On finances and being a self-funding student

Over at The New Academic, Nadine Muller is running a series of posts on part time, self-funded postgraduate study. I’ve been following them with interest, being a part time, self-funded PhD student myself, and the range of stories and experiences is really fascinating. My experience of being a part time PhD candidate is, on the whole, a positive one (as you’ll find out if you read my post when it’s published) – my supervisor and my department have been incredibly supportive, and recognise that working full time while trying to study is hard. I’m eternally grateful for that. But there is one aspect of my PhD experience that is really difficult, and that’s the financial side of it. That was brought home to me today when I had to borrow £200 off my dad to pay for my car insurance.

I work in admin, and though my salary is several thousand pounds a year short of the UK average, it’s a lot better than other jobs: after I’ve paid my tax, national insurance, student loan, etc. I bring home around £1,200 a month. I’m repaying the career development loan I took out to fund my MA, though, which is £200 a month, and I pay my tuition fees to Aberystwyth monthly too, which is another £280. So before I even think about my mortgage and bills I’ve got nearly £500 a month coming out of my salary. Add my mortgage to that and it increases to £824, leaving just under £400 for everything else. That everything else includes gas, electric and water bills, the internet and my mobile phone contract, pet insurance and income protection, and the £10 a month I save through my union’s Credit Union. I try to budget £50 a week to cover petrol, food and anything else I might need, and when I’m spending £30 on petrol to get to work and back that means £20 for food. If I can stick to that budget (which doesn’t include car or house insurance, servicing costs for the car or unexpected expenses) I’m left with £22.41, which I use to try and pay off my (thankfully interest-free) overdraft.

I know I’m in a better position than a lot of people, particularly in the current economic climate, and I’m not trying to make myself look worse off than I am (if I do, please let me know). But it is hard work. I was talking to a friend on Twitter recently who was doing the Live Below the Line challenge and while I’m nowhere near living in that kind of poverty I am more careful than a lot of friends about what I spend. The reduced aisles in supermarkets are a frequent haunt of mine, and having two freezers (one picked up on Freecycle) means I can store a lot of food that’s nearing its use by date. I keep a stockpile of baking potatoes and onions; jacket potato and beans is easy and cheap, and I can fry some onions with dried herbs and chopped tomatoes to have with pasta. I rarely buy fresh fruit and veg, unless it’s marked down cheap in the reduced section, and I really, really miss eating salad! I do save up for the odd treat now and again – if I budget carefully and have a load of food in the freezer I can get a takeaway with friends – but money is always at the back of my mind.

I know that this problem is of my own making, and I could solve it if I had to. If I didn’t do an MA I wouldn’t be paying back £200 a month until 2015; if I wasn’t doing a PhD I wouldn’t be paying £280 a month (and rising, given inflation, etc.) for the foreseeable future. If I stopped going to conferences (which I pay for myself as the university’s conference budget isn’t large) I wouldn’t be spending hundreds a year on travel and accomodation. I wouldn’t have to borrow money from my parents (and I know I’m lucky to have parents who can lend it to me, as much as I hate asking). It’s my desire to have an education and do original research in an area I love – an area that is suffering from cuts to funding – that means I have to balance the things I want to do with the things I have to do. And there’s a lot I could say about the issues of funding in Higher Education, though that’s probably better saved for another post. What it boils down to for me is that my research is more important than eating salad, so it’s 11p packets of Asda chicken flavour noodles for dinner rather than, say, stuffed peppers with haloumi and grilled chicken. It’s not always easy to remember that though, and I’d love to know how other self-funded students juggle their finances. If you’ve got any money-saving tips, share them in the comments. Maybe we can cheer each other on.

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5 thoughts on “On finances and being a self-funding student

  1. First, you have to pay your school loans while still in school? That’s awful! In the US there is forbearance on loans, even for a previous degree, while you are still enrolled and for 6 months after. They also don’t accrue interest in that period (At least, they used to not. They did away with that for grad students last year, boo.)

    That said, while I’m not in the same position you are (grad students here have tuition waivers, thanks to our union, and my MA loans aren’t an active cost to me right now), my financial situation for next year has unexpectedly become uncertain (either I or my department has miscounted my years of funding), so I have been thinking about these issues.

    I don’t have a lot to suggest, except that my go-to “I’m broke” meal is beans and rice, which can occupy various levels of fancy depending if there’s room in the budget for avocado, etc. It’s a complete protein, and cheap, though I suspect that Mexican food’s ease and obviousness to me as a Californian is a factor too. But, I’m happy to share the recipe if you’d like.

