Grad School Cost of Living

Jan 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So, I was talking to another professor at a SLAC last week and he thought that his students had some sort of misconception of graduate school and its compensation. Most of the kids he interacted had only one idea of grad school, "Get Paid To Learn & Play In The Lab." I think his frustration is that these kids had no concept of what they would get paid let alone the whole concept of cost of living. So to teach these little unlearned snowflakes, I'm going to give them an overview of my grad stipend and costs from last institution (so as not to give away my current one). So stop trying to make a bong out of a damn Pert Plus bottle and pay attention you undergrad noobs, I'm about to drop some grad school economics on you.

Okay, so to start off with I got paid a stipend of $23,000. I think this is somewhere around the average for graduate students so lets go with this. I'm not going to get into taxes because some stipends are designated as taxable and others are not, so you'll need to look into that yourself.

Health Care: So you'll be lucky if you can find a place that covers your health care costs, my last institution did not. It cost me around $1500 a year for a health plan that would not even cover a corrugated cardboard casket in case I died. We had no dental benefits, yet we were 100 yards from a dental school. Our plannly covered only major medical expenses and required us to use the university hospital which put us at the back of the line when dealing with you know normal patients.

Rent: I paid $700 a month for my apartment that was surrounded by you cockbites. But it was close and convenient to the university which had no official housing. If you can get into official housing you might want to do that but sometimes its not economically advantageous. Bam, that $8,400 a month gone. And obviously if you live in the NYC/DC area, you are going to be paying a lot more in rent.

Parking: This may come up for some of you, if you are in rural East Butnuckistan, then you don't have to worry about this. Your lucky, parking can get expensive very quickly.

Utilities: Since a lot of you scumbags have been living in a dorm for 4 years or 5 for our slower stupider crowd, you have no concept of paying a power or water bill. Utilities ran me around $125/month. That's around $1300 a year.

Insurance: Renter's Insurance, Car Insurance, Life Insurance...It all cost money. Renter's Insurance isn't bad, you can usually get a policy for like $150 for the year. My car insurance was about $75 a month, depending upon your car, coverage level, and how many DUI's you got while at Jamaica State University (Go Fighting Rastafari!). Annual costs for me? $1200

Cell Phone: Unless you send smoke signals to everyone, its going to at least cost you about $40 a month. If you are a smartphone using BOHICA, it ain't gonna be pretty. ~$500-1000 a year

Cable/Internet: Around $100 a month unless you can steal both. And lets face it if you are a grad student you really need home internet, I know you can get around it, but it definitely makes things much more easier if you have it.

Food: They don't serve free food everyday. I figure $175 a month to be a minimum food bill if you are eating decent and only cooking at home. Annual food cost for a hermit graduate student $2100.

Gas: Do you drive? It ain't cheap. Better hope you live close enough to walk or use public transit. Otherwise you are buying gas.

Entertainment: You can't sit in your apartment and stare at books or internet porn all day long, eventually you might want to see a movie, grab a beer, or if you aren't too ugly, go on a date.

Clothes: That's right, people wear clothes and clothes wear out.

Travel: Sure you can travel for conferences and meetings and grad school, but guess what? You are going to loose money. I'm still waiting to get reimbursed on travel from 4 months ago and that interest is just building on my credit card and my university doesn't give a rat's doodoo maker about it. Plus you won't get reimbursed for all your food expenses. Traveling is invaluable for networking and presenting your work but its going to cost you.

Stipend: $23,000
Healthcare: $1,500 (and it isn't very good)
Rent: $8,400 (your major expense)
Utilities: $1,300
Insurance: $1,200
Food: $2,100
Cell Phone: $750 (average price)

Bottom line:  This leaves you less than $8000 and you haven't:

-Satisfied any federal or state/local (if applicable) tax obligations.
-Don't have any gasoline or car expenses.
-Buy clothes.
-Go out to movies, bars, strip clubs, porn stores, you know the fun places.
-No cable TV or home internet.
-Need to buy books or supplies for grad school.
-And remember you aren't contributing anything to your retirement as well, not that you scumbags have even given any thought to that.

