In this episode, Emily interviews Hajer Nakua, a rising second-year PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Toronto. Hajer describes how the culture of being “broke” in academia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for individual graduate students. Hajer and Emily discuss in detail Hajer’s top three strategies for breaking this cycle of brokeness in graduate school and how you can change your money mindset. Hajer identifies the culture of consumerism as the top culprit.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Tax Center
- Raw Talk Podcast Website
- Hajer’s Instagram: @itshajernakua
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Hajer: You know, if people don’t talk about how they’re spending money and all they talk about is the fact that they’re broke, it’s really easy to be like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” But to be more open with money and not have it very taboo I think will really help spearhead discussions of what does it mean to be in graduate school and have money. Like, how are the best ways to spend my stipend?
00:25 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 four, and today my guest is Hajer Nakua, a rising second-year PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Toronto. Hajer describes how the culture of being broke in academia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for individual graduate students. We discuss in detail her top three strategies for breaking this cycle of brokeness in graduate school, and how you can change your money mindset. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Hajer Nakua.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:04 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today, Hajer Nakua, and she is a recently started graduate student. We are recording this in August of 2019 so she’s going into her second year. And we’re going to be discussing today the “culture of broke” inside academia and how to combat that with your own personal finances. So, Hajer, thank you so much for joining me today. And will you please tell the audience a little bit more about yourself?
01:28 Hajer: Thank you very much, Emily, for having me. And sure. I just finished my undergrad in Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior at McMaster University in Ontario. I finished in April 2018, and in September 2018, I started my graduate training at the University of Toronto. It’s technically in the Institute of Medical Science, but my field is specifically neuroscience. And even more specific, I use computational technology. So, things like neuroimaging, brain imaging, MRI, to better understand brain behavior relationships in a population of psychiatric children.
The Culture of “Broke” in Academia
02:07 Emily: Very, very interesting. So, you have been in academia–well, your PhD program, at any rate–for only about a year, but that’s been long enough to start to absorb the culture of being broke. So, would you please start to describe that for me?
02:22 Hajer: Sure. I’ve actually noticed this culture very, very persistently in undergrad, and it’s more of a student thing than when you’re a PhD–you’re still considered a student. And it’s just the idea that students, because they don’t have a very stable income, they’re supposed to be broke. And that is a very, very persistent limiting belief that many students have. And I find that particularly in PhD, Masters, or any graduate school program because of the high expense of the program, people just sort of settle into the idea of, “Oh, I’m broke, I’m supposed to be broke.” And it often limits them from taking the necessary measures to try to build wealth even during their PhD or graduate school training.
03:00 Emily: Well, you know you have found a very friendly audience in me with this message. I totally agree with you. To me, like if you’re looking at the numbers, right? Like if you’re actually looking people’s income and outflow and everything, to me, there’s usually a pretty big difference between someone who is paying out of pocket to be in school. They’re probably taking on student loan debt or maybe they’re supported by their families or even maybe they’re drawing on their own savings from the past, and someone who does have their education expenses paid for, plus there’s a stipend on top of that. That to me is like black and white, a very different situation. But you’re right that, because there’s often a continuum between those two things, people who are on the, “Well, you actually do have an income side of that,” can have some of the mindset still from when they were on the other side of the equation. Again, because as you said, the label of “student” is still there. And you said for me a couple of magic words, which were “limiting beliefs,” which I am very interested in. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Can You Expand on Limiting Beliefs?
04:03 Hajer: Sure. So, in general, a limiting belief is this very persistent idea someone has that often allows them to settle into something that prevents them from moving forward with whatever it is that they want in their life. And that’s a very vague and general explanation. But in this case, I find that when people say things such as, “Oh, I’m broke,” they sort of get over the idea that, “Maybe I should have a savings account, maybe I should start, you know, being more financially savvy.” They’re like, “Should I buy this $10 meal? Yeah. Whatever. I’m broke. What another $10?” So, it’s this constant idea that any sort of wealth, any money management is not applicable to their life.”
04:46 Emily: Yeah.
04:46 Hajer: I think that’s very persistent in particularly graduate school. And quickly commenting on one thing that you said. Although there is a stipend, and it’s fair that many people move for a PhD program, so that often goes towards living expenses. So, of course, the amount of money that someone gets, it’s not high, but it’s still, as you said, a little bit surprising to me sometimes that there’s such a strong sense of, “I have no money,” even though technically there is some sort of cash flow coming in.
