Especially when I'm away from Korea, I try to make living on a budget my personal challenge because I like to have money for the things I really care about. I've never had to resort to using a credit card because I didn't have the cash to do/buy things I wanted to buy. I saved up enough money to first pay off all my undergraduate school loans (paid off 21,000 in 3.5 years). You could say that working in Korea contributed significantly to that, but I paid off almost 7,000 in my first year out of school before I even moved to Korea (making $11.50 an hour), so I really wasn't paying back any more while I was in Korea (and those were the days of the terrible 0.65 cents/1,000 won exchange rates).
Now that I'm debt free, I've been able to save up enough money to pay for all of grad school, too (a total of about $22,000 for 3 semesters/36 credits). I wanted to go back to grad school full time starting last September and I tried my hardest to get a job on campus that would give me housing and a stipend. That didn't work out, so I deferred my acceptance until this summer. While I technically have enough money saved up to pay for school, when you add up all the other costs associated with being a full-time student (mainly rent, food, and maybe transportation) the cost would have been enormous. So, instead, I've opted for a summer only program that offers one online class per semester during the regular school year that will let me finish all 36 credits by the end of next summer. While I do have to pay for two round trip flights to America, I can keep working full time in Korea the rest of the year to continue making money to pay for school and the costs of not working for several months each summer.
Now, this is my own personal situation, but I wanted to write something that anyone can read and find useful so here are my tips to living on a super low budget as a grad school student. While this is aimed at grad students, non-grad school students might be able to find other useful suggestions here as well.
1) Dump your car- Seriously, get rid of it. I know every one's personal situation is different and maybe you're living at home and need it or maybe you've got a part-time job that you think you need it for. But, add up how much money you spend every month (or maybe in a year) in gas, car insurance, repairs, maintenance, loan payments and anything else I'm missing. If it is close to the amount you're making from your part time job (every retail store nowadays seems to offer 12 hours + flex anyway), then... really... what's the point? Most college towns have a bus network for students. You also may be living closer to the school than you think. I am 1.5 miles from school, according to google maps. In nice weather I just walk to school, it's only 30 minutes. It's great exercise, I get my daily dose of vitamin D and I save money. I'm also lucky that my school actually pays into the local public transportation and I can ride all buses for free. I have to do a little extra planning around my day to fit the terrible bus schedules, but it keeps me on my toes. Try to find jobs close to your house or campus if you are going to work while you are in grad school and try to live as close to campus as possible. It may be worthwhile paying an extra $100 in rent a month if you don't need a car and can easily walk to school.
2) Minimize your vices- I'm lucky that I'm not a coffee drinker or a smoker. I like to drink alcohol, but I find that I just don't find that many opportunities to drink in the States as I do in Korea, so in the past month I've probably spent less than $30 on alcohol, total. For the coffee drinkers out there, I know this point has been beaten to death, but add up how much you spend at Starbucks every week and then multiply that by four and calculate how much you spend in a month. A few dollars every day doesn't feel like much but your monthly totals may surprise you. Either brew at home or better, start weaning yourself off the stuff. I don't drink coffee and I'm quite glad I never picked up the habit. As for smoking, I don't need to lecture you about it, you've already been told by too many people you need to quit. Now that you're a grad student, this should be all the more motivation. These are not the only vices out there... maybe there is something else in your life that you could cut back on?
3) Minimize your housing expenses- Rent is hard to control, but try to find a place that falls into your budget and is a short distance from school, preferably with good bus connections. Once you've moved into a place, you can at least keep your utilities down. First, don't even go near the cable. Especially in the US, cable prices are expensive. Even satellite and other things are not cheap, so just don't even think about it. Then decide whether you really need the Internet. My first year out of school I lived without the internet, but then again, I was not a student. If you are a student, you probably will need the internet to keep in touch with professors and classmates along with doing research. But, if you are the kind of person that lives in the school library anyway, you may be able to do without this added expense, too. Don't run air conditioning unless it's absolutely necessary (like above 90˚F and you're doing aerobics or something) and keep your heating low, especially when no one is home. In my first apartment after college, we'd keep the heat at 55˚F when we weren't home and turn it up to 65˚F when we got home. It's the winter, wear a sweater and some warm socks for goodness sake. You're a grad student.
4) Don't get a smartphone- Or any other phones that will run up your bill. I've got a no contract phone from Virgin Mobile. I get unlimited data and texts plus 300 mins a month for just $35 a month. Why are you paying $75 or $100 a month for a phone?? You can do that once you're making the big bucks with your degree, but for now, live a little more humbly.
5) Buy only what you need- Before you buy that new pair of jeans or cute skirt that's on sale, ask yourself how much you really need it. Stores purposely put things on sale to trick you into buying things. But even if it's a good price, chances are, you don't need it. You probably have more clothes in your closet than you know what to do with anyway. It doesn't matter if it's on sale for 10% off or 95% off, put it back on the rack. When you've got a good paycheck from your amazing future job, that's when you can splurge, not now when you're a grad student.
6) Get what you really need from Goodwill- Or another second-hand store or on craigslist. This one is probably obvious, but don't even dare buy new furniture or house supplies before checking 1) Free-cycle 2) Craigslist (first the free pages, then the other pages) 3) Goodwill or other second-hand shops in your area. I bought my desk and chair for $15.00 total at Goodwill. Free-cycle is a new-ish site that allows people to post anything they want to give away for free. Basically it's a Craigslist for free stuff only. You can get anything from tea leaves to baby clothes to furniture here.
