In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund, who recently completed her PhD in the MIT Media Lab. During their five years in Boston, Jackie and her husband lived on her grad student stipend and saved and invested all of his income. Jackie and Emily discuss the frugal tactics Jackie and her husband used to keep their expenses low, even after having their first child. Saving and investing Jackie’s husband’s income gave them a sizable nest egg by the end of grad school, which they used to purchase a home in cash in a low cost of living area of the country. Jackie and her husband have designed their lifestyle around location-independent work so they can live where they want to while they expand their family, which is now an option for more workers made remote during the pandemic.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
- Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund’s Website
- This PhD Student Paid Off $62,000 in Undergrad Student Loans Prior to Graduation (Money Story by Dr. Jenni Rinker)
- This Higher Ed Career Coach Worked Her Way Out of Financial Ruin Caused by the Great Recession (Money Story with Beth Moser)
- Purchasing a Home as a Graduate Student with Fellowship Income (Money Story with Jonathan Sun)
- This Grad Student Defrayed His Housing Costs By Renting Rooms to His Peers (Money Story with Dr. Matt Hotze)
- How a Freelancing Career Can Take You from Academia to Affluence (Expert Interview with Courtney Danyel)
- This Grad Student Didn’t Let a $1,000 Per Month Stipend Stop Her from Investing (Money Story with Dr. Rachel Blackburn)
- The Simple Path to Wealth (Book by JL Collins)
- E-mail Emily (Book Giveaway Contest)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs Tax Center
- How to Qualify for a Mortgage as a Graduate Student or PhD, Even with Non-W-2 Fellowship Income (Expert Interview with Sam Hogan)
- Turn Your Largest Liability into Your Largest Asset with House Hacking (Expert Interview with Sam Hogan)
- PF for PhDs Tax Workshop
- IRS Publication 970
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Jackie: We started out with a generic retirement fund, and then at some point later that year realized we could probably get better returns if we were more selective about what funds we invested in. So then we switched to some market index mutual funds and over the course of the next three years made almost $40K.
00:26 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 eight, episode eight, and today my guest is Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund, who recently completed her PhD in the MIT Media Lab. During their five years in Boston, Jackie and her husband lived on her grad student stipend and saved and invested all of his income. We discussed the frugal tactics Jackie and her husband used to keep their expenses low, even after having their first child. Saving and investing Jackie’s husband’s income gave them a sizeable nest egg by the end of grad school, which they used to purchase a home in cash in a low cost-of-living area of the country. Jackie and her husband have designed their lifestyle around location-independent work, so they can live where they want to while they expand their family.
01:18 Emily: It’s a model that is now an option for many more people whose positions went remote during the pandemic. This interview is a wonderful example of how an early, intense focus on a lofty financial goal can often result in financial freedom within a short time. Financial freedom means something different to everyone, but it could include leaving, or not taking in the first place, jobs that are unsuitable to you, location independence, working part-time, starting a business, staying home with a child, full-time travel, or just living your best life. Even if it is a bit unconventional. Financial freedom means choices. And this freedom can arrive quite a bit earlier than full financial independence, which is when you never have to earn an income again. We’ve had many stories on the podcast of guests working on or accomplishing a financial goal that seems outlandish for their career stage.
02:10 Emily: Some examples, which are linked from the show notes include Dr. Jenni Rinker paying off over $60,000 of student loan debt during grad school, Beth Moser clawing her way out of financial ruin during the great recession, Jonathan Sun and Dr. Matt Hotze house hacking during grad school, Courtney Danyel growing her freelancing writing business to over $100,000 per year, and Dr. Rachel Blackburn investing for retirement, despite her $1,000 per month grad student stipend. There are even more examples than that in the archives. Even my and my husband’s own story of increasing our net worth by over $100,000 during grad school qualifies. I can tell you that I appreciate my past self for being aggressive about frugality and retirement contributions more with every year that goes by. I don’t this to wag my finger at anyone who has not been working on a lofty financial goal. Personal finance is personal, and we all have different things we value. I just say it because I had no idea when I was in grad school and racking my brain for ways to increase our savings rate by another half a percent, how sweet financial freedom would taste just a few years later. If you’re looking for motivation to push yourself with your own finances, dream about what your best unconventional like might look like.
