In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Indira Turney, a postdoc at Columbia Medical Center. Indira tells the story of how her finances changed over the course of her PhD at Penn State. Indira started graduate school with approximately $60,000 of debt in a variety of forms and no idea where her income had been going. She resolved to turn things around, and by the time she graduated she was debt-free with cash savings and investments in a Roth IRA. Indira details the strategies she used to increase her income and minimize her expenses. Her methods are both creative and highly accessible for other graduate students.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Schedule a Seminar
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Help Out
- Find Dr. Indira Turney on Twitter and Instagram
00:00 Indira: And I think that’s when I realized, wait, my bills are going to be the same for the next five years and we’re having all this money coming in, I could pay off my loans. I don’t have to wait until the end. I think that’s what kind of started opening up my eyes.
00:16 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season four, episode ten and today my guest is Dr. Indira Turney, a postdoc at Columbia Medical Center. Indira tells the incredibly impressive story of how her finances changed over the course of her PhD at Penn State. Indira started graduate school with approximately $60,000 of debt in a variety of forms and no idea where her income from the previous year had gone. On top of that, she realized that she was taking an income cut to approximately $20,000 per year for her stipend. She resolved to turn things around and by the time she graduated, she was debt free with cash savings and investments in a Roth IRA. Indira details the multiple strategies she used to increase her income and minimize her expenses. Her methods are both creative and highly accessible for other graduate students and we could all do well to adopt her attitude toward income and finances. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Indira Turney.
01:25 Emily: I’m delighted to have joining me today on the podcast, Dr. Indira Turney, and she has a really remarkable financial story to tell from her time in graduate school and since. Indira, will you please tell us a little bit more about yourself?
01:38 Indira: Sure. I’m happy to be here and thanks again for inviting me on the podcast. I’m currently a postdoc at Columbia Medical Center in New York City and I graduated from the University of the Virgin Islands with my bachelor’s. I went on to do a pre-doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh for about a year and then I went on to earn my PhD in cognitive neuroscience at Penn State University in Pennsylvania. Now, I just started a postdoc at Columbia Medical Center, where my research essentially focuses on using molecular and functional neuro-imaging to identify socio-cultural sources and neuro-correlates of Alzheimer’s disease across diverse racially and ethnic population.
02:25 Emily: That is awesome. Thank you for telling us about that.
Indira’s Debt-Free Journey
Emily: So financially, where were you at the start of graduate school?
02:34 Indira: When I started grad school, I had about $60,000 in debt at the time. I never really calculated it specifically, but I had a car loan, I had about $20,000 student loans, and I had some health insurance stuff that I hadn’t paid off fully and some credit card bills. So in total about $60,000.
02:56 Emily: Yeah, that’s a pretty heavy debt load for grad student, and especially because with all student loans, of course you’d be able to defer that and not pay attention to it. But with other types of debt you still have to address it as a graduate student. What was your income during graduate school?
03:12 Indira: My first year I had the regular base pay of about, I think it’s about $1950 on a monthly basis, so about $19,000 a year. That’s what we got to cover stipend and then they paid tuition as well, as a teaching assistant. That’s what I had the first year and then after that with applying to other things, I essentially increased that based on how much funding I got that year.
03:37 Emily: So can you give me like a range for your subsequent years in graduate school of what you were earning?
03:43 Indira: As far as grad school funding, for years two, three and four, I got an NSF grant, so I went from $19,000 to $35,000, so that was a huge increase. My last year I got off of NSF because it was only three years and I went back to the regular base pay of $1950, but because I was an NSF for three years, I also kind of negotiated having a little extra, so I had about $23,000 or $22,000 a year. In addition to that, I also had other grants and funding, which probably, at max, was about $25,000 a year from graduate funds, as far as stipend goes, in my last year. So anywhere between $19,000 to $36,000
04:32 Emily: And it was just five years during your PhD, is that right?
04:35 Indira: Six years, actually, six years. Right. So the last two years.
04:39 Emily: And you said a word that I love to hear, which is negotiate. Can you tell me really briefly about negotiating?
04:46 Indira: Sure. So technically the program is five years and if you’re more than that, they tend to bump you down as a way to push you out. I essentially was like, “No, I’m not going to get paid $18,000 a year. I saved you guys a whole lot of money for three years by getting NSF funding.” And even while I had NSF funding, I technically taught a class, which I wasn’t necessarily supposed to. So I was just like, “I did a lot for the university, especially for this department. You’re not going to bump me down. If anything, you guys should increase my stipend.” Not in those words of course. I think there’s always room for asking for more money because there’s always money there, because technically they gave you, in your letter in the beginning, this is your five-year funding. There is money there. If you told me there was money there for five years, I deferred for three years, then there’s money there, so don’t tell me I used up your money for six years. I think there’s always ways to negotiate and tell them why this is what you’re worth and you are always worth more than what they give you. And if you ask there’s usually a lot of room for extra money.
