxes are going to be. And I know that you’ve been preparing a budget over this summer before you’re moving to Palo Alto. So, can you talk about that process a little bit, and also about your decision around housing?
28:12 George: Yeah. So, I started my budget already. So, the first thing that I kind of took out of my budget was taxes. Because what I kind of like found out that was pretty surprising is that they don’t take taxes out of fellowships. So, like your income tax will be kind of just like given to you and you’re expected to know that it’s supposed to be paid back in taxes.
Quarterly Taxes on Non-W-2 Income
28:34 Emily: Okay. Let’s pause there because I think we need to emphasize that. At most universities, it sounds like it’s Stanford included, if you’re receiving a fellowship, which is what I call non-W-2 income. So, fellowship, training grant, this kind of income. Very likely, they will not be withholding income tax for you, as a domestic student. For international students, they do. So, let’s emphasize that again. You are receiving your entire paycheck, but that does not mean that you get to keep all of that. Part of that is going to go back to the IRS in the form of income taxes, which you may have to pay quarterly. I’ll link in the show notes to my resources on that. It’s probably ones that you found, George, as you were doing this research. But yeah, please keep going. I just wanted to, like–we don’t want to gloss over that. Like, you will probably end up paying income tax and you have to do it yourself. It’s not done for you. And it’s a process that a lot of people just completely miss and they have an ugly surprise when they get to their taxes after their first year of graduate school.
29:30 George: Yeah. And actually, I plan to do quarterly taxes as well. So, I was kind of like putting it together so that every month, like I kind of calculated how much taxes I would owe at the end, and then I divided that by 12. And then I would kind of like save that amount of money every single month. So, when it comes to that time, when I have to pay my quarterly tax, I already have it in my savings account and I can just pay it. But that’s the first thing I kind of put away. And then I went to my housing. So, at Stanford, they have housing on campus which is subsidized. So, it’s kind of nice that I was able to kind of apply to housing at Stanford.
30:06 George: So, I kind of looked at all the housing options, and out all of the ones that I liked, I kind of picked the highest monthly rent, and I put that in my budget. And I was thinking that, if I get a lower one, I could just change that in my budget. It will be easier to change to lower than to higher. So, that was kind of my thought process on that. And then with my budget, I tried to make it so that it’s not a budget that I kind of don’t like looking at. So, I kind of like, as I said before, like I tried to find out how I spend my own money and I tried to make a budget that I can comfortably live within the budget, and I gave myself some breathing room.
30:44 George: I wanted my budget to be kind of pleasant to live on so I don’t kind of like break my budget. So, I kind of was thinking like, “Okay, I spent this much on food. Let me give myself a little breathing room since I can kind of like afford to do that.” And then I also put some money in there for shopping. I put some money in there for transportation because I don’t plan to bring my car with me my first year. And then I also put like 20 to 25% away for investments. So, kind of like putting stuff into my savings accounts, putting stuff into my Roth IRA. And then for my brokerage account, I don’t plan to put monthly in there until I have a good amount in my savings account, but then I plan to start putting monthly into my brokerage account. For now, I’ll just kind of like, if I have some money from the money I put away for shopping and for like kind of random stuff, I’ll buy some stocks if I feel like I want to, but it won’t be like a monthly thing that I put money specifically away for yet. But that’s kind of like what I decided to put in my budget.
Ranking Housing Options
31:53 Emily: I want to go back just to the housing point for a second, because I think you’ve made a really good decision, which was like, okay, so you’re applying for all this, you know, subsidized on-campus housing. You account in your budget for the highest possible rent you would be paying. But is that actually how it turned out? Like what housing did you, when you were saying where you wanted to live, was that the one that you put at the top of your list? Or like how did you rank order that list and what did you actually get into?
32:18 George: So, I ranked the list, so there’s like really new housing that’s coming out. It’s going to actually debut this fall semester. So, I put that at the top of my list and that was actually the most expensive, and I was able to get it. So, I didn’t change my budget, but I also had these different ones that were a little bit older, but they had good amenities. They would have good spacing. And I actually got the tour it when I was at my interview. So, I would be fine living with it. It’s not like I would be like, “Oh, I can’t live here and I’ll have to live somewhere else.” So, that’s how I ranked it.
32:53 George: But, there were other options that were really, really expensive. So, I kind of listed those. They say to list everything, so I listed them, but they were like in 30th place, like it was kind of ridiculous how much they cost. So, I tried to kind of combine quality, but also the cost of living because I feel like housing, I think when I was reading my budgeting you should try to keep housing as close to 50% as possible. My housing is a little bit, it’s still over 50%, but I think it’s kind of difficult to kind of get 50% or lower as a grad student. So, I tried to get as close to that as possible. And with some of the other housing, it was like well over 50%. So, I tried to take into consideration that I should try to be close to 50%, if at all possible.
