In this episode, Emily interviews Michael Spano, a fifth-year PhD student in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. After seeing his stipend offer from UCI and securing university-subsidized housing, Michael resolved to save and invest as much money as he possibly could throughout grad school. Michael shares his financial philosophy of keeping recurring expenses low, splurging only on high-value experiences, and finding joy and fulfillment in inexpensive activities. Over the course of graduate school, Michael saved up approximately $60,000 in cash, which he has spent—listen through the end of the episode to find out on what. His post-graduation plans include a year-long sabbatical and pursuing financial independence.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- PF for PhDs Subscribe to Mailing List (Access Advice Document)
- PF for PhDs S14E9 Show Notes
- PF for PhDs S8E3: Knowing Your Worth in an Environment that Devalues Your Work (Money Story with Sam McDonald)
- PF for PhDs Season 15
- Emily’s E-mail
- Sailing Ambrosia (YouTube)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub (Show Notes)
00:00 Michael: I talked about how I minimized all of my recurring costs so that I have a lot of ability to save, and that allows me to make these one-time purchases that I put a lot of value on. Things that I only have to buy once. For instance, you know, a wetsuit, it’s maybe a four or $500 investment, which, you know, if you don’t have savings, it’s a lot of money. But because I had this, you know, money saving up as I’m watching it grow, I’m like, Hmm, yeah, I’ll take a little bit off the top and I’m going to buy this equipment. And it gave me hours and hours and hours of joy.
00:36 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts, a financial educator specializing in early-career PhDs and founder of Personal Finance for PhDs. This podcast is for PhDs and PhDs-to-be who want to explore the hidden curriculum of finances to learn the best practices for money management, career advancement, and advocacy for yourself and others. This is Season 14, Episode 9, and today my guest is Michael Spano, who at the time of this interview was a fifth-year PhD student in chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. After seeing his stipend offer from UCI and securing university-subsidized housing, Michael resolved to save and invest as much money as he possibly could throughout grad school. Michael shares his financial philosophy of keeping recurring expenses low, splurging only on high-value experiences, and finding joy and fulfillment in inexpensive activities. Over the course of graduate school, Michael saved up approximately $60,000 in cash, which he has spent—listen through the end of the episode to find out on what. His post-graduation plans include a year-long sabbatical and pursuing financial independence.
01:59 Emily: I have a personal update for you all today. The last six months or so have been pretty hard for me and my family. Starting last fall, my husband and I had some extra caregiving duties for one of our parents pop up. And the conclusion of that journey a couple of months ago was the death of that parent. So, it’s been a very trying season of course managing all of our regular life plus these extra caregiving responsibilities. Plus it was tax season, which, you know, is like the busiest time of year for me. And then of course grieving and the funeral and all these associated things. So, it’s been a lot, and I just wanted to say thank you to you all. To everyone who has supported my business in any large or small ways through this period, I’m especially appreciative. I could not do any marketing for my tax return workshops outside of like this podcast and my own mailing list because I didn’t have the time and energy for it.
03:05 Emily: So, I super appreciate all of you who recommended that workshop, whether that was to an individual or to a potential sponsor at your university. It really helped me get through this season without a huge hit to the business revenue and so forth. And I also want to say, you know, thank you for your patience with me. Some of you may have emailed me during this time and I may not have gotten back to you or gotten back to you weeks or months later. And I’m really sorry about that. It had to happen. And one more, very special thank you needs to go to my team who works with me behind the scenes on the podcast and on other aspects of my business. Jill, Lourdes, and Meryem, I appreciate you so much. It is really, really all to their credit that things have been happening in the business. That your emails have been getting answered, that podcast episodes have been coming out, that transcripts are getting done, all of those sorts of things especially over the last few months. Literally, the business would have ground to a halt without you. So, thank you.
04:03 Emily: Now that we’re near the beginning of May, I have turned my thoughts to summer vacation. I am looking forward to a change of pace and hopefully some rest and recuperation over the summer. My kids are out of school from about early June to like mid-late August, and we have a couple of vacations planned. I’m going to a couple of conferences as Personal Finance for PhDs. My kids are enrolled in fun summer camps. I’m just really looking forward to a change of pace for the summer. One exciting thing about the podcast is that we’ll be doing something different with episodes over the summer and I really want you to contribute. So, please keep listening to this episode to find out how you can be part of the special set of episodes we’re doing over the summer.
04:50 Emily: What this experience has to do with finances, let’s see. I am really grateful to myself and my husband in the past for working very diligently on our finances and especially automating as much as we can. Because whenever you hit an emergency of any type, and we’ve been through a couple, having those finances automated is just a huge peace of mind that the bills are getting paid and you do not have to do anything to make that happen. I’m also really grateful that we, you know, have aggressively saved in the past because we did have some extra costs associated with the caregiving we were doing. And we didn’t have to worry about overdrawing the checking account. We had savings that we could rely on. And this experience of losing a parent and, you know, reflecting on the life that that person had and the relationship that we had with them, it makes you realize that <laugh> life is for living, you know?