05:51 Emily: I know you just said you didn’t use those words, but I really love the words that you just said and I’m so pleased to hear them. I think a lot of people need to hear them, about your value, and especially if you win outside funding. Yeah, of course they should extend your tenure and increase your pay. But I was just very interested in hearing that you actually did that negotiating after the NSF concluded. And so there’s still room when the money is yet to come in, even after the money has already passed through the system. In your opinion and in your example, the money was still there, you said the right words, you unlocked the money. In those last two years, were you doing like an RA or did you have to TA or where did the money from?
06:31 Indira: I did a mixture of both, so I TA-ed, where I taught a class because after your master’s you can actually teach versus just correcting papers, I guess. Then I also did an RA fellowship with my lab advisor where essentially I just did the work in the lab and got paid for it, instead of teaching a class where I’m taking away time from my research. I also got another award that bought off some time where I didn’t have to TA that year, even though I was getting funded by the university, I still didn’t have to TA that semester. So I really only taught two years out of the six years and on-and-off half a semester here and there.
07:09 Emily: Gotcha. Okay, so start of graduate school, things are actually not looking too great for you to start of graduate school. Approximately $60,000 worth of debt, not a very generous stipend, although probably okay, given where you were living. But then second year and following, buku bucks, at least for the time you were on the NSF. What’s the snapshot of your financial picture upon your defense, when you finished graduate school?
07:35 Indira: Upon defending, I was completely out of debt. I had $0 in debt. I tried to pay off everything, so my goal was pay it off in five years and I paid it off in four and a half, so my last year I had absolutely no debt at all. My car was paid off. I had paid all my student loans, except for maybe like $1,000, that I think is lurking somewhere from undergrad because the $20,000 I had was for my first year of grad school because I had moved away from the Caribbean to the United States, and so I felt like I needed the extra money, but I had about $2,000 in undergrad, which those are deferred because I’m still taking in school. But your grad school loans, they accrue interest while you’re in grad school, so I was determined to pay off that before I graduated. So on graduation day, defense day, I was completely out of debt, which was amazing.
08:22 Emily: So just so I’m clear about where the student loans came from, that was from the year that you were in school prior to starting your PhD? Is that right?
08:31 Indira: No, so the year prior to starting my PhD, I was fully funded. I think we got like $2,500 a month for a year or eight months pre-doctoral program. Then, right before I started grad school, I applied for financial aid, for a student loan until the start of grad school. I had a $20,000, I don’t know what it’s called, but essentially it was a loan from the federal government and it accrued interest every month. once you started grad school.
08:59 Emily: Okay. So you had taken out a $20,000 student loan, but you also had the loan money. You received it at that time, at the beginning of graduate school?
09:09 Indira: Yes, essentially they give you the loan from the beginning, and then you decide, which was scary because I’m like, I have $20,000, what am I going to do with it? But the point was for moving expenses and living other things that I didn’t account for moving from the Caribbean. So I had that, and from day one, I guess it started accruing interests, so when you get that first bill where it’s accrued about $50 an interest, because I think it was like a 6% or 7% interest rate and I’m just like what. And I didn’t even know that at the time when I applied for it because I assumed I’m in school and I’m not gonna be paying off or getting interest while I was in school, but not for grad student loans, apparently.
09:50 Emily: Yes. Okay. I’m glad to get a little bit more clarity on that. So you took out the loan at the beginning of graduate school, which was un-subsidized, as graduate student loans are, because of the expenses that you had just accrued immediately before that in the moving expenses and so forth. And also, I’m assuming you’re looking at your stipend thinking, “how am I gonna do this?” Okay, so you had that loan right at the beginning, but then by the end of it, you had paid that loan back entirely, as well as the rest of your debt. Anything else going on in your financial picture by the time you finished graduate school?
10:22 Indira: So at that time, about maybe by third year of grad school, I had started saving, just regular savings in a bank, and then I also started investing in a Roth IRA where I ranged from putting in monthly about a $100 when I started and then maybe I upped it to about $300 a month. So I had a Roth IRA and regular savings at the end of grad school and zero debt, which was amazing.
