In this episode, Emily interviews Laura Frater, a first-year PhD student at the University of California at Davis. Laura grew up in a low-income family in Scotland and first came to the US a few years ago for a master’s degree. She went from having “zero financial literacy” at that time to being highly engaged with her finances now, and even considers personal finance education to be her hobby! Laura details the top seven tips for financial success that she has implemented over the last few years, including one just for international students. She continues to discover new strategies and experiment with her finances.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- Laura Frater UC Davis Profile
- PF for PhDs: Community
- PF for PhDs: The Wealthy PhD
- The House Hacking Strategy (Book)
- Emily’s e-mail address (for book giveaway contest)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub (instructions for book giveaway)
- OPT Visa
- PF for PhDs: Tax
- I Will Teach You To Be Rich (Book)
- PF for PhDs Episode with Dr. Amanda
- PF for PhDs Episode with Dr. Michelle Roley-Roberts
- Roostervane (Dr. Chris Cornthwaite)
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Laura: You don’t have to sort of wait to be an adult to do those things. Like you are an adult already in grad school, and you can do other things that adults do with their money for sure.
00:14 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season eight, episode two, and my guest today is Laura Frater, a first-year PhD student at the University of California at Davis. Laura grew up in a low-income family in Scotland and first came to the U.S. a few years ago for a master’s degree. She went from having zero financial literacy at that time to being highly engaged with her finances now and even considers personal finance education to be her hobby. Laura details the top seven tips for financial success that she has implemented over the last few years, including one just for international students. She continues to discover new strategies and experiment with her finances. For season eight of the podcast, I’ve shifted up the format. There are two new short segments, one before, and one after the interview. I hope this new format will encourage more interactions between me and you, the listener.
01:17 Emily: January is always an exciting month for Personal Finance for PhDs. First, it’s a brand new year, so a lot of people have a heightened interest in personal finance at this time. They want to start budgeting, increase their savings, open IRAs, et cetera, and I love that energy. Second, tax season has started. I rarely file my own tax return before April 15th, but I’ve learned that a lot of people file in January to get their tax refunds ASAP. Therefore, I’ve already kicked off my tax support for your 2020 return, which you heard about in last week’s episode. Third, I view January as the start of admissions season for PhD programs. Although, I know some people receive acceptances even earlier. So, it’s a thrilling and hopeful time of year for prospective graduate students, and a perfect time of year for them to connect with my material.
02:10 Emily: If you would like to learn more about personal finance and want a friendly environment in which to ask questions and discuss topics, including all of the ones I just mentioned, please consider joining the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at pfforphds.com/community. If you know that you want support in accomplishing a big financial goal this spring, I recommend my group coaching program, The Wealthy PhD. You and I will meet one-on-one to identify and plot a course toward a big financial goal. Past participants have opened IRAs, set up systems of targeted savings, started budgeting, and systematically implemented frugal tactics. Every week for eight weeks, you will participate in a small accountability group that I facilitate that will keep you on track to meet small weekly goals. The next round of The Wealthy PhD starts in mid-February, and enrollment is open now. Visit pfforphds.com/wealthyPhD to learn more.
Book Giveaway Contest
03:12 Emily: Now, onto one of the two new segments, the book giveaway contest. In January 2021, I’m giving away one copy of The House Hacking Strategy by Craig Curelop, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community book club selection for March 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during January will have a chance to win a copy of this book. I’m super enthused for my audience to learn about house hacking, which is when you buy a home, live in it, and rent out part of it, thereby radically reducing or even eliminating your housing expense. In fact, I’m bringing back a special guest from the past to discuss the strategy with me in an episode that will be published at the end of January. We’re going to tell you how even a grad student in certain housing markets can apply the principles explained in this book. And certainly, it’s even more viable if you have post-PhD income. If you’d like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll choose a winner at the end of January, from all the entries. You can find full instructions at pfforphds.com/podcast. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Laura Frater.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:29 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today Laura Frater. She is a first-year PhD student at UC Davis, and she’s going to be kind of telling us the arc of her financial story, starting as international student, and now, you know, in her PhD. And she has a great story to tell. And she’s going to be specifically telling us a few different strategies that she’s used, seven different strategies she’s used, in the course of this time to kind of get her financial life in order and now going into a PhD program. So Laura, it’s really a pleasure to have you on thank you so much for volunteering. And would you please, you know, tell the audience a little bit more about yourself?
05:10 Laura: Yeah, sure. So, my name is Laura and I just turned 29. I am originally from Scotland. I was born and raised in Glasgow and I moved to the U.S. when I was 25. So, it’s been about four years. I originally came to do my Master’s in English in New York city. And after four years of being there for very long years, I moved to Oakland, California with my husband about three months ago. So yeah, I’m still settling in and learning how to finally manage my money properly with my brand new graduate stipend, which is exciting.
Funding Journey Over the Past Four Years
05:43 Emily: Great. And so just to get a little bit more detail there, was your master’s funded? Were you paying for yourself? What were the financials during that period?