05:16 Emily: Yeah. And this is another difficult point, right? Because for some people, the stipend is insufficient to live on in that city. It’s tragic that some graduate schools choose to pay their students that way–their workers or their fellowship recipients–that’s something that needs to change kind of about the higher education system as a whole. So, in some cases, it really is true. There’s not enough to live on. You have to be going into debt, whether it’s student loan debt or consumer debt or you’re being supported by someone else. And I think around 50%, or if I’m trying to remember the stats correctly, around 50% or less of doctoral students ultimately do take out some sort of student loans during their graduate degrees, right? Not just from undergrad. Yet, in other cases, as you were just saying, the stipend may be sufficient to live on maybe even sufficient to do a little bit more with.
06:09 Emily: But because of those limiting beliefs, that isn’t even considered, it’s just an assumption. You’re a student, you’re going to be broke, there’s nothing else you can do about it. And like you said, sort of acquiescing to that idea and not acting in a way that could change that situation just because you think that it can’t be changed. Yeah, this is a big part of my message, so I’m really glad that we can have this discussion today. So, what would you say that if someone does accept being broke as a limiting belief, even if it’s not factually numbers-wise necessarily the case–what’s the harm in that? What’s the effect in that?
The Harm of Brokeness as a Limiting Belief
06:48 Hajer: It prevents them from trying to seek opportunities to sort of build any sort of wealth or income. When I say wealth, I don’t mean, you know, those like $1 million wealth. I mean, just sort of being able to work towards your financial freedom, which is a huge goal, particularly in the West as a lot of prices have been getting a lot more expensive. So, it prevents starting that. People often say, “Oh, in my PhD I’m broke so I’m going to stay that way. And then maybe after I’ll sort of think about how I want to think about money or how I want to build my income.” I find that very problematic because PhD is a really pivotal time in your life. So, the vast majority of people start between 22 to 32, in that decade, a lot of students are. And that’s a really key time to sort of build for retirement, or whatever it is, any goals that you may have.
07:40 Hajer: So, starting from an early age, they think, “Oh, that’s it. That’s a problem for later.” Or, “No, I don’t have the money to try to really focus on building financial freedom slowly, slowly, slowly.” It can really be detrimental in their ability to A) save, and also learn how to be good with money when you don’t have a lot of money. Because we’re not saying that PhD students have a great salary, as we’ve spoken about before, but it’s still important to sort of think about ways to be financially savvy at a time where you may not have a lot of wealth. And then as you build on later in life, you’ll get better and better at it. So, I feel like there’s a lot of wasted opportunity during the PhD years once someone succumbs to that limiting belief.
Investing in Yourself: A Cautionary Tale to Grad Students
08:25 Emily: Yeah, I totally agree. There are two points in there that I’d like to follow up with. The first is, so at least I have heard, you know, from some aspects of the culture, that your twenties are your time to invest in yourself. Don’t really worry so much about saving for retirement or whatever it might be. There’s time to do that later. Your twenties are your time to invest in yourself. And, if you’ve heard that message, you might think, “Well, yeah, I’m pursuing a PhD. Like that’s a great thing to be doing with my twenties in terms of investing in yourself.” And that’s true. But I do think that maybe the people who are propagating that, “Twenties are the time to invest in yourself” message are assuming that people have a much higher income. That during the course of your 20s, you’re going to be ramping up that income and you know, pursuing all these different opportunities.
09:12 Emily: Maybe you’re starting your own company or whatever it is. That’s a little bit of a different level of potential wealth, you might say, then what we’re talking about in more like the PhD land. Because it is a really difficult thing to start off, let’s say in your twenties, with a certain stipend. And then five, six, seven plus years later still have pretty much that same stipend that’s coming in. It’s very difficult to increase your income at all while you’re in graduate school unless you turn to outside sources of work. So, that’s something that doesn’t really jive for me about that message of like, “Invest in yourself in your 20s.” It’s like, yeah, you can do that, but please note that your income, if you do that through graduate school, is not actually going to be increasing during that time. Or at least not, you know, appreciably.