Making the Changes to be Debt Free
10:47 Emily: Yeah, that sounds fantastic. And what a turnaround story. So what were you doing in between point A and point B to have this vast change?
10:57 Indira: Right. So essentially I applied to everything, including large grants up to $40,000, $50,000, or if you account for stipend, some of them were $80-$100,000, to things that were even just $500 for anything, whether it’s for research or…What I did was, so for example, if you go to a conference and they give you per diem, where you have about maybe $90 a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I don’t need $90 a day for food. I don’t normally spend that anyways. And so yes, I can’t meal prep while I’m on a conference, but I usually don’t have breakfast anyways. I’m not gonna waste $30 on breakfast. So when I get back from the conference, especially say a week long conference, I now probably save at least $30 for five days from a conference that I didn’t have breakfast. And most conferences probably give you coffee and bagels in the beginning anyways. Mmost times I probably spent most of the money on dinner because that’s when you network with colleagues in the field. So $30 breakfast and maybe I’m off $50 for lunch, so $70 for five days that I would save. I think that was one of the easiest ways in the beginning that I learned to save money from money that I got legally — legally I’m saving this, but I’m not, you know, forging signatures to say I didn’t have lunch or something like that. Not signatures, receipts, sorry. Because with per diem they’re not asking for receipts.
12:15 Indira: Then the other method. I meal prepped, so I didn’t have to buy lunch, because as grad students I think it’s so easy to run to the cafe and get something there, long nights you get food there, but I generally meal prepped, most times, on Sundays. I have these Mason jar salads that towards the end of grad school I learned was amazing, and so I would prep five and that’s lunch for the week. I have no excuse to buy lunch, especially since a salad costs like $10, when I probably spend $15 for five salads a week. I had fun, I hung out with friends, but I always planned it. Not the specific event, but plan for this month, like I’m spending $120 on fun and by the halfway of the month I’ll check in, where are you in that $120. Because I feel like once I’m out I’m like, “Well, I’m out, I’m going to have fun, I’m not going to make finances keep me down.” And so I just spend whatever versus if I know I’m within my budget, it doesn’t matter. But if I didn’t plan for it, then I overspend.
13:15 Indira: I also did a lot of side hustles, in addition to funding and federal money, where I did hair braiding, dog and cat sitting. House-sitting was my first summer when I moved. I moved about two months early before grad school and instead of paying for rent, I essentially house-sat for someone and they had a cat, so house and cat stuff for that two months. I also did Airbnb with my apartment. In PA, it was a lot cheaper than New York, so I was able to have a two bedroom apartment. On football weekends — Penn state is a big football school — so from Friday evening, someone would come and leave early Sunday morning and in just one weekend I can make anywhere between $600 to $800. I would just go bunk on someone’s couch and leave my entire apartment for someone, because even within the town, they knew football weekend was big, so hotels would be about $400 a night. Instead of paying $400 a night for a bedroom, they’d easily pay $400 a night for a whole house. I did football weekends about maybe five or six times a semester in the fall, and that would essentially be my roommate. I had a two bedroom, but I didn’t need a roommate. Then on graduation weekends, which was in May or December, but usually the May graduation weekend hotel rooms would be like $800 and $900 as well, so I would rent out my entire home again. On graduation weekends, I think I did it twice, and one time I got about $1,500 for just the weekend. I don’t remember the second time how much it was, but it was around that. So side hustles, applying for everything, and also meal prepping, saved me a lot, and planning my expenses for even fun.
Balancing Different Incomes During Grad School
14:56 Emily: Yeah, that was an amazing amount of information and amazing overview of what you were up to. I want to follow up on a lot of that stuff, but just before we get there — so when you started graduate school and you had this lower stipend level and then you know, in the next year the NSF stipend is so much higher than what you were making, so you have this vast income increase — did you change anything in between those two years? Were you living in the same place, for example?
15:28 Indira: Between the first year of grad school and second?
15:31 Emily: Yeah. I’m kind of wondering if you sort of set up your life in the first year to live off of that $20,000 per year-ish, but then you had that vast income increase — did you increase your lifestyle or did you keep your lifestyle at that original level?
15:45 Indira: No, so at the very beginning I was making about $1,800 a month and so I lived in a one bedroom, but technically it was actually more expensive than the two bedroom I moved into cause it was like a apartment complex versus someone who had a home and they were like, yeah, you can live here kind of thing from Craigslist. Um, and so I didn’t intentionally necessarily go cheaper. So that was really the only thing that changed. I probably, I think I was being like $975 for a one bedroom and that I paid like $950 for two bedrooms. So it wasn’t necessarily a big change. I still had a car so that all of those things remained the same. Um, side hustling if anything. I started Airbnb my second year. So even after I got NSF, it was when I started doing it, because I was like my biggest paying side hustle.