05:51 Laura: Yeah. Good question. So, I was there as an international student but it was a private school, so I had a full scholarship. I had all my tuition paid for, and then I had a fairly modest bi-weekly stipend over the course of two years. So, obviously it wasn’t a lot of money, but it kind of paid for things like travel. And my now-husband was a rock star and he took care of things like rent. So, I was definitely in a very fortunate situation overall.
06:21 Emily: And did you finish your master’s within those two funded years? And what did you do for the next two years? We’re talking about a four-year period, right?
06:28 Laura: Yeah. Four years. So the first two years, yeah, I started 2016, finished 2018. And then I went onto what’s called the OPT visa, which is like a temporary work visa for international students. So I spent about a year working on that visa, and long story cut short, I got married and applied for my green card and became a permanent resident last year.
06:53 Emily: Okay, gotcha. So, I wanted to give the listeners as well, a flavor of like your current financials. So, you came to the U.S. What was your financial life at that time, and what are you doing now? Like sort of where are you now? And then we’ll talk about, you know, how did you get from point A to point B? So, you know, what was point A, what’s point B like?
07:11 Laura: Yeah, well, point A was just a total lack of awareness with money. So, I really, I didn’t really grow up with any financial literacy, and I grew up in a very, just like a low-income household, basically. So, money was just always associated with stress and limitations. So, I didn’t have any knowledge about managing it effectively. So I would, I tended to, you know, pay for everything I needed to pay for. And then I would try and like hoard all my money and save everything, but that’s just not realistic. So, it was kind of a mess. And when I was not able to work last year waiting for my green card, I just made a huge point to learn about finances and become as aware as possible about every dollar and where it was going. So, today it’s just much more about engagement and seeing it as a way to feel more free, basically. As free as you can be in graduate school.
Financial Strategy #1: 50-30-20 Rule
08:08 Emily: Okay. So, it’s really been a lot of like sort of mindset evolution then during that period of time. And it sounds like you went about it also very intentionally, at least for a period last year. So, let’s dive into the strategies then. You have six strategies that will be sort of applicable to hopefully anybody and then one that’s particular for international students. So, we’ll talk through each one of these. So, first strategy, what is it?
08:31 Laura: Okay, so this is something I definitely picked up listening to your podcast. So, knowing exactly where your money’s going and what the goal of those segments of money actually is. Again, this is something I learned from you was just the 50, 30, 20 rule. So, 50% goes towards everything you need to pay every month, like rent and utilities, and then 30% is for your wants–things that you want to spend money on–and then 20% towards your savings goals. So, just having those goals clearly outlined has been the biggest thing.
09:04 Emily: Yeah. I definitely like that touch point, which is why you’ve heard it from me before, but I’m curious how it struck you living in New York and now living in California. Because sometimes it’s really hard to hear that living in a high cost-of-living area.
09:17 Laura: Yeah, it’s definitely challenging. And I should definitely preface this by saying that, you know, being married, I share my expenses with somebody, so I have a benefit in that sense, for sure. We talk about our money really openly and we both stay within that 50, 30, 20 limit. So, we really talked about the kind of lifestyle that we could number one afford, and then, okay. So, were we willing to make certain sacrifices to live where we ideally wanted to live? So yeah, we probably spent about a month deciding on, you know, where we wanted to live, the cost of the apartment, did we want a car. All those kinds of things. And yeah, we definitely live, we live in Oakland, so it’s very expensive, but it’s a trade-off. We’ve had to be at peace with that choice.
Impact of Location and Commute
10:05 Emily: And let me, I’ll just ask also, so you’re living in Oakland, but you’re going to UC Davis, and those are not the same city. So, is there like, are you commuting or is it different now because maybe you’re remote or what’s going on with like your choice of location?
10:19 Laura: Yeah. So everything is online at Davis until next year. So, our lease in Oakland ends October, 2021. So, we definitely have the option to go closer to Davis if we want. But honestly, my schedule is very flexible and I only have to be up there twice a week, on average, if I was going up there. So, I don’t anticipate us moving somewhere cheaper so that I can be closer to Davis. My husband works in tech, so he has to be in San Francisco. So it’s really, we have to prioritize how much he has to commute, because that would be like an everyday occurrence almost for him.
10:56 Emily: Gotcha. Well, we’ll see how all of this evolves. You know, we’re recording this interview in November, 2020, and the future is very uncertain. I guess you at least know when your remote period will definitely go until, if not maybe further. Yeah. So, we’ll see how that goes. Anything else you want to say about that? The strategy of like, of budgeting and balancing?
11:17 Laura: I mean, I think you just have to like, not be afraid of the numbers and, you know, we really sat down, especially with the rent. Coming from Manhattan, we thought there’s no way it can be more expensive than Manhattan. And it was. So, you know, this is down to my husband’s great sales skills. He really haggled with the building and got us a really good deal. I wish I could give advice on how to do that, but I don’t. You might be better to interview him for that. So, we got about 12 weeks off of our rent. So, three months of this year we don’t pay for, and we managed to get free parking in our building as well for a little bit. So, negotiation skills is probably my next financial education to-do list point.