Investing in Retirement: Slow and Steady Pays Off
09:57 Emily: So, that was one thing that I wanted to point out. And the other one was just, as you were saying, I just wanted to underline the power of starting to invest. Whether that’s, you know, paying off debt or actually investing in stocks or something in your 20s is incredibly valuable because you have so much more time on your side before you reach the goal of, “Okay, I want to support myself in retirement,” or whatever your goal might be. It’s so, so valuable to put away even a very small amount of money early on. The earlier on you can do it, the better because of the magic and the power of compound interest. So, it’s something where like, as you were just saying, if you acquiesce to the idea that you’re going to be broke and you can’t, you know, invest for retirement or pay off your debt or whatever–if you succumb to that idea in your 20s, you might dismiss, “Oh, well, okay, I did have like $20 this month that I could have saved, or like $50. That’s not that much money, whatever. It’s fine.” Actually that is a lot of money once you compound it over multiple decades. So, it’s something where, as you were saying, succumbing to that limiting belief really does damage you in the long-term. If there was something you could have done about it, you know, in the present, which again, for some people it isn’t, but for others perhaps you could.
Investing in Yourself vs. Your Future ≠ Mutually Exclusive
11:16 Hajer: Yeah. And also I wanted to comment on the idea that, “Oh, in your 20s you’re supposed to enjoy yourself and invest in yourself.” And while I agree with that philosophical idea, I think that people often make it very mutually exclusive where there is being financially savvy and then there’s enjoying spending on yourself and investing in yourself and quote unquote self-care and all that kind of stuff. So, I think the message which is driven by consumerism teaches people that, “Oh, you don’t need to think about the future now. You don’t need to be financially savvy now. It’s just spend whatever you want to spend.” And if you have that limiting belief that you’re broke, it’s a very easy message to take in. And it also sort of fills that cognitive dissonance that anyone may have. However, again, I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive.
12:02 Hajer: I think that you can equally–if you’re able to support yourself and your stipend is sufficient–I do genuinely think that you can enjoy yourself and invest in yourself, whether it is with consumerism goods or other self-care habits, and also plan for the future and try to be more financially savvy. And it doesn’t need to be as complicated as investing, but like you said, it could just be having an emergency account that you know that every month a hundred dollars is going to be put in the savings account. I definitely think that in many cases, you can do both. And I think life is very enjoyable when you do both because you know that you’re enjoying the present, but you also know that you are planning for the future, and I think that there’s a lot of sort of warmth that comes with that on the inside.
12:45 Emily: Yeah, I totally agree with what you’re saying. This is what I found to be the case as well, that I never wanted to completely sacrifice my enjoyment of the present. A part of me enjoying the present was feeling more secure in my finances. And so it wasn’t like it has to be all one way or the other. And again, this is another limiting belief, right? Like, “You can only work on your financial future and then the present is going to be completely sacrificed.” Or, “You can only enjoy the present and then you cannot do anything for the future.” In fact, there usually is a balance between those two things. And why also when we choose to be extreme in one way, do we always choose the extreme of enjoying the present and not the extreme of sacrifice in the present, at least for the vast majority of people? So, yeah, I really enjoyed that part of our discussion. So, okay, let’s say we have a listener who says, “Okay, I’m hearing you. I’m hearing you. What can I do now on my grad student stipend or my postdoc salary?” Or whatever amount of money is coming in. You know, “How can I not be broke anymore? I’ve been telling myself that I have to be broke. Okay. Maybe I don’t have to, but what do I actually do to not be broke anymore?”
How to Exit the Cycle of Broke
13:51 Hajer: Okay. I love this question. I wanted to say more of a philosophical idea and then go towards practical tips. The first thing is to recognize that you’re always accountable for all the money that you use and you spend, because I think that people often–I hear this all the time, “I don’t know where the money goes. It just sort of leaves my bank account, and I just keep tapping. I have no idea what I’m buying.” So, I think when you’re at that level, you really need to step back and think, “Where is my money going?” If you’re a Tapper, if you’re just like, “I can tap my way through life,” you really need to sit back and think, “Well, what am I actually tapping on? How do I stop these habits?”