16:29 Indira: Lifestyle-wise most of the things stayed the same which is, I think one of the beauties of grad school. Your bills, your lifestyle for the most part stays the same for at least five years. I think for things like that, I started realizing, and I did a workshop from the Black Graduate Students Association and they had something about financial literacy. I think that’s when I realized, wait, my bills are going to be the same for the next five years and we’re having all this money coming in. I could pay off my loans, I don’t have to wait until the end. I think that’s what kind of like started opening up my eyes. But as far as lifestyle, no. Those things pretty much stayed the same for five years. Aside from like emergencies and stuff like that and just like maybe a little more traveling towards the end. But the basic lifestyle remain the same.
17:14 Emily: Okay. So really what happened is you had your lifestyle set at that original stipend level that you were receiving, and then your income vastly increased both from the NSF and from your side hustling. Were you just like crazy throwing everything at debt? Like that was a huge goal that you had. What were you doing with that excess?
17:34 Indira: In the beginning it was more so I never used to save. Like I said, the year before I started grad school, I did that pre-doc program and we got about $2,500 a month and we didn’t have to pay for housing because all of that was paid for. I don’t know where that $2,500 went for eight months. So when I started grad school and I realized I’m getting paid less than I was going to get out of the pre-doctoral level, I was like, “Wait, this makes no sense. Where did that money go? I need to learn to start saving.” I started just putting that extra money in savings, but then realizing of course I’m not getting a big return. All right, I know those debts, those bills keep coming back. And I’m like, “Why am I just letting this accrue interest for the loans?” So then I started paying just the interest rates and stuff like that.
Indira: I think I just didn’t want to be in debt and I realized that I have all this money coming in and grad school and the lifestyle that’s going to be the same for five years. I started realizing that I was blessed to not have $100,000 in just undergrad debt alone because a lot of my friends did. They just have that sitting there because it’s not accruing interest and that’s fine, but I realized too, a lot of them were taking that money and living a more luxurious lifestyle now in grad school because we’re getting all this money and we could live a pretty decent lifestyle depending on how much money you get coming in. But I’m like, “why not just pay off the other debt?” because then guess what, when you’re done with grad school, the debt is still there waiting for you versus live a balanced lifestyle and paying off your debt. I think it wasn’t like a big, “I have to pay off $60,000 debt”, I was just more aware of where my money was going and one thing after another just led me to investing and putting it into different things.
19:18 Emily: Yeah, I’m really glad that you had that sort of realization. Yyou had this one year in the pre-doc program where you are making a pretty okay amount of money for a stipend, but where was it going? And you sort of had a re-evaluation point, like “Okay, I don’t know what just happened to all of that. I obviously have to change some things within like my financial management going forward.” Also, it sounds like you also went to some financial literacy events or a course or something and that also helped you think differently about your money during graduate school and realizing that you had the ability to work on it right then and didn’t all have to wait for the end.
19:57 Indira: Right. Because unfortunately I think a lot of us are just not taught about how to use the money we get. And so then when you get it naturally, we’re like, “Oh my God, I have all these extra thousand dollar a month. Maybe I’ll go somewhere and travel, do something.” Which is nice, but I mean I think that workshop from the Black Graduate Student Association definitely opened up my eyes.
20:13 Emily: Yeah. Sounds super valuable. I’ll make a shameless plug for my own services here. Probably not exactly the same as what you experienced, but I do offer seminars and webinars for universities, specifically for grad students and postdocs on, I don’t call it financial literacy, but I call it personal finance. So anyone out there who’s looking for that kind of programming that can be incredibly life changing, please think of me. My website, pfforphds.com/speaking, is where you can go to find out more about that.
20:38 Emily: Back to Indira’s story. Okay, so we’ve seen the beginning of the end point. You’ve talked about a few of the strategies that got you from point A to point B. I want to dive into each of them a little bit more. So as you said, you were applying for everything to increase your income, including, I mean obviously you won the NSF, you’ve already mentioned that. That’s awesome. Probably the biggest difference of any of anything that happened. You were talking about how you were using per diems from conferences, but just being frugal right around your food spending. So instead of spending 100% of what you are given, that really is a little bit of like windfall money. You come home from a conference, you realize, “Okay, I was receiving X amount of money, only spent whatever it was, 50% of that.” Hey, a little bit of extra money. That’s something that I think having a plan for, that’s what I call windfall money, unexpected money that enters into your pocket somehow. Did you just throw that towards whatever your current goal was? Savings or debt? How did you think of it?
