Time for another of my arbitrarily scheduled PhD life updates. In case you are wondering how I am doing, as I am mid-way through my 3rd year, I can say with confidence that I feel totally fine. Like Ross-level fine.
Like sheep chilling on the Kjeragbolten- level fine.
So as you can see, everything is under control.
Low grade panic about my research, my finances, my future, and my life in general is normal, right?
One of the biggest stressors for me lately has been financial. Like other areas of life that we shy away from discussing, money is an area that is encased in guilt and shame. So lets talk money. There is the cliche of the “starving student” and it has persisted for good reason. School is expensive. Life is expensive.
Throughout my undergraduate and masters degrees, I got by on a mixture of student loans, scholarships, part-time jobs, and sometimes a line of credit. It was definitely challenging, and by the end of my degrees, I had a pretty hefty student loan (over $50,000 CAD). In the years between my degrees, I diligently paid off much of my loans, and was fortunate enough to have several years of good jobs. While I wasn’t able to clear all of my student loans, I was able to tuck away a some money for a “for a rainy day.”
Since I was 12 and had my first jobs in a greenhouse and baby sitting, I have always worked in addition to doing my schooling. However, now living in the UK with fewer connections to people and organizations (I have not even found a coffee shop or store that wants this charmer on staff!), visa limitations, and moving back and forth to Stockholm, I don’t have a side hustle job (apart from small amounts of teaching and marking I do in the department).
But, because money was uncomfortable, I didn’t like to spend a lot of my time thinking about it, even though my financial planner/bestie insisted I needed a budget.
Everyone needs to have a budget. Fact.
(Lisa Henry, expert in money things but nothing else)
My PhD funding and scholarships cover my tuition and provide a stipend, which is supposed to cover basic living expenses. My current stipend is provides me with a monthly income of £1,300/month.
Because, apparently ignoring money stuff and hoping it will be magically ok isn’t the best financial strategy, I meticulously tracked my spending to see how my expenditure compares to this budget.
It is immediately obvious that my set costs (housing and food) immediately consume 80% of that monthly income. Also, what might not be immediately noticeable is the categories that are missing from this diagram. Categories like clothes, gym memberships, travel, therapy. A more balanced/practical version of a budget might look like this:
So much more colour!
In a fascinating coincidence, when I looked on the Living Wage Foundation’s page about the living wage in London, my current stipend falls below the annual equivalent of the London living wage by about £ 3,000 (around the equivalent of $5,500 CAD) per year. Which is precisely the difference between the first and second pie charts.
I had avoided looking closely at my finances partly because I was afraid I would feel trapped, but I found this investigation into what money I have and where it goes was weirdly freeing. I was able to look at this and release some of the guilt I have been feeling for using up my savings during this financially thin period. It helped me see that when I run out of money at the end of the quarter, it is not because I have been recklessly spending, but rather that I am doing the best that I can in a financially challenging situation.
I was feeling so stressed about money and guilty when withdrawing money from this savings account. Honestly, seeing the balance dwindle has been scary as I literally watch my safety net fray with each passing month. That said, I am incredibly thankful for the savings that I had set aside while I was working, as it has allowed me to focus completely on my PhD, rather than splitting my attention with part-time jobs. I know this is a huge privilege and is not possible for many students.
Interestingly, I had approximately $15,000 CAD in savings prior to starting my degree, which has meant I have been able to make up the shortfall between my stipend and the living wage over the past 3 years.
Obviously, this is not the ideal financial situation, but I also wanted to talk frankly about it, as I think it is important to acknowledge the financial pressures that many PhD students face.
Putting real numbers down has helped me see my finances in a more realistic and less shame-ridden perspective. It has also lit a fire under my bottom to finish my PhD so I can once again get to a more sustainable financial situation.
So, I have a better idea of my current financial reality, and I have extra motivation to finish, because afterall, once I finish my degree I might be financially and emotionally able to support a fluffy puppy. And I am pretty sure that is the source of pure happiness.