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Living Life on a Graduate Student Budget!

March 28, 2018

By Vanessa DeShane, Financial Literacy Counselor, Office of Student Financial Aid

I have completed two master’s degrees in my lifetime and fully understand the challenges of budgeting (and surviving) during graduate school.  Each experience was unique and presented itself with challenges particularly related to finances.  My first trip around the block was completing my Master of Studies (MST) in Education.  As any education major knows, it is difficult to balance classes, student teaching, building lesson plans, and life outside of school.  One major challenge is that students in education are often prohibited (or strongly dissuaded) from working full-time, or altogether, while in school.  Unfortunately, for me, I was unable to pay my rent, eat, and put gas in my car to get to my student teaching placements on student loans alone.  I ended up working a part-time job as a waitress in the evenings; This was tiring, as I often had to get up extremely early to get to school on time. 

My second time in graduate school, I did not work at all.  My program was new, unpredictable, and grueling, especially since I was doing my best to graduate early.  Again, I was challenged to live on a tight budget based on savings and student loans.  One saving grace, however, was that I was able to obtain a scholarship that covered 50% of my tuition.  Throughout these experiences, I did my best to borrow the bare minimum in student loans.  With interest rates upwards of 6%, I felt it was important to monitor my loan debt and do my best to keep it as low as possible.

So, what did I learn from these experiences? $20,500 a year (the unsubsidized loan limit) is not as much money as you think when the majority of it is going towards tuition.  Switching from full-time employment to full-time graduate student life means making sacrifices and changing your daily habits.  If you can, plan ahead!  I jumped into my first master’s degree with no forethought of how I would pay for it, which resulted in far less sleep and far more stress than necessary. Lastly, scholarships make all the difference, so apply for scholarships as often as you can to reduce your costs, and ultimately your loan debt.

These experiences, among others, are the reason I have focused my career on financial literacy for college students.  With that being said, I wanted to provide you with some tips for living life on a graduate student budget:

  1. Plan your budget well in advance: Do your best to plan out your expenses for the full semester or year ahead of time. Work with the Office of Student Financial Aid to determine your financial aid eligibility.  If you are receiving a refund to use towards expenses, think about that refund as 5 months of income.  For example, if you have a $5000 refund for the semester, you should consider that as having $1000 a month to put towards expense.
  2. Live with a roommate (or 2): Yes, it can be difficult to transition from being an independent adult living on your own to being back in a cramped apartment with roommates, but in the end, you are saving thousands on rent and expenses.
  3. Don’t live above your means: It may not be as fun to wear the same clothes, eat the same food, take the bus, or even cancel your Netflix. Nevertheless, think about it as a short-term commitment to a long-term investment. Your degree program won’t last forever, so making small sacrifices while you are enrolled can reduce your expenses and overall debt in the long run.
  4. Eat at home: This one is very important! Groceries are cheaper than eating out for every meal.  If you don’t know how to cook, check out some Buzzfeed recipes on Facebook and teach yourself. If anything, it will give you a new skill, and maybe you’ll find that you are actually good at it. If you like to eat out because it gives you the opportunity to socialize with colleagues or classmates, consider hosting potlucks instead.  Having everybody cram into your small apartment might not be ideal; however, think about the great food and great memories (and the money you’ll save) by eating in instead of going to restaurants.
  5. Find “free money”: Look for scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, or any other means of reducing your costs or earning some extra money while you are in school. Even if you didn’t get a scholarship at the start of school, that doesn’t mean you can’t still get one later and finding an assistantship or fellowship will not only give you some cash in hand, but will also give you great real-world experience.

Finally, if you’re really having trouble figuring it all out, stop by and see me in SUB 1, it’s what I’m here for!

Editor’s note: Vanessa can be found in the Office of Student Financial Aid, on the ground floor of SUB 1. To contact her, please email her at vdeshane@gmu.edu or call her office at 703-993-2353.

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