05:38 Emily: And money should be in service of that. So, I do think that we are going to be adjusting our strategy going forward. We’re not going to be saving quite so aggressively for retirement. We’re really good on that front, and we’re going to be using our money a bit more in the here and now to upgrade our lifestyle and create, you know, lasting memories with our friends and family. So again, thank you so much for bearing with me through this time period. I’m really grateful to you. Thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing these episodes. If you’d like to join my mailing list to keep up with new episodes coming out and other announcements from Personal Finance for PhDs, you can do so at PFforPhDs.com/advice. And why don’t you give your loved ones a hug or a phone call today? You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/S14E9. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Michael Spano.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
06:27 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Michael Spano. He’s a fifth-year PhD student at UC Irvine in chemistry, and he was actually recommended by past guest Sam McDonald from season eight, episode three. So, Michael, thank you so much for volunteering to come on the podcast, and will you please introduce yourself a little bit further to the audience?
07:05 Michael: Yeah, sure. Thank you for the warm welcome, Emily. I’m really happy to be here and talk about my story. Sam and I are domestic partners, so we share a lot of things in common. A little bit about my background. I’m actually a dual citizen with Brazil. I spent half of my life in Brazil. I had all of my primary education there, so middle school, high school, and college. And then I got lucky in college to have a Science without Borders fellowship. So I came to North Carolina and I got exposed to what like a science lab was in the United States, and I was hooked. So I knew I had to do my PhD here. So, ever since then I’ve been working to get back to the United States. And here I am doing my PhD at UC Irvine in chemistry, and I’m, yeah, stoked.
07:49 Emily: So, I understand that when you started your PhD, well, tell us what your stipend was. And tell us how that struck you. Having, you know, recently or let’s say for college, you were in Brazil and so obviously there’s currency and, and cost of living differences there. So like what were you thinking about that stipend when you first saw that offer letter?
08:05 Michael: Yeah, absolutely, right. So, the stipend was right around $30,000. And that was an enormous amount of money, like you said, having been coming straight from Brazil that was more money than any of my professors made at university in Brazil. So, it struck me as like an opportunity. Like if I play my cards right and I’m frugal about living, I could save a ton of money and be really well off. And mind you, if you go to a federal university in Brazil, it’s free. So, I didn’t have any debts from college. And I was going into a PhD where not only was I not accruing debt, they were paying me. So I could actually build net worth if I played my cards right. So, $30,000 a year was the largest amount of money I had ever seen at the time. And I think we can agree I kind of played my cards well and built something for myself.
Cost of Living Expenses
08:56 Emily: Yes, that will be revealed through the course of the episode. I know where the exciting conclusion is here, but the listeners don’t yet. But okay. I mean, you see the number $30,000 per year, I understand how that could strike you, but we also are talking about Southern California, which is incredibly expensive. So I don’t know if you had like the context for that at that time. Like when you lived in the U.S. before, was it also in a high cost of living area? Or like how did you, before you actually got on the ground in Irvine, did you have a concept of how much your basic living expenses would, you know, account for as part of that stipend?
09:27 Michael: That’s a fantastic question. Because no, I didn’t, I had no idea. You always hear like, you know, California’s super expensive. So, kind of to back up, I applied only to three grad schools because it costs money to apply. And, you know, at the time I didn’t have it. So, I applied to three schools, got into two of them, Chapel Hill and UCI. And UCI had this really cool deal where they guaranteed you student housing if you signed up for it in your first year. And it’s common in graduate programs, at least in chemistry, for them to fly you out to see the school and you get to meet the faculty and everything. So on that trip, you know, I took a quick look at all the facilities. I was like, great, yeah, everything checks out. It’s a top-notch school.
10:08 Michael: Let me go to Aldi and buy, you know, enough groceries for a week. Let me see what that costs. Let me go fill up the rental car that I have. Let me see what it costs to actually live here. And I talked a lot with the students about housing, and I saw that the rent varied a lot. The cheapest housing units at UCI were around $550 a month, which is like fantastic. And some of the more expensive ones were around $1,500. So, that’s a difference of a thousand dollars every month. That’s 12 grand a year. That’s a $60,000 difference over the course of your PhD. So, it was essential that I got one of those cheaper units. And because I got accepted into two programs, I was willing to walk away from UCI and go to Chapel Hill because the cost of living there is much cheaper if I didn’t get the housing assignment. Did that answer your question?
10:57 Emily: Yes, it did. So I think we’ve already, if there are any prospective graduate students listening to this, we’ve gotten some lessons there already from just what you said was going on during this admission season of you actually having the opportunity to be on the ground at the university. You were checking out what are the costs that you can observe, what are the costs that you can speak with other graduate students about? And like you said, housing is number one, the most key expense to identify and make sure that it’s going to be able to fit within your budget. So, this sounds like this was a point of negotiation with your program, that you said, I must have this guaranteed housing spot, or else I have to decline the admission. Is that correct?