21:41 Indira: Yeah, so in the beginning, whatever extra I had, I just had it in savings and then I realized my savings was looking really nice and I was like, “well, what am I doing with this money?” I don’t have kids. I send money home to family and stuff in the Caribbean, but aside from that, I didn’t have a need to have a big cushion. Especially, like I said again, I know I’m not going to get laid off of grad school, so I didn’t have to have this big cushion in case I lost my job. I was like, “what am I gonna do with that?” In the beginning, I put everything into savings and then I started doing the Roth IRA because I’m like, “Oh well maybe I can get a bigger return there.” Now, as a postdoc, I’m doing some regular investments as well. But at that time it was just a Roth IRA and savings. I started calculating, if I have this in my Roth and this in my savings, where there’s still a “life happens” emergency fund in my savings, the extra I put towards starting to pay off my student loans. I think at one point I just put a lump sum on my car payments. That way, in case something happened, I just didn’t have like the feeling of every month I had to pay a certain amount and if I didn’t then all of a sudden it’s a problem, so I just put a lump sum down. Technically, I was always about three months ahead of my actual payments due. So starting with savings, then the Roth, and then started paying off the student loan and the car loans and the other health insurance and credit card debt. It’s like the highest interest rate and from there, just started working my way down. One thing I liked about what you said is that extra money. I had a monthly income, then I said this is what I’m spending and when I calculated my spending, I had fixed, flexible, where fixed is like the things that you need — there’s no ands, ifs or buts about it. And the flexible is like Netflix or eating out and stuff like that. Those were budgeted based on my $1,800 a month, and then when I had NSF, it was budgeted on my $3,500 a month and then all the extra staff, I never budgeted. Those just went into my savings and paying off debt. I never felt like I was using it and then extra stuff, that I used for extra fun.
Side Hustling as a Grad Student
23:55 Emily: I see. Yeah. Thanks for going into the that detail about your budgeting. You also mentioned that you had tried out several side hustles and I wanted to know because a couple of them are pretty accessible. So the first one that you mentioned was, house-sitting or cat-sitting, which basically meant that you didn’t have to pay rent for two months and this is like sort of a holy grail of things to pursue. How did you land that gig?
24:23 Indira: The house-sitting the first semester — I told my advisor that I wanted to move early and do an RAship, or research assistantship, so she paid me what they would pay a regular RA. I also asked her if there was anyone — on the faculty list there’s always people going on sabbatical or going away for the summer, for a month or during the summer. I know a lot of faculty members, from being at Pittsburgh, I know a lot of them were going away for about at least a month and they were looking for places or people to house-sit, or cat-sit if they had pets. So I was like, “Oh I wonder if people at Penn State do the same thing.” And lo and behold, they did. There happened to be a faculty member who was going away for the two months that I needed a place before grad school. I asked my advisor, she gave me a few different people who were looking, I reached out to them, told them I was moving, going to be a very responsible grad student and I would love to take — at the time, I didn’t have a dog so I didn’t have any recommendations about being a pet-sitter. But I mean, it was a cat, so I think it was easier to sit for a cat. I just applied and reached out to people and interviewed through Skype and stuff like that and then moved all my stuff into their basement, until I was ready to move into an apartment for grad school.
25:31 Emily: Thank you so much for sharing that because, as I said, I think it’s very accessible. It’s maybe not something you’d do 100% of the time and obviously later on you rented an apartment, you didn’t end up doing that 100% of the time. But for a bridge kind of period of time, it’s really perfect. And again, for the summer, as you said, faculty do travel quite a bit. Even someone going on sabbatical or whatever, could be longer than that. What you did is so easy to do. You asked your advisor, you got some recommendations, you followed up with those people, you land —
26:04 Indira: Sometimes our advisors may not know, but once I was in grad school, I also knew what people who needed house-sitters. I think even asking just the grad students, “do you know any faculty member who needs someone,” is another way to go about it, especially again, even sabbatical. I never did it, but for sabbatical, if someone’s going away for a year, that’s a year you can save in rent. I know one person who did that, so there’s definitely ways to save for rent.
26:27 Emily: You know someone who has sat for a year, like nine months?
