August gets a lot of us thinking about what we should do to prepare for “back to school.” I work on a university campus, and before that I was a student for seven years…I’m always calibrating my life on a semester-by-semester basis. Part of me really likes that because each year (especially in August) feels like a “fresh start” much like every January does for the rest of the world. Much like those who set goals every January, I like to set research goals AND money goals for every school year…and that was especially the case when I was a student.
Let’s be honest, graduating with that degree debt free is more like finding a unicorn, but I suppose it is possible. What is more possible is that you are able to reduce your living expenses while you’re in school so you can finish with as little debt as possible. As an undergraduate student, I lived on around $8,000/yr. As a grad student the first time, I lived on around $10,000/yr. I was able to finish my BA and first MA 100% debt free, but I’m a bit of a unique case though, and here’s why:
- For undergrad: my family’s income was low enough that I received both federal AND state funded grants for school–this effectively covered all of my tuition and fees (these grants have not kept up with the climbing cost of education and no longer cover everything). For half of my room and board my first two years, I had a little help. I recognize this method isn’t possible anymore, and I recognize my privilege here.
- For grad school: I was in an Accelerated Master’s Program (completing 1/3 of my first MA when I was enrolled in my undergrad program). I also I worked in a graduate assistantship. When you work in a graduate assistantship, you get most or all of your tuition covered in exchange for working for the university for ~20 hours per week for a minimum wage (or slightly better) hourly pay rate. If you factor in that tuition benefit, you actually make quite a bit of money, just not enough money in cash that you may need to live on. If you’re considering graduate school or a PhD program, I strongly urge you to apply for an assistantship. It’s the number one reason I could finish my first program completely debt free.
Making mindful money goals to get through seven years of school (including graduate school twice) were important to survive any semester…especially since my goal was to graduate debt free, no matter the cost. Here are some things I did and that you can do to cut down on your own living expenses, which unlike tuition, you can have at least a little control over. These tips are realistic and easier to do than working 12-hour days. Not all of these can work for everyone, but hopefully you’ll be able to use some of these points to stay caught up on your bills.
Apply for food stamps.
Food insecurity is a big problem for those furthering their education, as 48% of community college students and 41% of four-year university students are food insecure. This number is likely higher due to under-reporting, and this issue personally affected me during my college years. In fact, I wouldn’t have survived grad school without this resource. As you will read below, I did a lot of crazy things for free food before I received these…including not eat a lot of the time. Here’s the website that discusses eligibility requirements for this program and here’s the link to the pre-screening tool to see whether you qualify. There’s no harm in trying and there’s no shame in using programs like SNAP to help you acquire quality food. As I said, using a program like this personally helped me get on my feet because I could use my grocery budget money on other things like an emergency savings fund for when shit hit the fan (and we all know it always does).
Become a Resident Adviser (undergrad) or a Resident Director (grad school).
I never did this, but one of my best friends from my undergrad years did this for two or three years in exchange for “free” room & board and a meal plan. I say “free” because you have to invest a lot of sweat equity and work your ass off for this (this will include 12+ hour days at times). I never had the desire to do this, but it’s honestly one of the most financially savvy moves any student with leadership skills can make. To learn more about this, visit your Housing and Residence Life Office (or equivalent) to find out about the process. I imagine you have to have at least some “dorm life” experience to qualify…so if you lived on campus your freshman year and this is your jam, see if you snag an interview after you submit an application.
Live close-ish to campus.
If becoming an RA isn’t realistic because you know you’d rather be asleep at 10pm every night, and if living with your folks isn’t an option because they’re too far away or you’ve got a family of your own, then live as close to the part of campus where most of your classes are as possible. It may cost you a little more in rent than living an hour or so away, however, living close to campus also means you’re likely closer to other resources like grocery stores. Which brings me to…
Ditch the car and walk, bike, or take other public transportation.
This only works if you’re in a non-rural college town and don’t have a family to support because it isn’t realistic to bike 10 miles or walk down a highway to get anywhere that’s off campus. Car insurance is expensive, and then there’s car maintenance, yearly inspections, gas, property taxes, parking passes–all these little expenses add up if you’re trying to afford them on your own. Not having a car for a few years could actually save you thousands of dollars (even if you don’t have a car payment). You might not be “pocketing” this savings–but if you’re relying on student loans to fund your living expenses, that’s that much less debt that you’ll graduate with. If you’re living in a bigger city with really good access to public transportation of all kinds, definitely take advantage.