Book Giveaway Contest
03:28 Emily: Now, it’s time for the book giveaway contest. In February, 2021, I’m giving away one copy of The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community book club selection for April, 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during February will have a chance to win a copy of this book. The Simple Path to Wealth has quickly become the go-to text in the financial independence community to explain passive investing, which is the style of investing that I practice and teach. It sometimes comes as a surprise that the most effective form of investing is both low cost and low maintenance. If you’ve been sitting on the investing sidelines, this book will almost certainly motivate you to get started by showing you how simple successful investing really is. If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at email@example.com. I’ll choose a winner at the end of February from all the entries. You can find full instructions at pfforphds.com/podcast. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Jacqueline Kory-Westlund.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:55 Emily: I am welcoming to the podcast Dr. Jackie Kory-Westlund, and she’s a recent graduate of her PhD program. And we are going to discuss her finances during her PhD and how she accomplished a massive financial goal, right upon completing her PhD, which was purchasing a home in cash. When Jackie emailed me about this prompt, I literally misread it because I could not believe that anybody would possibly do that. So this is going to be really exciting to figure out. But Jackie, why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about yourself first?
05:28 Jackie: Hi. Yeah. I did my PhD at MIT in the MIT Media Lab with Dr. Cynthia Breazeal. So I worked on small, cute fluffy robots that helped kids learn stuff. And I, let’s see, I finished in 2019, so I’m currently an independent scholar, writer, artist. I do not have a full-time job because I’m staying home for the most part, hanging out with my kids. My husband is a software guy so he works from home, has his own startups and all of that going on. And we had our first kid during the PhD. So that’s relevant to our finances and our financial goals.
Jackie and her Husband’s Finances at the Start of PhD
06:08 Emily: All right, let’s dive into it. This is such an exciting story. Okay. So please give me a snapshot of your finances when you started the PhD. If your husband was in the picture at the time, include him, too.
06:20 Jackie: Right. So when I started the PhD, this was back in 2012. I was one year out of undergrad. So I’d spent one year kind of doing a research internship thing. So I hadn’t made a lot of money at that point. My husband and I, we were not married yet at the time, but we both moved to Boston for MIT at the same time. I had a used car that was probably worth $2,000. We had a couple thousand in our bank accounts that we used for our first month of rent in the rental deposit and the realtor fee and a couple of thousand in student loans. And that’s about it.
06:56 Emily: Alright. Yeah. Almost zero, close to zero. It sounds like. And then what was your stipend?
07:04 Jackie: My stipend was about $30K a year. And MIT paid for healthcare for me, not for my husband. We had to add him to the plan later, once he couldn’t be on his parents’ plan anymore, you know, hitting 25 years old there. And that stipend increased slightly year to year because MIT made cost of living adjustments. And it also went up slightly when I switched from the master’s program to the PhD program, but it was never more than like 32K or so.
07:33 Emily: Okay. So from 30K, in 2012, when you started to about 32K, when you finished, you said 2019, right?
07:39 Jackie: Yeah. Though, actually for the PhD. So we actually moved and got the house the year before I finished. I finished up the last bit remotely.
07:49 Emily: Okay. Okay.
07:51 Jackie: Because I was just writing at that point, so we actually moved in the middle of 2018.
07:55 Emily: Okay, great.
07:56 Jackie: And at that point I stopped getting the stipend because I wasn’t on campus.
08:01 Emily: Oh. So you, you left the stipend behind in 2018 and finished self-funded after the last month or up to a year. And how about your husband’s income during that period?
08:11 Jackie: So initially, for the first couple of years in 2012 through about 2015 or so, he was working on a couple of startups and as a contractor, primarily working on his self-funded software startup. So was not making a huge salary, probably around $50K a year in the last couple of years. And throughout the entire time I was in grad school, our combined income never went over about $80K on our tax returns.
Strategies to Decrease Expenses During PhD
08:39 Emily: Okay. So that gives us a range to think about over that period. So pretty low at the start a little bit better by the end, but again, we’re talking about Boston, so yeah, pretty high cost of living area. So $30K is a pretty decent grad student stipend, but in a high cost of living area, it’s still really challenging. Okay. So that’s your finances when you started the PhD. So as you’re going through the PhD, I’d love to talk about, you know, both sort of frugality, like how do you keep a lid on your expenses? And also did you increase your income in any way? You just told us what the total was, but were there any, you know, methods that you used to increase it? So let’s start on the decreasing expenses side. What, you know, what were your strategies? What were the things that worked out best for you in terms of controlling those expenses?
09:21 Jackie: The biggest thing is we both just kind of by default are fairly frugal people. Neither of us like tend to eat out much. You know, we don’t usually buy that much stuff. We ate a lot of rice and beans. Probably were in the range of only about $250 a month on food. Probably the entire time we were there. I’m the one who started the trend in my lab of people packing their own lunches to bring to the lab.
