Living on a Grad School Budget

First-year graduate student Pauline Blaimont (PhD, Ecology & Earth Evolutionary Sciences) talks about what it takes to live on a graduate student's budget.

January 20, 2014

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Pauline moved to Santa Cruz from Anaheim, CA after graduating with a B.S. in Biology from California State University, Long Beach
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Pauline currently works in Dr. Barry Sinervo’s Lab studying maternal effects in the side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), specifically how they affect brain development and behavior. 

Moving to Santa Cruz came with a lot of firsts: first time living on my own, first time away from friends and family, and possibly the biggest of all, first time being responsible for my own finances (grocery shopping, rent, utilities, etc.). Living at home was easy; rent was covered, phone and utilities were covered, and I had two jobs to pay for my car and have fun with my friends. Moving to Santa Cruz was a HUGE shock, especially seeing as it is already an expensive place to live. Receiving a stipend at the beginning of a quarter and making it last until the next time aid was disbursed while having to cover my living expenses was difficult., particularly if you switch from a fellowship to a TAship. You don’t get paid for TA-ing until the end of the first month meaning your stipend will have to last an extra month into your TA quarter. My first quarter was very difficult. I had to pay for the move, pay rent, pay a security deposit, pay for new furniture and apartment necessities (coffee maker, toaster etc. these things add up!) and before I knew it my savings was gone. I wish I had sat down and financially planned my life better before moving, taking into account my financial aid and all my expenses and limiting myself because by December I was dipping into my credit card rather heavily with the holidays and everything.

How does one combat such an issue which at first felt so out of my control? I have become so much more conscious of finances and planning for the future, something I never did. I don’t regret my first quarter monetary struggles because it taught me a lesson, it taught me to cut coupons, to ask for grocery store gift cards/gas gift cards for holidays, to really think “Do I need this?” “Can I afford to go out?” sometimes the reality check is hard when your friends are able to go out to dinner, especially for me who was used to getting paychecks from two jobs rather consistently and living a life where I could afford to go out in undergrad. There are ways around these issues that are much more economically friendly. For example, my cohort holds potlucks once a week at a different person’s house. Everyone spends on average $5 bringing a dish and we can spend time with each other without those financial burdens of going out. So if your cohort/friends aren’t doing this yet perhaps it is time for you to initiate the first one! I also now know things I didn’t know when I first moved out, such as how much I have to spend on average monthly for groceries (approximately $40 a week seems to get me by eating mostly chicken and other inexpensive items) which allows me to plan ahead much more effectively.

Another thing that requires planning is summer, the stipend is in general MUCH less over the summer, so trying to put aside X amount of money every month is important to plan for those summer months when the money will flow to a trickle. Unfortunately, for grad students in the sciences with field seasons that can’t always be planned perfectly ahead of time. A job on the side is rare so making that extra income isn’t always an option which is why budgeting what you have from financial aid might be the only way, this is something to keep in mind throughout the year. 

Overall, living on my own and being financially responsible has resulted in a lot of big lifestyle changes for me, but I think they are good changes and from here on out I will be more financially conscious, and hopefully so will you!

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