In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Trevor Hedberg, who completed his PhD in philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2017. His academic year stipend was $15,000 throughout graduate school, yet he finished with about $35,000 in savings. Emily and Trevor discuss the money mindset and financial strategies that enabled Trevor to save even on this low stipend, including his willingness to apply for any possible extra funding and conduct frugal experiments.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
- Dr. Trevor Hedberg’s Website
- Dr. Trevor Hedberg’s YouTube Channel
- PF for PhDs: Tax Workshop
- Walden on Wheels (Book by Ken Ilgunas)
- Emily’s E-mail (for Book Giveaway Contest)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub (Instructions for Book Giveaway Contest)
- PF for PhDs: Quarterly Estimated Tax
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Trevor: Don’t fall into that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t just assume that your destiny, as a humanities PhD, is to live paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t have to be that way for everybody.
00:15 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 14, and today my guest is Dr. Trevor Hedberg, who completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2017. His academic year stipend was $15,000 throughout graduate school. Yet, he finished with about $35,000 in savings. We discussed the money mindset and financial strategies that enabled Trevor to save, even on this low stipend, including his willingness to apply for any possible extra funding and conduct frugal experiments. Have you heard about the IRS pushing back the federal tax filing and payment deadline? By the time you listen to this, it would have happened a couple of weeks back. The new deadline for filing your federal tax return and paying any remaining tax due is now May 17th, 2021. I hope that by now, your state will have made up its mind about whether to extend its deadline as well.
01:21 Emily: So, check on that. Please note, however, that the federal deadline for making the quarter one 2021 estimated tax payment on your fellowship, if you’re required to, remains April 15th. And of course, you need to check with your state as well. In response to this extension, I added live Q&A call times to How to Complete Your Grad Student Tax Return (And Understand It, Too!). If you join the workshop now, you’ll be invited to any and all of the remaining Q&A calls, which will take place on April 10th, May 2nd, and May 15th. You can learn more about and join the workshop at pfforphds.com/taxworkshop. I hope to see you inside.
Book Giveaway Contest
02:08 Emily: Now, it’s time for the book giveaway contest. In April 2021, I’m giving away one copy of Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunes, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community book club selection for June 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during April will have a chance to win a copy of this book. Walden on Wheels is a memoir about student loan debt, if you can believe it, and the steps the author took to get out and stay out of it. Although I haven’t read it yet, the book has been on my radar since its publication because of the extremes the author went to to avoid taking out student loan debt while he was a graduate student at Duke, which is my Alma mater. I’m really looking forward to this one. If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll choose a winner at the end of April from all the entries. You can read full instructions at pfforphds.com/podcast. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Trevor Hedberg.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
03:23 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Trevor Hedberg. I’m really delighted to have him on. He is now out of his PhD, but he’s going to be telling us about how he managed his finances during graduate school, which as a slight departure from many of the other interviews we’ve had, Trevor was in a humanities field, philosophy, and he had a lower stipend. So if you are in the audience and have been tired of listening to interviews with people who have had much higher siphons than you did during graduate school, this is the one for you. So yeah, Trevor, thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
03:55 Trevor: Sure, Emily. Thanks for having me.
03:57 Emily: And would you please tell the audience a little bit more about yourself?
04:00 Trevor: Sure. So, my present position, I’m a postdoc at the Ohio State University situated in Columbus. I’ve got a joint appointment with the Center for Ethics and Human Values in the College of Pharmacy. My two main responsibilities are coordinating Center for Ethics and Human Values events. Right now we’re doing webinars because of the whole COVID thing. And I’m teaching bioethics courses to students in the College of Pharmacy. I also do some of my own research in areas of applied ethics.
Length of Time and Stipend in Grad School
04:26 Emily: Yeah, that sounds fantastic. Great kind of postdoc work to have, I think. Okay, so let’s go back to the grad school years. Tell us what years were you in grad school for?
04:36 Trevor: I was in grad school for a while. I started at the University of Tennessee in fall 2010, and I picked up a master’s degree on my way to the PhD and I got the PhD in spring of 2017.
04:48 Emily: Okay. Actually, that doesn’t sound that long to me.
04:52 Trevor: It is about average for humanities PhDs. So it’s like, I don’t feel bad, but when I think back I’m like, man, that was a seven-year chunk of my life, you know, that’s a while.
05:03 Emily: Yeah, it is. My husband also took seven years to finish his PhD and he’s in a bio kind of field. So, it can take a while. Okay. So, what was your stipend during that time? Or if it ranged, maybe just give us the range.
05:15 Trevor: The base stipend for the time that I was in the program, so if you had a standard teaching assistantship package, didn’t do any summer teaching, just fall assignments, spring assignment, was $15,000.
05:26 Emily: And were you at that the whole time, or did you ever get above that?