14:29 Hajer: So, I think that’s the first important step to acknowledge self-accountability in your spending and financial habits and your financial future. That’s number one. Number two, I think saving money can be a lot easier than people expect. And oftentimes when you go to YouTube or you read these blogs, they have these very complex budgets and you know, all these things are very meticulous and they understand that as a graduate student, a lot of our time is spent on project management, making sure that we’re sort of completing every stage of the project. So, you don’t want to add so much more to your plate that you’re being super meticulous. So some habits that I started off with is A) have an automatic transfer from a checking account to a savings account. So, I will check how much money would I need to save per month for whatever it is that I want. Maybe I’m saving up for a vacation, saving up for a car, whatever it is that you want to do. Calculate your monthly budget and then just transfer that so it’s on autopilot. You never have to think about it. And whatever’s left in your checking account, you can just spend. And that way it’s a much simpler methodology to get the end goal. Which is that, there’s a certain amount allotted for things that you want to do. You’re thinking about the future, but you have enough to enjoy.
You Don’t Have to Budget in Order to Save
15:43 Emily: I want to add to that for a moment because I think this is a really, really good and important point. Because there are some people who as you said, maybe it’s because of busy-ness, but maybe it’s not–some people don’t want to keep a budget. They don’t like to be feeling–even though they’re telling themselves what to do–they don’t like being told what to do with their money at any given time. So, the thing is though is that you don’t have to budget to save, but you can just go ahead as you were just saying and take the step of saving. And as long as you don’t end up overdrawing the amount of money you have left, then Hey, you’ve accomplished the step of saving and you’re trusting yourself to stay within the ultimate confines of the remainder of your money.
16:25 Emily: And you don’t have to silo all that money off into different categories if you don’t want to. If that’s helpful for you, great. But if you’re too busy, you don’t like it, just start saving and you know, adjust–you can live off the rest of it. So that tip, I mean, if that’s the only one anyone gets out of the podcast, that’s a hugely powerful one. I totally agree with you. Automate savings, do it first thing after you get paid. Don’t allow yourself to consider that money part of your general monthly spending, but rather put it first thing towards whatever goal it is that you’re working on, as you said. So, please continue. But I love that first point.
Tip 1: Automated Savings. Tip 2: Check Your Food Expenses
16:57 Hajer: I’m happy that you like it. What really helps me, especially during grad school–because I’m someone who is more on the meticulous end. I like know exactly where everything’s going in all aspects of my life. But I really found that this tip is the best one to start off with because I’m a big believer in gradual changes. So, nobody’s going to go from a reckless spender to a meticulous budgeter in a month because they have this very intense goal. And I think that it’s not practical to think that or to take those steps. So, I think sort of automated savings is the best way to go especially for graduate students. And then further on, as your money increases, you may want to be a little bit more meticulous. My second tip, and I’ve seen this in undergrad and graduate school, people spend an absurd amount of money on food, I’ve learned.
17:43 Hajer: And not grocery shopping. We’re not talking about whole foods, organic apples, we’re just talking about buying food every single day, buying a coffee and a drink with that. So, a lot of people that I know in graduate school spend $20 a day just on their daily food intake, in addition to any grocery shopping that they may do. And I really wanted to bring this up because when you really calculate how much money food takes out of your wallet, it almost would make you cry because it’s just one of those things that you don’t feel it because it’s $15 here, it doesn’t seem like a lot. The next day, $7 here, it doesn’t feel like a lot. So, that’s one thing. If you find that a lot of your money is being spent on to-go food, so food outside of your own home and outside of groceries, I really think the first step in addition to the savings account is tightening that up and trying to just do the grocery shopping and meal-prepping or whatever it is that’s how you want to eat. It’s up to you. So, we’re not talking about from a health perspective, although it helps. But from a money perspective, I really think that’s the first place people need to look at–their food spending habits.
Pay Attention to Repeated Spending Patterns
18:48 Emily: Yeah, of course. I have more to say on this as well because I love this tip as well. So, I actually found myself falling into this when I was in graduate school. So, something that would happen to me–and you can tell me if you relate to this–this is especially in the first couple of years when I was in grad school and I was still in classes and had like homework to do and stuff. So, you know, go to campus, you know, do your classes. I’ve packed my lunch. Okay. I packed my lunch every day, but there were plenty of days when I would sort of, without knowing in advance, I would actually stay late. So, I would stay over the dinner hour and be working on campus in the evenings because, you know, I had like a good study group going for like a couple of my classes.