26:31 Indira: Yeah, it was a little tricky. She house-sat for about four months. It was half a year, so it was just a semester, and she just stayed at their house. She still had her apartment, because she had a partner and he had to stay there and whatnot, but assuming she didn’t have a partner, that would’ve been saving rent for an entire three, four months. I know other faculty members who leave for six, eight months or usually two semesters I guess, and if they have a pet, that’s usually the key thing, where they need someone to stay there because they can’t take the pet with them or they rather not. They usually just have students who can just come and check in, but because usually we have our things set, and especially in a small town, it was a little tougher because you can’t get a six month lease or three month lease, it’s always a twelve month lease and you don’t want to break your lease. But given that opportunity, depending on the state that you’re in, the city, you would be able to just stay at that person’s place.
27:32 Emily: Yeah. This is a great idea for anyone who’s again doing something like moving somewhere on a little bit of an off schedule from what the market is accustomed to. That’s amazing. What were the other side hustles that you mentioned?
27:46 Indira: I did some hair braiding, so doing people’s hair. I have locks now, but before that I did all kinds of hair, and all kinds of races too. Especially being in State College, a lot of the faculty members kids wanted braids, for example. I know a lot of friends for example, who braid hair, but it’s a little tricky to braid ethnic hair versus someone who’s white or Hispanic. I braided all kinds of things. I would do the kids’ hair and of course they love it and be excited and be like, “Oh my God, I want you to do it to my hair all the time,” so that was a client automatically, at least once a month. Then I also did Airbnb.
28:22 Emily: Right. Airbnb. Yeah. That was the other thing I wanted to follow up with you about. It’s very evident to me that you have this, I don’t know if I want to say entrepreneurial, but you just go after things. You just take opportunities as you see them, which is amazing. The Airbnb thing I think is so clever and it’s again, something that I haven’t heard of from a PhD before. I wanted to talk to you a little about it a little bit more. You were renting during this time, right? And was that kind of usage of your rental in accordance with the lease?
28:53 Indira: I know in New York there’s a lot more, I didn’t realize there were so many restrictions with Airbnb. I know there were some rental properties in State College that didn’t allow Airbnb. I was pretty up front with my neighbors. They were these old little couples, so they were pretty flexible. I told them, you know, I’ll have people coming into my, I didn’t say Airbnb because I didn’t think they knew what Airbnb was anyways, but I was like, I have people who will be visiting and they would stay here on the weekend, especially a football weekend, Friday to Sunday. I will make sure they don’t damage anything, everything will be my responsibility, although Airbnb I think reimburses up to like $1 million in damage, I never had that issue. I essentially just reaffirmed them that I will have strangers in my apartment for short periods of time and I will make sure that they don’t disturb the neighbors or anything like that, but if you have a problem let me know. But actually, I think they never lived close to me anyways and like I said, they were older couples, so maybe there was some leeway there. Even after I started doing Airbnb, I told all my friends about it cause I was like, there’s so much money to be made here. Some of them illegally did it and others, their apartment people were fine with doing it as well, for the most part. I think it depends on the city. I think New York is definitely a big no, no, but in PA, unless it was one of those big fancy new student-based apartments, most apartments allowed it.
30:13 Emily: Yeah. This is definitely something that if someone’s interested in this idea, they definitely just have to keep on top of the regulations because it can change really quickly. But yeah, your place in time, it sounded like it was perfectly acceptable and the numbers you were throwing out earlier were very impressive for the amount of money you were able to rent for, especially the graduation weekends. I’m just thinking, you saw a huge influx of people coming in for a game day, coming in for graduation, and you saw what hotels were charging and you just said, “well, I have a place to offer too.” That’s just amazing that you did that. It sounds like some of other people are doing as well, so it’s not like you are the only person who thought of it.
30:49 Indira: I think about maybe four or five of us did. I don’t know anyone who was doing before me. Not like I’m the person who told everyone about Airbnb, but I think everyone was a little hesitant about having someone in their apartment. Is someone going to steal my stuff? And so I think after just being like, “no, there’s no harm because Airbnb also reimburses you up to $1 million,” that’s what they say anyways. I think when I got a dog it got a little trickier. Towards the end of grad school, I had a dog and it was easy for me to just go stay on someone’s couch, because you have friends, you’re probably spending the night there anyways, but with a dog you have to bring a crate and then if they don’t allow dogs in their apartment that gets a little tricky. I would do it a little less frequently when I had a dog and then the last year I just didn’t at all because it just became inconvenient for both me and him and my friends. But I think without a dog or if it’s a really small dog where you don’t have to bring a crate and all that stuff, then I think that’s more flexible too. Or like my friends, if they did it a weekend, I would take their cats and stuff and because it’s easy with a cat and stuff. I just think it depends. For the most part it was, I think, my most favorite side hustle because it brought in the most money for the least effort. Then the second one would have been hair braiding because I just loved doing hair.
