How to Survive Financially as a Graduate or Doctoral Student

How do you manage your budget as a graduate or doctoral student? It is certainly an overwhelming topic, as graduate and doctoral programs in the U.S. can be very costly in addition to being academically stressful most of the time. Being in graduate school is a lot different than being in the working world, in that financial planning when you’re in graduate school is quite different than when you are employed. Therefore, it is crucial to consistently prepare yourself for life in graduate school before and during your enrollment. 

As such, we will be mapping out key aspects of finances in graduate school and outlining steps you can take to ensure a sound budgeting plan in graduate school to promote a less stressful graduate experience. It is always alright to seek out advice about starting graduate school or a PhD program, especially if it has to do with finances and maintaining financial stability. The more we open discourse around these kinds of topics, the more that we can cultivate and expand financial knowledge. 

This post was written by Isabel Inoa, BA (freelance writer) and Dr. Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero (instructor, consultant) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

Completing a graduate or doctoral program is an arduous process, and it is going to be a lot more difficult than you thought it was going to be. Although you may be incredibly passionate about the field in which you’re doing research, it would be unfair to romanticize the graduate school experience. One way to alleviate the stress of graduate school is to have a strong financial foundation during the program. Although it is incredibly important to realistically review your financial resources before going to graduate school, it is also crucial to maintain financial awareness while enrolled in a graduate program. Here is some guidance from Dave in his vlog about how to stay motivated as a PhD student:

While graduate and PhD programs are a place where you can broaden your academic knowledge through research and other forms of learning, it can also serve as a financial stressor. Although most graduate and PhD students will start making a considerable income in the future, most of them don’t have a clear idea of when they will start making a sustainable income. In fact, most graduate students are making just enough that to survive, and many of them are still under the poverty line. Furthermore, one of the major reasons why graduate and doctoral students stop their programs is because of financial concerns. Check out this blog post to learn more about life after a PhD: What You Learn From Doing a PhD  


There can be different financial stressors depending on your age and phase of life as well. For example, younger people may not have the burden of supporting a family, but they also do not earn as much as older students to support themselves more comfortably. They may also still have undergraduate loans. Check out this blog post for advice on starting a PhD program as a young adult: Should you Pursue a PhD in your Twenties? 

Some additional financial burdens you may have besides housing, books, and tuition are travel, food, and basic necessities. You may also want to attend a conference that you will have to pay for out of pocket ( if you work for a research institute they should cover most of your costs). Check out this blog to learn more about doctoral program expenses: What is the Average Cost of a PhD program? 

Financial aid

Unless you have resources planned out or you have a good idea of where financial resources will come from, it is advisable to come up with a good plan before starting a Master’s or PhD program.  It is important to note that there may be fewer sources of financial support for graduate and PhD students, compared to what is available to undergraduates. You should not rely on obtaining federal, state, or provincial grants, as the chances of you obtaining these grants, scholarships, and bursaries for your graduate program are pretty low. In fact in 2015-16, the average amount of financial aid that students enrolling in a doctoral program received was $31,620. For fellowship grants, it sat at $18,370, and for assistantships it was $19,950. Compared to the average cost of a PhD program in the U.S., which is quite high, the average financial aid given to graduate students would still leave them with a substantial amount of debt. 

But it is also true that there are some unique funding opportunities available only to graduate and doctoral students. Fellowships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and campus based research jobs can be quite helpful in covering tuition, and even room and board. For example, Stephanie received a full scholarship to study public policy at the University of Delaware, plus she made a stipend as a research assistant! Talk to representatives from programs you are interested in to learn more about their financial aid and assistantship programs.

Check out this amazing video on PhD student debt.

Monthly budgeting

It is crucial to have some sort of financial plan to ensure a less stressful graduate experience. It is also advisable that you have a consistent monthly budget and that you are always keeping within the bounds of this budget. One way to help aid this process is to set up automated transfers to your savings account whenever your paychecks get deposited. This will make the act of making a monthly budget much more seamless and will take the pressure off of spending time every month to allocate your monthly income to your budget and savings. The following are steps that you can take to assist your budgeting plan during your graduate or PhD program.: 

1. It can be helpful to read a personal finance book! Personal finance in graduate school is one of the biggest predictors of people doing well. Reading about personal finances will also prepare you well for life after school, whether you’re living alone, starting a family, becoming a homeowner, etc. In addition, there are many free budgeting templates you can find online if you need a place to store financial information. Similarly, there are videos you can find on budgeting advice on a variety of social media platforms that can help you expand your financial literacy. 