19:23 Emily: We would meet and kind of talk about the homework and stuff, you know, in the evenings, a couple days a week. Maybe there’s something in the lab that I didn’t get to during the day. I need to get to it a little bit later. But I didn’t want to be hungry, of course. So anyway, I would go and buy convenience food on campus. This would happen, you know, once, twice a week, something like that. Not seemingly a hugely damaging habit. But when I kind of stepped back and evaluated that, I was like, “Okay, this is a pattern. It’s not totally unexpected that I stay into the evenings at least a couple days, you know, on campus.” So it’s not like, “Oh my gosh, this is only happening this one time. It’s a one-time exception.” No, it was an exception that was happening on a regular basis.
20:05 Emily: And so once I realized that that pattern had formed, I was like, “Okay, I need to do more than just pack my lunch. I have to also keep some food that I could eat for dinner at least as a heavy snack or something that’ll tide me over until I actually get home in the little bit later part of the evening.” So, it’s one thing, of course–people have heard the tip, right? To pack your lunch–but I would say just if you see patterns developing where you need to eat on campus and you see yourself turning to convenience foods, just try to acknowledge that that’s happening and take some steps so that it doesn’t catch you by surprise.
Keep a Snack Drawer, and Bring Your Own Tea (or Coffee)
20:38 Hajer: I actually had the exact same experience. I started to develop like a snack drawer. So, there’s a couple of healthy snacks I like, some that I make, some, you know, whatever it may be–maybe it’s like an apple or something for the week–and I keep that there. And that way, whenever I have to stay later–which I try not to do, I am someone who, you know, at 4:00 PM that’s my home time–but of course, like you said, there are times you just can’t control it. So, I know that there is something there and it’s something that I brought. Even if it’s a $3-4 bagel, that still adds up. My biggest thing was I used to really enjoy buying tea outside. I just loved in the morning coming with my tea and it was only $2 and 67 cents from Starbucks at the time.
21:24 Hajer: I memorized it and I always had it ready because I knew exactly how much it was. But over time you realize how much it would cost. And what I started to do is A) bring my own tea and buy a really cute mug. So, I felt good walking in with my tea mug. But sometimes if I didn’t have my mug, I would actually just ask for a cup and hot water and I would bring my tea bag, and I have them on my desk. And that saved a lot of money. But you just don’t feel that because $2.67 doesn’t seem like that much money. So, even something as small as tea, I felt that like, “Oh wow. By the end of the month, I have considerably more money than I did last month.” And it was just one very small change.
21:59 Emily: Yeah, because it’s a daily or an almost daily habit. Making a small change can make a huge difference.
22:09 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.
Changing Your Money Mindset
23:12 Hajer: One thing that has really helped me is–so, there’s multiple aspects of consumerism that we all fall into, and I think it’s very pertinent in grad school just because, “Oh yeah, the whole broke culture.” But it’s a very funny dissonance where we love to talk about how broke we are, but we love to spend money at the same time. So, I find that’s very common. So, in general, in addition to food, other habits that you may have, I think it’s very important to check. So, many of us like to spend a lot of money on fast fashion. And we know that it’s not going to last very long. We just love the idea of going into a fast-fashion store, buying a $40 shirt. Seems like a good idea, but you know, in four months you’re not going to wear that shirt anymore.
23:54 Hajer: So, it’s things like that where you really want to try to look at alternatives where you may have to put in a greater sum in the beginning, but in the long run you’re really going to help your finances. And I think thinking in that way has really helped. So, instead of the idea of instant gratification, “I want a latte right now. I want this shirt right now. I want this meal right now.” Get outside that mindset. And instead think, “Okay, long-term, what do I want? Because when it comes to the food or the clothes or whatever, the idea is, “I want to have a meal that I enjoy.” That’s really the core of what you want. But that can come in many different ways. And many of it you can save a lot of money with.
24:34 Hajer: “I want to buy clothes that I enjoy.” Okay, well, what are better spending habits that you may do so that in the long-term, you know that you’re saving money? So, and just in general, letting go of the need of instant gratification, which to be honest, is very, very hard in our very, very multi-consumerism culture. Many businesses make billions of dollars because of the fact that it’s very hard to let go of instant gratification. But the way that I like to think about it is, the PhD is the biggest test of lack of instant gratification in your entire life. You are never going to get this level of delayed gratification where you work two years and you got one paper. You know, you work four or five years, you finally got your PhD. So, really changing your mindset and saying, you know, “I’m doing this for the long run. Like I know that the PhD is not going to be enjoyable all the time, but at the end I’m going to enjoy it.” Think that same way about money and your finances. And I think that one thing is just so powerful, and it can fuel a lot of change. So, although it’s not as much a practical tip, but I think that’s an important way to redirect or reconceptualize how you view your spending habits.