Financial Strategy #2: Side Hustles
12:01 Emily: Yeah, that’s incredible. And I think that’s both, it’s just good to know that it’s possible and some people are successful with it. Even if you don’t know, like particularly the script that he used or whatever, you can look up those kinds of things. But I am thinking that, you know, being in San Francisco adjacent kind of area, and also during COVID times, you know, the willingness to negotiate on behalf of the company that’s running the building or whatever is probably increased. So, it’s worth trying whenever, but I suspect your success rates are going to be higher now than they will be a year or two from now or whatever. Okay. So, what is strategy number two?
12:38 Laura: So, number two is something, again, that you’ve talked about a lot is side hustles. So, I’d always aimed to find a side hustle during grad school. You kind of have to. But, I ideally wanted something that was remote during this weird time. So, I was lucky to get, it’s a grading job with UT Austin. So, you’re basically grading papers for this program that they do for high school students who are taking college-level composition classes. And I’m not totally sure how I feel about it yet. It’s definitely a lot of work for the money that you make. So, that’s something to probably think about. You know, maybe have a goal in mind in terms of how much money you want to make off of your side hustle, how much you need to make, and then decide whether that side hustle is the best fit for you. So, I’m going to do it for a few more months and see what else is out there. But I would never say no to even like a little bit extra money in the week on those stipends. So yeah, definitely go for a side hustle if you can.
13:37 Emily: Yeah. So, I do want to note that you’re saying that you did the side hustle post-getting your green card, because you’re not allowed to have an income that you are working for as an international student. So this is only for, you know, people who are citizens or residents and also even a subgroup within that of people who are not going to be risking their funding by pursuing a side hustle or, you know, their relationship with their advisor or whatever. So, it sounds like the kind of the one that you chose is probably quite flexible. Maybe the pay is not great for the hours, but you can fit it in around the other things that you’re doing.
Flexibility and Fellowships
14:09 Laura: Yeah, totally. It’s definitely very flexible and yeah, that’s a good point. I’m on a fellowship. So, I cannot work at UC Davis or any of the UC campuses, but I’m allowed to work anywhere else off those campuses. So, this was actually recommended to me by UC Davis and I felt pretty confident going into it that it was, you know, a good space in which to work. So, yeah, I think keeping an eye on how much I’m probably making per hour, given how much work I’m doing for them. And I love the job itself. I just want to be careful that I’m not giving too much of my time for, you know, a really low rate of money. So, that’s something to definitely be aware of.
14:48 Emily: Yeah. I’m really glad that UC Davis actually gave you that clarity around what the policy was, because I don’t know that that’s actually that common. So like, here’s what’s not allowed, here’s what it is allowed. Oh, recommendations for what, you know, what work you might do. I know I had a side hustle that was doing editing for journal articles for a while after I finished my PhD. And I similarly had to be really conscious and sort of suppress my like perfectionist tendencies, because I was just like, for the rate that I’m being paid, I need to be very careful how much time I spend per paper. And like, yeah, maybe I’m just going to get it 90% of the way there. That’s okay. That’s good enough. And not, you know, toil over every like last detail. So, yeah. Great tip to be conscious about that. Anything else you wanted to add about side hustling?
15:32 Laura: So, one thing I am doing right now is I’m almost a qualified yoga teacher. So, that is something I really want to pursue. And I don’t know enough about setting up my own business yet and things like that. You obviously want to make sure that you’re not, you know, you want to be paying taxes and things like that. That’s really important. But the yoga stuff is just something I love to do. And I started becoming a teacher actually during COVID. Like right at the beginning, there was a really great online course. So things like that, you know, try and make those side hustles fit in with your schedule. Don’t be like missing time on studying just to make money if you can avoid it. So yeah, just looking for flexibility and not being exploited is the most important thing, I think.
16:15 Emily: Totally agree with both of those. And I’ll also add, I really like that you are just experimenting with things. You know, like you aren’t holding onto like, what’s exactly the most perfect thing, and that’s the only thing that’s going to be acceptable. Or you don’t have these limiting beliefs around, I’m not allowed to do anything. I can’t do anything. I can’t fit it in, I don’t have time, I’m not allowed. Yeah, you’re just trying things out and I think that’s a great approach.
16:36 Laura: Yeah. It’s definitely fun. And you know, again, podcasts like yours, you know, finding out from other people what they’re doing. It doesn’t have to be a conventional, probably pretty dull side hustle. Like, you know, try and enjoy your life as much as possible because I think these years only get more intense as you keep going with the PhD. So, try and do something that is good for your soul as well as your bank account.
Financial Strategy #3: Check Your Bank Account Regularly
16:58 Emily: Yeah, that sounds good. Okay. Let’s talk about your third strategy.