05:29 Trevor: My first year I had an introductory like one-year fellowship, which reduced my teaching responsibilities to half, well you’re normally at half-time, it reduced it to quarter-time. And I also got like a lot of extra money, which is kind of weird, right? You get paid a bunch of extra money for doing less work, but that’s, you know, why it’s a fellowship. It’s supposed to give you time to work on research. So for that semester, I made around 20,000, $21,000 something like that.
05:58 Emily: Yeah. This is a note for any prospective rising graduate students in the audience that you can get an offer letter and your first year it can look nice and rosy. Oftentimes fellowships are given to help people, you know, transition into grad school or whatever, but you need to be asking about years two plus, because I hope that you were aware that that was a, you know, a short-term thing, but some people may not be aware just looking at that first year.
06:21 Trevor: Yeah. So actually, my situation’s the opposite. I got admitted without having that fellowship and I applied for it under the supervision of a faculty member after they’d already admitted me to the program and then I got it. So it was a bonus on top of my initial offer. So I did not get, you know, deceived or something.
Finances at the Beginning and End of Grad School
06:40 Emily: Good. Yeah, I’m glad to hear that. Okay. So base stipend $15K, a little bit extra in one year, but that was basically what was going on. And so, over that seven-year period, overall, how did your finances end up going? Like where were you financially when you started? Where were you financially when you finished?
06:57 Trevor: I went to Knoxville with a little bit, somewhere between five and $6,000, just kind of a nest egg that had been given to me by parents and other relatives and so on during undergrad and I just had not spent that much of it. And I was able to, without taking out any additional loans or anything, I had some loans from undergrad. I didn’t add to them at all during grad school, but I was able to leave graduate school and go and move to Tampa, Florida with between 35 and $40,000 in my bank account. I was also able to purchase a new car while I was, I didn’t really want to, but my Mitsubishi Lancer was totaled out in a freak hailstorm. And it happens, I guess, in April of 2011. And so I wound up leasing a car for a while and then buying it at the end of that, I ended up getting a Hyundai Elantra. But that was, I got some money from the insurance company for like the payout from the Lancer. But it was, you know, that was still a sizable expense that I had to cover in the long-term.
08:03 Emily: Yeah. I mean, the numbers that you just threw out, I mean, having 35 or $40,000 in savings, that’s two years of what you were earning during that seven-year period, plus buying the car on top of that. That’s quite surprising to me and obviously probably a motivating reason why you came on the podcast because somehow you were able to do that. And we want to hear about how on that lower stipend, right? So kind of like let’s dig into that. Why did you end grad school with so much savings? Was it an intentional thing that you set out to do? Or was it just a happenstance thing based on, you know, your personality or something?
Ending Grad School with Savings
08:39 Trevor: One of the few pieces of financial advice that I got going into graduate school in philosophy is whatever you do, don’t take out any loans en route to your degree because the employment prospects in the humanities, and philosophy included, are just so uncertain. There’s, you know, every job has hundreds of qualified applicants and you may apply for a hundred jobs, but the odds are still very uncertain as to whether you’ll actually wind up with employment at the end of it. So the idea is don’t take out a ton of money for, you know, for a career that might not pan out. And a lot of what happened just kind of resulted from being very steadfast in doing what I could to minimize my expenses and to try to save where I could and also apply for as much extra money as I could get.
09:28 Trevor: I mentioned the first year of fellowship, I also got a couple of summer dissertation fellowships, which were just basically extra money because people thought your dissertation project was cool. Did some summer teaching, which paid very well Tennessee relative to the amount of extra work. And when I traveled to conferences or did events like that, I always put in my, you know, travel reimbursement requests and things like that. And just over a seven-year period of time, these kinds of small, you know, savings or these extra little bundles of cash that you happen upon, it just adds up over time.
10:03 Emily: So at kind of the root of this is you being really realistic about job prospects. And I assume also the possibility of having a lapse of income, right? Like, while you’re job searching. And so having that kind of, let’s say one to two years of, you know, living expenses in the bank when you finished is a hedge to help you pursue the career that you want. Is that a fair characterization?
10:28 Trevor: Yeah. The other thing I was cognizant of is that once I was out of grad school, I’d have to start repaying student loans. And so I wanted to be in a position where, you know, if I’m in fact unemployed, I can float while making loan payments successfully for a while, you know, long enough to if it requires going a non-academic career route, so be it, whatever. But you don’t want to be stuck in that situation where you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then you’re not getting any more paychecks. Now, student loans are coming due and you’re in a really tough spot.
10:59 Emily: Yeah. So really it’s about like financial flexibility in a sense, and being able to meet your obligations, even if you haven’t landed the ideal job yet.
11:10 Trevor: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say.
Summer Funding Strategies
11:10 Emily: Okay. So you mentioned a few different ways that you increased your income during graduate school, such as by pursuing summer funding and summer jobs. I’m wondering, did you have funding in some way or another every summer? Or were there some summers where you were unfunded?