The Multiple Benefits of Being Future-Focused
25:47 Emily: Yes. Unsurprisingly, I love this point as well. This is actually something that I’ve spoken and written about on a few occasions, but I’ve never heard anybody else bring it up. So, I’m really glad that you did, which is the specific characteristics of a person who is in a PhD program or has completed a PhD program. Some of those characteristics can lend themselves very, very well to financial success. As you were just saying, thinking long-term about your career. “Okay, I’m going to dedicate multiple years to achieving this PhD.” As you were just saying, sometimes the experiments, the research itself, can take a really, really long time, especially at the beginning. You become really persistent. You are dedicated when you are in a PhD program or have accomplished a PhD, and you’re really future-focused.
26:33 Emily: And all those things serve really, really well if you’re able to translate them into the area of your personal finances as well. PhDs are also resourceful. They are creative. They’re all these really positive things. Even just getting admitted into a graduate program means that you have a lot of these characteristics and you will further develop them during the course of the PhD. And so yeah, if you can find a way to apply those in the financial realm as well, I mean you’re going to be a superstar, basically. Just by the characteristics that brought you to the stage of training that you’re already at. So, I really, really totally agree with this point. I think something that you said that people don’t necessarily acknowledge is if they take a step back from the treadmill of consumerism, they might think, “I have to live this way forever. I have to be frugal forever. I have to say no to buying X, Y, Z forever.”
You Don’t Have to Be Rich in Order to Be Frugal
27:27 Emily: But the thing is that if you can take that step back from consumerism for a period of maybe a few years and really get your finances solid underneath you, and really do things like investing in yourself and increasing your income and so forth, you can add–I mean consumerism is kind of a negative word–but you can add mindful spending back in after a period of, you know, stepping back from it, if you just again, have some wherewithal to your finances. So, for example, something that is a common criticism of frugality tips that are disseminated is that you have to already have money to be frugal, right? So, stuff like buying in bulk or like what you were just saying, actually, buying an investment piece of clothing that’s a little bit more money instead of multiple cheaper pieces of clothing that aren’t going to fall apart faster.
28:19 Emily: Well, you do need money upfront to do those things. So, a common criticism of frugality is you have to be rich to be frugal, right? It kind of doesn’t make sense. But the thing is that it doesn’t take that long of building up some savings or something to have enough money to start taking those frugal steps that do require an upfront investment, which of course not all of them do. And so, it might be that, “Okay, yeah, I’m just going to go on a spending fast for three months. At the end of the free three months, I will be able to take all these other frugal steps, which will then be able to fund me starting to spend again.” So, it doesn’t have to be a forever sacrifice. It can be a short-term thing that can then sort of catapult you to greater and greater ability to build your wealth. Does that make sense?
Inching Toward Investments: Take Your Time
29:04 Hajer: Totally. And I had a couple of comments on the frugality. Because I used to actually think like that, too. I used to think, “You know, frugality comes from a relative place of privilege.” To be able to think–and even the comment on fast fashion that I brought up, I was listening to a podcast and one of the key women who tried to really vouch for sustainable fashion. She works with a lot of celebrities. She talks about the fact that if you really calculate how much money you are spending on fast fashion, you could easily buy a couple of those things and investment pieces. So, again, it’s the idea–and like you mentioned as a PhD student–you know, really understanding where’s the investment worth being put in. And another really important point that I wanted to say is, I don’t think it’s wise to do all these changes all at once.
29:54 Hajer: To be like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m kind of all out. I’m changing everything I wanted to change.” There are of course going be habits that trickle in and that’s totally fine. But it’s again thinking that you’re responsible for your wealth, your financial management. So, what are the steps that you think you can do? And then start from there and slowly build in. So, you know, if you want to be a little bit more frugal or you want to go on a spending fast, but you want to make sure that you have some money initially just in case, then make that your priority and you’ll sort of focus on that. So, these are all gradual tips that require time to sort of get back on your feet of comfort with your money and comfort with your finances, but it’s important just to start somewhere and then, you know, build from there.