17:03 Laura: Yes. So, I think just checking your bank account every single day is, it seems like the most simple advice, but something that I never used to do. I would just, you know, live in denial and not check it for days at a time. So, like take advantage of the apps from your bank. Like they need to be good for something. So, have it on your phone, check it every day. And I also try and look at the last five to six transactions. And I try and work out, are there any patterns in my spending? Are there things that I’m wasting money on? But that also helps you figure out what you actually enjoy spending your money on in the first place, so you can be prepared for it. And it also will just show up any kind of like random transactions that were maybe incorrect, which actually do happen. Like you think that they won’t, but they definitely do.
17:51 Emily: I have an example of that actually, that I was looking at our, my husband, I share a Mint account. I was looking at it the other day, and I saw a charge from Amazon Music for like $15. And I was like, Hmm, husband, did you subscribe to Amazon music without discussing that with me? And he goes, Oh, no, like weirdly my phone was like freezing up and I thought I tapped something and then I wasn’t sure. And so anyway, it was a total mistake that he, you know, accidentally subscribed and, and he, you know, he talked with them and he got it reversed and it was totally fine. But if we had gone a month or two without like catching that, or if it had just gone into the, you know, swept away with all the other transactions, then, Hey, you’re out $15 every single month. Not just one time.
18:32 Laura: Yeah. It’s a lot of money. I mean, also like looking for those free trials that you forget to cancel. Happened to me twice this month. I was so embarrassed because I pride myself on not letting that happen, but Microsoft charged me 75 bucks, which, you know, I would have gotten that free through Davis and I forgot that I paid for last year, and Hulu as well. So yeah, we still have it for one more month, but not worth it at all.
Monitoring Short-Term Savings Goals
18:56 Emily: So, what else do you get out of the particular strategy of checking every single day? Like, are you, I mean, you mentioned finding patterns in your spending, which I think is super valuable. What else are you getting out of that practice?
19:09 Laura: I think the other thing right now that I’m getting out of it is checking on my short-term savings goals, which I’ve actually established, which is really great and has lowered my anxiety. Also like looking for avoiding any bank fees, which are really, really tricky, especially with someone like Wells Fargo, who we can talk about that later, maybe, but like that bank is terrible about those fees. Checking for example, how many times I’ve used my debit card to make sure that I avoid the monthly fee. Things like that, that I never really did before. It’s just another way to be as fully engaged as possible with my spending.
Financial Strategy #4: Make Financial Education a Hobby
19:47 Emily: Alright. So, what’s your fourth strategy?
19:49 Laura: Fourth is just making your financial education a hobby. I guess that’s the best word to describe it. I used to view finances and the education around it with a lot of fear and anxiety, but finding fun ways to learn about it has really changed my life in so many ways. For example, your podcast. I’ll go for a walk by my apartment. I’ll go running, I’ll go to the gym. And I just pick an episode and then I, you know, listen to it and I make notes on it afterwards, normally. Getting an audio book is a really good idea as well. Going on YouTube and just sifting through different people’s videos. There’s definitely some weird people out there for sure. So you can, you can judge that as you, as you figure your way through it. But just making your education a part of your lifestyle, I think is really important.
20:37 Emily: Yeah. I definitely also went down this road with when I was sort of getting, I had been learning about personal finance through reading some books and stuff, but then when I got a little bit interested and more engaged, I was reading about a lot online and like starting to connect with bloggers and then I started blogging myself. So, there was like a community, you know, developing online around it. And I definitely would call that my hobby at that time, which of course has since become my business. But at the time it was just a fun thing I was doing like, you know, wake up, like check my email and like check my like feed for, you know, what the new blog posts are. And I really liked having that perspective from other people. I think those communities have moved more towards like Reddit and YouTube now.
21:17 Emily: It’s not so much like blogging. I mean, people still do that, but it’s not quite as huge as it was at that time. But just finding like a way that you like to consume information, like you were just saying, like audio works really well for you. Obviously, I love podcasts. So, audio works for me too. Finding a way you’d like to consume information and then a few people maybe like on whatever medium that is that you like to follow. There’s a big personal finance community on YouTube now, I know. So, if that’s your thing, like you could definitely find, you know, great influences there. And yeah, I think books still have their place for sure. And if audio books can do well, or if you have the time and capacity to read, then that’s perfect too.
21:54 Emily: Emily here for brief interlude. Taxes are weirdly unexpectedly difficult for funded grad students and fellowship recipients at any level of PhD training. Your university might send you strange tax forms or no tax forms at all. They might not withhold your income tax from your paychecks, even though you owe it. It’s a mess. I’ve created a ton of free resources to assist you with understanding and preparing your 2020 tax return, which are available at pfforphds.com/tax. I hope you’ll check them out to ease much of the stress of tax season. If you want to go deeper with the material or have a question for me, please join one of my tax workshops, which you can find links to from PF F O R P H D S.com/T A X. The first live Q&A call for my workshop on preparing your 2020 PhD tax return is this Sunday, January 17th. Also, for those of you who are paid by fellowship or training grant, the deadline to make your quarter four estimated tax payment is January 15th. If you’re not going to file your tax return by the end of January. It would be my pleasure to help you save time and potentially money this tax season. So, don’t hesitate to reach out. Now, back to our interview.