11:26 Trevor: So the first two summers I was there I did summer teaching, and summer classes paid very well. They were about $4,000 which I was offered to adjunct some classes at community colleges. Like I would be getting paid less than half of that. So I turned down those instances, because that’s too much. I think that’s too much time and energy for not enough pay. But four grand for, you know, five, six weeks to teach a summer course was a pretty good deal. One summer I had a research assistantship that I think paid between $2,500 and $3,000 where I was basically helping a professor edit a book that he was putting together. And then there were two summers where I had a dissertation fellowship, which was around the same amount of money as teaching a summer class, but you’re supposed to just be working on your dissertation during that time. So there were two summers in there where I didn’t have any extra income, but that’s still pretty good. Five, you know, five of those seven summers, I managed to add something to what I was getting.
12:31 Emily: I was just thinking, based on your kind of sort of defensive posture towards financial planning and saving that, were you thinking like every year I need to be prepared financially for an unfunded summer? If money comes in, if I get work, that’s a bonus. But were you confident that you, and, you know, there were two summers where that was the case. So were you using your cash to fund, you know, your living expenses through those periods?
12:54 Trevor: I didn’t have any trouble. The amount of money that it seemed to cost to live in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was living and with what I was doing, was roughly $12,000 a year. [Note: It was actually closer to $14.4K.] So I didn’t really seem to have, there was no danger of if I didn’t have money in the summer that like it was going to be, you know, I was going to take a loss in the year.
Frugal Living Tips for Grad Students
13:18 Emily: Gotcha. $12,000 per year, not bad. Do you have any you know, sort of frugal living tips for the listeners? And I’d really love to hit, for sure the big three expenses for grad students, which are housing, transportation, and food.
13:34 Trevor: Yeah. So the housing in Knoxville is really good. I was able to live in a pretty comfortable, not quite 600 square-foot, I think it was around 600 square-foot, one bedroom, one bathroom apartment for right at $500 a month. That included some, but not all utilities. Transportation-wise, you know, I got that new car. I didn’t have any car payments for almost the first year of grad school. And then I had around payments for around $300 a month once I did have a car again. So that right there is 800 bucks. I said it was around $1,200. I think groceries came out to a little bit, like $200 to $250 a month, give or take. And there were utility expenses, right? So I got a cell phone. You got to pay for gas.
14:24 Trevor: I had a very unusual like cable internet situation because I eventually just got so tired of Comcast because they just rate-hiked ludicrously. And after they did that enough times, I just said, no, I’m done. And just, and I had a period where I didn’t have any internet or television at my apartment, which was an interesting six months. When you’re basically doing all your, now, now during the remote learning period we’re in right now, that would not be doable, but this was a different time. You know, a simpler time where you could have all your internet access on campus and it was okay. So just on average, this whole situation came out to around $1,200. I will say, I wasn’t living like an extremely miserly existence. I was still, you know, it’s not like my apartment was destitute or that I had no material possessions. I still enjoyed the same amount of video games the average person in his twenties nowadays probably enjoyed. I would say that there were certain things that I didn’t do as much as some grad students might. I certainly wasn’t like going to bars frequently. I was eating out on special occasions, but not very often otherwise. So, there were some sacrifices, but I do want to stress I don’t think that it was unbearable.
15:41 Emily: Yeah. You know, in what you’re saying, I’m reflecting on my own time in graduate school as well and thinking about how we did eventually, my husband and I, did eventually get into a rhythm of just kind of simple living, you know, relatively low costs. We were okay with the fixed expenses we had. Yeah, the going out expenses weren’t too much. By about halfway through grad school. We had found friends, we love to hang out with who also wanted to socialize in a low-cost manner that didn’t require us, you know, going out all the time. We would just hang out at each other’s homes and stuff. And so we just kind of settled into what I felt was a very satisfactory, but also pretty low cost, sort of lifestyle. It sounds like what you were doing was similar. Were there any other, you might say discretionary expenses that you did engage in? You haven’t mentioned travel so far.
16:29 Trevor: Oh, so yeah, I did go back. My hometown is in Topeka, Kansas, so I did go back about twice a year to visit. Usually, my parents were willing to cover the flight back. As far as travel to conferences and things like that. It was very rare for me to pay for hotel rooms and other things because I would always apply for travel reimbursement. So I did go to a fair amount of conferences. I don’t know what the average would be over grad school, but I had, you know, 13, 14 conferences on the CV by the time I was on the job market, like at the end. But I didn’t generally have trouble getting reimbursed, provided you go through the actual administrative channels and you show that you actually did present at that conference, you know, show the receipts and all that stuff.