09:46 Emily: Great influence.
09:49 Jackie: So we primarily lived on my stipend of about a $30K a year. And two thirds of that was rent. And our vehicle expenses tended to be pretty low because like we did have the car, but we didn’t use it that much. I took public transit and walked to MIT and that was half subsidized by MIT. And the other big thing was we had an awesome landlady who did not increase our rent.
Housing and Rent
10:13 Emily: Wow. Okay. Well, you just hit kind of the big three expenses right there. You hit housing, which at $20,000 per year is yeah. It’s a bit expensive on that grad student stipend. Really admirable, by the way of structuring your budget so that you would live just off the one income and save, presumably, the higher income. That’s really, really impressive. So you hit housing. Now was it luck that you found someone who was not going to increase rent, or was there any strategy involved in finding that place?
10:42 Jackie: That was entirely luck. When we were moving up to Boston, we spent about a week there prior to moving looking at places. And we talked to a realtor who was like, Hey, I’ve got this landlady who just needs someone. We just got lucky that she just had this policy on her own where she just didn’t like increasing rent too much. And she’s a nice old lady, lives downstairs, you know?
11:04 Emily: Yeah. I mean, actually that’s, you know, it could be luck for you, but it might be strategy for someone else. I wonder if there is something there around being neighbors with your landlord and like cultivating a positive relationship, because I think it’s definitely harder to raise rent on someone whose face you see like multiple times per week, rather than some, you know, unknown number or whatever in some system. So, yeah. So it sounds like you were living in a duplex kind of situation?
11:28 Jackie: Yeah. It was one of those three-story, three-family homes.
11:32 Emily: Triplex.
11:32 Jackie: Yeah. Triplex, that’s the word I’m looking for. Yeah. And my husband and our landlady, they both went to the same church, so that maybe was a relevant factor there, you know.
11:43 Emily: Yeah, any kind of connection you can make.
11:45 Jackie: Yeah. Yeah.
11:46 Emily: That’s awesome. Okay. So, you know, housing expense is clearly number one, but managing to get a place, you know, by luck probably that didn’t increase the rent is an incredible advantage because that, you know, the rate that rent often rises at is higher than, you know, what you’re getting in your salary increases for cost of living. So you hit housing, number one. You also mentioned transportation. You know, it’s a city life kind of thing. Like you don’t have as much need for like the car usage. And did you have one car or two?
Sharing a Car, Reducing Food Costs
12:14 Jackie: Just the one.
12:15 Emily: Just one. Okay. So sharing a car as well, another great strategy. And you mentioned, you know, the food expenses. So not eating out very often and also, I mean, $250 per month in food is like really keeping a lid on things. You mentioned rice and beans. Presumably you’re cooking a lot. Do you have any other like, tips in that area around like managing the grocery? Both the budget and like the time that goes into cooking and meal prep?
12:40 Jackie: Well, I kind of have a hobby of cooking, so we did a lot of the crock pot full of a big dinner on Sunday, and then eat leftovers all week to reduce time cooking. Buying things in bulk, instead of popping out to the store every couple of days. We tended to go for beans over meat, which decreases expenses. You look for what’s on sale, you know. That kind of stuff.
13:05 Emily: Yeah. Do you have any like Boston specific tips, like a grocer that you really liked for good deals or something?
Roberto’s Produce (in Boston)
13:11 Jackie: Ooh, let’s see. Actually, we lived about half a mile from a produce store that had way cheaper produce prices than the main grocery store that we drove to.
13:22 Emily: And what was the name of it?
13:23 Jackie: That was, let’s see, what was it called? It was Roberto’s. Roberto’s produce. Cute little place. Just, just produce.
Financial Goals with Savings
13:30 Emily: Yeah. We actually frequented a little shop like that in Seattle as well and had great prices. You mentioned earlier that you actually bought your home prior to finishing your graduate program and that you had been, I think, saving your husband’s salary during that whole period. What were your financial goals during that time, aside from you said, living on just your income, what were you doing with your husband’s salary?
13:56 Jackie: So, in about, I think 2015 was when we realized that we had some money in the bank, we should probably do something with it, which was about my third year of grad school, I think. So we took all of our extra money and put it, invested it primarily in the stock market using Vanguard. We started out with a generic retirement fund, and then at some point later that year realized we could probably get better returns if we were more selective about what funds we invested in. So then we switched to some market index mutual funds, and over the course of the next three years made almost $40K just from having money invested, which is like free money! It’s just so cool. It was like, when we first started doing that, we were like, wait, we just get money from having our money sitting here? Like it’s pretty cool when you figure out how that works.