You are getting a living wage if you are smart and you stretch it, but its not going to be pretty. I'm not trying to scare you off from grad school, I just want to give you an idea as to what your finances are going to be like.

Can my readers give anymore feedback on the billz?

36 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    Sounds about right. I spent my later grad years having to convince young grad students that buying lunch every day and getting Starbucks every morning WILL come back to bite you...

  • Winter Toad says:

    It's been a while since I was in grad school. At the end, I had $12000 per year, taxed (but only lightly because it was not much more than the basic exemption). Tuition took away about $3000 of that. I had roommates, and my living expenses were much lower, $400 per month including utilities. No cell phone, if you had to reach me I was in the lab, pretty well all the time, and you could send me email which I would see within an hour. No health insurance costs, this was Canada. No car, I knew only one graduate student in the whole department who ever drove his car to the lab, the rest of us walked or took public transit. No Internet, but I had a modem I could use to connect to the departmental computers for text-based interaction. If I wanted to browse the web, I had to go to the university. I had a television for entertainment, but I was in student mode. You went home to eat, shower, and sleep, you made sandwiches for lunch, and you spent all your waking hours in the lab, weekends included.

  • Andrew Thaler says:

    We have a constant stream of professional masters students fresh from undergrad who rent out extra rooms. It's consistently shocking how many have had no idea that your actually have to pay for things like electricity, internet, and water.

    My personal favorite was one who tried to argue "well, I only drink bottled water, so I shouldn't have to pay for that." Yeah? You gonna fill the toilet with aquafina every time you flush?

    But advice number one: Be a landlord. Seriously, if you know you're going to be somewhere for 5 years, and you know that you'll have a stream of random tech's, interns, and shorter-duration grad students, make a deal with whoever actually owns the house. You offer to take care of finding tenants, they don't have to worry about the place for half a decade, and if your roommate sucks, you can evict them and pawn their stuff.

    • scicurious says:

      Other advice: Room with other grad/med students! They always pay the rent on time. And when you come home and REALLY need a drink, they are right there with you. 🙂 Had good experiences that way.

  • Andrew, you are totally right, some profs have a guest house behind theirs or a rental house that they rent to students and postdocs at a reasonable rate. This also works out as a solid investment for them as grad students don't usually welch on the rent like other tenants and with a steady steam of folks flowing through they really never have any vacancy.

  • Kelly Oakes says:

    As an undergrad $23000 (ok, i converted into £s for comparison - works out at just under 15 grand in case anyone was wondering) sounds like luxury! I live off roughly 2/3rds of that at the moment.

    of course, i don't have taxes or health insurance to pay. but renting in london is not cheap, and takes up about 2/3rds of my total living costs a year. when it comes to bills let's just say the amount of time i spend in uni is inversely proportional to the temperature outside (and in my flat - heating is also not cheap).

    on the other hand i manage to afford an iphone (imo its well worth the £35 a month to be able to do emails/internet in boring lectures and play angry birds..), and i eat relatively well as i cook a lot at home and make most things from scratch.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My stipend was $3000 a year and free tuition. I rode a bicycle, and my wife worked. There were no cell phones or Internet. I got dental work done at dental school, $11 for a gold crown. Turkey neck soup is not bad if you spice it up a little.

  • Bashir says:

    Seems similar to mine. Parking wasn't much of an issue because of the bus system which was great. Not having a car was very possible, if not preferable. I did not have any insurance other than health, and that was apparently a great deal (<100 per year). The big thing was travel. Those conferences can add up and the reimbursement process was very slow (for no reason).

    I have to link this (skip to 1:30 or so)
    There is a Cosby show moment for every occasion.

    • scicurious says:

      Yes, conferences will freakin KILL you. Have to stay in the expensive hotel, people make you go nice places for dinner, the beer is expensive. Argh.

  • Bashir, conferences are complex and you know what they say abou them, its takes 2-3 years to learn the system.