17:12 Trevor: So, that wasn’t really a huge obstacle for me. I suppose if someone, if you were an international student for example, and you’ve got to go abroad to go back home to visit, that would be a more significant expense. There were also some, you know, not all TA assistantships include like health insurance, which was something that I had through my assistantship. So, that’s an extra expense I didn’t mention that I didn’t have to pay. And when you’re making so little money, your taxes are very low. They’re not nothing, but usually like the income tax that was withheld would usually be much greater than what I actually owed. So if anything, I’d be getting a check from the IRS at some point.
17:52 Emily: And there’s no state tax in Tennessee, right?
17:55 Trevor: That’s true as well. Yeah. No state income tax.
Money Mindset Developed in Grad School
17:58 Emily: Yeah. So, you know, we just talked about sort of having a satisfactory but low cost existence. What was the money mindset that you developed, by the end of graduate school, regarding where happiness comes from?
18:11 Trevor: Well, I saw some graduate students, like some of my peers, who lived even more miserly than I did. And I sort of realized there were certain limits. Like there were apartments I could have gone to in Knoxville that had much lower rent than even the $500 I was paying, for example. But there were certain thresholds below which I wasn’t willing to go to save money. So there was an extent to which I did, you know, it wasn’t just save money at all costs. There was a certain amount of prioritizing my own personal satisfactions. But I also think that there were certain things that just, I was able to live without too much trouble. I mean, cable television was a great example. I grew up with cable television and when I didn’t have it, I just didn’t care. It didn’t really make that much of a difference.
19:01 Trevor: If anything, I was just glad that I wasn’t seeing commercials all the time. Now, the internet was different. That six months without internet access was kind of rough. That was an experiment that was probably worth doing. But, never again, right? Like always going to have internet whatever it goes for. But there were lots of things like that that I just kind of tested and experimented with to see what I could do without and what I needed. If you test enough things, pretty quickly, you hone in on what’s important to you and what’s worth spending money on and what’s not. And I think that process is really important when your money is very tight.
19:37 Emily: I love that point. Absolutely. I use the same word, experimentation, when I talk about, well, I use the term frugal experimentation. So, sometimes if people are, you know, in my audience, looking for ways to decrease their expenses, I’ll say, you know, conduct a 30 or 60-day frugal experiment where you try out a new tip you found. You’re not sure at the outset if it’s going to be right for you. One, you know, you have to sort of evaluate, like you were just saying, like, what impact does it have on your quality of life? If it’s negative, or maybe it could be positive. And how does that compare to the actual savings that you realize? And you can’t really know until you actually try something out. So I’m really pleased that, you know, you also came to this idea of experimentation and it sounds like you did it in multiple areas. Do you want to give us some other examples, aside from the cable and internet one, of some other experiments you did?
20:27 Trevor: So, some of it had to do with technology upgrades in general. So, I was one of the last people, for example, to buy like a smartphone. Because I actually really liked the model of phones where you had the little slide-out keyboard. So they were really good with texting, but not so great for like the web browsing and other stuff that we do on them now. That was one where I was perfectly content to not technologically upgrade for as long as possible. So, you know, once that phone was paid off, I just had that phone for a really long time. And that bill was lower as a result. I wasn’t able to keep my PC around for all of grad school. When I was working on my dissertation, the motherboard finally died, but I mean, I’d had that PC I was using for seven or eight years. And it had been through heavy, heavy usage. So that was another thing that like, I didn’t need to replace. I think that nowadays, especially, we’re so prone to just want to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade when a lot of times the upgrades are marginal and just cost us more money and don’t actually make our lives much better. Those are the obvious other examples I can think of.
21:31 Emily: I have one that I remember from grad school really calling out as a frugal experiment on the blog that I was keeping at the time, which was no longer using our clothes dryer or rather using only for like towels, like that kind of thing. And we were just hanging, drying you know, shirts and all the rest of the stuff that would dry pretty easily in that manner. And I wasn’t that diligent to like, actually look at the difference that made on our electricity bill, and I’m sure it made some kind of small difference. But yeah, that was just something that we like tried out, weren’t super wedded to whether we would keep it around or not, and ended up doing it for a couple of years. Because it was really no more difficult, and again, you know, we weren’t running the dryer, so that probably helps some.
22:08 Emily: So I remember that as being one of our frugal experiments I’m also really big on, this is just like my personality type, I’m big on like rules. Like I love boundaries, like things being black and white and not gray. So for instance, one rule, you mentioned this earlier, but one rule we made eventually in graduate school was that we would only eat out for social occasions and we would not eat out for convenience. Because we noticed that was a pattern going on for us, that we would be, Oh, I’m staying late on campus. I’m just going to grab dinner from whatever fast food joint. And so just that wasn’t really bringing a lot of satisfaction, just convenience, into our lives. So we decided to cut that out and I made a rule for myself. Okay. No more eating out for convenience, only with other people. I wonder, I don’t know if your personality is the same way, but did you end up having sort of a set of rules, financial-related rules, for yourself by the end of graduate school?