14:49 Emily: It doesn’t always work out like that over the short-term.
14:53 Jackie: It’s true, we got lucky with which, which years we were investing there.
14:57 Emily: Yeah. I felt that way too. I started investing basically in 2009, like at the nadir of the market and just the last decade has been incredible with, you know, a few hiccups along the way, but overall, obviously really, really strong. And was that in like retirement type accounts or was it more just taxable accounts that are accessible to you?
15:17 Jackie: We had a little bit in some IRAs and the rest of it was just like a generic account that we could move money around whenever we wanted.
Having a Child Motivated the Goal of Home Ownership
15:27 Emily: Okay. So you’re basically living on your stipend, investing your husband’s salary or whatever income he has during that period. At what point did the goal of home ownership materialize?
15:38 Jackie: About the same time we had a kid. So it was in my fourth year of the PhD. That’s when I started thinking, Hey, you know, we’ve got a baby now, at some point I’m going to finish this PhD and where are we going to go? What are we going to do? So that’s when we started doing a lot more life planning and getting a house with a yard somewhere for kids to play. And that’s when that started being like really on our radar.
16:01 Emily: Yeah. We glossed over the whole having a kid during grad school thing. How did that work out with like, did insurance cover pretty much everything? Like, how did the finances of the having a child work?
Health Insurance and Parental Leave
16:13 Jackie: MIT’s healthcare program like yeah. Insurance covered pretty much everything. We paid probably $200 total to have a baby.
16:19 Emily: Amazing. And did you get any leave?
16:22 Jackie: Yes. MIT was good about that as well. And the Media Lab gave me an extra month. So MIT had a policy of two months paid leave for any parents. And then the Media Lab gave me an additional month and that was all paid leave.
16:35 Emily: Amazing.
16:35 Jackie: So I had three months off and then last thing on that was my advisor was awesome. And my lab was awesome in that they’re all very supportive of this and I could work remotely a lot more and was at a point in the program where I didn’t have to go into class anymore because I was just able to just research stuff. So a lot of, a lot of things went into that being, not that bad, like being like a reasonably doable thing. I know it’s not for a lot of women. It can be difficult.
Did You Also Pay for Childcare?
17:06 Emily: So I think about three big expenses when it comes to having a child. We just covered two of them, health insurance and the leave. And then the third one is childcare. You just mentioned working from home, but did you also pay for childcare?
17:18 Jackie: We did not, actually. My husband and I split that.
17:21 Emily: So interesting.
17:22 Jackie: And just managed to work that into our work schedules. That was part of why he was doing such flexible work at the time. And then my lab was flexible. So we just squished childcare and somehow, you know, did lots of work when the baby was napping kind of thing.
17:36 Emily: Yes. I remember those days very well. I have two kids as well, and I’ve actually done one other interview on the podcast from season one. So if newer listeners haven’t seen this one yet, but you’re interested in having a child during graduate school, check it out because I interviewed another graduate student mother married to another PhD father who also did the same thing. I think for the first six months after their first child was born, they completely split childcare and I did not pay for any outside services in that regard. And yeah, she talks about how she managed to you know, complete her dissertation and get a TT job and have the baby. And it’s kind of a really crazy year for her. But it’s incredible that, you know, you took that on and then were able to accomplish it. Was that motivated by finances? Was it motivated by, we just wanted to spend time with our child a lot of time or, you know, what was the reasoning behind that?
18:29 Jackie: All of the above. So, childcare in Boston is ridiculously expensive. But also a lot of you want to spend time with this baby. Like, why would you have a kid if you don’t want to spend time with it? And there are some philosophical things around how we wanted to approach raising our kids and actually being around a lot of the time. I was homeschooled actually growing up. So that’s probably very influential in how I’m thinking about how to raise my kids.
18:57 Emily: Yeah, so a familiar model for you.
18:58 Jackie: Yeah.
How Did You Choose Where You Wanted to Live?
19:00 Emily: Gotcha. Okay. So got the baby, but we’re not paying for childcare or the other associated expenses. MIT did a good job providing you with the appropriate benefits. Okay. So then you said that home ownership became a goal. Once you had the child and you were like, we want to get out of the city life, how did you choose where you wanted to live?
