Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Graduate school and money : what I would do differently now

I think very few people make it to the end of a PhD as the same bright eyed and energetic student they were when they entered. Much of graduate school is jumping through hoops and stroking other people's egos. More generally, it is a draining experience that often rewards the less deserving and more apparently mediocre of its students.

I say all of this because despite my best efforts to be a cynical as possible, I entered my PhD program as a naive 20-something convinced that I would almost immediately do two things a) develop an innovative research career and b) lower my debt. I was here for almost 4 years before I made any headway on either of those goals.

My research career is a story for another time and different blog. I did manage entirely eliminate almost 20K in consumer debt in 2 years, and another 15K in student loan debt over the next 2 years. I would have been able to do both much sooner had I made better decisions at key moments.

Looking back - if I could change the past, I would do the following:

Lived with roommates longer

I lived with roommates during my first year in a PhD program. My first roommate was a 70 year old woman with an anxiety disorder and a dying dog with serious bowel problems. I guess that burnt me pretty badly, because when my second set of roommates (who were wonderful in every way) decided to move into a two bedroom, I decided to rent a studio. If I could back, I would have gotten over my strange city/what if apartment smells like dog diarrhea anxieties, looked for a new roommate and put the extra cash on my debt.

Paid off my credit cards before the first day of class

Self-explanatory. I did this ahead of my Masters. I put every dime I made the Summer after I graduated from my BA on my credit cards and cleared my debt. Ahead of my PhD, I bought a laptop on credit and about 12 pairs of discounted shoes that year. Big mistake.

Applied to schools with substantial graduate housing

I can't tell you how badly I wish I had the opportunity to live in graduate housing. A few schools in NYC have graduate housing, and the rent runs between 500-800 a month.

Gone over funding offers with a fine tooth comb

My particular graduate program has a bad habit of verbally offering money and not delivering when the student arrives. Actually, they have a very bad habit of offering money on paper and revoking it based on standards that neither the student nor most of the faculty understand. I did not have money revoked, but I certainly did not receive the money I was promised. As a result, I always had to have many "second" jobs which delayed my progress and ran up my debt. If I could go back, I would have been more confident that I was an asset to a PhD program and either demanded my money, or gone elsewhere.

Considered professional training (i.e. Medical, Law or Business school)

Did you know that there are MDs out there winning grants and practicing science while earning salaries between 100-500K? My starting salary will be about 37K for a post-doc and about 60K for a faculty position - both less than what I made before I entered graduate school. MD training would have been a good financial option, even with additional student loans.

Set a monthly budget/used a web-based expenditure tracking system

Had I been more financially organized, I would have found the spare pockets of money to set up an emergency fund early.

Started an emergency fund immediately

Yup. I really should have done this, rather than hang on to my last pre-graduate school paycheque. I have since established an emergency fund in a savings account detached from my chequeing account. Since they are detached, I don't feel tempted to dip into my emergency fund unless it is really necessary because it takes a long time to transfer the money. This method works for me the way that freezing a credit card in a block of ice works for credit card junkies.

Set clear, obtainable financial goals earlier

My goals were always "lower debt", "save money". I really should have said "save this much by this date, by doing a, b, and c" and then checking my progress at every pay period.

Bought thrift store clothing

I ran up a lot of debt when I first moved to NYC. A lot of that money was spent on new clothing. I lost a lot of weight when I first got here (long hours, walking everywhere) so I needed jeans that would stay up and shirts that fit. I spent a lot of cash setting up an entirely new wardrobe. Thing is, I live in a city with the richest zip codes in the country and the most comprehensive thrift shops in the world. I now buy rich people's casts offs at Housing Works and buy almost everything but white t-shirts, underwear and runners on eBay. I save $100s in clothes and put that spare cash straight on my student loans.

So - what do we think? Are their any financial decisions you would redo if you could?

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