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.