19:19 Jackie: So we decided based on kind of two factors. One, we were not tied to any particular location first. So we could kind of pick anywhere because of the kind of flexible job situation that we’re setting up for ourselves. And then we wanted to move nearer to some of our family. We were like, we’re having kids. We’d love to have some grandparents around. We’d love to live near some family finally, because it’s been a long time since we’d done that. It was really nice. So my husband’s family is in North Carolina. Mine, a lot of them were in Idaho, North Idaho. So between the two of those, we were looking at the different areas and ended up picking Idaho for a variety of reasons. I mean, both places had a lower cost of living. It’s hard to get a higher cost of living than Boston, New York, or San Francisco. Lots of nice, pretty lakes and mountains up here.
20:15 Emily: Emily here, for a brief interlude. Taxes are weirdly unexpectedly difficult for funded grad students and fellowship recipients at any level of PhD training. Your university might send you strange tax forms or no tax forms at all. They might not withhold your income tax from your paychecks, even though you owe it. It’s a mess. I’ve created a ton of free resources to assist you with understanding and preparing your 2020 tax return, which are available at pfforphds.com/tax. I hope you’ll check them out to ease much of the stress of tax season. If you want to go deeper with the material or have a question for me, please join one of my tax workshops, which you can find links to from P F F O R P H D S.com/T A X. It would be my pleasure to help you save time and potentially money this tax season. So don’t hesitate to reach out. Now, back to our interview.
21:21 Emily: Sounds like you know, you have intentionally chosen a route that not many PhDs do. You know, a lot of PhDs feel that they have to be geographically flexible to have the type of job that they want. And you’ve gone another direction and said, my primary goal here is to be in certain locations in the country and the job is going to be, it sounds like the job is going to be secondary to that in that you want to work in a way that is flexible to live wherever you want. You want to be location-independent. Is that right?
21:52 Jackie: Yep.
21:53 Emily: And that’s what you’ve done and your husband has done.
21:55 Jackie: Yes. Yeah. That’s one of the main reasons he was working on his smaller software startup was so that he would be able to work from anywhere and not be tied to someone else’s you have to work in this location. And I was not looking at the end of grad school to get an academic job, necessarily. I mean, there’s a university here, but I’m not looking for an academic job or a full-time job currently because I wanted to be able to spend time with my kids and also work on some part-time things.
22:25 Emily: Yeah. I see actually, a lot of similarities between your story and mine actually. I mentioned to you when we started the call that my husband and I recently became location-independent. He still has a job job, but it’s just remote now. And I would imagine a lot of people are in that situation and going forward, a lot of people are not going to be going back into offices and labs and all of that. So depending on the nature of the work that you do, a lot, I think more people in my audience are going to have location independence in their future.
22:54 Emily: And it’s really, it’s exciting, I was telling you too, but it’s also a little bit intimidating to figure out where exactly do I want to live.
23:01 Jackie: We made spreadsheets, we made spreadsheets.
23:05 Emily: You went the direction of going to a lower cost of living area, which is known as geographic arbitrage in the financial world. We are actually choosing to live in a very high cost of living area because we love it and want to be there, but have to make the finances, you know, work out to have balance in that area too. So, in different ends of that spectrum. Okay, so you chose based on, you know, more personal factors where you wanted to live and then comes this, you know, huge accomplishment of buying this home in cash. And I think we’ve already heard how you saved up for it, right?
23:39 Jackie: Yeah, pretty much.
How Much Money Did You Have for Home Buying?
23:40 Emily: So do you want to share like the numbers around that? Like how much money you had to work with by the time you did buy?
23:46 Jackie: Yeah. So when we decided to move, we had about $150K from our non-retirement accounts. We also emptied our IRAs for the most part which was about $25K. So we had around $200K to work with when we were buying a house up here. And relevantly because I no longer had the stipend from MIT when we were moving and my husband’s startup had, like no long-term proven history of income, we wouldn’t have been able to get a loan. So that was also relevant in us deciding to get a home in cash. So we had about $200K to work with and the market up here was moving very quickly at that time. So we came out to Idaho for about two weeks that summer with the plan of when we leave, we will have a house.
24:39 Emily: That’s an incredible story. You say, now you couldn’t have gotten a loan or it would have been, Oh my gosh. So, so difficult, so much paperwork or something. Did you know that that would be the case, like looking forward when you started that taxable savings, savings and investment, or was it just more about having flexibility at that point?
24:59 Jackie: Well, when we first started saving money, we had no idea what we were going to do with all of it. And then we were like, Hey, we should buy a house when we move out of here. And then when we started looking into, how do you buy a house? How do you get a loan? How, how much money do you have to put down on a house? How expensive are houses in the different areas that we’re looking at? As I said, we, we did spreadsheets for a lot of things and calculations about how much money might we have and how much money would we need for this kind of house in this area. And having provable income for getting a loan from just about any bank seemed to be pretty relevant. And because my husband’s business was not quite off the ground yet, it kind of got off the ground a lot more in the year right after we moved, there was relatively little income that we could prove at that point in time, which was, you know, fine for how we lived, because we didn’t need much income to live off of.