11:33 Michael: Not quite. I didn’t quite have the power to enforce that requirement upon the school. But I did know the date in which they would tell me if I got the housing was still not too late, that I couldn’t turn down the offer and go and join the other school in North Carolina. So it was kind of like a plan B, if I didn’t get the cheap housing, I was willing to just say, okay, I’m out. I quit and I’m going to go to this other school that’s cheaper.
12:02 Emily: Yes. Okay. Maybe not for your situation, I don’t know, but for other prospective graduate students listening, don’t be afraid to try to use this as a point of negotiation. For you, it sounds like it was just a boundary. If I get this, I’ll go here, the numbers are going to work out. If I don’t, I’m going to go with my next top choice. And that’s totally fine to have that boundary for yourself. But other people could maybe go the next proactive step and just inform the program that that’s what you’re thinking and that is going to be a boundary that you’re setting for yourself. Okay. So, you have your $30,000 per year statement. You have your guaranteed lowest cost housing. You mentioned $550 per month. Is that what this has been during your graduate career, or has that changed?
12:45 Michael: Yeah, it’s been that and it’s gone up 15 bucks every year. So, I’m still in the range of like $600 something per month. Yeah.
Money Mindset in Grad School
12:53 Emily: Okay. Amazing. So, you know, you spoke earlier about, you know, being impressed by the amount of money and that you were interested in saving as much as you could of that stipend. Can you say anything more about what motivated you to think in that direction? Because it’s definitely not a typical goal for a graduate student.
13:14 Michael: Yeah, I think I just realized at some point, you know, like this money is freedom down the road, right? Like we exchange our life for money to do things we want. And if you’re not born into wealth, all you have to work with is your salary, right? If you’re not, if you don’t get an inheritance of, you know, $500,000, a million dollars, all you’ve got to work with is, either you come up with a really good idea, you start a business, you get rich, or you work with what you have. So, that was basically me realizing like, hey, this is a really good opportunity. I’m going to work with what I have. I did the math and you know, as we’re going to get into shortly, making some really severe like austerity measures, you can save a lot of money during grad school. It’s guaranteed income for five years, and if you play your cards right, you can save it. So, I think that’s where my head was at. You know, I realized, yeah, I wasn’t born into like a lot of wealth or anything. And this was what I had to work with. So, this was my shot I was going to take it and work with it.
14:19 Emily: So interesting again, and so unusual. I think I did something similar when I was in graduate school, though not to the same extreme as you in terms of the mindset that you had. My mindset was more like, I am an adult and I need to do adulty things with my money, even though I am also a graduate student. And so that involved like saving 10%. So I’m not thinking like, oh, I want to save every single dollar I possibly could, but like having a savings rate of some kind is something that, you know, I wanted to do. And so we had a similar thought process, but you’ve taken it a little bit further than I did at that time.
Minimizing Recurring Costs
14:53 Emily: So, let’s talk about the budget that you’ve had during graduate school, and later on we’ll discuss what you’ve, you know, decided to put those savings towards. But in terms of living expenses, what have those been aside from the rent, which we’ve discussed?
15:06 Michael: Yeah, so my philosophy on living expenses was to really take a hard look at everything that I was spending money on and asking, is this absolutely necessary? Do I really need this recurring cost? And I’ll be clear, I’m trying to minimize all of my recurring costs, like rent, like insurances, like cell phone bills, all these things that you have no choice. They get billed to you every month and you have to pay them, right? If you minimize those and you can save a lot of money, then you can choose to buy things when you want them, right? Like one-time payments for an object that will bring you lots of joy in my mind was better than subscribing to things over and over. And then, you know, wasting my salary because that, like I said, that was my only leverage is building up that savings.
15:53 Michael: So, my rent, I’m going to give you some numbers here annually, but my rent equates to about $7,200 annually. So for 12 months, I decided that, you know, in California you absolutely need a car. So I had a hand-me-down little car but it needs insurance, and that’s a recurring cost. So, even if my car is parked, it still costs me insurance. That was around $348 per year. And that’s another thing, a lot of people pay way too much for car insurance. Call the competitors and haggle. Say, Hey, I’ll switch to your company if you beat this price by 50 bucks. And when they do, call up the other competitors, like six companies. Just keep doing that until you drive the cost down.
16:34 Emily: I do have to say I’m very impressed by that number. Because I hear other people talk about their expenses for car insurance but I’m assuming you have a car that doesn’t have much value, right? And that mostly you have liability insurance is mostly what it’s there for.
