Breaking the grad student budget

Grad students joke, cry, and complain about being poor. As a grad student, I definitely don’t make a lot, but I make enough to eat well, live in a cozy apartment, and make a dent in the debt I racked up as a student with no health insurance. Quite frankly, I feel positively wealthy sometimes.

But having enough does not mean I have extra, so I do have to be pretty careful about budgeting. One thing that makes it difficult is the frequency and timing of my paychecks. I get paid within a 6 week period at the beginning of each fall, spring, and summer semesters. I plan so that I’ll have enough to last through that entire 6 week period at both ends of the semester, plus I have a little in savings for some wiggle room in case of an emergency. My first two semesters this worked very well. This summer it’s a bit more of a challenge.

by sarcozona

Between data collection trips and conferences, I’ll rack up about $3500 in travel expenses this summer. That’s a big percentage of this third of the year’s paycheck. Lucky for me, almost all of this cost will ultimately be covered by my supervisor’s grants and conference travel funding from the university. The catch is that I have to pay almost all of it out of pocket and reimbursement will trickle in slowly between August and next January.

This puts some serious hurt on my budget. Even decimating my wiggle room savings and increasing the amount of peanut butter in my diet won’t cover all of the costs, which means I’ll be putting some of it on a credit card. Too bad I can’t put interest on the reimbursement forms…


  1. I was really struggling with carrying the expenses of travel– we get reimbursed, but I was still expected to carry the cost up front. I don’t have credit cards that can accommodate those kinds of purchases, which made it even more difficult. I found out that my university has a travel expense credit card, which I was able to get and use for travel-related purchases. It’s been a life-saver– I don’t have to worry about interest, either. Maybe that’s an option?

    • Sarcozona says:

      I was able to get one plane ticket like that, but because of the particular sources of funding I’m relying on, that isn’t an option for the majority of my travel, unfortunately. But good call!

  2. Guest says:

    I feel your pain — just got a $2000 reimbursement for recent travel that I had to pay out of pocket. But there’s no excuse for such a long reimbursement time-table at your University. I’ve found it useful to ask to do as much of the paperwork as possible myself and then make a regular friendly visit to the accountant(s) to see how the paperwork is progressing, whether they need help, can I hand-deliver forms to get signatures, etc. In person is best, but you can do this by email, too. I now generally get reimbursements within 2 weeks of submitting forms.

    • Sarcozona says:

      Doing the paperwork as soon as possible and checking in with whoever’s responsible for processing are definitely really helpful for moving things along. I have considerably less influence on the process once it moves from whoever I have to give paperwork to in my department to university accounting/business services. Usually that stage only adds a month maximum to reimbursements. Unfortunately, a lot of my funding is coming from a source that won’t begin processing any reimbursements until late fall, no matter when they’re received.

  3. Karina Anirak says:

    Ugh, it’s going to take me quite a while to get some of my reimbursements too. Some of them I can’t even submit until the week of the conference because of when the various deadlines fall!

  4. lizbet says:

    Reimbursements are frustrating. I went in to the accounts office and looked pitiful until they gave me about $100 of the 500 they owed me from petty cash because I wanted to buy food recently. 

  5. Phagenista says:

    These suggestions on how to speed the university through the reimbursement process can be helpful, but some universities are slower than others.  I’m an assistant prof at a slow one, and I have a policy that any student can ask me for a check to cover the costs of travel and can pay me back when the reimbursement comes in.  Not all students take me up on the offer, but they all know the offer is genuine. At least one other professor in my department has a similar policy. I do not know how a professor without a similar standing policy would react if asked for an advance… but at least you can remember this policy when you have your own labs and not be part of the problem.

    Another (possibly university-specific) way to ease the burden on grad students is to buy the airline tickets through a PO to a travel agency instead of asking the grad student to pick up the expense.  Where I work, doing this means a $40 charge to the grant for the use of the travel agency, a couple of days longer to book the flight, and involving an already overworked AA.  But if it means that the $1000 expense of a European flight is shifted from the grad student to my grant instantly, it’s worth the $40 to me, and the AA understands — she was once a grad student in biology too.

  1. […] complained last summer about the complicated process and long time frame for getting reimbursed for conference […]

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