  • Dan Gaston says:

    Reimbursement for conference at my University is quite quick, in fact you can apply to have money for your conference advanced to you off of your PI's grant. I've never had to carry travel costs on my credit card for more then a month or two and that was for plane tickets that I purchased well before the conference.

    My stipend is cushier then most right now which is good, and stipends aren't taxable income here in Canada at all, which is good. But things were tight early in my PhD when I was still paying tuition and my stipend was lower then it currently is, very tight indeed.

    • Dan, I used to have a setup like that at my old uni but this one wants you to pay up and then they reimburse you. Its slow, stuff gets lost, some expenses get denied. I miss the old place they had a per diem system that based costs off of also how expensive an area was. Going to Paducah, KY, you get $60 a day per diem, going to NYC $100 per diem.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I had a $12K stipend as a grad student.... and had to walk uphill to the lab barefoot in the snow! Now get offa my lawn!

  • samantha says:

    Hmm. Still an undergrad, myself - but in the 10 years before I made it back to college, I was lucky if I was making $20k a year phone jockeying. And benefits were a fantasy.

    It's good to know that I'll be able to survive when I hit grad school. I'm all too aware of how to live poor.

  • Matt says:

    My best advice for incoming graduate students:
    Get a sugar-momma/sugar-daddy.

    My second best advice for incoming graduate students:
    Cook your own food and be smart about when/how you go out to bars

    • Its all about free food and happy hour specials. My wife (who has a good job) and I know to hit up the sushi place at happy hour to get half price rolls, I know the cheapest beer joint by our place, and the most inexpensive place nearby work to get lunch if I forgot mine at the apartment.

  • Wes says:

    Canadian anecdote for you:
    Stipend: $21,500 / year (about average; cost of living is lower in my city than, say, Toronto)
    Tuition: $6,500 (yes, we pay this every year until we finish our degree)
    Mandatory taxes: $800-$1200 (get the taxes back, but the EI and CPP are non-refundable)
    Leaves: $14,000

    Food: $300/month (no clue what you were eating to keep food at $150-$175/month; I like eating actual food with actual food stuff in it, as compared to cardboard mac & cheese - minimum of $75/week)
    Cable: $70/month
    Telephone: $22/month (VoIP, home phone only, no cell)
    Rent: $700/month
    Utilities: $150-$250/month (extra is for winter, when oil bills come knocking)
    = $15,504 (over 12 months)

    i.e. I don't quite break even every year. Tutoring silly undergrads gives me enough cash to make the difference. Our joke around the department is that "they pay us just enough to starve on". For most of us, even keeping our bills down to the levels listed here is challenging, and that leaves nothing for gas, insurance, clothes, dates, luxury items like razors, etc. 🙂

    Having said this, it's possible to live in cheaper living conditions than I do -- if you can get into the graduate residence system, they don't have the utility bill each month (integrated into their rent) which ends up saving them a lot of money. It's very competitive, though, and there aren't enough spots for everyone.

    • Liz says:

      Also Canadian (Toronto based here). I'm making $25k off scholarship + $6k from TAing but paying 8K in tuition. You should be coming out ahead on taxes at your pay rate (and stipends are considered "tax free" in my neck of the woods - T4A as opposed to t4 -I thought this was nation wide).

      I spend >$300 on food and $1100 on rent (boo) but only $30 on utilities. I don't have a car and probably only spend ~30/month on public transit. I tend to bike/walk everywhere

      I'm spending ~30k annually including tuition and pretty much breaking even

  • Jade says:

    My stipend was $10K /yr. I think I was still covered under my parent's health insurance for a while), no cable, no internet (if you had a computer, you had dial up). For the first few years of school we actually used a word processor to type papers at home.
    Bicycle to work...or the bus if it was raining.

    Good times!

    As for meals at conferences, that's a good time to discuss collaborations or results with your favorite company's latest products (or favorite journal/magazine) and get a great dinner on them!

