This podcast episode is a budget breakdown with Latisha Franklin, a third-year graduate student in biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University. Latisha works to keep her housing and especially food spending low so that she can spend more on experiences, such as her yearly international vacation. She employs several powerful strategies in her frugality and budgeting to enable her saving, such as taking out cash for variable spending, prioritizing a “me” budget category, vegan meal prepping, and actually reading her email to find free food on campus. Emily and Latisha discuss how establishing a routine schedule lends itself well to developing frugal practices.
Links mentioned in episode
- Personal Finance for PhDs Membership Community
- Volunteer as a Guest for the Podcast
- Frugal Month
- Investing for Early-Career PhDs
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1:14 Q1: Please Introduce Yourself
Latisha Franklin is a third-year graduate student in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program at Penn State University. She moved to State College, Pennsylvania, for graduate school from her hometown Mobile, Alabama.
Her stipend is $1,996 per month after taxes.
2:27 Q2: What are your five largest expenses each month?
Latisha’s top expense categories are rent, car insurance, food, bills, and “me,” in other words, money she can spend freely on herself. She shares that she budgets much of her income for her Roth IRA and savings.
3:57 #1 Expense: Rent
Latisha lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her dog at the time of the interview. However, she had plans to move. Her rent was $820 per month and the rent in her new place is $710 per month. Originally, she wanted to move to a new place with a roommate. When those plans fell through, her realtor helped her find the new apartment.
Her new apartment is attached to a house. She has access to a backyard for her dog, which was appealing to her. Her new apartment is closer to Penn State, a 5 minute drive and 20 minute walk from campus. The neighborhood is family-oriented. This is in contrast to her former neighborhood that had a good mix of graduate students, young families, and late-career adults.
Latisha thinks Penn State graduate students living alone pay about $900 or more for rent. She thinks that $700 is the low end of the range for rents. In her estimates, she is not taking into account possible lower rents in shared housing with roommates.
8:29 #2 Expense: Car Insurance
Latisha has a 2016 Hyundai Tuscon. She bought the car new in winter 2015 and paid it off completely within two years. She used savings she had been building since middle school to buy the car new. Her monthly insurance payment is $159.
10:22 #3 Expense: Food
Latisha spends $150 per month on food. She spends $20 each week for food that she’ll eat during the week, and $50 each month to buy items she’ll use throughout the month. Her strategy to keep food expenses low is to meal prep and cook in bulk.
During her first year, she found herself cooking every other day. Cooking was too time-intensive, so she read articles about meal prepping. Now, she uses Sundays as her meal prep and cooking day. She makes enough to last the week and portions food into six or seven containers.
Latisha didn’t have any dietary restrictions or considerations during her first year in graduate school. She has now removed meat and dairy from her diet. She uses many kinds of beans, rice, nuts, and fruit in her meals. She buys fruit from the farmers markets and from her share of community supported agriculture (CSA).
Her meals include muffins, which she eats every week, salads, soups, and pastas. Additionally, Latisha eats free meals on campus as often as three times a week. She takes ten minutes each day to read her university emails to find events with free food that also match her interest. She rarely eats take-out or at restaurants, and this expense is from her “me” category.
18:54 #4 Expense: Bills
Latisha’s pays for electricity and wifi, because heat and water are included in her rent. Her parents pay for her cell phone bills. The electricity bill is $13 per month and wifi bill is $32 per month. To keep electricity costs down, Latisha makes the most of daylight for work. During the evening, she relaxes and minimizes her electricity use.
In her new apartment, she will have to pay for all utilities separately. She’ll have more bills, so she has planned to increase this budget category.
21:38 #5 Expense: “Me,” or Variable Spending
Latisha budgets about $20 a week, or strictly $100 a month, to spend as she wishes on herself. Typically, she uses this money to go to the movies, go out to dinner, or try something new. She bought herself a microscope because she enjoys using it to look at everyday items. Overall, she prefers “experiences, not stuff.”
Latisha’s strategy is to keep her “me” budget in cash. Using cash is strategy to keep variable spending in check. She mentions that credit cards didn’t suit her.
25:17 Q3: What are you currently doing to further your financial goals?
Latisha prioritizes savings. Since her teenage years, she kept savings for undetermined large purchases. For example, she bought her new car with her savings, even though she hadn’t intentionally planned the purchase.
She contributes $150 per month to a Roth IRA for retirement. She saves $50 per month in her savings account. This is about 10% of her net income. She is focused on building her Roth IRA
She started savings with a CD, about three years ago, without much knowledge of savings or investing. Her dad encouraged her to get a Roth IRA. Latisha read Emily’s emails and is now working on better managing her Roth IRA.
Latisha has set a goal to take one big trip a year. Here she discusses saving for her trip to Iceland. She has budgeted about $100 per month and has $1,200 saved at the time of the interview. She likes to travel and wants to get out and see the world while she has minimal responsibilities. Iceland is the first big trip that she has initiated on her own.
33:24 Q4: What don’t you spend money on that might surprise people?
Latisha spends very little on food. Many of her peers claim to not have the time to cook, so they get take out or eat out more often. She found the time on the weekends to prepare all her meals for the week, so she saves time during the week. Emily and Latisha agree that in reality, getting take out or going to eat can take just as much time as preparing your own meals. Prioritizing cooking your own meals is a great frugal strategy.
35:34 Q5: What are you happy with in your spending and what would you like to change?
Latisha is happy that most of her money goes to experiences, not things. She wants to add money to food, because she believes trying new kinds of foods is a good experience. Joining the CSA is one way she is trying new foods. She is interested in new fruits, like dragonfruit. Additionally, she is happy has “cushion money” so she is prepared for anything.
36:48 Q6: What is your best advice for someone new to your city who is budget-conscious?
Latisha recommends over estimating your budget so you have cushion money. This reduces stress and helps even out irregular expenses. One strategy that Latisha uses is to set up separate accounts for her money. For example, she moves her income out of her spending account into a reserve account. This restricts how much money is available for her to spend, but the money is still accessible if she really needs it.
Latisha also recommends personalizing your budget. She has had financial training that emphasizes certain income percentages for budget categories, but this advice doesn’t suit her lifestyle. She realized this when she went through the process of purchasing a home but ultimately could not get approval. During the process to buy a home, she found that financial advisors insisted that 50-60% of income is budgeted to living expenses. Though she was frustrated she couldn’t buy a home, she is glad she went through the process and would recommend the experience to other graduate students.
44:46 Q7: Would you like to make any other comments on what it takes to get by where you live on what you earn?
Latisha takes the bus for her commute. She does not use her car for every day commuting, just for irregular driving, like taking her dog to the groomer. Penn state has a graduate students bus ridership program that Latisha says is a $180 one time fee, then free riding for the entire year. Just a few rides each month would make the pass pay off. She says this is definitely worth it.
Latisha says her budget is possible because she manages her time carefully and sticks to a routine. Her budget is a result of her focused lifestyle. Emily and Latisha agree that budgeting is easier and more accessible when you recognize the patterns you have in place in your life.
48:30 Final Comments
Latisha and Emily hope listeners learned more about frugal strategies for living on a graduate stipend.