16 Honest Hacks To Save $74,427 In Graduate School (And Still Enjoy Your Life)

Going to graduate school to do a PhD is absurdly expensive.

In some countries you pay for it and when you finish you are the proud owner of a debt similar to that of a south European country. Some PhD graduates report being up to $225,000 in debt after their PhD. That’s insane!!

In some other countries, government (or society, or a research funding institution) covers most of the bill, which was my case by doing a PhD in The Netherlands. Either way, you don’t have much money.
save money in graduate school pay back student debt
Wouldn’t it be great to save money in graduate school? Or even better, earn extra money?

In this post I cover cheeky yet honest ways to earn and save money in graduate school. I have used most of them during my PhD.

I won’t go into typical things you can find everywhere like max your credit card. Or have a budget. Or don’t borrow money. Or don’t wear make up. Or turn off the lights. Everybody can do those things. We can do better.

You are a PhD student. You have certain “assets” you can leverage so you don’t have to pay for things. Hey, by assets I don’t mean that you have to sell you body or body fluids.

By being in graduate school you are in a situation where you can ask, and do, and exchange and sell things that nobody else can. Don’t worry, everything here is legit.

More bang for your buck

With these hacks you will have intangible ROI. You will not only save money in grad school but also grow your network, gain skills, learn new things, enjoy great food or visit other countries. Can you put a price tag to that?

I want you to have a great experience in grad school. Life is not all about science or money. It’s also about experiences. That is  the side effect of these money saving hacks.

I group the savings in two categories “No extra time needed” and “Extra time needed”. I assume that finding a tenant for the room you are renting won’t cost you real time (as on a regular basis) while having a side job will require extra time.

Let’s not forget why you are here. You are here to do science and finish your PhD.

You are not here to make money. Saving and making money on the side will reduce your future debt and make your current life more pleasant. But that should not be at the expense of your output in grad school.

Get your priorities in order, if you don’t really have time to work part time then don’t do it. This is why I split these saving money tips in two categories, one where you don’t need to spend time-saving money and another one where the money saved/earned is a byproduct of the hours you put in.

By the way, these tips reveal some recurring priorities of mine: eating and travelling. You goal is to fulfil your non-academic priorities while saving money.
For the record, I am not a financial expert nor do I play one on the Internet. If you are really struggling financially or you think you require advice from a professional, well, then look for a professional. 

Now, let’s start saving some ka-ching!

16 Ways To Save Money In Graduate School (And Live A Great Life)

No extra time needed

#1 Conferences With Free Food

The first tip to save money in graduate school is to go to lunch conferences in the campus where they serve free food.

You will learn some science and fill your stomach.

I did this every Tuesday for more than a year. I saw presentations in many fields by renowned visiting scientists and scientists from my uni that had recently been awarded tenure.Lunch was not crazy, just some simple sandwiches, juices and fruit. But hey. they filled my belly.

Estimated savings: 30 lunches x $4 per lunch = $120 saved.

#2 Free Pizza + Beer Meetups

Join evening meet ups on a different topic than your research area where they serve pizzas: you will fill your stomach again and will learn from other fields.save money in graduate school by eating free pizza

This is specially useful if you want to transition to industry or you want to stop your PhD.

Let me show you how.

I have attended to data science meetups in my area where a sponsor offered free pizza and beers. They do that because they want to attract working people, not just students. If they come straight from their work, they need something to fill up the belly.

The cool thing is that you

  • get a full belly for free; but most importantly
  • learn what’s going on in data science world (or your topic of choice) and get ready for when you want to transition
  • network with potential employers.

There are many alternative careers for PhDs.Estimated savings: 5 meetups/year x 4 years x $10 per dinner= $200 saved.

#3 Tupperware Yourself

Bring your own food instead of buying in the canteen.

Options are left-overs from dinner, salads, sandwiches or some simple slow-carb diet recipe (beans + veggies + protein), which is my choice.

It takes me only 120 seconds to make it. Most of it comes out of a can, which makes it easy to prepare and rather cheap.By doing this and not eating at the canteen I cut by 50% my lunch expenses.

And by the way, I also lost 10kg in the process 🙂save money in graduate school eat healthyEstimated savings: 5 lunches/week x 40 weeks/year (I assume you take holidays and are not always at the uni) x 4 years x $5 per lunch at canteen x 50%= $2,000 saved.

#4 Entrepre-foodie-neur

Want to taste other cuisines and got no  money to go to a restaurant?