16:48 Michael: Exactly. It’s just liability. A car is a tool. It shouldn’t, I’m sorry, this is my opinion, it should not be your pride and joy. That’s silly. It’s a trap. It’s a financial trap. If you’ve got a new car, sell it. Go buy a junker. Anyone giving financial advice would tell you that. Buy a junker, drive it until it explodes, fix it, and keep driving it. So here we are, rent $7,200 car insurance, $348 a year. My cell phone bill, I prepaid a whole year with Mint Mobile. They were doing this promotional. $109 for the whole year. And that’s for a four gigabyte plan, unlimited talk and text. The car needs a smog check in California, it’s $36 every year. Can’t get around that. It also needs to be registered, $128 a year. So right there, those are like my basics. Living and transportation. Mind you, I don’t have to put fuel in my car.
Retirement Saving and Discretionary Spending
17:36 Michael: So that’s not non-discretionary, that’s definitely discretionary. And then one thing that I put in my budget that I was not going to skip on was maximizing my Roth IRA. Now that’s a retirement account, it’s tax leverage. So you put money in that account that you’ve already paid taxes on and it grows tax-free and you can withdraw it under certain circumstances. But typically when you’re about to retire. So I max that out, it was $5,500 and it’s grown to $6,500 now. They might even change it this year or next year to compensate for inflation. So, when you add all those up, my non-discretionary spending, things I have no choice to pay. It’s $14,321 per year as you know, the criteria there. So my gross income is $30,000. You subtract those two and I now have a discretionary spending of $15,679.
18:31 Michael: So now, what do I choose to spend my money on? How am I going to live my life, live a fulfilled life, travel, see the world, be happy on $15,679? Well one, I buy California state park pass. So, that’s $200 a year and that gives me free parking to any of the state parks. So, I live six miles from a beach and that’s my go-to place. That’s my happy spot. I also bought some, well I’ll talk about that later, but groceries is a big one. I’ve got this supermarket called wholesome choice. I mostly eat vegetables, really healthy food. It’s $35 a week. So, that equates to $1,680 a year. I choose to have beer. I like my beer money. So, you know, having two or three beers a week, that’s, you know, at the grocery store. So, it’s six bucks a week. That equates to $288 a year.
19:25 Michael: Gasoline, let’s say $60 a month to go travel, see things that really opens up your horizons. That’s $720 a year. And then finally the National Parks Pass, which is a hundred dollars a year. And that, you know, just opens your world, right? And then California, we have so many national parks. That was, you know, hands down worth it. A hundred dollars a year. So now, add up my discretionary spending, that’s $2,983. Subtract that from my discretionary spending, and I’m left with what is my saving ability. So, I’m able to save $12,696 every year if I stick to this or roughly these numbers. So, that’s about a thousand dollars a month. So, multiply that for 12 months over the course of a PhD, five years, that’s $63,480. That’s not accounting for, if this money is in a savings account or invested in the stock market growing with the market, it’s actually more than that. It turns out to be like 70, 75,000 over that five-year span. So, that was the math I did. You know, if I can be happy putting gas in my car, going, seeing national parks, doing natural things, I don’t have to spend money on movie tickets or these other things or buying clothes or whatever, right? Whatever brings people happiness. Mine was cheap quality, good happiness, and I’ve lived a very fulfilling life.
20:50 Emily: That does bring me back to kind of a note or a point or a question that I wanted to make regarding what you said earlier about, you know, like not getting trapped into like high rent or like high transportation costs in terms of what you’re calling your recurring expenses. The expenses that have to go out the door every single month. It sounds to me like you do not value those things. So, you are going to spend as little as you possibly can. And thankfully, you know, UCI has given you a good deal on housing and so forth. So, it’s not like you have to go to market rent and everything like that and compete in Irvine for that. But I just wanted to point out that other people can have a different opinion about this.
21:29 Emily: The listeners, for example, might not want to follow your example of spending the absolute minimum possible amount of money on things like housing or transportation. And that’s okay. It’s just that you have determined, what I think is really fantastic about this story is that you have been very clear about what is important to you and what is not. And minimizing the spending on what is not important to you. You know, you’ve been very intentional about that and I fully agree with, advocate for that strategy of decide what’s important, decide what’s not. Spend as little as you can on what’s not important so that, like you’re doing, you can free up money to spend on the things that are really adding value to your life. Like you mentioned the National Parks Pass and the state parks parking and all that sort of thing. The gas to get to these, you know, wonderful natural, beautiful places. You’ve decided that’s what you value. Now you’re, I don’t know if lucky’s the right word, but in your worldview it happens to be that those things are not that expensive, right? <Laugh> in the grand scheme of things. So adding a lot of value to your life for just a little bit more spending has really increased your quality of life dramatically.
22:33 Michael: Yeah, I think you nailed it. That’s a great summary of my perspective on this.