How Low (ºF) Can You Go?
22:56 Trevor: Real quick, before I answer that question, there is one other one that comes to mind because you just mentioned like the clothes-drying thing. One of the other things I experimented with was what temperature I could stand to live at. So just adjusting the AC or the heat. And Knoxville has really good weather for that because there’s about a six-month period of the year where you really don’t even need the AC or the heat on at all. The temperature outside is mild enough that it just kind of self regulates. But that was one thing. So, if you need 70 degree summers, so to speak, inside, that’s going to cost you a lot of money in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you’re willing to satisfice for, you know, 76 or 78, that could be $50 on your utility bill at the end of the month. That’s not an exaggeration. Found that out in the first, like couple of months in the summer that I was there. So.
23:50 Emily: That’s a great example. Thank you.
23:53 Trevor: Now, your question about other rules. I’m not necessarily, I like the idea behind setting, like these kinds of rules and rigid boundaries, but I often find that you always wind up being put in a weird situation where you’re tempted to make an exception.
24:08 Emily: Travel is my exception to the no eating out for convenience rule. Yeah. It’s going to happen when you travel sometimes.
Forming Good Financial Habits
24:14 Trevor: Yeah. So I like to think of it maybe in terms of, instead of rules, like habits. Like things that you kind of just try to motivate yourself to do regularly, but not in a sort of rigid ironclad sort of way. So there were quite a few habits that I developed. A few of them I’ve already mentioned, like I always applied for money that I thought I had a chance to get. I always tried to, one of the big habits I developed was not auto paying very many bills and always taking the time to like manually manage what I was doing. Just so that I was more cognizant of the money that was being spent so that, you know, a $70 bill doesn’t just go by and you know, just the system pays it and then, you know, it’s handled.
25:04 Trevor: Nowadays, I do auto pay a fair amount of stuff because I just have more bills and more expenses. But also it’s because I don’t need to be aware of every tiny little expense here and there. But as a grad student, I felt like I did need to be aware of that stuff. I needed to be aware of exactly where all the items on my credit card statement were coming from. So, that was one big habit. Some of the other ones I think would overlap with things you’ve mentioned, like generally not going out to eat unless it was a department event or a Friday night social gathering with a bunch of the other grad students. Reserving that kind of stuff for special occasions. I also have just never been a big drinker. So for me, not regularly going to the bar was not much of a sacrifice, not something that I really had to think too much about to follow.
25:59 Emily: Emily here, for a brief interlude. The federal annual tax filing deadline was extended to May 17th, 2021, but the federal estimated tax due date remains April 15th, 2021. This is the perfect time of year to evaluate the income tax due on your fellowship or training grant stipend. Filling out the estimated tax worksheet and form 1040ES will tell you how much you can expect your tax liability to be this year and whether you are required to pay estimated tax. Whether you’re required to pay throughout the year or not, I suggest that you start saving for your ultimate tax bill from each paycheck in a dedicated savings account. If you need some help with the estimated tax worksheet, or want to ask me a question, please join my workshop, quarterly estimated tax for fellowship recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers common questions that postbaccs, grad students, and postdocs have about estimate tax, such as what to do when you switch on or off a fellowship in the middle of a calendar year. Go to P F F O R P H D s.com/Q E Tax to learn more about and join the workshop. Now, back to our interview.
Financial Values Post-PhD
27:17 Emily: I want to go back and like emphasize again this experimentation that you were doing. And I don’t want anybody to take what I’m about to say the wrong way. Graduate school is a very financially challenging period of life, especially for, like you, living on such a low stipend. So I don’t want to lionize that too much. But one of the benefits, if you want to look at it that way, is that you are, many people are sort of forced to do what you did, which is experiment and really figure out, you know, what is going to add to your happiness and your satisfaction with your life at the end of the day and what is not. Because you really have to be kind of brutal about managing your money and cutting out those things that are not adding that much to your life. And I went through that process as well during graduate school. And I think it’s been really beneficial overall. I mean, now post-graduate school, we have a much nicer income and that’s lovely, but I still go back to the lessons and the identification of my own values that I came to during that period of time. And have you carried some things forward into your post-PhD life like that?
28:25 Trevor: Yeah, definitely. Still don’t have cable television, for example. But thinking about it more generally. I would say that the same habits of like checking where my expenses are coming from on like my statements and things like that that, that’s pretty much just stayed the same. Some things are different. I’m a little more willing to like upgrade, you know, things now that I was in graduate school. For example, like once we started this remote learning thing, I bought a printer for my home office, which is something I would have never even considered in grad school. Like always use the department printer, right? Like it’s free and you’re on campus so often. But, so there are things like that or buying new computer software, or stuff like that, I wouldn’t have considered buying, you know, in grad school. You just use whatever freeware alternative, you know, you can get. So some things are a little different.
