The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Managing finances might be graduate students’ toughest test

Thinkstock/Express illustration
Placeholder while article actions load

Erin Berry has tried many approaches to handle the financial challenges of graduate school. The Ph.D. candidate in language, literacy, and culture used loans to pay for her living expenses during her first year at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Unhappy with the amount of debt she was accruing, she tried living on the small stipend she received for her graduate assistantship from UMBC, moving into a smaller apartment in a less desirable area to reduce costs.

Then her stipend dried up. Now she works at Towson University as a lecturer while continuing her Ph.D. studies at UMBC. “Going to school full-time and working full-time: that’s a whole other level of stress,” she says.

Berry’s not the only one with money on the mind. According to a three-year study conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools in conjunction with TIAA that concluded in 2016, 60 percent of master’s students and 55 percent of doctoral students feel stressed about their finances.

This stress can weigh heavily on students during their studies and impact their career choices afterward — and it can even dissuade people from graduate school in the first place. While financial concerns may not be completely avoidable, there are steps grad students can take to reduce their money worries.

Brushing up on skills like budgeting is essential, since many students today lack even basic financial knowledge. “People are dealing with a topic they don’t know much about and therefore don’t know how to manage,” says Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University.

It’s vital for grad students to have a clear understanding of their monthly expenses and how they compare to any income received from stipends, fellowships, or part- or full-time jobs.

“You can reduce stress by at least knowing what you have to cover every month,” says Michael Wroblewski, a D.C.-based financial planner who does a lot of work with young professionals. “Delaying getting a handle on your situation only makes things worse.”

Your university depends on your financial security, too, so tap it for whatever help you can get. Ask about financial literacy seminars, alternative sources of graduate funding, and available part-time jobs. Berry has benefitted from financial workshops offered by UMBC for its graduate students. These workshops were originally started through a grant program in conjunction with the CGS study. UMBC has continued some of them even after the grant period, including seminars focused on funding your graduate education and understanding your credit score.

After the course, Berry says, “I did some research on my own and started talking to someone about debt consolidation. I think a lot of people have fears surrounding where they stand financially.”

For many grad students, financial anxiety originates from loans they’ve already taken out for their undergraduate years — and they’ve since added more debt on top of that. A recent report from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center found that 54 percent of student loan-holders didn’t try to figure out what their monthly payments would be before taking out loans. If they could go back and do it over, 53 percent said they would do things differently.

“If you have to take out loans, only take out the amount you need,” says Daniel Denecke, vice president for best practices and strategic initiatives at the Council of Graduate Schools. “[The loan application form] might be prepopulated for the maximum amount they’re eligible for. Then they find out later they could have taken out a significantly lower amount.”

Tools like CGS’ can help students understand what their monthly loan expenses will be and how that compares to average salaries for graduate degree-holders in their chosen field.

Concerns about making loan payments can sometimes lead students to choose financial security over personal fulfillment when entering the workforce after finishing their degrees. Denecke never likes to hear about graduate students interested in academic research feeling forced into for-profit jobs because of their debt.

“You need talented graduate students in every sector,” he says. “But you ideally want students to be making career choices around their excitement about opportunities and their fit, not from a position of financial necessity.”

Lusardi points out that students who have control of their finances are more likely to finish their degrees and be stronger alumni. “It’s a win-win solution,” she says. “Providing this information and knowledge is the best thing that a university could do for its own students.”

More ways to get ahead:

These degree programs train future human resources professionals to fight for pay equity

A career coach might just be the kick your job search needs

4 reasons why getting a certificate might be a good career move for you