Wednesday, April 27, 2011

End of the semester craziness.

It's that time of year when homework, tests, and papers all hit at once. I've been a touch lackadaisical about school, relatively speaking at least, and now I'm feeling a bit stressed. It's somewhat irrational since I'm pretty sure these grades won't matter to anyone but me, ever. Even if I made a B in every class, it still wouldn't jeopardize my future. I'm into grad school and funded, and in my more rational moments I remind myself that one non-stellar semester won't cause those offers to be rescinded. Still, the prospect of doing poorly is preying on my mind.

It doesn't help that I never fully got into the swing of school this semester. First, there was the snow. We got a couple of big storms, and the Southern U.S. doesn't do well with snow. Even a couple of inches is enough to keep most people off the roads and snow plows are quite uncommon so when we had a few days in a row when it snowed pretty much continuously or when another storm dumped a foot and a half in one day, you can imagine the results. My university was closed amost as much as it was open for the first few weeks of the semester. After that came the grad school interviews/visits, which involved missing lots of classes and having almost no time on weekends to get things done for several weeks in a row. Throw in a bit of senioritis, and it hasn't been the most productive time of my life.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Financial talks with my fiance are making me nervous.

I've been trying to take the advice of every financial guru of the past fifty years and start having some serious chats about money with my fiancé. In some ways, it feels a bit superfluous since we have a pretty good handle on where we both stand and fairly similar outlooks and goals. I knew the details of his monthly budget before we even started officially dating, and I did his taxes, helped him file his FAFSA, and walked him through setting up an online savings account last year. I think I've been similarly transparent about my finances.

So there haven't been any big surprises. He doesn't have much in savings, extended unemployment stinks like that, but he's frugal, and thanks to his generous parents he'll finish school without any loans. He had a brief fling with building credit card debt in his early twenties, paid it off as quickly as possible once he came to his senses, and now he's just as debt averse as I am, perhaps more so. If anything, he's more conservative with his money than I am. He's come to gradually accept that it's probably ok for me to use a credit card and pay it off every month, but he prefers cash for everything. He's also very leery of the stock market and investment risk; I suspect that when we get married and combine finances, we'll need to structure our retirement savings so that accounts with his name on them contain the most stable parts of our joint portfolio.

We're pretty much in line on our big goals as well. One to two children, a house that we pay off as quickly as possible, building savings, having pets, helping family if needed, we're checking the same metaphorical boxes on our priority lists. I was somewhat amused to learn that The Boy wants a literal house with white picket fence, although he did helpfully offer to build the fence himself once we get the house.

So why am I feelings so stressed? If life goes according to plan, I'll probably be in school for the next six years, then a year or two of post-doc work, then if I'm both extremely lucky and extremely talented, maybe, just maybe, I might be able to find a tenure track position. Ideally, we'd like to be in a position to buy a house once we're settled more or less permanently. That gives us several years to save.

However, how the heck do kids fit into this plan? A professor once advised me that the last year of grad school is generally a pretty good time to have a child if you are at the point where you are focused on writing up your research and not so active in running experiments, but I don't know whether I can make that work. The Boy is considering being a stay at home dad for a couple of years at some point, but that doesn't sound too feasible when I'll be making $20,000 a year after my fellowship eligibility runs out. A bit of googling revealed that daycare for an infant costs around $250 a week where I'll be living for graduate school, and The Boy, upon hearing this concluded that daycare is expensive and suggested we "get a very nice nanny" instead before he did the math and realized that $250/40 is less than the federal minimum wage.

It's moments like these that I'm more than a little envious of men. On one of my grad school visits I met a male professor who has been at his university for twenty years, and his daughters are two and four. Women can't compartmentalize their lives like that, building decades long records of professional success before scaling back to start families, at least not in a field where you're thirty before you're even out of training and not with being a biological parent at least. (That's important to the Boy, far less so for me.) The "leaky pipeline" of women in science is making more and more sense. (And please don't get me started on the male grad student at another university who was part of a panel discussion and when asked about the family friendliness of the institution, helpfully opined that he has a four month old and it hasn't affected his ability to work twelve hour days six days a week in the slightest.)