29:20 Trevor: I am willing to spend a little bit more. And the place I’m living at now is a little bit bigger, like a little bit larger. A little bit more comfortable, higher rent. I have an add-on garage, which I wouldn’t have paid for in grad school, but now, like I like the extra security. And guess what? If it hails, my car won’t get totaled. So that’s nice. But I would say overall, you know, aside from those kinds of incremental changes over time as my income’s gone up and I’m no longer required to micromanage my finances so much, a lot of the habits are still kind of the same. It’s not that big a difference.
Avoiding Lifestyle Inflation
30:00 Emily: Yeah. So, a common term used in the financial space is lifestyle inflation, right? So like when your income goes up and your lifestyle just, somehow the money goes away and you’re suddenly living a higher lifestyle every time you get a raise. I think of a positive process of lifestyle increase that can happen when you go from grad school to a postdoc, postdoc to a real job. That is to say, that like you were just mentioning, adding in intentionally item by item some things into your lifestyle that you think really add to it that you can now afford on the higher salary, but not just blindly increasing everything across the board, right? So that’s what I kind of meant about like keeping the insights that you gained into your own values from that lower-earning period of life in graduate school.
30:47 Trevor: Yeah, definitely. The mere acquisition of more material possessions does not automatically make your life better or make it more fulfilling. It just gives you more stuff. And if you’re like me and you’ve had to move a couple of times since your PhD, having more stuff is not always a good thing for other reasons. I would say, you know, as you said, you want to be more deliberative about the things you buy and about what you add into your life. You want to make sure that it’s actually going to provide some kind of meaningful benefit.
Beware of Financial Pitfalls
31:17 Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have any bits of advice for current graduate students, some things that you’ve maybe observed like, you know, pitfalls that other graduate students have fallen into that maybe you either used to fall into or, you know, learned how to avoid?
31:33 Trevor: Yeah. There are a couple. So, I think there would be basically three that would come to mind. One is, especially in philosophy and English and some of the other humanity fields I’m familiar with, a lot of graduate students seem to assume that they are going to have to live paycheck to paycheck. That they will never be in a financially stable situation at all while they are a grad student. And of course, if that’s your mentality going in, it kind of creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re very unlikely to get out of that position if you think it’s inevitable and don’t take any steps to avoid it.
32:08 Trevor: Another one is, I was shocked to learn there were lots of grad students in my program, I don’t think our program is anomalous, i’s just a common thing, that just didn’t apply for stuff. That were eligible to get travel reimbursement, or to apply for certain kinds of fellowships, whatever, and just wouldn’t apply for it. And they’d say something like, sometimes it was just forgetfulness maybe, or not knowing the like Byzantine administrative requirements, or something like that. There were also some of them, you know, that thought they weren’t good enough to get a fellowship or something like that. But the thing is like, there’s so much arbitrariness in how these things are evaluated. You have no idea whether you’re good enough or not. Let the committee tell you you’re not good enough, you know. Always apply for whatever it is.
32:53 Trevor: And the last one we’ve already kind of alluded to a couple of times in some of the habits we talked about. But I think there’s a really serious tendency to discount small but frequent expenses. So, you know, one $10 on-campus lunch, not a big deal. But if you’re doing that four days a week for a 15-week semester, suddenly like that’s over a thousand dollars a year that you’re spending, you know, buying lunch on campus, as opposed to what you could be doing, which is just taking a few minutes in the morning, packing a sandwich and whatever else and handling things that way. So, I would say, you know, we’re not great at that kind of arithmetic, like human beings just aren’t wired that way to sort of aggregate those small expenses over really long periods of time. But you’ve got to fight that habit and recognize that that stuff does make a difference.
33:45 Emily: I love all those examples so much. I mean, they really all are about as you were just saying, like mindset and habits. And I think that, you know, they’re especially impactful for someone at the kind of stipend level that you were at, right? Like, I mean, you were able to do quite a bit of savings, but it was still a low stipend overall during that period. And so, it absolutely makes such a difference as you were just saying to go into that situation with believing that there’s something financially possible for you above living paycheck to paycheck. I mean, of course, we all know grad school is very difficult financially, for some people more so than others. But like you said, if you never even think that it’s a possibility to get out of that, you definitely never will. I guess I’ve heard the phrase, like whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.
34:35 Emily: This can be applied generally. I don’t think that’s quite true at the graduate student level because many graduate students may believe that they can, but they still can’t just because of circumstances. But the opposite is definitely the case. If you don’t believe that you can get out of the paycheck to paycheck cycle, you absolutely won’t no matter what your circumstances are. So I’m so glad that you brought up those points and I hope that, you know, current and entering graduate students will take note of all three of them.
