Frugal Grad Student

One of the examples of frugal living I saw online was that of a graduate student who was swimming in mounting credit card debt but then adopted the frugal living principles, paid down the debt, and started investing her savings. I was curious because I used to be that grad student who, in spite of a very generous stipend and no kids, was accumulating credit card debt and had zero savings.

It turned out that this graduate student “ate down her pantry” and cancelled her subscriptions, which was quite bizarre because I had no pantry and no subscriptions until I was well into the tenure-track. These savings allowed her to pay off her credit card debt. I’m guessing the credit card debt was about twenty bucks total, if she could pay it down by eating down the pantry for a month. My credit card debt in grad school was up to $16,000 at its highest point, and to pay that off, I would have needed almost my entire yearly stipend.

I wasn’t frugal as a grad student (and that’s an understatement of the year) and I’m not frugal now because there are 3 things I can’t deny myself. First of all, I always eat well. Tons of fresh produce and never anything frozen, boxed or canned. I just can’t make myself, it’s not happening. Today I made a five-bean chili with ground turkey breast, a bit of crackled wheat, asparagus, kale and crushed tomatoes, and oh, goodness. It’s heaven. I can’t make it spicy because Klara is too small for that but it’s still great.

The second thing is that I go on beach vacations and not the kind where you sleep in a crappy motel and schlep 20 minutes to a ratty old beach filled with garbage. I come from a Soviet past where people thought that extreme discomfort was the price you pay for enjoying a beach. And I just can’t do that any more, I’m traumatized by my past.

And the third is that I buy all the books I want and can’t make myself feel bad about it. I wear the same clothes for 10 years (if I can fit into them) and use out the shoes until they literally fall into pieces. But my book needs are sacred.

35 thoughts on “Frugal Grad Student”

  1. I’m really curious about things people here are frugal/not frugal about.

    I’m frugal about eating out. I think I’m a decent cook and can reverse engineer most things we like to eat out. Plus the places we eat at are mostly ‘ethnic’ places which are so much cheaper anyway. Also, I hate paying 1000% markups on alcohol. I’d say we eat quite well at home.

    I’m not frugal about clothes. I really appreciate well-made clothes and shoes, and the things I like are usually unaffordable at retail prices, so I usually buy them used off ebay from clueless sellers who don’t know what they have.

    I’m frugal about most other things, but it’s not with an intention to be frugal. I just don’t have the desire to own a better car, etc. Aside from my clothing habit, I don’t really care about owning more stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I drive a 14-year-old car, and couldn’t be happier. I don’t have to stress out over denting or scratching it because it’s filled with dents anyway. But I’m not American, so car pride is not in my DNA. 🙂

      But my grocery bill is extreme because I can’t make myself learn to look at the prices of food. I live in the fresh seafood aisle, and that’s very expensive in the Midwest.


      1. “I’m not American, so car pride is not in my DNA”

        To be honest I’ve met far more car prideful people in Poland than in the US (where they were primarily a tool than a status symbol). Maybe things have changed but friends, family co-workers in the US were almost all about reliability than latest model. The one exception is my brother who was into buying and restoring vintage (40s, 50’s, 60s) cars for a time .


        1. The neighbor from across the street spends his life lying underneath his car and futzing with its insides. This traumatizes N because his father used to do that all day and then come in and beat up everybody at home because he’d be upset over the not-functioning Soviet car.


  2. I’m frugal about transport, I’ve never driven a car in Poland and have no desire to (I’d be too dangerous since I have US style defensive driving habits which are not the norm here). I use public transport (bus/streetcar network) supplemented by an occasional taxi (real ones, not uber). I do use a longterm pass (for 6months or a year) as that’s ultimately the cheapest.


  3. So this article is the kind of thing that works if you have enough money but are just spending a lot.
    It also assumes you live in a place with some great freezers (all that about batch meals and freezing) and within walkable/public transportation distance. I mean, good luck having a cheap rent/mortgage AND ditching your car.

    is not a serious tip for saving money. Look, after my idiot father suggested that I spent more on coffee than health insurance, I went through my bills…and not even close and I will fight anyone and everyone who suggests this.

    Next thing you know she’ll be telling you save the plastic bags from the grocery to line your trash bins and reuse your plastic containers to store food.

