Budgeting as a Grad Student 

By Lauren Hammond |

Graduate school can be difficult for many reasons. Aside from going to class, studying, preparing for exams, writing theses/dissertations, etc., one of the more challenging aspects of grad life is managing finances. Although saving money and avoiding debt may seem a far reach for anyone living off of minimal stipends and fellowships don't despair! It is possible to achieve financial stability as a graduate student. In what follows, I will discuss some strategies for accomplishing this.


[Image Description: George-Michael Bluth, from Arrested Development, lets his backpack fall from his hands before crumpling slowly to rest face-down on the carpeted floor.]

Pictured: You, whenever you think of your finances


Where to start?

First off, you have to determine what matters most. Once you have that figured out, then you can set your financial goals and management choices accordingly.


Create a Budget Worksheet

In order to determine what matters most to you, it is important to create a budget worksheet of some sort. To do this, I encourage you to begin by tracking where your money goes. Start by taking a look at your bank statements for the last month or two to see how you spend your money.


Your next step in mapping your budget is creating a list that notes your monthly income source(s) as well as expenses. Although spending habits vary depending on the person, below are some general expenses that most graduate students are likely familiar with.


Fixed Expenses

Making a list of your necessary fixed expenses is an easy place to start when planning-out your monthly budget. Relatively fixed expenses like rent, car payments, insurance, groceries, and other monthly bills like credit cards and utilities are things that you will need to cover. Recognizing that fixed expenses, commonly referred to as “need items,” will always be a part of your monthly money-spending scheme is important because you will want to prioritize these expenditures before moving on to secondary expenditures, savings, or debt repayments.


[Image Description: Joey, from Friends, holds a bill in his hand as he looks at Chandler sitting on the couch. "This is how much we pay for electricity?" Joey asks in horror. Chandler replies, "Well, yeah," prompting Joe to sprint to the light switch to turn off the lights, leaving them both in darkness.]

Pictured: A reasonable reaction after seeing your electric bill  


Here is a list of your possible fixed expenses to keep in mind when creating your budget worksheet:

  1. Rent
  2. Car Payment
  3. Vehicle/Renters Insurance (these are usually bundled in the same plan)
  4. Utility Bills (internet, cell phone, electricity, water, etc.)
  5. Groceries
  6. Bank Fees


Secondary Expenses

Secondary expenditures, like money for entertainment, recreational activities, and leisure services, are more varied but are still important to acknowledge when creating a budget map for yourself. These types of expenditures are typically considered “want items” and are less imperative than your fixed expenditures. Want items are expenses that are within your control, and ideally, you will want to work on reducing wasteful spending on things that aren’t necessities or “need items;” I mean, you can go without the second spa pedicure each month, but you can’t go without electricity.


Even so, “want items” are still relevant and essential to accommodate when budgeting your monthly spending, especially when promoting health and well-being. As a graduate student, you work very hard and deserve to treat yourself once in a while, and you can do so guilt and stress-free if you plan ahead.


[Image Description: Tom, from Parks and Recreation, stands with a fedora on his head and dark designer sunglasses on his face. He flicks a red and white striped scarf over his shoulders as he says: Treat yo self.]

Pictured: You, after properly budgeting for those "want items"


Here is a list of your possible secondary expenses to keep in mind when creating your budget worksheet:

  1. Hobbies or Recreational Activities
  2. Entertainment
  3. Eating Out
  4. Salon Services
  5. Personal Care Items
  6. Clothes and Shoes

If You Are Trying to Save

In order to help you save money, examine your budget and consider which fixed costs could be potentially adjusted and which secondary costs you can cut without it affecting your overall well being. For example, when it comes to fixed expenditures like electricity, there are usually programs that will offer low cost, fixed monthly payments for lower-income households. I suggest applying to these programs whenever available – it never hurts to try!


Secondary expenses, on the other hand, can be cut down much more readily. For instance, set a reasonable budget that allows you the opportunity to spend X amount of money on eating out with friends each month - just be sure to not exceed that limit!


[Image Description: Kandi, from The Real Housewives of Atlanta, holds up a hand to emphasize her point as she says, "I'm on a budget."]

Pictured: The wise voice inside your head


Also, being aware of free services on your campus can really help you cut-down either cost types. If you are trying to save on groceries, for example, UCR’s R’Pantry is a great opportunity to save on minimal food and personal care items. The R’Pantry is open several times a week during the summer, and students are allotted 10 points each week to spend on whatever items they choose. Most items are a single point, but there are also items that cost zero points (like fresh produce), so your monthly savings from food budgeting could really add up! And if you are looking for something that offers socializing and free snacks and coffee, you can always attend the weekly Coffee Socials hosted by Grad Success.

Additional Support to Help You Stay on Track

[Image Description: Leslie looking at Ann, from Parks and Recreation, speaking emphatically, eyes wide and stressed as she says, "I need you to text me every 30 seconds saying that everything is gonna be ok."]

Pictured: What you want your budgeting apps to do for you


Using a finance app that tracks your monthly spending can be really helpful if you need extra support, especially when you are just getting started. If your banking services don’t already offer an in-app money tracker, below are some options that you might find helpful followed by a breakdown of each program’s offerings:

  1. Mint
  2. PocketGuard
  3. Wally

Mint is a free online budgeting tool with a bill tracking system. It is known for its versatility that creates budgets for users but also allows users to adjust automated entries so that they can create their own limits and categories. In addition, users receive reminders for upcoming bills and warnings for when funds are low.


The PocketGuard system is another popular, free money managing tool that offers an easy setup by allowing users to link to outside bank accounts, credit cards, and billing services. The system then automatically builds a personalized budget based on a user’s income, bill pay, and savings goals. The PocketGuard app actually shops better deals for users’ monthly service costs to help them save money.


Wally has a free version of its money-saving app that is available for iPhone and Android. This app not only helps users compare income to expenses, but it also helps users understand where their money goes so that they can achieve their savings goals. 


Taking Action and Planning Ahead

Once you have created your budget and savings plan, give yourself some time to adjust to your new lifestyle.  At the beginning of every pay period, you will want to match your spending to your income and to decide how you will allocate the funds from each paycheck; this won’t take long since you have already taken the time to create a budget worksheet. You should ask yourself: Have I covered my necessities? Have I made payments towards any debt? Have I set aside money for savings and fun?


Also, being aware of seasonal expenses (like for school, clothes, memberships, etc.) will be important if you are trying to stay ahead of your spending. For instance, you can estimate how much you need to spend on books each quarter and adjust your monthly budget worksheet to set aside the appropriate amount of money over several weeks.


Hopefully, you found the above tips helpful. Keep in mind that managing finances can be a difficult, seemingly impossible task; however, your entry into graduate school means that you have the skills necessary to succeed when it comes to your budgeting goals. All it takes is time management, organization, and perseverance.