Ask foreign students to join you for a lunch party where “everybody brings a typical dish from their country”. There must be plenty of foreign PhDs walking around.

I have done this with a group of students from India and you wouldn’t believe the sort of amazing food I tasted in between experiments in a meeting room at the uni. It was much better than the Indian restaurant in town.

Furthermore, you will have a great cultural exchange and you will make new friends.

Estimated savings:  12 lunches/year x 4 years x ($25 lunch at restaurant – $12 cost preparing your national dish)= $624 saved.

#5 Real Estate Mogul 1.0

Sub-letting bedrooms.

But I got no bedrooms!!!

Rent a house near campus with n bedrooms between n-1 people.

Rent the remaining empty room to visiting scientists. They usually are willing to pay more per month just to stay close to the campus.

You could approach all the secretaries of all research labs and ask them to include your bedroom in the listings of possible short-stay accommodations for visitors that they usually compile.

Estimated savings (this one is huge):  5 months/year room is rented to scientists x 4 years x ($1500 monthly room rent for scientist – $475 what the room really costs you)= $20,500 saved.

#6 Real Estate Mogul 2.0

Extreme sub-letting.

An extreme case of the previous hack is you rent a house, you sleep in the basement and rent out all the bedrooms, so basically you have a roof for free. Provided that the basement is liveable.

(I will consider this amount for the grand total instead of #5)

Estimated savings (this one is also handsome):  12 months/year room is rented  x 4 years x $475 what the room costs you = $22,800 saved.

#7 High Flyer

Wanna go on holidays but no money for a plane ticket? Apply to a conference abroad and ask your boss to pay for the flight.


Once you are there, you will take a few days of holidays between the end of the conference and your flight back.

Why would she say yes to that?

I know that your supervisor is not a charitable travel agency. Therefore to maximise the chances of her saying yes you have to:

  • be accepted to give a presentation at the conference, or at least a poster
  • make sure you don’t miss the early bird registration, so fees are as cheap as possible for your boss
  • book flights in low-cost days in the middle of the week

Estimated savings:  (2 conferences in your continent x $375 return plane ticket)  + (1 conference in other continent x $875 intercontinental return plane ticket) = $1,625 saved. The experience of spending time abroad is priceless. 

#8 Meet The Locals

Staying on the hotel of the conference?

While that can be nice and convenient, you could save money in graduate school by staying at a near AirBnB accommodation (and at the same time mingle with the locals).

In AirBnB you can find from single rooms to complete villas  in almost every country.

You will find cheaper accommodation and get to know the way of living of the locals. You can have a peek in their culture (if you care about those things). Most AirBnB hosts tend to be very kind, so you can expect useful tips and having meals together.

Estimated savings:  3 conferences  x 4 nights/conference x ($115/hotel night – $75/AirBnB night)  = $480 saved. The experience of spending time with locals is also priceless. 

#9 Travel Bursaries Scavenger

Want to live abroad for a while?

Some universities, research funds and very long conferences (2+ months) have scholarships to invite visiting PhD students. They will pay you the housing and sometimes even some pocket money for expenses.

They want to stimulate cooperation and exchange of ideas. You get to do that, build your network and spend time in a different country.

I got a visiting scientist position and 3 months of expenses covered for a mega conference/workshop at f****ng holy moly UCLA. UCLA man!!

You might think “yeah well, you are special, you are the Michael Jordan of science”. I wish. I was a run of the mill PhD. I was a bit lucky, though. But remember that you make your own luck. 

I have some letter templates for applying to conferences and bursaries here.

Estimated savings realistic scenario:  $0 (you cover expenses in destination country, at home you still pay the bills)  = $0 saved. Estimated savings idel scenario:  3 months abroad x $475/month subletting your room  = $1,425 saved.

#10 Cold Productivity

Turn down the heating at your apartment and office.

It saves money and at the same time, a colder environment increases focus and your productivity and it stimulates fat burn. I know this tip is maybe not so comfortable and a bit far fetched, but hey, with one action you have a domino effect: more money, more productivity, better health.

save money in graduate school be productive

Estimated savings:  $20/year x 4 years  = $80 saved. It’s up to you to put a price tag tomore productivity and better health.

#11 Sponsored PhD

Try to get a sponsor for your thesis.

Yes, offer some sponsorship space in the first pages of your thesis.

Imagine you used intensively a piece of software during your PhD. You could contact the company behind it and ask them to help pay the costs of printing the thesis in exchange for a paragraph in page two saying

The printing of this thesis was sponsored by Company X, the creator of Software Tool Y, which I used during the research here presented.