7) Buy books online or borrow them from friends- Ok, you're a grad student. You need textbooks. Unfortunately, the school bookstore is probably the most expensive place to buy them. I made the mistake this summer of checking the "used" prices on the school book store prices and compared them to the used book prices online. Since there was little difference, I decided to buy them on campus at the book store... only to find out that there were no used copies available for most of the books I needed. There went $400 for books this summer. Next time, regardless of the used price listed on the site, I'm going to buy them online. Since most grad students keep their books, there's rarely any used copies to buy in the campus bookstore.
8) Keep your food costs low:
a) Pack a lunch- Buying lunch at school costs me around $6.00 for a sandwich and drink. Plus, they are loaded with unnecessary calories because I can't control what goes into my sandwich. I try to make my own lunch every day, which probably costs me about a $1.00 (A pack of wraps costs about $3.00 for 8 wraps, a tub of hummus costs about $3.00 and lasts for about 5-6 sandwiches, a block of cheese costs about $3.00 and can be used for a while, plus a few veggies which I also make last a long time) and I can control what I eat. I try to always keep an empty bottle with me so I can just fill it with water at the water fountain for free.
b) Plan meals carefully- Nothing pains me more than to throw away unused food. Try to only buy perishable things that you can eat within a week so that nothing will go bad before you eat it. Before you buy something at the grocery store, ask yourself: "When will I eat this?" If you can't answer it, don't buy it. And think realistically.
c) Just don't buy snacks and unhealthy food- Unless you have a legit health problem where you need to have some food around at all times, just don't buy snacks! Seriously, being here in America I see a lot of people with weight problems. They blame it on their genetics, they blame it on their medicine, but no one ever wants to blame it on themselves. Imagine, if it's 11 o'clock at night and you get that craving for ice cream but you didn't buy it at the supermarket this week and you don't have a car (because that was recommendation #1), well, you just aren't going to eat that ice cream, are you? You save yourself the money and the unnecessary food intake. If you don't buy it, you won't eat it.
d) Limit your meals out- I try to only eat out when a friend comes into town to visit. Eating out in the States is expensive. Even the cheapest meal adds up when you add the tax, tip and a drink. Try to only drink water with your meals since most restaurants will give you that for free. Just because CokeZero has no calories it doesn't mean it's healthy or cheap. Check to see if the vegetarian meal options are cheaper, too, it's probably healthier for you anyway. And don't forget to take home your leftovers... you can probably get at least one if not two more meals out of it!
e) Avoid meat- While I'm not really a vegetarian, I don't buy any meat to eat at home. Meat is expensive, terrible for the environment and some meat is not so great for your health, either. I occasionally get meat when I go out to eat (if there isn't any more appetizing vegetarian option) and I eat meat when I am invited to friend's homes for dinner. But, that's it. Even in Korea, we generally follow this rule at home except when we're having a special dinner with friends at our house.
9) Always keep at least a few thousand dollars in the bank- This might be shocking to some people from my generation, I know, but if you can't keep at least $2-3,000 (minimum!) in the bank for emergencies than you probably shouldn't be doing any of the things you're doing. You don't know if you're going to break your leg and owe a $500 emergency room fee. You don't know if someone in your family might have a sudden illness and you may need to fly across the country on a last minute flight to see them. If you have a car, you don't know when your transmission might go and need to pay $1,000 mechanic fee. If you don't have enough money in the bank to cover emergencies like these, which really do happen, than you're going to be in trouble when that emergency comes and you have to put it all on your credit card. You could spend years paying back the credit card companies for that one little emergency. Prevent that from happening by just keeping a cushion in the bank. Before I made any student loan payments, I also made sure I was leaving myself with at least $2,000 in the bank, just in case.
10) Borrow money responsibly and only when absolutely necessary- While this might not affect you while you're in school, it will affect you in the future. If you already owe $80,000 in undergraduate loans, think carefully before you take out another $20-40,000 in graduate school loans. If your future job isn't going to pay you SIGNIFICANTLY more than what you're making now, it might not be worth it. Think about how much money you are able to pay back in a year, then factor in how much money will be added to your loans every month when interest is factored in, and then calculate then, how many years it will take you to pay off your loans. You probably have dreams of having a house, a car, a wedding in the future (if you don't have these things already) but if you're $100,000 in debt, it's going to be really hard to achieve your other dreams. There are many schools which will subsidize your grad school tuition if you work on campus doing research or TAing classes. I couldn't get that for myself as a summer-only student, but it doesn't mean you can't. If you are already in debt, look only at programs which will allow you to work while you study. If you're looking at a higher degree in science, you shouldn't be paying any tuition, honestly because you should be able to do research or TA classes. Other programs may give you tuition reductions for various jobs on campus. Also look into resident assistant/director/coordinator positions on campuses. They will often give you free housing and a stipend, sometimes you can get some tuition reduction to go along with it. Also, ask your company if they can support any tuition money for you as well. Some companies will help their employees to go back to school as well. Do whatever it takes to NOT take out any more loans, you'll thank yourself in the future.
I know everyone can't do all of these. But, if you can even accomplish half, you will be putting yourself in a better position financially. As you enter grad school (or even undergraduate studies) think carefully if you can make a commitment to doing any of these things suggested. Don't make excuses saying that it's not possible. Be in control of your money and don't let your money be in control of you!