Navigating Savings and Loan Repayment Post-PhD
34:59 Emily: So, now that you’re on the other side of the PhD and you’re in your postdoc, how does the way that you handled your finances during your PhD affect your life? You know, did you end up having to use the savings during a job search? Or how did it work out?
35:14 Trevor: After it, yeah. So when I was in my last year of graduate school, I wound up getting a postdoc at the University of South Florida, which is where I went and spent two years in Tampa. And now I’m at another postdoc at Ohio State. So I didn’t wind up having to dip into savings to navigate any employment gap, which was very fortunate. I was very happy to have that money on hand though, because I was able to really pay off my loans very quickly as a result. And I was also able to pay off my car. So I think that all my loans and the car were both paid off by the end of like December of 2018 or no, was it 2019? I don’t remember, before I finished up at Florida. The December before I finished up at Florida. And that was obviously very satisfying. Now, like the money that I’m saving is mainly going into like an investment portfolio which is something I wasn’t thinking about at all during graduate school. But, you know, as time goes on, your financial goals and what you’re trying to do have to change with your circumstances,
36:14 Emily: I’m wondering why you chose to pay off the debt during that first postdoc, both the car and your student loans, when you could have worked on those earlier, instead of having such a large cash cushion? What was the calculus there?
36:29 Trevor: One was medical emergency. Wanting to have money on hand in case something like that happened. That never happened to me personally, but there were peers I had to whom that happened. And I wanted to be prepared for that possible contingency. I had no reason to think I was high risk. But some of them didn’t, either. And so, that was part of it. I actually did pay off one of the loans while I was in grad school. I could have theoretically paid off all of them. I don’t know how much of a dent it would have taken in that like 35 grand or whatever I had when I was leaving, but it would have been substantial. The other thing I learned is that I didn’t know how much the moving expenses would be, but because of the delay in getting my first paycheck in Tampa and because of other moving-related expenses, you need around five grand as a minimum to do the kind of move that I did and not be in kind of a tough situation.
37:30 Trevor: You also got to put down security deposits, pay, you know, at least one, I had to pay two months rent without any paychecks in Florida, because I was delayed getting into the system. You know, stuff like that. So, the short answer is, I don’t know if it was necessarily the right call. Like some of those loans though, the interest wasn’t running until I graduated. So for those at least, I’m sure it was fine. But I’m honestly not sure looking back if that was like the financially optimific way to do it, but that was the rationale.
Any Financial Regrets?
38:00 Emily: Yeah. I’m not trying to criticize your decision. Just wondering, like, as someone who held onto the cash for so long, why were you able to let go of it at that point? But having loans actually start accruing interest is a great reason to kick into the repayment mode instead of just save the cash mode. Do you have any financial regrets from graduate school?
38:23 Trevor: I think that any financial regrets I would have would be tied to the choice to get a humanities PhD in the first place, right? Because there’s an opportunity cost with going to grad school, right? Like, I’ve got plenty of friends in non-academic positions who during the time that I was in graduate school, they got a certain degree of career capital, such that when I was getting my PhD, they were like getting promoted or something like that. But insofar as I, you know, don’t regret getting a PhD or having one, I don’t regret the financial circumstances I’m in.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
38:58 Emily: Yeah. Thank you for pointing that out. We sometimes overlook the most important financial decision, which is whether to go to graduate school or not. So yeah. Thank you for that. Well, Trevor, I’ve enjoyed this conversation so much, and I think that, you know, it’s been really valuable for the listener as well. As we’re wrapping up, the question that I ask all my guests is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And that can be something that we’ve touched on already in the interview, or it could be something completely else.
39:25 Trevor: I’ll just reiterate one short little low-hanging fruit point, which is don’t take out loans to get a degree in the humanities. But that one I’ve already mentioned. The less obvious one I think might generalize across all PhDs is you have to take initiative with your finances because you’re not going to get any feedback from anyone that you’re interacting with about them. So, think about like if I was in a seminar and I wrote a crappy term paper. I would be told that I wrote a crappy term paper and I would be made aware of that and be given suggestions for improvement. But if I made a bad financial decision, no one would know. There’d be no feedback, no graduate advisor is going to be like looming over you to make that kind of decision, which means that you have to self-police pretty much entirely.
40:13 Trevor: No one’s going to give you, you know, any kind of pushback even if you’re making like poor choices or suboptimal choices, repeatedly. And so the only way to kind of keep to avoid that is you have to take the initiative yourself and you have to make some effort, you know. Whether that means making a spreadsheet of all your expenses and tallying them, or just repeatedly like logging into your accounts and checking where your expenses are going or what deposits are being made. Whatever it is, whatever you have to do, like do it because no one else is going to push you in that direction.