Financial Strategy #5: Decide What Makes Your Life Rich
23:21 Emily: So, what is the fifth strategy on your list?
23:24 Laura: The fifth one is actually from a really good book called I Will Teach You To Be Rich, which was actually the audio book that I just downloaded. And one of the questions, gosh, the author’s name I’ve totally blanked on.
23:36 Emily: It’s Ramit Sethi.
23:38 Laura: So, yes. He’s really great. And I wasn’t super sure about the title at first. I thought it was maybe like a little bit crass, but he has some really good advice including sit down and decide what makes your life rich. And that doesn’t mean in terms of how much money you have for retirement or how much money you have on the day-to-day, but what do you really value and what do you enjoy spending your money on? So, that was something that I kind of made my husband and I sit down and talk about. You know, like what are our individual, you know, finance goals and our joint ones as a couple in the next five, 10 years. Like where do we want to live? Like what kind of life do we want to have for ourselves? And it’s not just helped us plan our savings more appropriately, but it’s also alleviated my personal guilt when I see like what I’m spending money on. For example, I love eating out. Like I never did it growing up and I love doing it now. And that’s part of what makes my life personally rich. So, it just helps you, I think, feel less shame if you’re spending things and you’re initially worried that it’s not appropriate. But if that’s what you value, then you should enjoy it if you can afford it.
24:46 Emily: Yeah. I think Ramit’s voice is a very unique one in the personal finance space, because he does have this emphasis on, you know, spend extravagantly on the things that are really important to you and increase your income so that you can support that. And do not worry about like, cut spending in the areas that are not important to you. I was just actually listening to him as a guest on another podcast a couple of days ago. And I think he said something like, you know, he drives a super old car still and he like, there are some areas of his life that he really does not spend on, but there are a few that he’s identified they’re really important where he spends lavishly. And so that’s, I think it is a really good perspective for someone who is like you were talking about earlier, like sort of afraid to spend money or like hoarding money that like, I can definitely see how that message could help you with your own money mindset.
25:38 Emily: I Will Teach You To Be Rich actually came up earlier on the podcast and we’ll link it from the show notes. We did an interview with Dr. Amanda and she talks about how that book in particular, when it was first published like 10 years ago or whatever totally turned her like money life around. That was like the sort of inception of her money, her financial journey. So, if you want to hear another perspective on, you know, how that book’s helped someone else, that’ll be linked from the show notes. Yes.
In Other Words: What Are Your Values?
26:05 Emily: So, another way of like saying this, like figure out what makes your life rich thing, which is a little bit more like classic financial planning, is what are your values? What is important to you? You also mentioned identifying goals. And I think it’s a wonderful process. Not, you know, not a lot of graduate students might get into this because they feel like they’re more on the survival level. But what I like about this exercise of figuring out what’s really important to you, what really makes you happy, what really makes you feel satisfied, is that there are sometimes ways that you can find a way to fulfill those values that don’t involve spending. And that’s okay. Like for instance, you know, you said earlier that you’ve been trained to become a yoga teacher. So, maybe, I’m guessing, physical health and mental health and balance and things like that are important to you. And it doesn’t take a lot of money to have a yoga practice, right? So, there are ways to find fulfillment, even if you aren’t able to spend right now. But then later, you know, when your income is higher, post-PhD, you can maybe think of ways that you could spend and even enhance that more later, but still find some ways to do it now and fit it into your life right now. Instead of just sort of saying to yourself, I can never do anything. I can never spend anything. I can never afford anything because of my stipend right now. And just sort of shutting all of that down.
27:19 Laura: Totally. Yeah. And I think that’s something as a cohort when you’re in your PhD program, like you should definitely talk about that with other people. Because the attitude, at least from what I witnessed, is like, everyone’s scared about their money. But you’re totally right. If you sit down and think about what brings a particular richness to your life. But when I did it, I realized, Oh, wow, I do yoga. I love hiking. I love going for walks. Like I’m such an old lady that way. So it’s like, I have all these things already there for free. And it just helps you feel, it gives you perspective on your money. It’s, you know, you don’t have a lot right now, but that’s okay because X, Y, and Z doesn’t cost me anything.
Financial Strategy #6: Talk to Your Partner About Money
27:55 Emily: Well, it’s a wonderful point. Thank you so much for expanding on that one. Sixth strategy. What’s that one?