    And, last but not least, I applaud your commitment. I would totally have bailed out and gone to work in publishing in your place.

    • We do! The UK system is frustrating. I had to take out a loan to get my BA, and due to my family’s circumstances I was entitled to the full amount, but it also means that I have much more to repay, and interest is charged which originally it wasn’t going to be. More often that not I don’t even count my student loan when I’m working out my debts because there’s loads of it and it’ll be years before I pay it off. The loan I took out for the MA was repayable a year after I graduated, and the government paid the interest while I was studying, but because it’s a bank loan I can’t ask for it to be put off or anything. It’s frustrating and annoying, and demonstrates how education is by no means free, but there’s not much I can do about it.

      I’m really sorry to hear that your financial circumstances next year are uncertain. I really hope that it can be sorted out soon, and in a positive way for you. Money is one of the most stressful things to deal with I think, especially when you need to concentrate on your research.

      I would love your recipe for beans and rice too! It’s a combination I never would have thought of, and cheap is also a good thing 🙂

      Haha, thanks. I’m a glutton for punishment!

  2. I’m actually just about to begin a part-time self-funded PhD in October and I’m absolutely terrified. Thankfully I paid for my MA upfront with some money I inherited, so I don’t have that looming over me, but the difference in situation is that I’ve had to resign from my full-time job, as it’s extremely demanding of my time. 9 times out of 10, I’m working 10-12 hour days and there’s no way in hell I’m going to have the energy to research around that.

    I’ve taken it unto myself to get a part-time bar job, so that most of my shifts will be nightly, leaving the day time for study. Thankfully where I live is cheap, and I am pretty good at eating cheaply too.

    Do you have a Chinese supermarket anywhere near you? If so, I highly recommend shopping there. I’ve learned to live off stir fry – it’s so cheap, quick and more importantly, healthy! At my local Chinese supermarket I bought huge bottles of dark soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar for under £5. So far they’ve lasted me until now (I bought them at the beginning of March) and they’re not even half empty yet. Plus, a pack of dry rice vermicelli noodles which will last at least a week is only £1.45. Garlic, ginger, coriander (in fact, most herbs and spices) are insanely cheap there, so all you have to worry about buying at the supermarket is the veg. I just buy a small white cabbage, red cabbage and bag of carrots – again, well under a fiver, and that’s my entire week of evening meals sorted (provided you’re happy to eat similar meals each day). You can vary with lunch if necessary, and I also keep a bag of frozen sweetcorn or chopped peppers in the freezer to chuck in occasionally. My point is if variation isn’t at the top of your list of priorities, it’s possible to eat healthily on about £5-7 a week (though I am just talking about evening meals). Also, this doesn’t take meat into account. If you’re an avid carnivore, that will rack up a few more pounds, but as you’re already doing, it’s better to buy meat when it’s reduced and put it straight in the freezer.

    Also – do you HAVE to drive? I’m just thinking the tax, insurance, petrol and maintenance costs would be a great thing to get rid of if you can?

    • What’s your research going to be on? Despite how difficult it can be some of the time, for me the benefits of being part-time and self-funded are definitely positive. If I was full time I’d be close to finishing up my research now, and I don’t feel at all prepared for that! I feel like having the time to really research the ins and outs of my topic has helped my writing immensely, so try not to be terrified!

      Having a part time job in the evenings sounds like a good idea. My job is full time, and it can be really hard to come home from that and get straight into PhD mode.

      Thanks for all of the eating cheaply tips too! I don’t like near a Chinese supermarket sadly (I live in the south Wales valleys, so while there might be one in Cardiff that’s about 30 miles away) but I do have a B&M and a Home Bargains which do really cheap noodles and pasta. I keep frozen veg in the freezer too (I hadn’t thought of frozen peppers, which is bizarre given how much I love peppers!) and I buy cheap tinned veg from Asda.

      I do have to drive, unfortunately. I’d love to be able to get to work and back on public transport but it’d take about 2.5 hours each way and cost more than petrol does!

      • Fair enough, I assumed it would be a necessity, otherwise you wouldn’t do it!

        Well, if you do like the sound of the stir fry and ever find yourself near a Chinese supermarket at some point, it’s worth investing in the sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and soy sauce, because they’ll last for ages and you can get the rest from Asda. Cheap noodles are also a great way to go and I’ll probably be adding them to my diet once my PhD actually begins.

        I’m examining Pre-Raphaelite paintings within a framework of 18th/19th century theatrical practice, with particular focus on the language of gesture.

        I find your topic fascinating – how did you arrive at it and what’s your specific thesis?

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