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Home » Discover Rackham » Stretching the Student Dollar

Not all of us come with the kind of privileged backgrounds of “Gossip Girl,” who might actually not be attending graduate school in the first place!

I thought a blog post on how to survive on a student budget might be helpful for students in graduate school. Here are some of the tips that have worked out for me in creating some savings from the monthly stipend as a research assistant and I am sure there are many more tricks and tips out there to be explored.

First off let me mention that Rackham provides this very cool seminar on budgeting – I remember a lady from the Credit Union presenting some very basic tools and suggestions on how much to save and how to balance a checkbook. One of her suggestions that I still remember was to subtract the fixed expenditures (rent, insurance and other non-negotiables) and put some (20%) in savings and to use the remainder for all other stuff, this is assuming you have some sort of income/allowance/stipend as a graduate student.

It struck me that to have a larger amount in hand and in savings I could cut the fixed expenditures. I decided to live on campus – fortunately for me I found a decent single bedroom apartment in a basement on central campus within easy walking distance to my department. In addition it was close to the public library, the church, Kerrytown market and the Blake public transit system. This meant I could do away with owning a car and all other associated costs. I feel there are pros and cons to moving far out and paying a lower amount in rent and spending the money saved in owning a car. Having said this, I have to mention a student who moved apartments every year to snag the free rent deal on the first month – I guess it helps to have very little stuff to move around!

There are times when you do need a car and I solved that by signing up for Zipcar which offers lower priced membership for students and some freebies for first time users. For long term rentals as students, renting out from National rental agency includes the insurance in the university contract. Some credit cards cover the basic insurance in rental cars and car rentals usually have cheap weekend deals.

Speaking of insurance coverage through credit cards I have to mention that not all credit cards are the same, something that I realized when I switched mine. I have redeemed points accrued over time in multiple gift cards amounting to several hundred dollars – so look out for what you get from your card.

As far as freebies go, check the plans on your insurance coverage. I only recently found out that my Delta dental option 1 (included for most grad students) offered free dental checkup and cleanings twice a year.

Being a student allows for a lot of savings in art and entertainment. The rush tickets are a bargain $10 for some of the best performances in premium seating, my best so far is sitting on the Main Floor in the Hill Auditorium for the New York Philharmonic – I doubly enjoyed the performance when I found my seat! I realized only last year that as students we also get free tickets to some select performances using the Passport to the Arts voucher – if one manages to get the voucher before they are all out. I attended some performances that I would not have bothered with otherwise. I also got to watch some movies – first day first show in the Michigan Theater through the vouchers. If you have the time, I know of some people who volunteer as ushers at the Hill Auditorium or the Power Center and attend performances for free. I also know of students who as Arts ambassadors would attend performances for free with a guest in exchange for writing a review/critique of the performance – not a bad deal.

Since I live in the downtown area I became a member at the People’s Food Co-Op where I buy most of my groceries. There are so many benefits of shopping at the Co-op – they offer 15% discounts to members on some weekends, they have fresh produce that is mostly local, they offer bulk purchase which is discounted every Tuesday by 15% and their organic produce is affordable and on days when you don’t feel like cooking they also serve hot food. An added bonus of being a member at the Co-op meant that the profits are split at the end of the year and I recently got a check for $35 in my mail. Shopping local implies that I often buy only as much as I need and use produce when it is the freshest.

Cutting costs of eating out saves a lot of money – I enjoy cooking so carrying lunch and cooking dinner is not a chore. To maximize on time and effort I cook multiple dishes and freeze in separate containers – this also prevents eating the same dish at every meal during the week. For those who wish to learn more about saving through eating healthy and organic food on a budget for $5 per day I recommend reading Wildly Affordable Organic : Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet–All on $5 a Day or Less by Linda Watson, which I borrowed from the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). Did I mention the benefits of being a member of the AADL? It is free for all residents of Ann Arbor and has a wide selection of books, audio books, music, movies, and TV series. They even allow you to borrow framed painting for three weeks at a time!

Other ways to save money include deals on Groupon, LivingSocial, and membership cards from frequently used stores. Elsewhere some other students have mentioned getting birthday deals – some of the deals can be redeemed all through the month of your birthday – my friends and I have been to the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase several times during the year for free. In my opinion spending wisely involves planning and anticipating needs ahead of time and in doing so quality and time are never compromised. So what have been some of the strategies that worked for you?