I bought my first car in cash (for $3500) when I started grad school at 22; I had spent the last four years scrimping and saving so that when I did graduate, I’d be able to have a car to get to whatever job I would get. I spent my entire undergraduate career either giving my friends gas money, walking to places, or taking the bus when I had the extra time. Thank goodness Uber wasn’t a thing then. I usually opted to walk. I was able to save money on food because I could only get what I was willing to carry the mile I lived from the store, so I usually only bought essentials. I could have asked for a ride from friends, but I was pretty stubborn and didn’t like to ask for help back then. I wanted to be “grown-ish” and independent, but one of the most important rules of adulting is learning that it’s okay to ask for help.
Get a food service job on campus.
Before I realized food stamps were a thing, I saved a TON of money on food by working at my university’s food court…and since I lived nearby, I had a very short commute time. I worked the opening shift at the campus Starbucks (6am-9:45am). I had a major Starbucks addiction back then and working here allowed me to get my fix for free. I worked as many days each week as possible because each day I worked I got a free Starbucks drink. On top of that, I got around $3.50 (called “a snack”) or $8.00 (“a meal”) worth of free “food court food” for each shift depending on how many hours I worked. I tried to work at least four weekdays each week (my food court was closed on weekends) so I would have four to eight meals covered…that is, if you count iced coffee with protein powder as breakfast (it totally doesn’t count by the way).
See if you qualify for Federal Work Study (undergrad only).
Check with your campus Financial Aid Office to see whether you qualify, and if you’re trying to take out as few loans as possible–this may be an option for you. These part-time on-campus jobs are only for students who meet eligibility requirements based on financial need. See this link for more details on FWS. This isn’t really a way to make bank since the allotted hours keeps decreasing, but it does give you professional work experience at your university/college that you can add to your Curriculum Vitae or resume.
Live with other people. Lots of people.
If you’ve ever lived on campus, you quickly get used to sharing a bedroom with another person. When I lived off campus in an apartment for the first time, I had one roommate in our two-bedroom place. What we should have continued doing was sharing a room and then inviting two more people to live with us. Although inconvenient and maybe even awkward at times, this could have drastically reduced expenses by as much as 50% (for four people in a two bedroom versus two people in a two bedroom). Some of my neighbors over the years had six people to a large two bedroom and they were smart for doing this. I actually followed this advice for six months during grad school and it really paid off. I only had to pay $~330 per month for rent and utilities when I did this. One caveat: I would only advise following this one if you live with a long-term partner and/or really good friends, otherwise it might backfire.
Get a side hustle, and if it relates to your future career, even better.
This one gets tricky because you have to know people in your community for this to work. In addition to my more steady income, I worked a few jobs for cash, but it was often variable or inconsistent income…and anything over $500 has to be claimed as income on your taxes officially. Working as a Research Assistant was my favorite. I served as an RA on four different occasions for four different professors at two institutions…I was able to use the skills I was learning throughout my degree programs and actually make money on the side and hone in on my research skills. This isn’t a way to make serious bank, but it’s a nice supplemental income.
During undergrad I would babysit, which would often come with dinner for me when I fed the kids (yay less groceries!) and sometimes a place to do laundry (bye laundromat!). All it takes is getting one family. If they love you, they will vouch for you for other families, and then you could start an actual side-hustle. The not-having-a-car thing was never a problem for the three families I worked with because I lived within five minutes of each of these families, but I can definitely see how it could be a problem if there’s an emergency.
BONUS TIP: Use EZ-Borrow and ILL for your textbook needs from your library.
Whether you’re a PhD student, a graduate student, or an undergraduate student–you likely understand the exorbitant cost of textbooks. One way to reduce this additional expense involves using your academic library. Your library may have access to a textbook loan program, where you can check out your book for a certain window of time. Your library most likely has access to a program called EZ-Borrow. See whether you can request some of your books through there–you can usually check them out for 4-8 weeks at a time, so the key to having a book you need all semester is to request a second copy after week 6 so it arrives in time to return the other one early.
Whatever your situation, setting money goals at the start of the school year will help you be intentional about how you’re spending your money. What are some crazy things you do to save money through grad school, or what are some things you did when you were a student? I’d love to learn more from others along the way.