28:02 Laura: So, the sixth is to anyone in a relationship. Talk to your partner about money. It’s not something you talk about the first couple of years, probably, when you’re on your first dates. But I mean, my husband and I have been together for almost nine years, married for just over a year. And you know, he’s so good with money and he has such a natural interest and I have such a fear of it normally that we’re kind of a perfect match that way. But the more we’ve talked about it, the more our relationship has improved, the better our goals are with our spending. There’s no awkwardness about things that we’re both buying. We do also keep, you know, separation there, which I think is healthy. I don’t know everything that he’s spending his money on, but we both know exactly how much the other person makes every month. We both know our bills when they’re due and if there’s any kind of more extravagant purchases that we’re both thinking of having as individuals, we do run them past the other, because it’s just a respectful little gesture. So, just making it a not scary thing. Just talk about it with your partner. The worst thing is to keep it a secret, for sure.
29:10 Emily: It sounds like you two have found like a balance. You have transparency but you also have a degree of autonomy. So, no secrets, anything that needs to be flagged as brought to the other person’s attention, but the decisions are still ultimately your own individually for certain aspects of your spending. And obviously certain aspects you have to come to an agreement. I did a pretty interesting podcast interview recently with Dr. Michelle Roley-Roberts where we talked about joint and separate finances.
29:40 Laura: Yes. I listened to that.
Financial Strategy #7: Learn About U.S. Credit Card Culture
29:42 Emily: Cool. Yeah. So, I’ll link that in the show notes, in case people want to follow up on like, okay, well, what is the money management system that might work well for me? And you can certainly hear, you know, Michelle and I discuss our respective systems, which are somewhat different and somewhat similar. I think that your last strategy is specific to international students. So, will you share that one please?
30:00 Laura: Yeah. So this one, I so wish I’d known before I moved here, but better late than never. Learn about credit card culture in the USA, because it’s not going away and you will be all the better for accepting it. And I know it’s not always possible on a student visa to get a proper credit card. That was the problem I ran into, but they will give you something like a credit card from certain banks, and it will be a way to transition into an adult credit card, so to speak. I just got my first credit card. I’m not ashamed to admit it. So if anyone else out there is thinking, Oh gosh, I don’t even have one yet. It’s okay. Like better to just go and do it. But I just had so many questions about them because growing up in Scotland, we were always told don’t get a credit card. It’s, you know, it’s because you’re a failure financially, if you need to get one. But here it’s a very valuable thing to have a good credit history. So, learn about it as soon as you can, and go to your bank and just ask a ton of questions. And do not leave until you know the answer to all of them. Because they’ll try and just brush you off most of the time.
31:08 Emily: So, the credit card culture that you were just mentioning. It’s so closely held for me. I was taking a second, like, what do you mean by this? What is this culture? So, what you’re saying is like the importance of credit, like your credit score, your having good credit reports and so forth is not just for when you want to get a mortgage or when you want to take out a car loan or whatever. It can be checked by landlords. It can even be checked by employers in some cases. And so it’s like, yeah, weirdly important to have a really good credit or, you know, a decent to good credit score. And it doesn’t mean, like you were just saying, that you’re necessarily in debt or, you know, taking out lots of debt, or that you’re in a need or anything like that.
31:50 Emily: But yeah, it is it’s pretty weird and it’s pretty insidious that other kinds of payments are not reported on your credit report. Like, Hey, I pay my rent every month. Shouldn’t that count for something? And it’s also weird that your income doesn’t factor into your credit score. So, it’s a very strange system. I agree. And so, okay. So, I understand. So you had to understand what was going on with the U.S. system and kind of accept that, yes, you did need to establish a credit score. These are the steps to do, you know, get a secured card, later on, get a regular credit card once you have a credit score, and then kind of work it up from there. Is that right?
32:26 Laura: Yeah, totally. And again, like I was in a very privileged position because my husband has a credit score. But again, I didn’t know that to get an apartment, for example, in New York, even with his credit score, which is really solid, it was still a challenge. Like you got to wait until it’s processed. There are a lot of questions afterwards as well. So, just establishing that, the sooner the better. It will lift your anxiety about it and it, unfortunately it just will give you more freedom down the line. So, I would start off really small. You know, I just got my credit card and I’m only allowing myself to use it for certain expenses in the month so I can practice using it appropriately. So, just figure out how to use it properly and stick to the rules. And I think you should be good to go.
Credit Cards Can Intimidate Anyone
33:12 Emily: I’ll actually like add in, even for, you know, people have grown up in the U.S. or whatever. Like, I also was very afraid of getting my first credit card, which thankfully I don’t know how, because I was very ignorant at the time, but thankfully I did not sign up for any credit cards during my undergraduate degree. So, I got through all of that with only, you know, I had student loans and so I actually had a credit score, but I didn’t have any credit cards. Thankfully. And by the time, I don’t know, I had just been like warned so strenuously about the dangers of credit cards that I was very, very nervous to get one for the first time. But like you, I was reading about how important it is to build credit. And this is, you know, an easy way to do it without actually paying interest on anything, which is also nice.