32:05 Emily: Yeah. That sounds incredible. And I think this is again, potentially very accessible for other people who live in college towns who can see the same patterns emerging of people flooding into the city for big events.
32:17 Indira: I mean anywhere, especially college towns that have football games because people are just going to spend money. They come with families, they want a big place or a place versus just a hotel room. And there’s a really low risk because the whole day Saturday they’re at the game, so they’re not really there and you can decide whether or not you want them to have parties at your house or not and then they usually leave early Sunday morning and they come late Friday night. It’s really one full day that they’re there. Even now in New York, I was looking into it before I found out that you had to do at least 30 days or something like that. New York would be a good place too if it wasn’t the 30 day limit because again, it’s just another place where people are always coming in. I think as long as it’s a place that people like to visit, I think you can do it.
Lifestyle Changes as a Debt-Free Postdoc
33:03 Emily: Yeah. Oh my gosh, I’m so excited about this. Thank you so much for sharing that. We’ve talked a lot about your time in graduate school. Now that you’re a postdoc and you have even more experience in a different city now as well, you have a whole different set of challenges. What does your budgeting method look like today? What are your best practices?
33:23 Indira: I still use the same thing. I have a monthly budget, I have fixed and flexible spending and I still pay off my credit card in full. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with just trying to calculate the percentage of things that I’m spending for each expense. You know, because of the whole don’t spend more than 30% on rent kind of thing.
33:44 Emily: Exception, New York.
33:46 Indira: Exactly. I’m like, I don’t have a choice. So just having a better sense of my income and where it’s going and what I’m doing. Because in grad school, for example I just had my main fixed spending, flexible spending and everything else just went to debt. Now that I don’t have necessarily debt to pay off, but I have a huge rent and living expense, I just want to know where that money’s going. I still have a Roth IRA and now I am also doing regular investments with stocks and bonds and all that stuff. I just have the one you just leave it and you forget about it. I don’t do the following the stock market. That’s a lot for me right now. Maybe eventually one day, but right now I don’t think I have the time for that.
34:27 Emily: Stick with your current strategy, it’s a good one.
34:29 Indira: Exactly, stick with what you know. For the most part I’m doing the same strategies. I have a Mint app and I also still have an Excel sheet just to kind of visualize where all the money’s going because I think it’s a lot of anxiety of just spending way more than 30% of my postdoc salary on rent, but I’m okay. It’s more of an emotional thing to just feel okay about it. I don’t have a lot of money and I’m spending a lot on rent, but I’m still okay. I’m still doing the same thing.
35:02 Emily: Yeah. Okay, great. What frugal strategies are you using? Are you still meal prepping?
35:08 Indira: Definitely. I still meal prep. My Mason jar salads are still part of my lunches. Depending on my workout schedule and whether I am consistent with working out, I do breakfast, but I haven’t figured out a meal prepping for breakfast yet. Sometimes it’s just a shake. And then dinners, I also still meal prep. I have been trying to strategize and trying to figure out whether I need to meal prep all dinners. Because it’s fine for me to eat the same salad for months and years while I’m at work, versus when I get home, if it’s winter, I don’t really want the same food I had yesterday or maybe want something hotter. It just depends. I’m still trying to figure out dinner, but for the most part I still don’t eat out a whole lot. I still budget, like this is what I’m going to budget for lifestyle this month and if it’s the second week and I’ve gone through that, then I guess we’re done eating out for the week or the month or you know, hanging out or whatever. I still budget everything for the most part and just try to not overspend on things that I don’t need.
Indira: I don’t really take Ubers. The train is pretty reliable in New York. Unless I’m really, really late for something and it’s important that I can’t be late, then I’ll take an Uber, but for the most part, I still take the train everywhere. I feel like a lot of people are just like, “let’s Uber and I’m like, no, I’ll meet you guys there. I’ll take the train.” There’s just so many ways to lose money in New York. It’s ridiculous. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’ve been here about nine months and so I’m still trying to figure out going out. I was a big outdoors person in PA, so parks and hikes were great. Not so much in New York, although I do live close to a park, but it’s not like a hike. I’m trying to figure out those new things because I know there’s a lot of free things in New York, I just need to figure those out. But I still for the most part have a lifestyle and it’s just a matter of, again, budgeting that lifestyle.
