From the Science Student Council

Tips for broke graduate students

Make the most of a meager budget.

By Noreen Watson

Although the brunt of many jokes, the notion of being a poor graduate student is something many of us know all too well. There is rarely a month, week or even day that we do not think about financial matters and how we will manage ours. Although we can (and often do) use student loans to supplement our stipends, most of us do not want to leave graduate school with a lifetime of debt ahead of us. So, we do the best we can to budget and save and are always looking for new ways to make the few dollars we do have go further (without relying on ramen noodles for sustenance). Listed here are several ways that graduate students manage their funds — you probably know many and use some, but we hope that you can find a few here to add to your repertoire.

Home and necessities 

  • Consider getting a roommate — you can split the rent and the bills (and possibly even carpool). 

  • Avoid unnecessary costs. Make a list of all the things you pay for on a regular basis (e.g., rent, electricity, gas, credit card bills, food/groceries). Then get rid of the unnecessary items. For example, consider doing without cable — there are many ways to get cable TV online (e.g., Hulu, Netflix). Also consider cutting bottled water, coffee from the coffee shop, watering your lawn, spa services or even internet. If you live close enough to campus, consider trading in your car for a bike. Not only would this save you  gas and insurance costs, but it would be a way to get in some extra physical activity.

  • Steer away from new furniture. You can usually find great pieces of furniture at thrift stores, yard sales or on craigslist. 

  • Shop smart. Plan your meals ahead of time, build a grocery list around the weekly sales at your local grocery store, and don’t go shopping on an empty stomach. Then, stick to your list; if an item is not on your list, don’t put it in your cart. Buy staples in bulk and stock up if they are on sale (think: toilet paper, soap, toothbrush, toiletries, oats, pasta, canned goods). Finally, try switching to generic brands — you may be pleasantly surprised with generic brands of many items (e.g., contact lens solution and soap). On a related note, consider making it a general rule to follow sales. For example, when buying clothing, only buy items that are at least 40 percent off. Just remember, this does not mean that you should buy something just because it is 40 percent off. 

Travel and conferences 

  • Conference hotels are typically not the cheapest lodging choices, even if you do split a room with other students. Nearby hotels are also options, but if you want to save even more, consider hostels, couchsurfing or airbnb. Students almost always have great things to say about these alternative options — just be sure to check the reviews of any place before making a commitment. 

  • Pack light. You can avoid having to pay baggage fees if you can fit everything in your carry-on. 

  • Volunteer at a conference. Not only is this a good networking opportunity, but volunteering will often waive some of your registration fees or allow you to attend a workshop or seminar for free. 

  • Plan your meals ahead of time and bring your own snacks. Additionally, becoming familiar with scheduled social events ahead of time can be extremely helpful as many of them provide food or refreshments. 

  • Apply for awards. You will never know if you are competitive for an award if you don’t try. In addition to looking into award opportunities through your department and graduate school, also look into conference-specific travel awards and scholarship, grants and awards offered by APA and related organizations.

Other tips from the trenches

  • Create a budget and stick to it. There are a couple of ways to do this. Some students swear by creating a budget and using cash for most of their expenses. Each month, divide your money into labeled envelopes (e.g., groceries, dining, entertainment) and use that cash for your purchases. Once the cash is gone, it’s gone. It is much more difficult to shift your budget when you are using cash than a debit or credit card. If this isn’t your style, utilize free budgeting apps such as mint.com, Visual Budget or Pocket Expense. 

  • Consider going to a cosmetology school for haircuts and salon services. It may take longer, but a $5 haircut is worth it. 

  • Take advantage of student discounts. Although some student discounts are advertised, many are not. To start, do a Google search for student discounts in your area. We also recommend calling ahead and specifically asking about student discounts at a variety of places (e.g., insurance companies, phone companies, FedEx, auto repair shops). Many franchises also offer small student discounts that are not advertised (e.g., Chipotle, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Buffalo Wild Wings). 

  • Avoid eating too much. Not only is this an unhealthy way to eat, but having leftovers from take-out or dining out can definitely help to get the most out of your money. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra for things that won’t cost you. 

  • Avoid buying new textbooks. Find used copies of the books you need online. You may also consider asking to borrow books from someone who has already taken the class (especially if you know you will not need or want the book after the class is over). 

  • Use punch cards or rewards cards whenever they are available — you can usually get a free meal out of it eventually. 

  • Credit cards. If, like most of us, you find that you need a credit card, choose one with rewards that will be helpful in the future. Instead of putting everything on a Banana Republic card and getting rewards for clothing, opt for a card from an airline company (e.g., Southwest, JetBlue) that will allow you to get free miles for buying things you need anyway, or a card with cash rewards. Additionally, try to use your credit card like a debit card to avoid racking up excess debt — only spend what you know you have. 

  • Ask for practical gifts on birthdays and holidays. Some ideas include an oil change, gift certificates for grocery stores, Amazon gift cards, gas or restaurants, statistical software, gym memberships, exercise equipment or a few months’ supply of toiletries. 

  • Utilize discount websites such as Groupon or LivingSocial.  

  • Consider participating in a research project. Oftentimes, participants are compensated for their time or can be entered into a raffle. 

It would be difficult to adopt all of these practices as many of them do not go hand-in-hand, but we hope you can take from these ideas what works for you.

Noreen Watson is the health psychology representative on the APA Student Science Council. She is a doctoral student at Texas Tech University.