  • leigh says:

    just wait until you meet the douchebag grad student who buys the brand new infiniti coupe and then takes out a loan for it, using student loans to make the monthly payments.

    hahahahahaha... anyway.

    i did a brief stint in hell BFE and parking still cost me an arm. i now live in the opposite of BFE and parking is free. riddle me that. the shit does not make sense. but my general rule is always assume parking permit is $$$.

    as if university insurance plans didn't suck enough, try adding a spouse. additional $750/month premium. kablam. now if there are two of you and just the one stipend... you find you wear a lot of t-shirts advertising the university name and not because you're so in love with the place.

    it's survivable. not necessarily enjoyable.

  • fizzchick says:

    For students: if you find a stipend that is lots higher than this, watch out. Some places (*cough* CA *cough*) give a stipend of $30K or so, which looks great until you realize that a) it bumps you into a higher tax bracket and b) you're expected to pay not tuition, but fees, which run ~$10K. So make sure to check what students in your program pay for fees. Sometimes it's only a hundred bucks or so a semester, but sometimes it's a lot more.

    Also, learn to cook! You will save so much money by cooking at home and brown-bagging it. See Scicurious' posts for recipes.

    • scicurious says:

      Aww thanks! Definitely recommend making loads of cheap stews and stuff. And eating LOTS of rice. Rice is WAY cheap. I would say that a $200/mo grocery bill for one person is NOT impossible.

      Also check farmer's markets for produce, they often sell it cheaper than grocery stores.

      • Sci we made a lot of chili or veggie stew in grad school. Oh and another cheap thing to do is dinner club every so often, where everyone brings a few things what would have been a simple meal turns into a feast fit for a PI!

  • Eugenie says:

    Yargh. So, my dept. isn't the only one plagued with insurance problems.... (ha ha) Grad students are considered part-time employees of the state, so we don't qualify for any benefits. Most students in the dept. can barely afford health insurance... and forget dental.

    My stipend is around $16,200 and apparently taxable, which sucks major cojones. I wouldn't normally afford health insurance, but luckily I'm able to stay on my parent's insurance plan until I'm 26 (whew). Our fees are waived, and tuition ends up being approx $1300 per semester- some lucky chaps can land departmental or university-wide fellowships that cover the cost of tuition.

    Thankfully, my U is in the middle of west bumblefuck, where rent is cheap, booze is cheap, gas is cheap (but you have to drive everywhere- city is NOT walkable). My dept is not on main campus so I get to save major bucks on parking (wo0hoo free parking!). I only keep the heat high enough to keep my pipes from freezing (currently freezing my ass off as I type...)- my last utility bill (electric + water) was under $40.

    My overall monthly budget is around $1200, which includes gas, utilities, rent, food ($150), booze, internet (cable is free with my apt), and iphone (bare-bones plan).

    But as a first year grad student who went from living on $3k a year (from undergrad research programs) to my current stipend, it wasn't that hard learning how to budget things. Check out for free budgeting stuff- it's helped me learn how to manage my funds.

  • Namnezia says:

    It's doable if you have a housemate...

  • UnlikelyGrad says:

    Dude, you pay $175/month for food? I can almost feed a family of 6 on that. Almost.

    Learn to cook cheaply. Buy in bulk, cook a whole bunch of stuff at once and stick it in the freezer. It's way cheaper than buying frozen dinners.

  • leigh says:

    oh yeah. and so that you don't wind up kicking your own ass daily as an equally brokeass postdoc:

    do not take out student loans if you can possibly help it, or minimize them to the greatest extent possible.

    the future you will be living on even less than the you who can't make ends meet without student loans. and there are no student loans after the defense.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:

    Agreed, mostly. At my Uni, the stipend is only $20K (taxable), but our insurance premium (10% co-pay on our major medicial - through Uni only, no vision/dental) and tuition are paid by the Uni as long as we're employed. This was double what I made as an undergrad working 60 hour weeks in the summer and 20-30 hour weeks during the semesters, so I thought I was set. Riiiiiight...

    Rent is definitely the most expensive thing I spend money on, and I gave up a lot of nice things I could have had in an apartment to get the one I have - tiny but close to campus, electric (not gas - shudders) heat, and about $5100/yr. If you can keep your rent around 1/4 of your gross income and don't drive much, I've found that you can swing it with a decent amount of extras (eating out, drinks at a bar, cable TV, etc).