25:51 Jackie: But for the purposes of buying a house would have made getting a very expensive house difficult or getting one with a smaller down payment more difficult. And maybe, maybe there was a bank that if you talked to the guy and explained all your situation in lots of detail, lots of paperwork, maybe, maybe they could work something out. But the other factor, I guess, that I should probably talk about was our goal of being debt-free when we moved as well, because we only had a couple of thousand in student loans and we paid that off before we went for the house. So as soon as I was done with grad school I was like, all right, pay off student loans, get rid of any other debt that we have.
Challenges of Mortgages for Fellowship Recipients
26:31 Emily: Gotcha. I probably know a little bit more than I should about getting a loan at this point because my husband and I are anticipating buying a house soon. My brother is a mortgage loan officer, so he sells mortgages. So I’ve talked with him quite a lot about this process. And thirdly, he’s actually helped me quite a bit. We’ll link in the show notes to some episodes I’ve done before on how people receiving fellowships during grad school or a post-doc can or cannot ultimately get a mortgage because a lot of times they’ll be just flat, turned down right away. There is sometimes a way to get a mortgage, but it’s really tricky. So we’ve done all that in these other episodes, but to your point, self-employment income is another really kind of dodgy form of income. I know because that’s what I have that is going to be looked at a lot more carefully and you have to prove a lot more than, you know, you would for like a W2 type of situation.
27:24 Emily: So, yeah. It sounds like, you know, you, you started the savings investing for whatever, you know, because you were in a position to be living on just the one salary and saving the other, and it turns out that it helped you accomplish this like major goal. So now, you know, sounds like you have little housing expense, it would just be like insurance taxes, this kind of stuff, very minor relative to what a mortgage would be, correct?
27:51 Jackie: Correct. Yeah.
What Are Your Future Financial Goals?
27:52 Emily: Yeah. And so what are you thinking now about your finances? Like your, you know, your living expenses must be quite, quite low. So what are you working on next?
28:03 Jackie: So for what’s next we like the idea of having a bigger house with acreage around it. Because up here, we have, you know, the small neighborhood house on, you know, maybe a quarter acre, you know, enough space for a garden, a lawn. But we really liked the idea of having some more acreage out here because this is a great area for that. And then be able to keep this house and rent it out as side income. We would like to keep increasing our income enough that we can increase charitable giving, investing in the local economy and community, that kind of thing. Relevantly, we got our house for about $210K and it’s now worth over probably over $300K, just in the last two years because of the increased, this area is growing a lot. So we liked the idea of maybe being able to get something else soon and then maybe get into more real estate in this area. It seems to be growing a lot.
29:01 Emily: So what would be the plan for the next house? Would you try to take out a mortgage given the change in your husband’s income or in whatever you have going on or is it saving up more cash?
29:12 Jackie: That’s still up for debate. Kind of depends on what kind of house we want to have. Yeah we still have been talking. So that’s been actually a fairly recent conversation. We’re like, okay, we’ve been here for a couple of years now. Like jobs are working out better, you know, one is increasing, income’s increasing, like what are we doing next? So that’s something we’ve actually just been talking about a lot recently is like, what kind of house would we want next? And would we want to do that in cash again, or not? Because now we could deal with a mortgage payment, you know, we could do that now, but not sure.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
29:46 Emily: Yeah. So still under development. Well it sounds, I don’t know, really lovely. It sounds like a real, you know, you’ve really done lifestyle design, I guess is the way that, you know, it’s kind of put in like the entrepreneurship community of figuring out how you want to make money, where you want to make money, where you want to live getting your expenses down very, very low, if you want them to be. And then maybe even turning this house into an income producing asset, ultimately. Wow. Like what a story. As we wrap up this interview, is there, what’s your best financial advice for another early-career PhD?
30:21 Jackie: Probably to actually have long-term financial goals. Because having something you’ve got your sights on helps a lot when you’re coming up with like, if you’re, if you’re trying to stop spending money or trying to budget and keep to a budget or whatever it is, having something in mind that you’re going for helps a lot. Because we got a lot more conscious about what we were doing with money when we were like, Oh, we have a baby and we want to move and we want to get a house. We started paying a lot more attention to what we were doing with our money. As the second thing, don’t actually be afraid of investing money in the stock market or mutual funds because in a good year, that can actually make you quite a lot.
