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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Fifteen budgeting tips for graduate students

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

In graduate school, you typically need to get buy on a small budget. If you are hired as an employee for your PhD, you will be earning a small salary and have social security and other benefits. If you are on a scholarship, your finances may be very tight. In the past, I have shared some quick fixes that I used to save money while I was in graduate school and I discussed the importance of logging and analyzing your budget

Today, we are looking at changes you can make to cut your expenses and help you save money while you are in graduate school. I’m sharing my 15 best practices with you:

1. Track your expenses
Before you can develop budgets and save money, you need to know how much money you currently are spending. Start tracking all your expenses (every cent you are spending) in a spreadsheet. Log your expenses in different categories (groceries, bills, going out, sports, books, music, …) to see how much you currently are spending and how your expenses are distributed across different categories.

2. Set budgets for different categories
Now that you know how much you are spending on each category, see what you can eliminate, and determine how much you want to spend maximum per category. For some people, having their budgets as cash money in different envelopes can help if you tend to overspend on your bank cards. Such an approach is a quick fix, and does not address the underlying problem (the overspending itself). Try to be conscious about what you really need to survive, and what is superfluous.

3. Shop on fixed days
I used to only spend money on Tuesdays and Saturdays. On Tuesdays I’d do my food groceries and on Saturdays other pending items. If I ran out of a certain item, it simply would have to wait until the next day of shopping. The less often you enter a store, the less tempted you are to spend on things that you feel like eating or that look good, but that you don’t really need.

4. Save for a rainy day
Whenever you have an income, you should save part of it. Even if you can only save 25 or 50 USD a month, make sure you save something from your salary each month so that you have some buffer for a rainy day. You want to avoid to go in debt over car repairs, home maintenance, or your health. You may also need to live off your savings after your graduation, while you are applying for jobs.

5. Plan your meals around the weekly sales
I recommend you think about the meals you will be eating (and perhaps write them down on a planning) before you enter the store. Check what is on sale this week, and plan your meals around these discounted items. Some grocery stores have recurring discounts (i.e. 15% of all fruit and vegetables on Wednesdays). If that’s the case where you shop, take advantage of these extra savings.

6. Buy bulk
Buy grains and beans in bulk – they last a long time. Buy discounted vegetables in bulk, cook them all, and then freeze portions. When the laundry detergent or the soap you use is on sale, take advantage of this offer and buy ahead for a few months.

7. Thrift
Furniture, household items, and clothing – you can find everything you need in the thrift store. Most of the clothes I wore during my PhD were hand-me-downs from my mom and sister or items bought in the thrift store. I still wear a lot of thrifted clothes. Alternatively, you can look online for second-hand items when you need to buy something (a bike, a fridge, …).

8. Invest in quality items
When it comes down to items you use frequently, then go for quality instead of for the cheapest product. Don’t try to save money on a laptop, but invest in a good machine. The items that you splurge on because they are important to you are of course highly personal. For me, a quality blender, a good mattress, and a good stereo are important. Find out which of your items get a lot of usage, and make a smart choice when you replace or acquire them.

9. Cancel subscriptions
Three euros here, twelve euros there,… and before you know it you are spending over 100 euros a month in subscriptions. When you analyze your expenses, list all your subscriptions as recurring bills. What do you really need? Should you cancel Netflix and watch YouTube videos instead? Do you really need a landline and a cell phone? Sometimes, temporary discounts automatically revert to a high cost subscription after a trial period. Always be aware of when trial periods end, and cancel or revise your subscription prior to the hike in price.

10. Protect and insure your valuables
If you spent a fair amount of money on a good laptop, then protect it with a lock, a surge protector, and a good cover. Insure your most valuable items, such as your laptop and your bike. Invest in the highest-grade lock for your bike.

11. Be minimalist
Don’t buy lots of nick-knacks. Especially if you are doing your PhD abroad, you probably won’t be able to drag all your belongings back to your home country after graduation. Focus on the essentials, a capsule wardrobe, a pocket kitchen, and don’t buy things you won’t be keeping later.

12. Look for online deals
If you are planning time away from your work or time to relax, look for deals online. If you want to go away for a weekend, look for discounted deals. If you feel like getting a massage, see if you can use a group coupon or other type of deal to get a lower price. Don’t get the first thing you see, but explore different options.

13. Bike or walk your commute
Save on gas or your bus fare, and walk or bike your commute (provided that you can do so safely). If you start the day on the bike, you’ll get to the office with a fresh head and you get some exercise every day. I always bike my commute in the Netherlands and walk my commute in Ecuador (unless it’s too late at night), and I enjoy this a lot.

14. Shop for presents online and ahead of the season
Gather presents for birthdays and Christmas throughout the year. When a good deal comes up for something you want to buy for your loved ones, take advantage of the offer and buy ahead of the holiday period. You probably will get the item at a lower price, and you avoid the craziness of malls around the holidays, which may confuse you and tempt you to buy too many things.

15. Ask yourself what is really necessary
Are certain expenses (such as getting a haircut. something I hardly every spend money on) really necessary, or are you just doing this because that’s what you’ve always spent money on. Do you need to buy new clothes every season, or can you use what you already have? Can you cook with what’s in your pantry instead of shopping for new food items?

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