22:39 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude! We’re doing something special for Season 15 of this podcast, and as a loyal listener, I know you’re going to want to be involved. Season 15 will be a chance to share your financial experiences, even if you don’t want to give a full-episode interview or want to remain anonymous. We’re going to publish compilation episodes around certain themes, and each episode will feature at least a half-dozen different contributors. The contributions can be audio clips or written text that I will read aloud for the episode. If you are interested in contributing, check out PFforPhDs.com/season15/. That’s the digits 1 5. On that page, you’ll find a list of the proposed themes and how many volunteers I’ve identified for each episode. Your next step is to email me at emily@PFforPhDs.com to let me know which episode you’d like to contribute to or if you have another idea for the list. Once I’m confident that we have enough contributions for an episode to be created, I’ll give the volunteers specific prompts and directions to create their submissions. I hope you will choose to participate in this unique season! I can’t do it without you, so please get in touch! Now back to the interview.
24:02 Emily: You brought up something else in our prep for this episode that I thought was really illustrative of your kind of philosophy around spending, which was spearfishing <laugh>. So, please tell me how spearfishing fits into your financial philosophy?
24:18 Michael: Okay, so I talked about how I minimized all of my recurring costs so that I have a lot of ability to save, and that allows me to make these one-time purchases that I put a lot of value on. Things that I only have to buy once. For instance, you know, a wetsuit. I still bought a pretty cheap wetsuit, so don’t think like spearfishing, super expensive, but you know, a spear gun, a wetsuit, gloves, it adds up. It’s maybe a four or $500 investment, which, you know, if you don’t have savings, it’s a lot of money. But because I had this, you know, money saving up as I’m watching it grow, I’m like, Hmm, yeah, I’ll take a little bit off the top and I’m going to buy this equipment. And it gave me hours and hours and hours of joy. I’ve just fallen in love with the ocean and I’m so fortunate that I got to go to school here.
25:04 Michael: I’ve never been an ocean person, but by going to the ocean, I fell in love. One day when this lady, she took her goggles and put it on a kid, her daughter shoved her head underwater and she’s giggling and screaming. And I went over, I was like, can I see what’s underwater? She put the goggles on me and I was hooked, instantly hooked. I wanted everything to do with underwater. So, spearfishing actually allows me to catch quality fish, be sustainable, and save a lot of money on groceries. Like I only buy fruits and veggies at the supermarket. Most of my protein comes from the ocean. And quality protein. Lobster season just opened up. It’s legal to catch lobsters here with your bare hands. So, I’ve had fantastic lobster dinners, lots of sea bass. I make ceviche, I jerky my fish. I mean, I have a really good quality of life from spearfishing. So, it brings me joy and it reduces my costs even further by providing me quality protein that I don’t have to spend money on, or at least the cost is very little.
26:03 Emily: Yeah, what a virtuous like cycle there that you have set up. Like something that you enjoy doing with your free time, brings you some, you know value to your mental health and so forth. And oh, what do you know? It also happens to help you reduce your expenses at the same time in terms of the grocery spending and, you know, the healthful diet and all that lovely stuff. So, I think the, maybe the broader lesson to take from that for the listeners is, maybe you won’t be able to find such a hobby that will actually help you reduce your expenses after, you know, an initial investment. But finding an inexpensive hobby that really brings a lot of value to your life is wonderful during grad school. Obviously, when you don’t have, have tons and tons of money to be having a very, very expensive hobby, it’s great to find things that are just low cost. Like I know for me during graduate school I went to Duke, so I got like really into Duke basketball and like, it’s free essentially to like watch a game with your friends, right? Like, and to have that be like your social activity. So yeah, I just love that point of finding these low cost activities that you just really, really enjoy.
Self-Sufficiency and Knowing What Makes You Happy
27:05 Emily: Is there anything else that you’d like to add regarding your expenses or how you find joy and happiness at this like, lower spending level?
27:16 Michael: There are two things I might want to talk about. So one is unexpected things happen, right? We own things that might break, like our cars or laptops, whatever. I’ve gotten very good out of necessity at fixing those things myself. So, if you think about, you know, the hourly cost to bring your car into the mechanics, it’s outrageous. If you have to do that very often, because you’re driving a junker like me, it actually defeats the purpose. So I’ve gotten phenomenally good at fixing my own car. And I’ll often try to purchase equipment that will allow me to fix the car multiple times. So that thing could break, like for example, I bought a welder from Harbor Freight for a hundred dollars because I had a hole in the exhaust of my old Subaru that rusted all the pieces. So when I got a quote from a welder, it was $150 to fix it.