31:01 Emily: Yes. We also made some investments in a taxable account that has grown quite a bit in the last decade, I guess. It’s actually part of our house down payment of money. Now it’s been allocated in that direction. I of course like need to say like past performance is no indication of future return. So like this was a great, you know, three or so year period where you got to do this, it’s been a great time for me investing, but you know, this ride is not going to continue forever. And so I think what you were just saying, like if you have a specific goal for your money, like think about the timing and think about how much risk you want to take with it. And if you’re flexible about it, like the house was not necessarily quite, you know, a goal on your horizon yet, it makes sense that you would, you know, invest at that time. But once you have the goal in mind, like really think about, okay, do I need the money, do I need to take it out of the market now, do I need to, you know, go a little bit more conservative in the investments because you can hit a bumpy period and then not have the time you need to write it out. But if you’re flexible, keep the money invested, then you know, you can go for the higher return over time.
32:03 Jackie: Yeah, we actually lost about $10K right before we bought the house because Trump started a trade war with China. We were like yeah so I guess we should pull this out of the stock market.
32:13 Emily: It’s really, really hard to time the market. Yes. Well, great lessons here and thank you so much for sharing, you know, again, the lifestyle design, the frugal living, the goals. I think it’s, you know, a wonderful story and well illustrated for my audience. So it’s really been a pleasure talking with you Jackie.
32:29 Jackie: Thanks. Thanks for having me on.
Listener Q&A: Tax Claims
32:36 Emily: Now, on to the listener question and answer segment. Today’s question actually comes from a survey I sent out in advance of one of my university webinars this spring. So it is anonymous. Here’s the question. Quote, how do I do my taxes? What can I claim on my taxes? Can I claim a laptop that I needed for school as an expense? End quote. So this is a really big question. Obviously not one I can answer in a few minutes on this podcast. So the best place to go for further resources about your taxes, especially as a funded graduate student, is my website pfforphds.com/tax. That’s my tax center from which I’ve linked all of my relevant podcast episodes and articles and videos and so forth. This answer is even too big for a set of articles. So I have created an entire tax workshop to help answer this question. The workshop comprises 11 videos, two worksheets, and one Q&A call per month throughout tax season. So if you’re interested in getting into the workshop and having a full exploration of this question, please go to pfforphds.com/taxworkshop.
33:55 Emily: Okay. The part of the question I do want to tackle on this episode is the last part. Can I claim a laptop that I needed for school as an expense? There are four higher education tax benefits. However, one of them is virtually always used by funded graduate students. This benefit is called tax-free scholarships and fellowships. I’ll tell you whether or not you can use a laptop or a personal computer as a qualified education expense for the purposes of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free. I won’t comment during this episode on whether or not you could do it through one of the other three benefits. So how tax-free scholarships and fellowships generally works is that you have some income as a graduate student, for example, the scholarship or waiver that pays your tuition. If me mentioning scholarships as income shocks you, please go check out my further resources.
34:59 Emily: On the other side of the ledger, you also have some higher education expenses such as tuition. Now, tuition is always is considered a qualified education expense for the purposes of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free as long as you are enrolled in a degree program at an eligible educational institution. So in the case of tuition for a fully-funded graduate student, how this usually works is that the tuition charge and the tuition scholarship or waiver exactly equal one another. And so basically use the qualified education expense to make the scholarship tax-free. So they cancel each other out. The income, the scholarship, has no net effect on your taxable income. You’ve made it tax-free. And furthermore, you can’t use that tuition charge to take any of the other higher education tax benefits because you’ve already used it for this one. Okay. So that’s generally how the benefit works.
36:00 Emily: The question that I’m drilling down to is, is a laptop or a personal computer considered a qualified education expense for the purpose of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free? Now, please note, to get down to the question of whether your laptop or personal computer is a qualified education expense, you have to have some scholarship and fellowship income to cancel against it. If you’ve already canceled all of your scholarship and fellowship income against other qualified education expenses, like tuition and required fees, then you would not have any additional scholarship and fellowship income to try to cancel against a laptop. So this benefit wouldn’t apply in that situation. However, there are lots and lots of funded graduate students who have scholarship and fellowship income that exceed the tuition and required fees and so forth. So this question would apply to them. So is a laptop or a personal computer, a qualified education expense for the purpose of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free?