    Ok, I have no idea what frugality is so the idea of “frugality” tips is ludicrous.

    My mother keeps telling me I should buy new clothes, my car is 15 years old, I don’t have subscription services.
    When I get haircuts, I go to the nice salon and tip 20% (I can hear you saying “that’s a standard tip”). I get nice makeup but rarely. I don’t batch cook or meal plan because this is sadness. I wear my nice shoes into the ground.


    1. ” Look, after my idiot father suggested that I spent more on coffee than health insurance, I went through my bills…and not even close and I will fight anyone and everyone who suggests this.”

      • This is truly the joke of the month. I’m sorry, but I laughed. We have a coffee and a tea fanatics in the house, and we both buy only the most expensive loose-leaf / whole bean varieties. And there’d need to be at least a couple dozen of us here drinking it all to come anywhere close to the cost of health insurance for the two of us. Our tea / coffee addiction is costing us $60 a month and, as I said, we don’t pinch pennies on this hobby or begrudge the cost. If only health insurance cost this kind of money. OK, now I’m sad.


    2. “Next thing you know she’ll be telling you save the plastic bags from the grocery to line your trash bins and reuse your plastic containers to store food.”

      • Yes! That was one of the suggestions!!!


  4. I can’t make it spicy because Klara is too small for that but it’s still great.

    You said a while ago that Klara loved spicy foods. Has she changed her mind? Or has her pediatrician said it was a bad idea??


      1. You could try some dried (and then reconstituted in warm water) ancho or guajillo chilles in it. They’re very mild, but have a complex , smoky, fruity flavor that’ll do wonders to your chilli.


  5. Ugh. This frugality discourse drives me nuts. It’s so inflected by this Puritanical “prosperity doctrine” rhetoric. As in those who have money were just really good at saving. And if you don’t have enough, it’s not because of wage compression but because you just didn’t reuse old gross plastic bags.

    I went into (student loan) debt in graduate school. And it’s not because I was a particularly flagrant spender but because I couldn’t reasonably live on a $13,000 a year stipend. So I made a decision to take on student loan debt so I could live out the close of my 20s with some measure of dignity and enjoyment. (I went to grad school in a cheap city and some people in my program did manage to live on the $13,00 stipend. But I didn’t want to live the life of constant denial and nearly abject poverty.) And no amount of cancelling Netflix subscriptions or “eating down” my pantry was going to obliterate the need for student loan assistance. It reminds me of a sort of friend I had. Her parents completed paid for college and then gave her a downpayment for her condo. And she used to brag that she was “debt free.” I OF COURSE she was debt free. Her parents supported her until well into her adulthood! And some of the frugal living suggestions are just gross. The freegetarian or freegarian movement is insane to me. I’d go to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter before dumpster diving for food.

    And to answer Stringer Bell’s question above, I would say I’m a pretty “even” spender. I’m not super frugal about much but not too spend thrifty about anything either. I suppose my biggest discretionary expense is always related to travel. I fly home to visit my family 3-4 times a year; my husband and I try to take an international trip one a year or once every other year; my husband and I usually do an “in state get away” once a year. Things like that. Oh actually I’m an absolute miser about spending money on technology. I will use a phone until it’s barely usable and then unashamedly go to the store and ask for the cheapest (smart) phone they have. I currently have an old ZTE phone and think it’s just fine. I bought my first TV about six years ago (previously I would use my friends TV cast offs) and won’t get a new one until it doesn’t work. I only replace my laptops when it’s an absolute necessity. I don’t have anything like an Alexa. And I resent every single penny I spend on technology. Once I get the new piece, then I can become excited about the new toy. But actually spending money on technology is almost physically painful for me. I just picture all the ways I would rather spend money.


  6. I’ve never kept a formal budget in my entire long life — never needed to.

    When I was relatively poor and working my way through a state medical school (hence relatively low tuition, 50 years ago), I stayed in a medical fraternity house with a fixed monthly fee for room and board. My only extra expenses were occasionally for clothes.

    Once I got my M.D. degree, the money started rolling in progressively faster that I was spending it, and that’s been true ever since, even in retirement. So I’ve never had any need to plan around money.


          1. Well, I don’t post on social media , and I doubt that Trump has read any of my published horror stories, so politicians rarely find any of my gems to quote.