At the same university I met a female professor in her mid thirties who is somehow balancing tenure track, a preschooler, a newborn, and a husband who is also tenure track so clearly it can be done. How, I'm not quite sure, but I have to keep telling myself it can be done.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Weekend Objectives

I need to gather my receipts and fill out the paperwork for reimbursement for my last couple of graduate school visits, do my taxes, and finish declining the offers from the graduate schools I won't be attending. I'm looking forward to that last one the least. Bureaucracy, forms, and money don't phase me, but trying to let people down politely is a task I don't relish.

It isn't difficult to decline the offers from some schools. My list of acceptances included a couple of safety schools that I was pretty sure I wouldn't attend if I got into stronger program even though they probably would have been fine back-ups and another school whose financial offer was, quite frankly, a joke; I didn't even fly out to visit these programs and thus had no compunction about simply checking the box on the form letter to let them know I was rejecting their offers of admission. With any luck, someone who really wants to go there and will be a great fit with each program is getting moved off a wait list. However, there are two other programs where I think I'll need to send more personal notes to faculty members in addition to using the form or website to let the program know.

There was one physics program where I loved everything except the biophysics faculty, especially after discovering how unhappy seeming the graduate students in the lab group that would have been my top choice were. The director of the graduate program was quite enthusiastic about me, however, offering me a fellowship, inquiring about other offers to try to match them, and asking what it would take to get me to come. I think the best course of action is to send an email to let him know how much I appreciate his offer and enjoyed the visit, but that I have concluded a lab at another university is a better fit.

However, there is another situation that I'm finding still more difficult. By the time I made my last visit, I'd narrowed my list of options down to two, including the school I was visiting at the time, and I didn't mind letting them know this when asked. One of the professors there did a great job of making me feel welcome and trying to recruit me. His work is interesting, and his lab group manages to be ridiculously productive while also being a tremendously supportive, happy place, and I really liked meeting with him and his students and post docs. The professor has also been following up by email a couple of times a week, offering more information about an aspect of the group's work I had questions about, sending links to some papers, and congratulating me on winning a fellowship from his university. There's nothing I dislike about his group. Indeed, if I'd had to flip a coin to decide between my top two choices, I think that would have been happy with either outcome, but there were a few things, like a clear to becoming involved in physics education research while pursuing biophysics research and a stronger k-12 outreach program that made one place feel like a slightly better fit. I'm just not quite sure how to say that or if I even should. Suggestions?

Friday, April 8, 2011

I used to think $1,500 was a lot of money.

Based on my assumptions about taxes, health care, and rent, I should have at least $1,500 a month of my grad student stipend left for everything else. That's roughly 3/4 of my net pay when I was teaching, and I paid rent, albeit ridiculously cheap Delta rent, out of that and still socked plenty away. So it shouldn't be that hard to keep building my savings while I'm in school.

After doing a very rough first pass at a budget for my stipend, I can see how easy it would be to fritter the money away instead. I put down what I thought were generous, but not outrageous, estimates for the major categories that came to mind. Note that the categories in my real budget will probably be a bit more finely subdivided; this is just a quick and dirty approximation, not an actual spending plan intended to keep me on track. It looks a bit like this.

Cash expenses: $400. This would include food, personal expenses, entertainment, gas, and miscellany, basically any typical day to day expenses that aren't bills.

Utilities, internet, phone, and Netflix: $200. I'm anticipating high winter heating bills, and I think I will want internet at home for Skyping The Boy, streaming Netflix movies when I want to passively unwind, and the convenience of not having to hike to a campus computer lab whenever I want to check my email or look something up online. Phone costs should be low as I'll either keep relying on my trusty Tracfone or take my future in-laws up on their offer joining their family plan for $10 a month. If I can find a good apartment with utilities included, this total should be significantly lower.