28:09 Michael: And I thought, well I could buy this welder for a hundred and fix it two or three more times because another hole’s going to show up. So, it’s that kind of mentality of like, I’m going to do it myself. I’m going to fix these things, I’m going to drive the cost as low as possible. And you know, for some people it might just seem like work, but you end up learning so much in the process. Like, I can fix anything now and it’s great. I mean, even like in my next steps in life, it comes in really handy to achieve those dreams because I know how to fix things and I’m good at it. So, and another thing that I would like to drive home is like when you’re trying to find these cheap hobbies, it can be hard because we live in such an environment where we’re being advertised to all the time or we compare ourselves with other people. Try and declutter everything and, and ask yourself what really makes me happy? For me it’s nature. I love nature. And the beauty is nature’s free, right? You can just walk outside, go to a park, and yeah, when you get in tune with the things that really, really make you happy and you pull back away everything that’s clouding that, not only does it make for a much more fulfilling life, but you can save a lot of money too.
29:19 Emily: Do you think that you would have gone on that same kind of journey of understanding yourself and what makes you happy had you not had the financial constraints of the stipend slash wanting to save as much as possible? Like if you had gone a different route and not gone to graduate school, had a different kind of job, do you think you would’ve ended up in the same place?
29:41 Michael: Probably not. I think another beauty of grad school is it gives you a five-year span where you can think about things, right? It’s kind of our job is to, well the Ph in the PhD is philosophical, right? So, we have this time to think. I think, I can’t quite say if things would’ve panned out the same way if for instance, I had declined UCI and gone to Chapel Hill. My life would’ve been totally different. I probably wouldn’t have discovered the ocean. I might not have had a reason to save so aggressively my stipend, who knows, right? But all I can say is that, the way it happened, I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been a fantastic experience.
Sailboat and Seabattical
30:24 Emily: I think the listeners don’t yet fully appreciate how fantastically you are setting yourself up. Because we talked about, you even talked about Roth IRA contributions as like a recurring thing that you have to do, but you’re saving on top of that around $12,000 per year. You have that opportunity to save around $12,000 per year. So, the big reveal, what are you doing with that money <laugh>?
30:50 Michael: Right. So, to everyone that pulled out their calculators and was adding up all my expenses you know, five years of saving a grand a month, that adds up to, you know, over $60,000. I’ve purchased a sailboat here in Southern California. And more importantly, sailboats actually are kind of cheap. I bought the parking space for the sailboat that was twice as much as the boat. So, it’s called a mooring system. It’s lead weights at the bottom of the harbor, and you get to park your boat on it, and it’s kind of like a lease. So, when you buy that, you buy the rights to use that indefinitely, so long as you pay a small tax. So, that’s what I’ve done with my stipend. I’ve saved up all this money. I’ve bought the mooring and the sailboat. And my view for it in the future is, you know, it’s a little place that I can call home.
31:40 Michael: I’ll always have a place to come back to in California, wherever my life might take me. And you can actually live on them for very cheap. Now, some people have all the amenities of a house on a boat and then you completely skip rent. So, in a future where perhaps I get a job somewhere here in southern California, I have a place where I could live virtually for free and that will allow me to save, repeat this process and save even more, earning six figures. And then, you know, together with Sam, we both are like-minded. We can do whatever we want. We’ll be financially free. We can take whatever job we want because we don’t have to have a job. We’ve saved up enough money and we could do this in a relatively short time-scale.
32:22 Emily: You are the first person I’ve interviewed who has purchased a boat during graduate school. And as you said, not even just the boat, but the place to house the boat even more important. Incredible.
32:33 Michael: Thank you.
32:34 Emily: Why are you living in your campus arrangement right now? Is the boat that you have right now not suitable for living in full-time?
32:41 Michael: Yeah, it’s not suitable right now. I need to do some work on the plumbing for the sewage. Now, trying to juggle a PhD and working on a boat that’s floating in the middle of the harbor is kind of difficult. So, I’ve prioritized my education right now. But also, if you look at the house around me, this is a really nice deal. It’s beautiful. I call this place home and it’s lovely. I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. So, the rent, even though I could cut that and live on the boat cheaper, the joy that this apartment brings Samantha and I for the cost is worth it. So, we’re going to stick with this until I can no longer live here when I graduate.
33:21 Emily: And so, I see how now, you know, the skills that you mentioned developing from working on your car, I’m assuming some of those are at least the same learning mindset is translating to being able to fix up the boat and maintain the boat and and so forth. So like you found a new way to apply the skills that you were trying out and practicing on maybe a lower stakes endeavor with the car?
33:42 Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Anyone that knows someone that owns a boat, they are financial nightmares unless you do the work yourself, in which case they’re a time commitment. But it’s kind of what I’m going for here. I want to have the ability to slow down and take life at a slower pace. And that means that I do the work myself on the boat, even if it takes me a little bit longer. And I’m planning as soon as I graduate to spend a whole year on the boat traveling around the world with Sam before we go into our next endeavor. You could call it a “seabbatical”. And in that time, you know, I really want to slow down, kind of refind myself again before I just jump into the next opportunity and, you know, spend the rest of my life in a career. I really want to make sure that I get that time for myself. And slowing down learning how to fix things yourself on a boat, it’s a good way to make that dream happen on a budget.
