Since you all were so forthcoming about whether or not you’re better off than your parents, I thought maybe I should also start a conversation about debt, particularly as acquired while earning a non-professional master’s or doctoral degree. (So, basically, anything but JDs, MBAs, DDSs, DVMs, and the like.)

I wanted to start this conversation because I think there’s a lot of confusion out there.  For instance, in Pannapacker’s column in Slate (yes, him again — sorry), he speaks of “$40,000 to $100,000 in loans,” but to me, that sounds like a wildly exaggerated range for academic graduate programs and might apply more to the M.D. than the Ph.D.  (Or perhaps he’s counting undergrad?  It’s not really clear to me.)  On the other hand, I think too many people tell students “Oh, but graduate school pays *you*” and leave out the fact that it can pay very little and that you might still end up taking out loans to make ends meet.  I think the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes, somewhere at the lower end of Pannapacker’s range.  But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m in the privileged minority. Tell me in the comments how much in loans you took out in graduate school and why (to cover everything? to make ends meet?) and whether or not that was on top of undergrad loans.

I’ll start (though I obviously don’t expect as much detail in your comments). I was lucky to start graduate school with no undergraduate loans — my parents took on all the loan burden and the rest of my college costs were paid for by a combination of money given to me by my paternal grandmother over the years (that paid for fully a 1/4 of it, I believe), money I’d earned working during high school and college, my parents’ cash funds, and my oldest sister’s contributions (which she really didn’t have to do and I’m still really grateful for).

As for graduate school, I had funding for the entire 8 years I was in graduate school, from 1994-2002 (first year fellowship, 3 years of TAship, 2 years of RAship, and two dissertation fellowships), but I still took out loans to make ends meet when I qualified for subsidized Stafford Loans (the ones that didn’t accumulate interest until I graduated).  At the end of those 8 years, I had about $40,000 in debt, 30K in Stafford Loans and 10K on my credit card (more on that below). Now, I don’t consider that a great deal of debt, considering that it meant that I lived in a very expensive city — Los Angeles — on about $20,000 a year, on average (an average of $15,000 in stipend or TAship, plus $5000 borrowed one way or another). Here’s where that money went over the years:

  • Fees. Grad programs don’t tell you this, but a lot of the public ones cover tuition and give you a stipend (or pay you as a TA), but don’t always pay for “fees.”  I had my fees paid for when I had fellowships, but not when I had TAships or RAships.  In the University of California system, this is the thing they can sneakily raise and still say they haven’t raised tuition. Depending on the year while I was in graduate school — they go down when you’re dissertating — they could be about $300-$600 a quarter.  They’re more now.
  • Summer. I got two summers of work from my university; otherwise, I was on my own. Since I always *hated* the hustle for summer work and thought that my time was always worth more than I was paid for whatever kinds of short-term work was available, I generally took out loans to live on over the summer and worked on things like studying for my qualifying exams, brushing up on my foreign languages, doing pre-dissertation research, writing my dissertation prospectus, and reading all the theory I felt immensely behind on. Plus, I didn’t have a car for five years, which made it difficult to find jobs I could *get* to easily.
  • A car.  OK, after five years of living in LA without a car, I was going a little mad. So I used some student loan money to buy a seven-year-old Honda Civic  I know this sounds a little frivolous, but that car allowed me to take a paleography course at the Huntington Library (where I could not have gotten without a car — not from where I lived, anyway), so I feel like the government-subsidized money was still allowing me to pursue my education. And financially it ended up making sense because eventually, months before I was leaving LA, that car was totaled after an accident and good old GEICO gave me almost as much money as I paid for it — which I then used to pay off debt. (OK, I lucked out here. I probably shouldn’t have taken out loan money that I’d still be paying back now to get a car I haven’t driven since 2002.)
  • Paying off credit card debt.  I was always carrying a balance (more on what I spent *that* on, in a minute) on my credit cards, but I also continually moved it (yes, singular) around to get the best interest deals. So if a card offered me 0% interest for a fixed term, I’d take it, and then move it to the next card that offered me the same deal when that first term was up. (And generally, I was trying to whittle it down, too.) Eventually, if I hadn’t paid it down and there were no more credit card deals, I’d pay it off with a Stafford Loan so that I wouldn’t earn interest on it, at least for the time being. So yeah, now I’m still paying off some of it, but at a lifetime fixed rate of 3.25%.  (I consolidated my Stafford loans in my first year of paying them off, back when all these great deals were being offered.)

All of the above pretty much accounts for the 30K in Stafford loan money. As for the credit card debt I was left with, I might have “consolidated” that with a Stafford loan, too, but the year I applied for it (my first or second dissertation fellowship year), I was told I didn’t qualify. I never could figure out how that worked, since I qualified when I was making $18K as a PhD-Candidate TA, but not when I had a measly $12K dissertation fellowship. Weird.