Final Words of Advice
36:53 Emily: Thank you for sharing that. Final question as we wrap up here. Thinking back to yourself, your starting graduate school, you have a low-ish income coming in, for the stipend. You have this debt load. In fact, you even took out a student loan because you were unsure about how things were going to go with your finances. What advice do you have for another person facing that kind of financial challenge and also on a grad student kind of income?
37:19 Indira: I mean I think it’s kind of the same things you just summarize. I think apply to everything, no matter how small or large the grants are, because I think the more grants you apply to, the better you get at grant writing. In the beginning it may seem like, “Oh my God, I don’t want to write this essay or this statement.” But over time I reuse statements. And as you get deeper in the program, you learn to write better. You change things, but for the most part I never really rewrote a grant from scratch after my second or third year. Apply for everything no matter how big or small. Don’t doubt that you’re not going to get it, because a lot of grants I got, I didn’t think I was even eligible. Especially for diverse, minority students. I think there’s so much money for minority students that people just don’t even apply to. And then they give it to, not anyone, but people who actually needed versus who don’t. Because people who need it don’t apply or they don’t know about it. Ask other students because there’s so much. A lot of the grants I applied to was because another student had applied to it before. Imagine one person may not have five or ten grants, but if you ask ten different people who had ten different grants that’s ten different grants you can get, so apply for everything.
Indira: Definitely pay off debt while you’re in grad school. Don’t let it sit there and whatever money you get, don’t use it for other lifestyles until after you pay for your debt. One thing I did was paying off debt and then whatever was left over I would have for fun, travel, and stuff like that. And it’s okay to take out a loan in the beginning, especially people who have like $100,000 in debt in undergrad. Yes, it’s not accruing interest, but if you want to take out a loan and just pay a lump sum for now and just to get in the habit of like paying something down, take out the loan. And apply for a lot of things. Have a strategy to pay off the loan before you finish grad school because that loan is going to accrue interest. But in the long run you paid off more in grad school and then it’s like it never existed anyway. So apply for everything, pay off debt while you’re in grad school, and do what you need to do to also still balance life and paying off debt because you don’t have to be miserable paying off debt.
39:21 Emily: And I definitely would also add to that, from your story, just go after it. I mean you were going after funding, you said no to your program: “No, you’re not going to cut my funding. I won so much money. No, you’re going to pay me more.”
39:34 Indira: When you’re starting, so I know I asked after, but even in the beginning, once I was through the program and seeing behind the scenes, you can ask for more money in the very beginning before you even start grad school. They’re not going to take back your letter and say, “well, you asking for too much” because if they have it, they’ll give it. The worst they can say is no. So if they have it, they will give it. So ask.
39:52 Emily: Yeah, I totally agree. And I’ve done one podcast episode on negotiating grad student stipend, before in season one. I’m planning on releasing another one, actually a compilation of stories in the early months of 2020. So if you’re very interested in grad student salary, stipend negotiation, please tune into those episodes.
Emily: Indira, thank you so, so much for sharing this story. Where can people find you?
40:16 Indira: I have been trying to be a lot more active on Instagram, so on Instagram it’s just my name, Indira Turney, so @indiraturney, I N D I R A T U R N E Y. And it’s the same on Twitter, as well. I think those are my two main networking platforms. Email is Indira dot Turney at gmail dot com. It’s fine if you want to ask me questions, please reach out. I’m always open. Like I had mentioned earlier, I’ve been trying to be more open, even about just budgeting on a grad school stipend on Instagram, but also I’ve been also doing a lot of one-on-ones with people just talking about their process because there isn’t a one size fits all for budgeting because people have different scenarios. If you’re interested, send me an email, reach out to me on social media and I’m happy to answer any questions.
41:05 Emily: Yeah, that’s amazing. Thank you for that work that you’re doing, and thanks so much for coming on the podcast today.
41:09 Indira: Thank you for having me. I had a lot of fun.
41:12 Emily: Listeners, thank you so much for joining me for this episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. There you can find links to all the episode’s show notes, a form to volunteer to be interviewed, and a way to join the mailing list. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you want to support the show and my business, please go to PFforPhDs.com/helpout. There are plenty of ways to sell without laying out any of your own money. See you in the next episode, and remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it doesn’t hurt. The music is Stages of Awakening by Poddington Bear from the free music archives and it’s shared under CC by NC.
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