30:41 Emily: Yeah, I think that the idea that you have to revolutionize everything in your life at once to be successful with money is another one of those limiting beliefs that isn’t true that we tell ourselves as an excuse to getting out of doing anything. So, when I think about my own journey–when I started my business, Personal Finance for PhDs, it was when I finished graduate school and I had already attained a great deal of financial success at that point. And so if you looked at me at the end of graduate school and saw, “Okay, she’s got her stuff together, she’s budgeting, she’s saving, she’s investing, paying off debt, all that stuff.” It’s easy to overlook the seven years between college and when I finished my PhD that it took to get to that point of success. And I did not start off doing everything right out of the gate, right? This is something that I learned very gradually over time, and yet still, by my own definition, obtained a great deal of financial success several years later. So, it’s not that you have to exactly be like me or exactly be like you or exactly be like someone else you hold up as a model, like a financial mentor or something. You don’t have to instantly transform to be that person. It’s okay for it to take years. It will still be effective if you make slow changes. In fact, probably more so because it’s more sustainable.
Personal Finance Really Is “Personal”
31:55 Hajer: Exactly. And also take into consideration your personal situation. So, many PhD students live at home, so of course they don’t have the very high rent to pay. And of course that makes many things easier. Many PhD students are supported by other individuals that help them out. And some PhD students, again, are living in a more difficult financial situation in the sense that they have to pay rent and they’re solely responsible for themselves. So, take in your situation, and really think about what are the actionable steps that I can do, what are the beliefs that are holding me back? How do I change those? And again, it will take years to be really comfortable with the way that you want to spend money, and that’s completely okay. And there’s never the best way to money. There are certain things that some people may think, “Oh, you don’t need to spend on that.” But I personally like to and I’m okay with that. So reaching that place where you’re confident and comfortable in your money spending, it takes many years. But like you said, it’s always worth it. But it’s always important to take in your personal situation and your personal wealth and not try to compare your situation to someone else’s.
33:02 Emily: This is actually one of my favorite things about personal finance, is that it is intensely personal and intensely individual and there is not a cookie-cutter solution that’s going to work for everyone. It’s a challenging thing for me as a personal finance educator, but it’s just something that makes it such a rich field to be in. I want to get back to this question of mindset. Are there any more comments that you want to make about how to break this mindset, this accepting of the culture of being broke?
Encouraging Open Dialogues About Money in Grad School
33:29 Hajer: I think the first thing I want to say, like we mentioned, this culture is very, very persistent. This mindset is very, very hard to stay out of. Like sometimes I find, even though I’m totally against it, I find that I say things about the whole broke culture of being a student. In terms of breaking the mindset, it’s just always important to understand what being broke means and what us casually saying the word means. Many people, as we mentioned, do have some level of finances that they can spend. If you find that you are able to spend money, you’re technically not broke. So, you just think about that, and then take the steps that you want to take to get more financial freedom. And also just, I think it’s really helpful to bring up the conversations around your colleagues, whether that’s in school, your classmates, those in your lab.
34:22 Hajer: I do that often in my lab. It’s quite a big lab. So, we often talk about money and what does it mean to have money in graduate school. And sometimes if someone says, “Oh, you know, graduate students are always broke,” it’s important to sort of chime in and think, “Okay, well why are we broke? How do you break those down? Is it something that we just think in our head?” So, that’s why I think this podcast, I really gravitate towards it. Because it is just trying to have that conversation started. And I think that’s the most effective way to break that down because it’s hard as an individual, even if you got over that, just sort of change the culture around you and it will always creep into your mindset. But just starting the conversation, it doesn’t have to be on a podcast, of course.
35:02 Hajer: Individually, it’s really important to talk to the people around you about money and not make money a very taboo topic. Because I think if people don’t talk about how they’re spending money and all they talked about is the fact that they’re broke, it’s really easy to be like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” But to be more open with money and not have it very taboo I think will really help spearhead discussions of what does it mean to be in graduate school and have money. Like, how are the best ways to spend my stipend?
Call to Action: The Importance of Budget Breakdowns
35:32 Emily: This is one of the reasons why I really love doing the budget breakdown episodes that I have done in the past. In my first season of the podcast, I did 50% of the interviews were budget breakdowns where I think it was all graduate students except I did my own as well. I think it was all graduate students and talking about, “Okay, this is where I live, this is how much I make and this is how I spend it and these are my financial goals.” And it’s something that I’ve continued with the podcast, although not at the 50% frequency, but I just want to point out that I love these local examples, right? These very relatable examples. If someone else from that same institution living in the same city hears that particular podcast, that’s an easy way to start a discussion–not necessarily even with the person who was interviewed, but just someone else like, “Oh my gosh, I heard this thing and that person is spending how much on rent? And that means that they can turn around and do this with their finances. I wonder how I can find a place where I can only spend that much on rent?” Or like, “Wow, they meal prep their food and that means they only–you know.”