33:52 Emily: So, I like very carefully picked out my first credit card, very reluctantly, like signed up for it, used it very infrequently. And, you know, have still maintained that account to this day because it’s my oldest account. So, it’s definitely not just international students who can be kind of like perplexed and nervous about this whole system. It’s a little bit easier, of course, if you did go to college in the U.S. and you did take off student loans because you will have a credit score, even if you have never made a payment on student loans or anything like that. It’ll actually probably be a decent, I don’t know. It’s so weird. It’s such a weird system.
34:26 Laura: It’s so weird. Yeah. I mean one last thing I would say is just when they give you those documents at the bank with all the terms and conditions. It’s very tempting to just put it in an envelope and not look at it again. I have a whole box, actually in my office right now, and I’ve gone through the whole thing with a highlighter. And I asked my husband the definitions for things. I search online. I called the bank twice more because I wanted to confirm something. Like, ignorance is just not bliss. You just, you need to know what exactly you signed up for to really feel confident about it.
Benefits of Reflecting on Your Money Mindset
34:55 Emily: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for adding that. I know that a lot of international students I think hear this advice of open up a secured credit card when you get to the U.S. But I think a lot of them will kind of find some kinship with you in your like trepidation about this. And what exactly is this about and what are the attitudes? So, yeah. Thank you so much for adding that. So, what are the benefits that you’ve experienced from going through this, you know, this process and reflecting on your money mindset that you grew up with and putting all these strategies in place. Obviously, I’m assuming your hard numbers of your financials are looking rosier than they would have if you hadn’t gone through this process. But is there anything else that you want to add about benefits aside from the, you know, the black and white?
35:38 Laura: Yeah. I think that the biggest benefit is just, you know, getting out of this mindset as a grad student that you can’t have any savings goals. That was the big misconception that I had. You know, once you learn, for example, what an emergency fund is, what a Roth IRA is, all these little things. You realize, Oh, wait, it is possible to save for the future. Yeah. It’s not going to be as much as someone working as a lawyer or whatever, but it’s going to add up over the five, six years that you are on this smaller stipend. So, you know, it gives you a lot of hope and I think the mental health during graduate school, that’s something you have to be aware of. And putting aside, you know, a couple of hundred dollars a month to your Roth IRA, for example, that’s a great feeling. And that’s, you know, one of my goals that I have by the spring. You don’t have to sort of wait to be an adult to do those things. Like you are an adult already in grad school, and you can, you can do other things that adults do with their money for sure.
36:35 Emily: Yeah. I also, very coincidentally, I gave an interview this morning for Roostervane, which is Dr. Chris Cornthwaite’s brand. And I was talking about this as well, the mindset of really that label of being a student. It makes sense in a context, but it can really trip you up and mess you up, like in your mindset, because I think, you know, at least in the U.S., you know, for traditional college students, we’ve kind of accepted that it’s an extended adolescence period of time until you graduate from college and it’s okay to be dependent on your parents. And, you know, you may be still not really working on your finances because, Hey, you’re probably taking out a bunch of debt. We’ve kind of accepted that. And then when that student label gets applied to funded PhD students, there’s really a disconnect. And it’s much healthier, as you were just saying, to not really make that student like the closest part of your identity, but recognize that you are an adult, you need to have a well-rounded life, you know, financially healthwise, in your relationships, all these other areas. It’s not really feasible for you to kind of suppress and ignore various different facets of your life for the length of a PhD, which is very long.
37:42 Laura: No. Yeah, I completely agree. And also, I do understand the anxiety of the student label, right? But at the same time, you do have to kind of wake up to the fact that people are actually offering you money from a lot of different resources. Like, especially at Davis, where they are excellent at emailing us with fellowships and funding, money here and there. You do have to be proactive about it. You know, it’s still very hard and it’s stressful, but for example, go through your emails every month. And if you’ve missed anything with free money, put it in a spreadsheet like I’ve been doing. It does add up after a while and you realize, Oh, wait, year two, I can apply for, you know, $2,000 here for this. It doesn’t have to be so limited for the entire time.
38:26 Emily: Yeah. It’s kind of funny because I think in some ways earning more money while you’re a graduate student is like frowned upon in certain corners of academia or even not allowed as we talked about earlier. But there are other ways where earning more money is like completely sanctioned and encouraged by everyone which is applying for fellowships and applying for grants and doing all these like academia-style, like raises and like, you know, the things that we would use different terms for it outside of academia, but inside it’s still allowed and still a good idea. And like you were saying, some programs are pretty good about, you know, showing those opportunities to you and presenting them in a way that’s easy for you to take advantage of. So yeah, that’s wonderful to hear.
Best Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
39:04 Emily: So, I’d like to conclude with your best advice for another early career PhD. I feel like we’ve already heard a ton of great advice throughout the whole interview, but if there’s anything you want to add to that in a different area or something you want to emphasize, make sure the listeners walk away with, you know, please let us know.
39:20 Laura: Yeah. I mean, just, I think two things. My main points of advice would be to just make your financial education, or whatever you want to call it, a hobby. The more you know, the less anxiety you’re going to feel. And don’t think that saving for things like retirement or long-term savings goals have to be put on pause. It’s better to have a little bit saved towards that kind of goal than to have nothing in five years. So, the longterm does not have to be on a permanent pause by any means.