37:04 Emily: I’m pulling up IRS publication 970 because I’m going to read the definition of a qualified education expense. Quote, for the purposes of tax-free scholarships and fellowship grants, these are expenses for tuition fees required to enroll at, or attend an eligible educational institution and course-related expenses, such as fees, books, supplies, and equipment that are required for the courses at the eligible educational institution. These items must be required of all students in your course of instruction. End quote. The definition goes on to specify some types of expenses that are not qualified education expenses, laptops and personal computers were not included in that list. So we go back to the second half of this definition of qualified education expenses regarding supplies and equipment that are required for the courses at the eligible educational institution. They must be required of all students in your course of instruction. So the question is, does a laptop or personal computer fall under that definition? Here’s my opinion on the matter, this is not tax advice, by the way. If you can prove, if you can show in writing that a laptop or personal computer is required of every student in your course of instruction, that could be an individual course that you’re taking.
38:27 Emily: That could be the degree program that you’re enrolled in. That could be everybody in the graduate school. At whatever level, if a laptop or computer is required of all the students, then it can be considered a qualified education expense. I know that we both know that pretty much a laptop or a personal computer is required of every PhD student, especially in the time of COVID. However, you and I knowing that it’s a tacit requirement is not the same as it being an official requirement that the IRS would accept. The theory is that you, as a graduate student can go to the computer labs provided on campus and do all your work there, I guess, which obviously is ridiculous. But in my opinion, for this to work as a qualified education expense, it needs to be down in black and white somewhere that having your own computer was required.
39:29 Emily: Now I went searching to see if I could find some of these in-writing requirements. So I did a few different Google searches. Does X university require students to own their own computers? Obviously, you would do the search for just your own university. I found a really clear example at Iowa State University, page titled Computer Requirement, quote, beginning in fall, 2020, all students at Iowa State University will be required to own or obtain a laptop computer or other device appropriate to their discipline. End quote. The page goes on explaining why this requirement is in place, but having this page, you would be able to show to the IRS, Yes, I am required as a student at Iowa State University to have my own laptop or computer. It is a qualified education expenses for the purpose of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free. Super clear. However, you will not find this kind of requirement or clear language everywhere.
40:25 Emily: For example, on the computing and information technology page on Brown’s website, it says, quote: Brown does not require students to own a computer. End quote. Of course, there’s more text on that page, but there it is, you’re not required to own a computer as a student at Brown. So unless you can find maybe something more specific to your course or your graduate degree that says something else, this would probably apply. So you would not be able to say that your laptop or personal computer is a qualified education expense. Now, as I said earlier, you know, there could be a university-level requirement. It could be a graduate school level requirement that could be, you know, for your individual department or program, even for an individual course, you know, you might find a requirement, any one of these levels. So please do look at all of those levels to see if you can find in black and white, this kind of requirement.
41:13 Emily: So for example, I searched out Georgia Tech, and I found their page titled, Required Computer Ownership, quote, all undergraduate students, entering Georgia Tech are required to own or lease a computer. End quote. So I could find that requirement for the undergraduates, you would have to search and see if they had a similar requirement for the graduate school or, you know, your degree program. I couldn’t find that. So I think that’s what it comes down to. Can you find in black and white that a laptop or a personal computer is required for you at some level by your university? If you can, it’s a qualified education expense, and you can use it to make some of your scholarship and fellowship income tax-free that was not already made tax-free by other qualified education expenses. This question showcases really well why you can’t rely solely on your 1098T to provide you with information about your qualified education expenses.
42:06 Emily: A laptop that you purchase from a retailer that’s not your university would not be reflected on your 1098T, yet, as we’ve seen under certain circumstances, it can be a qualified education expense for the purposes of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free. There are other examples like this of qualified education expenses that don’t show up on your 1098T. So you cannot trust your 1098T alone. You have to really think holistically about what your higher education expenses were for the year, and then figure out whether they can be considered qualified education expenses. So I know that was a lot to follow, especially if you’re new to my tax material and you’ve never heard me talk about how your fellowship scholarships are part of your potentially taxable income. Again, if you want more resources, pfforphds.com/tax is the best place to go for articles and podcast episodes and so forth. But you’re going to find the really in-depth information in my tax workshop. Again, pfforphds.com/taxworkshop. I answer questions like this one once per month during our Q&A calls. The next Q&A call is coming up on Sunday, March 14th, 2021. Thank you so much to Anonymous for submitting this question. If you would like to submit a question to be answered in a future episode, please go to pfforphds.com/podcast and follow the instructions you find there. I love answering questions. So please submit yours.
43:34 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episode show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast, and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest and submitting a question for the Q&A segment. 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 Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs 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.