Estimated savings:  $1,200 cost of printing a thesis x for free 🙂 = $1,200 saved.

#12 Bulk Printing

Join other PhD students and print your thesis in bulk (if you haven’t found a sponsor that pays 100% of your printing costs). A smart printer will give you a handsome discount (up to 20%) if you come with multiple thesis that need 100 copies each.

Keep you eyes open from the beginning of your PhD. You will see leaflets or sales people from the printers. Remember their names and the months in which they make such offers. You will need to find PhDs that need to print around the same dates and that will take you a bit of time.

Estimated savings:  $1,200 cost of printing a thesis x 20% discount  = $240 saved. This one doesn’t count for the grand total (I assume you get a sponsor)

#13 Good Ol’ Student Discounts

Chances are you are in a university campus or a student city.

Ask in every shop you buy if they give discount to students. Who knows, you might get 10% off and will develop the skill of negotiating.

During my PhD, I went with some colleagues to a pub that on Tuesday offered beer at half the price. I can only tell you that on Wednesday I never planned any heavy thinking activity at the lab.

Estimated savings:  $2/beer  x 2 beers/week x 40 weeks x 4 years x 50% discount = $320 saved.

#14 Second Hand

Buy used books or borrow from the library instead of buying them. You can do the same with clothes, furniture or technology.

save money in graduate school buy second hand

Estimated savings (I assume that by buying second hand you save 50%):  (laptop $1,500  + bed $300 + cupboard  $250+ desk $150 + chair $75) x 50% discount   = $1,137 saved.
Total savings No extra time needed = $32,011

Extra time needed

#15 Make Money 3 Times

If you need to work on the side while doing a PhD, choose jobs that will help you develop transferable skills like sales, project management, networking, public speaking, budgeting, organising events, coaching, supervising others…

You will earn money three times.

  1. By earning it via the job itself. Extra cash in graduate school hurts nobody. Estimated savings (extra income):  $500/month x 12 months x 4 years = $24,000 saved. 
  2. Because you networked and have more experience and skills you will finding a post-PhD job faster after you graduate, either if you stay in academia or if you leave and search for a job in industry after your PhD. Less unemployment time means more money.  Estimated savings (find post-PhD job 1 month sooner):  1,200 monthly expenses x 1 month  = $1,200 saved.
  3. Having extra skills makes you a more valuable employee, so you will have some aces up your sleeve to negotiate a higher salary. Estimated savings (higher starting salary):  ($3,347 average PhD starting monthly salary x 12 months)  x 10% higher salary = $4,016 saved in your first year after PhD.

 #16 Alternative Income

Earn a second income leveraging your skills. We have a post covering that, read it here. Income here could range from $1 a month to N figures. Realistically you can expect a progression from $100 a month in your first year to $500 a month in your last year.


Estimated savings:  (1st year $100 month x 12 months) +   (2nd year $200 month x 12 months) +  (3rd year $300 month x 12 months)  +  (4th year $500 month x 12 months) = $13,200 saved.
Total savings Extra time needed = $42,416

Grand total savings = $74,427


What Matters Most

From the things mentioned above, during my PhD I didn’t sub-let rooms or had a part time job. I did all the other hacks. Looking back at it, I don’t have any special memories about the money at all. Of course saving money during my PhD helped, I’m not trying to fool you here.

Do you want to know what I remember the most about my PhD time?

Two things.

First. Having finished the PhD.

That’s the biggest thing. I get a warm feeling when I think that I finished it. My contribution to science could be huge or almost insignificant. I know my PhD matters.

My professor gifted me a pen for my graduation. Now, when I take a note with it, I feel great, because it reminds me I finished my PhD.

Second. Experiences.

I love attending talks and conferences. All that smart people sharing their knowledge to the audience. I cannot count the number of lunch conferences, meetups and scientific meetings I attended. That little bit of happiness of each talk compounds.

I love meeting other people. I visited several international research groups. Stayed for a while in Los Angeles and near Paris. Had lunches with PhDs from India. Dinners with other international students.

These are precious memories for me.

I want you to have your precious memories too.

I can only show you what worked for me. I hope this helps you to find your own way.


A final word.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Ask to go to a conference, Ask for a scholarship. Ask to be invited to give a talk. Ask for a sponsor. And when you ask, back it up with good arguments and show determination, people will take you seriously.


About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.


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