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Preparing for the unexpected costs


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Hi all, I want to start a thread so newly accepted grad students can learn what costs we should expect when first starting grad school that we may not think about and hopefully get some advice on how to afford it.

For example, while I have been graced with a fully funded T.A. position with 9 credit/hours coverage per semester I still have to pay for fees, relocation, books, supplies(?), etc. One thing that initially scared me was that I have to pay for university fees per credit hour. This was confusing to find out and took a long phone convo with university staff to sort through what an out of state student will pay the uni fee wise (not tuition). This includes technology fees, athletic fees, health, capital improvement trust fund etc. This comes out to about $100 per credit hour or $900 per semester!

I don't come from a family of great wealth but I know I will be able to scrape together enough money to pay this off until the T.A. paychecks start rolling in. 

But what other costs may newbie grad students not know they have to budget for and does anybody have advice for paying for them/saving money when you are on one hell of a tight budget?

Edited by bandanajack
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An anecdote: I got accepted to a program with partial funding, which I thought covered 50% of tuition. However, after talking to a current student, I found out that the program's mandatory summer workshop was not included. I would have been on the hook for almost $7,000, and the workshop does not qualify students for federal aid. This was one reason I decided to pass up the offer.

In short, make sure you ask questions!

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  • 3 weeks later...

I've gotten admission to my top choice and while there's a stipend, it'll definitely be a bit of a struggle since I'm financially independent of my parents (we're poor, basically). To make it worse, it's a typical PhD stipend on an LA cost of living budget, so I'm definitely gonna have to stretch out that cash like crazy. Thankfully I got a job out of college, and I've been saving, so I have enough to move to LA and get a cheap place. This is a bit of a jumble of information, but here it is:

-Be VERY realistic and honest with yourself on how much you can afford. I had lofty dreams of getting my own apartment, but I have a max $1000 budget on rent, which includes utilities, so I'm gonna have to suck it up and live with a roommate. Especially for that initial move, if you're not from the area, make the best of your situation until you've relocated and your finances are stable again, then revisit if that's an option. 

-Penny pinch as much as you can to save up for the move/change, especially during the first month, where the stipend will most likely be late because, life. That, and putting down a deposit, first (and maybe even last) month's rent, maybe more if your credit is bad, plus utilities and recurring expenses need to be considered, so 100% have that in your budget. I usually go for the worst case scenario when figuring out how much I need for something, just so I'm prepared

-Reach out to your programs for help, especially if you're from a marginalized community, talk to the financial aid office or office for diversity to see about potential fellowships/assistantships you could be eligible for, or whether they offer reimbursement if you're moving from somewhere really far (which is rare, but it doesn't hurt to ask!)

-To reiterate what @feralgrad mentioned, make sure you understand your stipend package, what it covers, how the money is disbursed, if you need to do TAships or not as part of your stipend, etc. Not only could that significantly impact your decision or ability to accept an offer, but you also know up front what opportunities you can maximize with certain things paid for

-INCLUDE TAXES IN YOUR MONTHLY EXPENSES!!! Because you are receiving a stipend, you will be exempt from social security and medicare tax. HOWEVER, a stipend is still considered taxable income, so you will owe the IRS money, BUT it's not deducted upfront, so essentially your stipend isn't taxed...yet. That means that for every paycheck, you need to figure out how much tax is owed and set that money aside to pay when your taxes are due. There's a bunch of websites where you can calculate an approximate amount. You don't want to be in a situation where come April, you owe the government thousands of dollars in tax, and no way to pay it. Probs open a savings account for it, and automate the deposits, that way you won't miss money you didn't know you had

-Excel is your friend. Or whichever app you can use to trace your money. It's always a good idea to pre-allocate money to non-negotiables, like rent, utilities, groceries, etc. Eat in more than you go out, look for things to do for free, if your campus has an undergrad campus, they're probably having free food at events (take advantage). Don't live beyond your means for the sake of "living it up". Learn to cook basic stuff, and plan your meals before going to the grocery store, so you don't buy more food than you'll need (that'll end up going bad). Non-perishables are often cheaper in bulk. Save money and cut costs where you can. 

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I agree with all the advice that has been given so far. One thing I wanted to add was to make sure you know exactly what you can expect for income for each semester. In my program tuition is always covered and then we get a TAship for our funding package,  but the TAship is only 2 semesters and my program is year round. If your income may vary by semester it’s a good idea to plan ahead and save so that you have enough to get through the lower income semesters (or find another source of income for those semesters). I tend to not only budget by month, but also semester and year.

Other advice I have, and this varies by school and program, but I would recommend networking and getting to know faculty in your program because you never know who might end up needing a research assistant and they might think of you. A prof in my department needed a couple students to do a lit review because he needed to use up his grant funding for the year and none of his PhD students could do it so he asked a couple of my friends. I’m also an RA on a project because the prof heard from one of her students that I was really interested in the area of research and recommended me. Networking is a very real tool my friend. It also doesn’t hurt to scan your school’s job site. I have one friend who makes a bunch of extra money doing marking for various departments and classes that don’t have TAs. My point is that often there are extra jobs for grad students around for those who seek them out. (And they usually pay pretty good, the things I’ve mentioned were $25-$30 and hour).

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