Anyway, here’s a quick list of where most of that credit card debt came from:

  • Books. Lots and lots of books. I was better than some people I know — most of my dissertation research was from library books — but I always bought everything for every seminar and many of the books on my exam reading lists so I could mark them up.
  • Travel. Conferences cost a lot, even when the department kicks in $500. Conferences overseas cost a *heck* of a lot. And you know what? They don’t pay off *that* much. If I had it to do over again, I’d be pickier about the conferences I went to, but some were necessary — such as the two years I interviewed at MLA.  For the record, I am totally on board with all the calls for doing away with the conference interview and using Skype in its place.
  • Conference-worthy clothing. I wasn’t profligate in my clothing spending, but I generally needed a new suit (or set of professional separates) every year because a) I kept going to freakin’ conferences! and b) I kept changing weight (both up and then down — it was in graduate school that I started running marathons).
  • Um, marathon entrance fees. And shoes. Lots and lots of running shoes. And running clothes. OK, running is not the most expensive sport in the world, but it’s not the cheapest. But I considered it a mental health expense.
  • Vet bills. I had a cat who predated my decision to go to graduate school. Her regular care and feeding went into my monthly budget, but extraordinary bills went on the credit card.
  • Replacing the timing belt and the catalytic converter on that damn car.

Some of these things I might have been able to afford outright if I hadn’t insisted on living alone. But I did.  I tried living with a roommate for the first two years, but then got my own place. For the sake of my sanity and happiness and ‘time to degree,’ I needed a place to myself, where I could set up my quiet work area somewhere other than my bedroom.

Anyway, I paid off that credit card balance in the first 2 1/2 years of being an assistant professor (I made a tiny dent in it my first year out, as a part-timer).  I made it the priority, since it had a higher interest rate than the student loan, and made a payment plan to have it paid off by a certain date. And now I’m down to under $20K in the student loans, too, having upped the amount I pay on those after having paid off the credit card debt.

I think I’ve done pretty well — I don’t have a problem with debt, per se, I’m managing it well, and my credit score ROCKS because of it. But I’m one of the lucky ones — I got a tenure-track job in a place with a reasonable cost of living, so even if I weren’t living with Bullock, I’d be doing all of this.  (And we’re DINKs, and all of that.)

What about you? What’s your debt load like (and why — if you wish to say) and how are you managing it?

53 thoughts on “Debt

  1. I’m going to be leaving graduate school with no debt, and significantly more money in the bank than I started with (though not as much as I would if I’d been working a ‘real’ job). Here’s how I did it/got lucky:

    1. I started with no debt from undergraduate school. A combination of major scholarships, working, parental and grandparent support, and getting out a year early (I graduated in 3 years, not four) meant I had no debt, despite going to a school that usually cost 30K a year.

    2. I worked for a year between graduating and starting graduate school. It was a low pay job at a major bookseller, but I was living at home (my parents thought that was fair because it was cheaper than if I’d gone to school for another year). I drove my parents car, and mostly saved every penny I could. At the end of the year, I bought a 5 year old Honda Civic that had less than 40K miles on it, and had enough money left to pay for my cross-country drive to get to grad school, the money for the first few months rent and what I would need for furniture.

    3. I chose a grad school that pays relatively well. As an MA student, I made 18K a year. As a PhD candidate, I make 22K. The first few summers, I worked six weeks a summer teaching a program for high school students that meets on my campus. That was just enough to cover my summer expenses and the next semester’s fees. (Fees at my campus have run between 800 and 1000 dollars each semester.) Since then, I’ve either taught college courses, worked our new TA orientation (which pays between 700 and 2500 dollars, depending on your position), or won competitive summer fellowships from the university to pay to take the summer off and work on my dissertation. I occasionally also did some babysitting or editing work for extra cash.

    4. I lived (still live) relatively frugally, but not to the point I’m living on ramen or spaghetti or whatever. I bought a new computer during my MA, and another one just this summer, and I pay a hefty price for my gym membership in order to make myself go regularly. I am more frugal than a lot of my grad school friends in that I’m willing to live in a smaller apartment with a roommate–I actually need a roommate for my sanity; I go hermit like if I don’t have someone around, and that’s VERY BAD for my productivity, because I tend to get depressed. Everything I can I put on a credit card that earns me points/miles, which pay for my yearly flights home to see family. This even includes rent. The credit card gets paid off every two weeks (every time I get a pay check, essentially) so I never carry a balance. As a result, I’ve managed to put about 2.5k in savings every year, on average.

    5. I haven’t gone to many conferences–only two conferences that required flights (it’s very convenient to be located in the north east), and only two that haven’t been paid for by my university travel funds. I’ll be very lucky in that MLA the next two years (the two years I’ll be on the market) are in places where I will already be: this year, Seattle (where my parents live), and next year Boston (within driving distance of my current home). I’ll have to buy interview clothing, but that will be well within my budget.