Short term savings/seasonal: $75. This is for expenses that occur somewhat irregularly, such as gifts, an annual bus pass, good boots when winter hits, etc.

Insurance: $100. I have no idea what insurance for a newer car will cost, and I'll need renters' insurance as well; is this a reasonable estimate? (I'll be paying for the car out of savings, so a car payment isn't a worry.)

Charitable giving: $100. I'm planning to double my automatic donation to Doctors without Borders.

Travel: $250. This assumes a plane ticket every two months. Things were decidedly less complicated when my long distance relationship with The Boy only involved travel by car.

Wedding savings: $125. I'm assuming that I'll be paying for my wedding in three years and that it will be on a tight budget.

That leaves $250 a month for long term savings. I'd be saving a mere $3,000 a year, just 10% of my gross income. That isn't enough to keep saving a reasonable amount for retirement, gradually replenish my car fund, and regularly add anything to my down payment fund. That just won't work. I need to save more than 10% of my income for retirement alone.

Granted, I think some of my assumptions for fixed expenses were a bit high. I hope I won't end up spending $3,000 a year on educational expenses. I'm going to try to find an apartment toward the lower end of my price range and/or one that includes all utilities so I don't think I'll really end up spending $800 a month on housing and utilities.

Still, I need to figure out where I should cut in these other categories. Cash expenses seem like a good place to start, and I'm reassessing how much of my current car fund I really want to spend right now. I wouldn't need to keep comprehensive and collision coverage on an older and cheaper car, especially if I had almost enough left over in my car fund for another entire car if worst came to worst. Other thoughts on what else I should change in this budget?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A first pass at the grad school budget

I'm not sure whether I'm just impatient or have too much time on my hands now that I'm done studying for admissions tests, applying for fellowships, applying to graduate schools, agonizing over whether I'd get in anywhere, visiting schools, and evaluating my options and therefore need something new to obsess over, but I'm pretty eager to see how far my stipend will go. I've done some very rough estimates of what I'll have to work with. I'm trying to err on the side of rounding up expenses to build in some buffer.

Starting stipend: $30,000

Federal taxes: a quick look at this year's form 1040EZ suggests that I'll owe around $2683 each year unless there are major changes in the tax code. I'll guess $3,000 to be safe. FICA isn't an issue for fellowships.
State taxes: A cursory look at this year's state income tax forms from the state in which I'll be living suggests that state income tax will be slightly less than $650.
Stipend after estimated taxes: $26350

Health Care: The university website reveals that graduate student health insurance premiums are about $300 a semester, so $900 annually. The mandatory health center fee is another $900 a year. I'm fairly healthy and not currently on any prescription medications, but I'll budget an extra $200 for incidental medical expenses that aren't covered by the university health center. A health crisis would probably mean spending far more than this and possibly dipping into my HSA, but this would more than cover the average of the past couple of years . (There's a chance that I'll just stay on my parents' insurance during my first year, but I haven't had time to check out what coverage would be like in a new area of the country yet.)
Stipend after estimated taxes and health care:$24,350

Educational expenses: This one is hard to estimate. Tuition should be fully covered, but I will be responsible for some portion of the fees, plus some textbooks and miscellany. I guess I'll estimate $3,000 for now and hope that's high.
Stipend money left for living: $21,350

Housing costs:
Craigslist reveals numerous decent looking one bedroom apartments near campus in the $450-$550 range, some including various utilities, which fits well with what current students have told me. I guess I'll estimate $600 per month for now.
Stipend money left for non-rent expenses: $18,950 or around $1,500 a month

Now things start to get squidgy. Some things are easy to guess, others not so much. A bit of googling reveals that an annual bus pass is $60. I know what Netflix and phone service cost, but I don't think I can even come up with a ballpark for utilities yet. Groceries are hard to estimate without visiting a store there. I'm very likely spending a chunk of savings to get a new, or at least newer, car soon so insurance costs will go up, but by how much? Airfare to see my fiancé for a weekend in September would cost $451 if I bought tickets today, but what will prices look like next year, and how often will we be flying back and forth? What does a movie ticket cost? How often would I want to take the train to Chicago for a Saturday away? The mind boggles.