36:25 Emily: But it’s really valuable to see those local examples that are very, very relatable to you. Because it’s very easy to dismiss, as we were talking about before, frugal tips or something as something that doesn’t apply to me because I live in X , Y, Z and this is my particular situation. Well, if you end up talking to people who make the same amount of money that you do and live in the same place that you do, it’s a lot more relatable and their strategies are a lot more translatable. And frankly, you’re more likely to hear them if you listen to them. If you hear them from someone who you can identify with in those other factors. So, this is basically just a call for any listeners, please volunteer and submit your budget breakdown. Volunteer for a budget breakdown episode because I love doing those and I’m not really getting that many volunteers for them now, which is why we do a lot of other types of episodes. But anyway, I still love them. They hold a special place in my heart and I think they’re really valuable.
37:11 Hajer: I love them as well. On YouTube, I think Glamour magazine on YouTube has a lot of budget breakdowns, particularly in individuals in very expensive city like New York, San Francisco. And again, it’s really nice sort of think about how someone else spends their money and then you can translate that into thinking about how you spend your money. Another tip is, the first step if you’re going to take one actionable step, especially to break down the whole broke culture, is to really calculate how much money is going in every month, how much money are you spending? And that way you can numerically counteract the idea that, “Oh, you’re broke.” Because if it’s the, “Oh wow. After all the money that I get and after I spend it, I still have $400, like I’m not really a broke.” So, I think it’s really getting in tune with how much you’re spending. But because of the way the culture is right now, not many people are in tune with their spending habits. So, again, falling into that very broke culture. It’s very easy.
Tell Us More About Your Podcast Team
38:07 Emily: So, I understand you are part of a podcast team as well. So, what is that podcast and how can people find it? What is it about?
38:15 Hajer: So, it’s called Raw Talk Podcast, and essentially it’s a science communication podcast headed by students in the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto. And essentially what the team tries to do is take these really key topics that people are interested in and go to scientists and ask them about their research and the latest discoveries of those topics. So, we’ve covered a wide array of topics such as autism spectrum disorder, the circadian rhythm, mental health in graduate school. And the idea is just to help you know, the general public and everyone understand what is the latest research and how do we best understand some of these topics that are not always well-represented in the media or that people may be curious in. You can find it on Facebook, Instagram, any podcast app, and Twitter and it’s just Raw Talk Podcast. And on Instagram, there’s a lot of new content featuring our guests and some really cool science tips or science fun facts. So, we really just try to break down some of the complex parts of science and be able to translate it using very local researchers that many people can Google and email.
39:31 Emily: This is such a fun way for people to get involved in science communication, I think. I mean I love podcasting obviously, And I just think it’s an amazing medium. And so, this is something that I know has been started. This kind of thing has been started at many other universities as well. And so, I mean if this is something that attracts you about potentially communicating science from your own university and you don’t want to take it all on yourself, it’s a really good idea to get a few other students together who are also interested in the same thing and start it up together and kind of spread the work around. So, that’s exciting. How long has this podcast been going on for?
40:06 Hajer: When the summer finished, which was about April, May, we just finished our third season, so we’re starting our fourth season in September.
How Else Can You Be Reached?
40:18 Emily: Great, great. Okay. And how else can people find you individually?
40:23 Hajer: Sure. So, I recently just started a science communication account myself as a science student and also moreso to share the graduate student experience and experience with research and academia. What does it look like, particularly being from more of an underrepresented group? I really wanted to share what that looks like, navigating academia and research. So, my main platform right now is Instagram, but I do hope to branch out and start blogging. But my Instagram is, @itshajernakua. So, I T S H A J E R N A K U A. And yeah, it’ll be really nice. And I try to share tips of grad school, tips about finding passion with research, and I’m also starting to get more into financial and money tips as a graduate student.
41:08 Emily: That sounds amazing. Okay, well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing this wonderful content.
41:14 Hajer: Thank you so much for having me. This is my first podcast being interviewed, not interviewing. So, this is really exciting.
41:20 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 PhD’s 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.
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