34:36 Emily: I am so amazed by this, this idea of doing the seabbatical after you finish. Now, you’re a fifth-year, so this is in the relatively near future, right? Can you tell me what the plans are for finishing up your PhD, for doing the seabbatical, for, you know, what you’ll do after that for your next job?
34:53 Michael: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m quite, I’m right in between opportunities here. I’m trying to finish up my thesis work and get that published and submit my thesis and defend. I’m trying to do that in the next, let’s see, we’re in November. I’m trying to do that in the next three months, and then be graduated sometime in January. And I’ve already written a grant that will fund my postdoc at a National Laboratory. So, that money is already, you know, in my hands at the National Lab. So, I’ve got a guaranteed postdoc after the seabbatical. So the idea is graduate, take the boat down to Baja, explore Baja, California, cross the Pacific either to Hawaii or straight to French Polynesia. And it’s my lifelong dream. I want to see the Pacific atolls. There are these beautiful rings of coral in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That’s my dream. If I see that in this upcoming seabbatical you know, I’ve made it, you know. Anything else can come and I’ll happily go and join a national lab and do work there and produce science.
35:57 Emily: I love the strategy of securing the funding before, like knowing really what that next step is going to be. Because it’s a little bit of a risk, and especially I think with academia type stuff. People say, oh, you know, you take a break, you get out, you can never come back and so forth. But I really like this that you have the money, which is kind of the most important part. Having that established so that you know, you have a place to land when you’re done with this lovely break. And I’m so excited for that. And I definitely want you and or Sam, both of you to come back on the podcast after you’ve taken this year break and tell me, you know, all the shifted, you know, perspectives that you have. Maybe your life won’t even be going in the same direction that you thought at that point. That would be wonderful.
National Laboratory Postdoc Funding
36:37 Emily: But I want a little bit more detail now, if you don’t mind. I understand you’re already working with this National Lab that you had then, you know, applied for the grant for and so forth where you’ll do your postdoc. So, can you talk about that like relationship between, you know, yourself and your current advisor, your current program, and that National Lab?
36:55 Michael: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, when you join grad school, they tell you that you’re guaranteed a stipend, right? $30,000 in my case. What they don’t tell you is what you have to do to earn that $30,000. Most people find out kind of the rather harsh way that they need to be a teaching assistant their entire PhD. Or some people write NSF grants and they get a fellowship which funds them. My case was neither. My case was, you know, a fellowship that came from Los Alamos National Laboratory. They were looking for a person that had my skillset. And my advisor at Los Alamos, my current advisor now at Los Alamos, reached out to my advisor at UCI looking for this type of individual that I kind of fit the bill. And that was that they already had built up a relationship in the past.
37:38 Michael: And, you know, that’s kind of how the world works. You call up, do you know anyone that’s good at this? And yeah, I do, here. So, that’s how I got selected for this. But that didn’t quite solve my financial problems once that connection was made. Just because I was the person for the project didn’t mean the money was there yet. So, we went through multiple rounds of applying for grants to fund me in this new endeavor, this partnership collaboration between UCI and Los Alamos. And it took us three years to actually get the funding. And then finally it came through internally from Los Alamos. My advisor at Los Alamos kind of pulled through and got that funding. And it was meant to be more of like a summer internship funding. But the way that we’ve structured it is we’ve kind of spread that money out over the whole year.
38:22 Michael: And then we, it’s not enough to fund me for the whole year. So then we have to supplement it with additional funding that my advisor from Los Alamos is able to get internally there at Los Alamos. And it’s kind of the first of its kind, but there are going to be many more of these types of fellowships. So kind of like a plug to anyone that’s in the southern UC school systems. It might not be known, but the UC system is actually a third owner or administrator of the National Laboratory. So, they’re trying to build a pipeline of students from the southern UC, you know, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Irvine to go to Los Alamos because all of the Northern UC system schools already have that pathway to the National Labs in Berkeley. So Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, Sandia, they already have that pathway. So, their students kind of go there. And so they’re looking to build that. So, there are actually going to be more opportunities like the one I have for students in the Southern UC school system.
39:20 Emily: Yeah. And so the way that I understand this is structured is you are an employee of the National Lab, but since you’re still a student, your education expenses are still outstanding. And your department, your program has agreed to pay those on your behalf, even though you’re not, you know, a teaching assistant or you don’t have a fellowship that’s being administered by the university, they’re still covering that part of things.
39:43 Michael: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s kind of messy, right? Because once you get external funding, the school doesn’t get its cut and then it requires you to pay for tuition. But in the way that this is, because there is this unique kind of like part-ownership of the UC systems with the National Labs, they’re trying to make this work, right? They’re trying to get students from the UC systems into the National Labs. And so, you know, some kind of conversation had to occur between Los Alamos National Lab and my department where my department agreed to pick up my tuition costs.
Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE)
40:19 Emily: I’m so glad we got that into the interview because it’s a structure that I had not heard before. So, it’s really just interesting and good to hear that there are creative solutions to how graduate students can be funded in various ways. And thanks for letting the other, you know, UC students know about this upcoming pipeline. Surprise second-to-last question, Michael. There are some ways that you’ve been answering questions in this interview that indicate to me that you might be part of the financial independence movement. Is that the case?
40:51 Michael: I mean that’s the dream. Yeah. FIRE, right? Financial independence, retire early. And I think it’s funny because a lot of people have a negative connotation with the word retire, but it’s focused more on the financial independence, right? If you have saved enough money, built enough wealth, created passive income streams to the point where you don’t have to take a job, it means you can work on whatever you dream, whatever you wish. And because we’re humans, we’re always evolving. What we picked to do in school might not be the thing we want to do for the rest of our lives. So, having that ability to say no to that job, say no to maybe perhaps corporate America or something and say yes to entrepreneurship or whatever floats your boat, right? That’s the beauty. So that’s what Samantha and I are both trying to achieve together is that financial independence so that we can dedicate our lives to whatever we want, whatever we think has value, not necessarily the big corporate, you know, pharma company or this or that, whatever pays the bills.
41:46 Emily: Do you see this pursuit of financial independence as enabling you to continue to do science in the way that you want to? Or are you thinking of it as a way of stepping away from that vocation entirely when it might, you know, please you to do so?
42:01 Michael: Hmm. Both <laugh>. Yeah. To do science, it’s a very costly endeavor, and it’s really funny the way that we structure, you know, professorships. You get paid to teach, you don’t really get paid to do the science. You need to get that grant money kind of independently from your position as a professor. So it’s kind of like, they hire you for one thing but expect you to do the other. If you have the financial independence, you can do whatever you want. You can do research, maybe you go and pursue opportunities in science that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Like perhaps joining an antarctic exploration boat or something like that, right? It means you have the flexibility to pursue what you want. That might be continuing science, that might be doing something entrepreneurial, but it’s nice to have the flexibility and the financial security, or at least striving towards the financial security, to do whatever I might please in the future.
42:59 Emily: I’m so glad we got to this point of understanding this even bigger picture. Because we’ve been talking about, you know, the expenses during grad school, the savings, saving up for the seabbatical and everything, which is not full early retirement, but it’s certainly a mini-retirement as it’s called within the FIRE community. I’m glad to see that this is a vision that you see playing out over your entire lifetime. Not something you’re doing, you know, temporarily just during grad school, just for whatever reasons. You’re going to be sort of fluidly moving in and out of different employment opportunities and maybe some other sabbaticals or mini-retirements and maybe other, you know, unusual work arrangements and so forth because you’ve already started to build up this financial capital. Even though you’re not fully FI at this point, you have enough financial wherewithal to have a lot of control over how you spend your time and everything.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
43:51 Emily: And so, I’m just so pleased that we can see how, you know, that started with the seed of an idea at the beginning of graduate school and how it’s going to be blossoming over the coming years and over the coming decades. So, so glad that we got to this point in this interview that we could understand that. The question that I ask all of my guests at the end of interviews is, what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? That could be something that we’ve touched upon already or it could be something completely new.
44:18 Michael: Hmm, that’s good. I’m going to try and answer this as best I can. Because as we’ve established, I’m kind of an exception to this, right? So my advice might be a little bit extreme for others, but I would advise to those whoever may resonate with my story, minimize your recurring costs, advocate for yourself, whether that’s, like you pointed out, the necessity for a certain accommodation at the university. You can also advocate for a higher stipend for yourself at the university. Most people don’t know that. So, minimize recurring costs. Advocate for yourself. Those are my two big ones.
45:00 Emily: I love that. That’s sort of how I see my, you know, even business going forward of like advocacy and also doing really well with what you have, such as by minimizing those not important to you, recurring expenses. And Michael, where can people find you if they want to reach out?
45:17 Michael: Yeah, so if you want to follow me, my sailing adventures are all published on YouTube under my channel Sailing Ambrosia. So if you want to, you know, unplug and unwind, you can follow me there on YouTube.
45:30 Emily: Michael, this has been such a fascinating interview. I’m so glad that Sam recommended you. And thank you so much for taking the time to give it!
45:37 Michael: It’s been my pleasure. I really hope that someone out there resonates with this story and perhaps I’ve enlightened someone to follow in my footsteps.
45:49 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! I have a gift for you! You know that final question I ask of all my guests regarding their best financial advice? My team has collected short summaries of all the answers ever given on the podcast into a document that is updated with each new episode release. You can gain access to it by registering for my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/advice/. Would you like to access transcripts or videos of each episode? I link the show notes for each episode from PFforPhDs.com/podcast/. 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 by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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