Budget Throwdown: Typical Graduate Student

Yesterday, we took a look at how the typical American household spends their money.  Half of all expenditures go to housing and transportation; the next quarter goes to food, entertainment, and healthcare.

Today, we'll take a look at what universities believe are reasonable budgets for their graduate students.  These budgets, published on the universities' websites, are also used by the federal government in federal student financial aid calculations.

UC Berkeley

This budget is a little strange, as it is only designed to cover nine months out of the year.  I've modified the annual costs based on the assumption you plan on eating and living somewhere during the other three months of the year:

UC Berkeley, 2012-13MonthlyAnnual
Rent & Utilities49%$1,160.00$13,920.00
Total Living Expenses98%$2,317.00$27,804.00
Health Insurance---(covered)$2,306.00
Tuition & Fees---(covered)$12,876.00
Total Graduate Budget2%$3,640.67$43,688.00
Total Expense to Student100%$2,375.50$28,506.00

Most graduate programs (at least in engineering and the applied sciences) cover tuition, fees, and health insurance, so with textbooks the total annual budget comes to $28,500.

Graduate students in my engineering program receive a stipend of $31,000 per year ($2,580/month), so if you stuck to this budget and paid around 12% in taxes—a typical rate, for this income—you'd come out $1,200 negative for the year.  This represents a savings rate of -3.9%.

Most federal graduate student fellowships provide stipend support at around the same rate that my program does.  How would a similar income fare in other regions?


How are things for our friends to the south?  A bit worse!

Stanford, 2012-13MonthlyAnnual
Rent & Utilities44%$1,153.33$13,840.00
Personal Expenses12%$310.00$3,720.00
Total Living Expenses84%$2,221.67$26,660.00
Books and Supplies8%$2,600.00
Campus Health Fee2%$716.00
Health Insurance6%$1,800.00
Tuition & Fees---(covered)$43,950.00
Total Graduate Budget16%$6,310.50$75,726.00
Total Expense to Student100%$2,648.00$31,776.00

Assuming again that tuition and fees are covered by the school, the total annual budget comes to $31,800.  This is another $3,300 ($275 per month) higher than UC Berkeley, primarily due to a larger personal expense allowance and a large out-of-pocket health insurance fee.

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

The cost of living in Lincoln, Nebraska is only 69% of that in the Bay Area.  UNL provides several pages of budget information here, here, and a calculator here.

For a resident graduate student living off-campus, also adjusted to cover all 12 months:

U Nebraska-Lincoln, 2012-13MonthlyAnnual
Rent & Food & Utilities66%$1,050.00$12,600.00
Personal & Transportation27%$424.00$5,088.00
Total Living Expenses93%$1,474.00$17,688.00
Health Insurance2%$368.00
Tuition & Fees---(covered)$6,538.00
Total Graduate Budget7%$2,135.50$25,626.00
Total Expense to Student100%$1,590.67$19,088.00

Assuming again that tuition and fees are covered by the school, the total annual budget comes to $19,100.  This is a difference of $9,400 ($780 per month) with UC Berkeley, primarily due to the much lower cost of housing—a $450/month apartment in Nebraska might cost $1,050/month in Berkeley.

Pennsylvania State University

And now for some middle ground—not in the Bay Area, but not (quite) so out in the corn either.

A suggested budget and cost of attendance data, also adjusted to cover the entire year:

Penn State, 2012-13MonthlyAnnual
Rent & Utilities38%$800.00$9,600.00
Personal & Transportation20%$420.00$5,040.00
Total Living Expenses85%$1,770.00$21,240.00
Health Insurance2%$470.00
Tuition & Fees---(covered)$20,206.00
Total Graduate Budget15%$3,771.00$45,252.00
Total Expense to Student100%$2,087.17$25,046.00

Assuming again that tuition and fees are covered by the school, the total annual budget comes to $25,050.  This is $3,450 lower than UC Berkeley, primarily due to lower rent and cheaper food.


Unsurprisingly, the essentials take up a larger proportion of the graduate school budget than they did for the average American surveyed by the BLS: housing, food, and transportation account for 80-90% of the budgets above, versus 64% for the average American.  Housing, food, and transportation are clearly the categories with the largest potential for improvement.

If you have a low income in a high cost-of-living area, is that the end of the story?

Not even close. Your choices are just as important as your situation.

With this context in place, tomorrow I'll discuss some specifics about how I significantly undercut several of these categories to live very well on half of the university estimated cost of attendance.  In two years of graduate school, this has enabled me to invest nearly $30,000.