40:55 Emily: Such an interesting point. As you were making that, well, one, I thought of the phrase, no one cares about your money as much as you do, which is kind of a truism, but yeah. And the other one is, you know, generally for Americans, like we’re pretty much on our own like financially in a lot of respects with the, you know, pensions being almost non-existent. Social security, yes, it exists. How reliable is it? We don’t know. It’s not that well-funded anyway. It’s not like you get that much money. So in general, Americans are pretty well on their own financially, but the situation is intensified during graduate school because your employer is not giving you the retirement benefits. They’re not giving you certain kinds of insurance. Like unemployment insurance, for example, if you’re a student, I’m pretty confident is not being paid in for you. So other examples like that of just like sort of social safety net kind of stuff. Also, you’re not paying into social security or Medicare. Social safety net stuff is like, we’re kind of exempted from it as students, which is a little bit odd. Especially when you’re getting into your late twenties and thirties, maybe even forties, and you’re still, you know, in PhD training. It’s such an interesting point. So yeah, while Americans in general have to kind of captain their own ship in this, it’s like even more so during graduate school because yeah, your employer is not doing anything for you.
42:13 Trevor: Yeah. That’s an interesting set of observations. Your situation as a graduate student is just very weird and very financially perilous for so many reasons.
42:22 Emily: Yeah. Gosh, well, Trevor, I’m so glad to have gotten your insight on this interview, and I’m really glad that you, you know, had the experience you did in graduate school and all the things that we’ve talked about today and it was positive overall and you got that nice, healthy, you know, nest egg by the end. And yeah, I wish you all the best and thank you so much for volunteering for this.
42:41 Trevor: Sure, thanks Emily. It was good talking with you. And I hope my story can help some other people in the humanities who are struggling. I mean, there were some advantages that went my way. You know, I don’t care how good you are with your money. You’re not making a 15 grand stipend work in New York or LA. So, Knoxville was really good for that. But as I said, you know, don’t fall into that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t just assume that your destiny, as a humanities PhD is to live paycheck to paycheck. It doesn’t have to be that way for everybody.
43:11 Emily: I think that’s a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much.
43:15 Trevor: Thanks, Emily.
Listener Q&A: 1098-T
43:15 Emily: Now, on to the listener question and answer segment. Today’s question was asked in advance of a live webinar I gave recently for a university client. So, it is anonymous. Here is the question. Quote: is the form 1098-T accurate? I am confused by it. End quote. I loved the simplicity of this question. I think my conclusion on this is that the form 1098-T is accurate, but it probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. It’s not really trustworthy. The sums in chiefly box five and box one of the form 1098-T draw from the transactions in your student account. So one of the reasons that you shouldn’t take form 1098-T at face value is that not all of your awarded income and not all of your qualified education expenses might have been processed by your university’s student account.
44:23 Emily: You could have awarded income that completely bypassed your student account and just landed in your bank account thanks to some kind of external funding agency. You also could have incurred some expenses that your university did not process. So in that sense, the form 1098-T includes some awarded income and some qualified education expenses, but not necessarily all of them. You still have to critically evaluate your own actual cashflow situation to see the totality of the picture. The other way that the 1098-T maybe doesn’t mean what you think it means is that box one of the 1098-T reflects payments received for qualified tuition and related expenses. That might sound like the same term as qualified education expenses, which is used elsewhere by the IRS, but they’re not quite the same. The sum reported on your 1098-T in box one might be all of the qualified education expenses you can use to make your awarded income tax-free, or it might not. More likely not.
45:34 Emily: There are several education expenses that are considered qualified education expenses for the purpose of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free that would not be included that are explicitly not to be included in box one of the 1098-T. So, if you incurred those kinds of transactions, even if they show up in your student account, they’re not going to be in the sum reflected in box one of the 1098-T. Therefore, once again, you can’t take box one of the 1098-T at face value. You have to go into your student account and really look at all the transactions that occurred there and figure out whether or not they’re qualified education expenses for the benefit that you are taking. Bottom line, the 1098-T has some issues. And the IRS knows about these issues.
46:27 Emily: And the IRS knows that you may be using qualified education expenses to make some of your scholarship and fellowship income, or what I call awarded income, tax-free that’s not reflected on the 1098-T, and that’s okay. The IRS is aware that this can happen. So the form 1098-T is not given a whole lot of weight when we’re talking about the particular benefit of making scholarship and fellowship income tax-free. It’s given much more weight for the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Tuition Fees Deduction, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. But those are less often used by funded graduate students. If you want to learn more about the expenses that could be qualified education expenses that you can use to reduce your taxable income and reduce your tax liability that do not show up on form 1098-T in box one, you can join my tax workshop, How to Complete Your Grad Student Tax Return (And Understand It, Too!). You can find more information about that at pfforphds.com/taxworkshop. Thank you to Anonymous for this beautifully phrased 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.
47:50 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for The Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episode show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast, and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest and submitting a question for the Q&A segment. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington Bear from the free music archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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