    It's a matter of priorities... and as an old grad student, time is seldom spent at home or out on the town - it's thrown into trying to graduate. So I give up some of those extras and eat "out" more because it saves me time. Compromise, compromise...

  • becca says:

    I think I just had really weird expectations coming from undergrad.

    I started a co-op. I used to feed 14 people on mostly organic food, with local produce, for $1400/month. Granted, people didn't all eat only communal food, and it eventually went up to $110/person/month, which made the soymilk much easier (soymilk could be the bane of my budgeting existence because people really *liked* the expensive stuff better, and I didn't blame them. It's not like, say, oats. Oats are oats. But Silk is nummier than other stuff, just $$$). Of course that was including no meat and minimal dairy.
    There were weeks I spent no money out-of-pocket except for bagels because they were convenient lunches.
    My rent, for one of the nicer rooms, was $260/month. I think it was $50 toward utilities.
    I had no car, no cable, no cell phone. So no parking. No renter's insurance or life insurance. Health insurance was from my rents. I bought a bike at the bike auction and we had a bazillion extras for parts to use as needed.
    I also got mostly used texts and picked my classes keeping in mind how much fees would be. I think for all four years, I probably spent <$1000 on textbooks and supplies.
    Entertainment was all other people and free events. I never felt at a loss for things to do.
    I had enough clothes going into college to last me through, but I got stuff at the big annual 'dump and run' YMCA fundraiser just because I wanted it, and practically new designer clothes from the greek kids made for reasonably enjoyable used clothing shopping.
    I occasionally took the shuttle or greyhound or even amtrak up to major city of origin, so I had travel costs of $60 a couple of times a semester. That was my biggest expense, but it was nicely optional.

    I don't think I ever felt*actually* poor. It was really pretty comfortable and I always had enough in my bank account to pay my bills. I spent a lot more money than some of the other people I lived with. I could treat my friends at steak n shake from time to time. I could help fund 'decadence nights' (ice cream and liquor to fuel late night apples to apples sessions).

    When you have low enough expectations, $23k really does go a very long way. I didn't feel poor in grad school till I had to worry about daycare. *shudder*

  • Emma says:

    In the UK we're maybe paid slightly less (~£13000 per year for three years for most NERC funded students) but we have the benefits of that being tax free, not paying income tax, student discount (10% is a wonderful incentive for guilt-free shopping) and free healthcare. Plus the compact UK cities mean many people can live within walking/cycling distance from uni. If you're coming to a PhD from already being an undergrad/MSc student then it's pretty good - you're already used to the student lifestyle and can probably save some of it. If you come into a PhD stipend from "real work" when you may have many financial commitments already in place; mortgage, children, house that's far away from campus, expensive phone contract...then it's probably more of a challenge.

    I think the main issue (as I blogged about here: 'A PhD don't come for free' ) is that we're pretty much the scientific equivalent of industrial graduate schemes except we work 3+ years for little pay and no guaranteed job whereas they work for 12-18 months on pretty good pay and a nice pay rise and job at the end of it.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  • [...] edit 8th Jan 2011: for an American take on graduate stipends visit this blog post. [...]

  • Ewan says:

    My institution - U. Albany, part of SUNY - has grad stipends even now at $14k.

    I know. When I was recruited two years ago and asked, it was $11k. I told the dean that was bizarrely ludicrous. They gave me the job anyway, and raised it... but only for incoming students, not existing. Some of whom are still on, I think, $10k.

    So I pay more than the going rate, from grants - but at $14k (taxable!) I have no clue how one survives. I made $17k (plus insurance) back in 1995 when I started. On the other hand, that $17k allowed us to live decently - trips to the UK most years to see family, even if very few meals out and no luxury budget. The infamous 'don't have the $4 for the county fair' episode is part of our lore now..

  • Jade says:

    Could anyone tell me what will be the average expense for a grad student in the city of illinois??

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