33:43 Emily: Yeah, I think I don’t know exactly what you were learning in the course, but according to the balanced money formula, which is a framework that I like to reference, you should keep all of your necessary expenses below 50% of your net income, which is really, really challenging to do on a graduate student stipend and also on a graduate student stipend in a high cost of living area, which is what you’re doing. So, it’s not surprising at all to me that even you, you know, making a prudent housing choice, it’s still over 50% of your income. That is pretty common for graduate students in high cost of living areas. But yeah, so it sounds like you were, you know, really thinking through both the finances and the lifestyle that you wanted to have with that housing decision. So, super happy that you were, you know, really intentional about that.
Long-Term Emergency Savings Goals
34:29 Emily: And you were mentioning just now, like some of your financial goals for your finances in graduate school. You mentioned that you were going to be saving/investing 20 to 25% of your income and then possibly doing a little bit more investing if you wanted to at any particular time. And I think you also mentioned earlier that you wanted to save up an emergency fund of nine months of expenses. Is that right? Is that your ultimate goal?
34:54 George: Yeah, I’m trying to, one day I hope to get to nine months. So, I would say my kind of goals for personal finance and graduate school, in particular, are kind of modest. I’m not looking to have like a huge, huge thing by the time I graduate. I hope to kind of like build habits and get into the habit of kind of like investing, get into the habit of staying on my budget, getting into the habit of putting money away monthly. Because like in undergrad, I didn’t have any of those habits, and I think that’s something I’m going to have to kind of build. And also, have at least like three months, hopefully nine months, of my emergency fund. Because I know that emergencies are emergencies and I doubt I won’t have any emergencies in graduate school.
35:37 George: So, hopefully by the time I graduate, I’ll have at least three months, hopefully nine months. And then kind of have a decent amount in my kind of Roth IRA as well as in my brokerage account, and that I’ve kind of stayed consistent throughout the five, six, or maybe seven years that I’ll be doing my PhD of monthly, always, putting some money away and not falling into blowing money on stuff. But also giving me that kind of flexibility to have fun and to do things that I find kind of amusing so that I don’t get too stressed through graduate school.
36:13 Emily: I think that’s such an excellent point that you made. Like yes, it would be great to come out of graduate school with savings, with investments, with a nice nest egg. That’s what happened for me. My husband and I defended with quite a good nest egg, and it was really fabulous for our subsequent life. But, the more important thing, actually, is the habit formation. And it’s sort of changing your–like becoming a person who budgets, becoming a person who invests. Now, I know I said earlier that it matters a whole lot. Like if you do that with a small amount of money, it’s great, and yes, that’s true. But, even more powerful is the habit. And so, when you have that nice post-PhD salary, and you’re already in the habit of investing or you’re in the habit of saving, you can then apply those habits to that fabulous higher income and really make some fast progress with your, you know, financial goals.
Any Other Goals for Grad School?
37:02 Emily: So, I think that was such a good point that you made, and even for people who aren’t able to do what you plan on doing, which is still, you know, saving and investing during graduate school. Even getting into the habit of budgeting, like that can be a great goal for your time during graduate school is just to make those changes in yourself and who you are. Even if you aren’t able to come out with more savings, again, once you have the post-PhD income, you’ll be able to keep applying those habits and really make some fast progress. So, such an excellent point, George. Any other goals you have for graduate school, aside from the ones that we just talked about?
37:37 George: I guess like, I mean, there are like nonfinancial goals, like kind of building like skills and kind of building my network and traveling and learning all the different stuff from different people. But financial-wise, I just hope to kind of pay as little in taxes as possible, learn how to file my own taxes. Kind of learn like all the financial things that I need to know to kind of like succeed. I think for my brokerage account, I’ll be kind of investing. I think the money in there is probably going to be used as a down payment on a house in the future. That’s kind of like, well far off, but I’m kind of thinking, “Oh, I’m investing in my brokerage account. I’ll probably use it to kind of buy a house or have some money towards a house.” Kind of things like that. Those are kind of like the goals I’m thinking of, but I don’t really have like super hard, concrete stuff yet. But those are kind of the things I’ve been thinking about.
38:30 Emily: Yeah. I think it’s great that you identified like, “Okay, I know it’s important to have an emergency fund.” You’re going build that up. “I know it’s important to save for retirement. I’m going to build that up.” And then, “Okay, whatever else comes, I have this other brokerage account, you know, other savings I can use for that. If it’s a house down payment, if it’s something else.” I think that’s a great way to structure your finances when you have a lot of unknowns in the future, as is very, very common for PhDs, because we never know where we’re going to live. You know, after, it’s a lot of uncertainty that we live with kind of longterm.
38:59 Emily: But George, it was a real pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing this beginning part of your journey. I hope that we’ll catch up with you again in maybe a few months or a year and see if it’s all panning out the way you thought it would. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.
39:15 George: Yeah, no problem. It was a pleasure to be able to talk about it.
39:17 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, please consider joining my mailing list for my behind-the-scenes commentary about each episode. Register at pfforphds.com/subscribe. 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.
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