39:48 Emily: Yeah. And even, as you know, from compound interest, any little tiny bit of investing or debt repayment that you can do right now makes a massive difference later on. So, you know, don’t feel bad if it’s like $10 a month, $50 per month. Anything on that scale is still going to really, really add up over time. Well, thank you so much for this wonderful interview, Laura. I really enjoyed getting to know you a little bit.
40:09 Laura: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me. This was really fun.
Listener Q&A: Savings
40:16 Emily: Now, on to the second of two new segments. The listener question and answer. Today’s question actually comes from a survey I sent out in advance of one of my university webinars this past fall. So, it is anonymous. Here is the question. How can I effectively build my savings back up while still feeling like I have room to go out to dinner or buy a book when I’d like to? I feel so guilty whenever I make unnecessary purchases. Thank you so much for that question, Anonymous. It sounds like your main financial goal right now is to build up savings. And you’re struggling to find a way to balance that with discretionary expenses. And you might hear this as a strange solution, but I think the answer is budgeting. Most people think of budgeting as a way to cut back on their expenses or reduce their expenses or beat themselves up when they go over the amount they were supposed to spend in one category or another.
41:17 Emily: But that’s actually not how I see budgeting. I see budgeting as a method of intentionally and thoughtfully creating balance among the different purposes that your money has. So, what I think you should do is write into your budget “unnecessary purchases,” like going out to dinner and buying a book. And in this sense, these are not categories that you should, you know, try to spend much, much less than the cap. Your goal is instead going to spend right at that level that you identified when you set up the budget. This means that you have to decide what is an adequate savings rate. There are not just two broad categories in your budget, that is paying for your necessary expenses and saving. There are three. Necessary expenses, discretionary expenses, and saving. I’ll point you to the balanced money formula, which I really like the idea behind, although I have to acknowledge that it does not work in every city in the U.S. on any grad student stipend. The balanced money formula is that you would devote no more than 50% of your after-tax income to necessary expenses, 30% to discretionary expenses and 20% to savings.
42:31 Emily: Now, for your budget, that savings rate might be a little bit too low, or it might be unattainable, depends on where you are right now. But the point is that discretionary expenses hold a place in a balanced budget. It is really psychologically difficult to go for months and years spending little to no money on discretionary purchases. If you accept what I’m saying, that you need to build discretionary expenses into your budget, but you’re still saying to yourself, I’m not saving as much as I would like to, instead of cutting back on those discretionary expenses, I want you to take a really hard look at your necessary expenses. Necessary expenses are almost like this misnomer because, yes, it is necessary to house yourself and feed yourself and clothe yourself. But often we’re spending more than we absolutely baseline need to, to accomplish those things. So, for pretty much every quote, unquote, necessary expense, there’s going to be an actual necessary portion, and a discretionary portion.
43:34 Emily: So, I would really encourage you to go through your necessary expenses with a fine-tooth comb, starting with your largest fixed expenses like housing, perhaps transportation, moving to other fixed expenses like utilities. Then moving into your large necessary expenses like groceries. Then moving into your smaller necessary expenses, like maybe gas for your car. Reevaluate every single one of those expenses in that order to try to find a way that you can reduce them. Now, that may not happen instantaneously, if you have to do something like move, obviously. But the point is that you don’t just have to focus on your discretionary expenses and your savings. You can also pay some attention to those necessary expenses. In my mind, it’s way more fun to save money and also to spend on discretionary expenses. Spending on necessary expenses doesn’t really light people up. So, it definitely makes sense to reevaluate them and see where you can cut back.
44:34 Emily: Now, if you’ve done all of that, you’ve built the discretionary expenses into your budget. You’ve really evaluated if you can reduce any of your necessary expenses, and your savings rate is still not as high as you want it to be, then you need to consider increasing your income. Maybe that is the right solution. Some grad students are able and allowed to side hustle. So, you can look into that, if that’s your case. Some grad students are not allowed to work outside their appointment as a graduate student. And so in those cases, you might have to look for side incomes that don’t require work to generate them. I’ve talked about this quite a bit on my site. You can search for a side income or side hustle to find more discussion about that. Okay, Anonymous. I hope this helped. It is legitimate to spend money on discretionary or quote unnecessary purchases.
45:22 Emily: Absolutely. It’s just a matter of finding the right balance between your savings, your discretionary expenses, and your necessary expenses. And oftentimes, the two culprits in those areas are your necessary expenses and your income being too low. I hope that helps. Thank you so much for submitting this question. If you would like to submit a question to be answered in a future episode, please go to pfforphds.com/podcast and follow the instructions you find there. I love answering questions. So, please submit yours.
45:53 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episode show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest and submitting a question for the Q&A segment. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me. Two, share an episode you found particularly on social media with an email listserv or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in like investing debt, repayment, and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington Bear from the free music archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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