Besides consulting books and social media for financial advice, you can also talk to people who you know have already enrolled in or are currently enrolled in a graduate program. This can mean a friend, a parent, an advisor, etc. who are probably well aware of their financial successes and shortcomings and can give you a more detailed framework of budgeting in graduate school. Click here to receive more guidance from Dave in his vlog about important lessons for PhDs: Two Lessons Every PhD Student Needs To Hear. 

2. Do not invest in anything during graduate school, as it is financially risky and irresponsible and this is money that you could put towards savings or an emergency fund. It is not a guaranteed source of income, and in fact, it may prove to be more of a financial stressor than something that cultivates a prosperous financial future. Your first priority is and will continue to be to complete your graduate school education. The financial returns of earning a graduate, professional, or doctoral degree are going to be greater than simply investing in the stock market. 

3. Try your best not to accumulate any more student debt by reasonable means. Unlike other places in the world where higher education is free or not extremely costly, receiving a graduate degree in the U.S. can be very financially taxing. Although some people have the luxury of living a debt-free life through the assistance of generational wealth, that is definitely not the reality for most. Saving money is going to be difficult, so one of your top priorities should be to remain as debt-free as you possibly can before and during graduate school. As long as all of your basic mental and physical needs are met, you can reach a compromise with other luxuries in your life. Your goal is just to make sure that you have food on the table for yourself and possibly others.

If you have a large family and you’re in graduate school figure out alternative means to help your family. You can hold an evening job as a DoorDash or Uber driver and do things that will ensure that your monthly budget stays intact like going to the food bank or living in a small apartment. You can also consider free leisure activities that alleviate stress and that you can enjoy without spending money. You may go to a local park, library, museum, or maybe window shopping. You can definitely get creative with these options, and you should look online to see about free activities in your area. You can also search for places where they offer discounts for students in your area to maximize your savings. Overall, enrolling in a graduate program not only means that you have to remain dedicated to your research, but it also means staying focused on upholding your financial resources so that you may continue doing that research. 

One of the most important things to remember to do while enrolled in a graduate program is to create an open discourse around financial planning with your loved ones, and if you are sharing a living space, the people you live with. Fostering an open line of communication between you and others will facilitate honesty around monthly budgeting and spending, and can also make way for new and exciting financial knowledge. In fact, it may be helpful to have a regular financial meeting/planning time for yourself and/or with others to review your budget plan and adjust it accordingly. 

4. Try to save for an additional year beyond your expected last year in school, if you are able. It usually takes students a lot longer to complete their program compared to their initial plan, which is due to the difficult and arduous nature of conducting their own research. You should try your best to save money before and during your graduate school enrollment as an extra financial support system. In fact, it would also be helpful to keep an emergency fund for yourself just in case any unexpected expenses arise during your time at school. Overall, while enrolled in a graduate program it is always most effective to think ahead especially in terms of your financial resources. 

Another way to expand your savings is to have a clear grasp on essential and non-essential purchases. You might find it useful to list these purchases out, but it is overall financially responsible to build self-discipline and accountability around your spending habits. It may not be advisable to buy an expensive latte from a local coffee shop every day of the week or to impulsively buy things from the grocery store without a shopping list. If this is something that you struggle with, that is understandable, and you can always take small steps to add more structure to your spending habits. You can also enlist the help of a friend or a loved one to be your accountability partner for creating a healthy relationship with shopping and overall spending. 

5. Try limiting other responsibilities beyond research, such as teaching or consulting, as these are very time-consuming jobs that may hinder your ability to truly dedicate yourself to research, if that is your main focus. Although it is ok to hold these jobs if they are a source of income for you, it may be useful to take up part-time positions in these roles so you can consistently review and conduct your research. There is a considerable chance that these positions, even if they are part-time, will come with benefits that may aid in your ability to keep up with your monthly budget plan. But, overall, your goal should be to complete your graduate program as fast as possible because this is the best way to ensure that you will become financially stable sooner. Click here to receive more guidance from Dave in his vlog about the framework of most PhD programs: How Does a PhD Work? 

The bottom line

It is clear that graduate programs can be stressful in multiple ways, especially financially. It is crucial to remain aware of your budget and overall finances throughout your enrollment in graduate school and beyond to ensure a less stressful experience. So, sticking to a monthly budget, holding yourself accountable in terms of your spending habits, and creating an open dialogue with people you trust about finance are all key aspects to building financial literacy during graduate school. Overall, asking for help and seeking out advice are the most effective ways to expand your budgeting knowledge.

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