  7. When I have been in massive debt it has not been because of unwise spending. It’s been cross-country moves for jobs, research expenses not funded, being on the job market, and things like house repairs after Katrina, when homeowner insurance stopped being valid for so much. No amount of “frugality” could have stopped this since these costs weren’t coming from profligacy.


      1. Well, I wouldn’t say I ever do unwise spending, but I do spend money on things I like, when I can, and that I don’t need for basic survival. Because they are things I like, and that improve my life, I don’t consider the cost an unwise expense. EXCEPT of course the cost of that therapist that destroyed my confidence, that was unwise ! ! !
        This having been said, I’ve looked at that website and I already do most of the “frugal” things it recommends (like turn off lights you’re not using) as a matter of course. They’re talking not so much about cutting down and belt-tightening, they’re talking about not throwing money away. I guess I didn’t spend piles of money in graduate school — I didn’t have masses of expensive restaurants, theatre tickets, alcohol, etc. — but sure we’d go out to dinner sometimes, do different things. I mean gosh, why wear a hair shirt? I have met some of those graduate students who succeed at never spending money on anything and they are in fact always mooching off other people — they need rides, they need this, they need that, some want to dumpster-dive, some want to spend hours in thrift stores, they always want to go to some boring free activity that’s out of the way when there’s something interesting to do nearby that has a $5 cover charge or whatever, it’s exhausting. ALSO, once again, it seems as though the cheapest people are the ones with the most opulent vacations. I’m fine with that so long as I don’t have to subsidize their being cheap with my time and energy. Also: I am irritated by people who show up to potlucks with nothing to offer when really they aren’t broke, but just want to save money for something else. I do buy lunch and groceries for people on campus with actual food insecurity but when I get coerced for time/money to help someone who just wants to “be frugal” for fun, I get irritated.


        1. My sister used to endlessly brag about how she was saving the earth and saving money by not having a car, but as soon as winter rolled around would be asking me to drive her to the grocery store so she didn’t have to muck about in freezing slush with bags of groceries.


        2. When I started psychoanalysis, one thing I knew for sure: there was no way I could afford it at $160 a session. Turned out to be the smartest financial decision of my life to do it because I learned the psychological reasons of my constantly being broke and stopped being broke. So it’s a lot more complicated than many people want to think.


  8. So many “financial advice” columns assume as a matter of course that all young people in debt are stopping at Starbucks for a $5 coffee Every. Single. Day. It’s very easy to give advice for getting out of debt when you assume that everyone who is in debt has enough money but is very silly about spending it. It’s like nutrition articles that helpfully explain how many calories you can cut out of your diet and how much weight you can lose by quitting your daily sugary/alcoholic beverages. 🙄


    1. I’m also not convinced that $5 coffee is a bad idea. It isn’t $5 here, more like $2.50, but you get to sit all day in a nice café with wi-fi, you can read and study, your friends can come by, is it so expensive or so unwise, really?


      1. So true. I spent vast amounts of money on sitting in coffee shops as an undergrad. That’s how I learned my Spanish, actually. I’d hang out with people in coffee shops, talk, read together. It turned out to be a great career investment in the end. Yes, I would have “saved money” by sitting at home alone. What a great youth I would have had by doing that.


      2. There’s often hidden traps and reasons why you spend money. I will never, for example, cut back on eating out completely, because it’s a thing to do that’s not going to work or heading straight home. Also cooking ALL the meals and cleaning up is exhausting.

        My attempt at packing lunch for an office job would fail half the time because I was using eating in the cafeteria or buying lunch as an excuse to leave my desk and take a walk. [It didn’t help that I was within five minutes of a street full of restaurants and bars.]


        1. I hate packing lunch. My father did it but he worked in a place with nice weather and there was a nice patio to sit on, and it was pleasant to go out and eat lunch, walk down to the beach even, etc. I have hated packed lunches since first grade, although I did make good ones in high school.


  9. Ah, I call BS on the “example” “Rachel” – the article says she wants to move to save money, but doesn’t have the cash for the costs of moving, including money for “security deposit, as her current place didn’t require one” -BUT further down the article it says, she’s now saved enough to move, AND will get back her security deposit when she does – uh uh, can’t have it both ways!!!


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