Still, it is looking like I should, with any luck and a bit of planning, be able to keep socking money away for the next three years. After that, I may be relatively broke on RA funding, or if The Boy is done with school and finds a teaching job as planned, we may be able to buckle down and get serious about saving for a house as well as retirement. Here's hoping!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A windfall

Yesterday the NSF announced the recipients of their Graduate Research Fellowships. I was trying hard not to get my hopes up, especially since my application was pretty much thrown together a couple of days before the deadline and my adviser didn't seem to think my research proposal was specific and innovative enough. He suggested I treat the process as a learning experience and try to make good use of the released comments from the reviewers to prepare a stronger application next year.

Last week I started working on budgets based on the $20,000 annual stipend my favorite graduate program offered me. Fortunately, that's for a program in a college town in the Midwest where you can get a decent apartment for $500 and buses will take you anywhere you want to go. All of the current students I've talked to said it is quite possible to have a comfortable life and either still save a bit or (the option I'd go for) pay for an expensive vice like occasionally seeing your fiance who lives 550 miles away in person. I was doing my best to gear my expectations to a lean but pleasant few years.

Nonetheless, as March came and went and an announcement from the NSF loomed ever closer, it was hard not to get sucked into visiting the NSF website a couple of times a day and checking my email a bit more frequently, hoping they'd would hurry up and put me out of my misery. I wanted to find out I hadn't gotten the award, mope for a bit, and move on with my life, and that's impossible to do when there's even a faint glimmer of hope that the moping won't be necessary.

Based on the email sent at 2:13 Tuesday morning no moping was necessary. One of my friends/Physics GRE study buddies found out I got the fellowship before I did, after he checked his email at 2:30 a.m., learned he was a fellow, and went to the NSF site to look at the list of who else had won. However, he decided against calling me and waking me up so I found out ten minutes before I had to head out the door to class.

I think I'm equal parts excited and terrified. It's very, very nice to get into a great graduate program and be offered such a nice fellowship, don't get me wrong, but it is definitely exacerbating a wicked case of impostor syndrome as this widens the gap between the high achiever my resume describes and the real me who often struggles with my condensed matter homework, bombed the Physics GRE despite months of study, and wonders if she'll survive graduate school.

On the plus side, I get to redo my budget based on an annual stipend of $30,000 and figure how to divvy up the money I'll be able to put in savings.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Where I've been and where I'm going

I've been a student again for the past year. It has been a net positive, much as I miss my kids and my sense of being useful to someone. Financially, however, it has been something of a negative, with scholarships covering tuition and part of living expenses, but with savings covering the difference. You'd think that spending more than I bring in would help me refocus on frugality, but instead the inevitability of dipping into savings proved sufficiently dispiriting that it had the opposite effect. It still hasn't been a disaster by any means, but I could have done better.

I'm looking forward to having a real income again when I start a ph.d program in the fall. At this point, I think my list of schools is narrowed down to two*, one a physics program, one biophysics. Both are in Midwestern college towns where a graduate stipend would go pretty far, which is good since I must balance the need to once again begin setting money aside for long term savings after the year's hiatus; gas money and/or plane tickets to see the Boy, who is pretty adamant about seeing each other at least once a month during the three years before he'll be ready to move up with me; and saving for a wedding, unless I somehow convince said Boy to elope. (He remains convinced that you aren't actually married unless all of your friends have been drunk on cheap champagne.)

*Actually, as I started to write a paragraph comparing and contrasting the two options, I think I just came to a decision, but I'll save that for a future post.