  2. M.A. and Ph.D., and in 8 years I racked up about $65K in student loans.

    What did I spend that on?

    1. My first year of the M.A. program, I had no assistantship. Parents agreed to foot *one* year of tuition (with the deal being that I would get an assistantship, or pack up and head home at the end of year one), but the cost of fees, books, etc. were on me for a year, plus living expenses. ($12K total?)

    2. Years 2-8 I had tuition waivers because of assistantships, plus a salary of about $900 a month to live, eat, and buy books on during the academic year. Add to that three months of annual unemployment, travel to see family once or maybe twice a year, multiply by seven years, and you’ve got about 35K.

    3. Three unfunded dissertation research trips overseas, for a total of five months. About 10K.

    4. One panicked post-orals spur-of-the-moment crisis trip across the country spend wandering alone on the beach for three days, trying to figure out whether I wanted to go back: $1K

    5. Small luxuries to keep me sane (one professional massage every two months, a nice haircut and -color every three months, the occasional non-preowned clothing or shoe or furniture purchase, a gym membership, and a lot of expensive coffee drinks plus tips) during four rough ABD years: 5K.

    Even without nonessential categories 4 & 5, I still come up with 57K that I would have needed to borrow. This, without a car, and mostly living with roommates (first two years) or in studio apartments (final six years). And this, in a town with a relatively moderate cost of living. God only knows how people in expensive cities did it.

    Like you, I was fortunate to get a TT job right out of grad school. ’cause god knows how I would have paid that off otherwise.

  3. (And yes, that was on top of about 15K in undergrad loans. I try not to think of how long I’ll be paying these damn loans off. Fortunately, they’re at less that 4% a year, so there’s that.)

  4. I wound up with approximately $55,000 in student loan debt from six years of grad school, but almost all of that is from my unfunded first year as an M.A. student (I had only intended to get an M.A., but applied to the PhD program in the winter of my first year and got in). That cost me $35K, both for tuition and for living expenses for the year. The rest of it is mostly from loans I took out during summers–I worked part-time all through grad school so if I hadn’t gotten the stupid M.A., I’d only have about $20K in educational debt from grad school. These days my institution (private, an Ivy) funds students through the summers, too, so in theory one could graduate with no debt at all.

    I also had a lot in credit card debt; probably around $15,000 when I graduated–which actually rose to a scarier $23K by the start of my tenure-track job. I had no income for four months, had to move, buy a car, etc. (And midway through grad school I’d moved away from gradschoolandia to New York City, so that partly accounts for the credit card debt.)

    Since I had only about $10,000 in undergraduate student loans, my total student loan debt was about $65K.

    Now that I’m five years into a TT job, I’ve paid off more than $10K in student loans but have only managed to wrestle the credit card debt back down to $15-18K (it fluctuates). There are a lot of reasons for this, but I honestly don’t think I’ll make serious headway against it until a) my car, which I bought new at full price, is paid off, and b) I get a raise with tenure.

    I’m not proud of the way I’ve handled my debt since getting a TT job, but then again, I have a car almost paid off, whose trade-in value is good, and a house. I could cut my expenses if I really needed to, and I have reasonable confidence that my financial life will be under control within a couple of years.

  5. I did not acquire debt during grad school, as I was privileged enough to be funded, and I also tend toward being cheap and naturally living within my means, and I hate paying interest with the heat of a thousand suns. I left undergrad with $13K in subsidized loans.

    Between 1997 and 2004, I spent 7 years in grad school, 6 years with a $15K/annual stipend, and 1 year elsewhere with a $24K dissertation-writing fellowship. I had access to an additional fellowship fund, awarded as an undergraduate, that got me a good laptop ($3000 in 1998), summer money (about $3000 for a few summers), and enabled a pre-dissertation research trip, and the costs of a year of dissertation research over my $15K. I lived with a roommate the entire time, paying between $275-$375/month, except for the dissertation fellowship when I had a $500/month studio apt. I also had a $10/hour job at the university archives for the last 3 years or so. I almost took out a loan when I had to do some $2000 in dental work, but I said, “No, you’ve always said grad school isn’t worth debt”, and I squeezed it out and worked more hours. I think I paid for health insurance ($1000) for just one year, but then my school added health insurance to grad student funding to stave off a union effort.

    At the end of my first year, I paid $3000 cash for a 10-year-old car (saved by living in the dorm for 1 year), and on the strength of the dissertation fellowship and market hopes after, I paid $16K for a brand-new car—this was post 9/11, when they were doing 0% 5-year loans, which I got. (As my grad school roommate said: “0% on your car loan? You must feel like you just won a war.” Yes, I did.)

    While/where I was in grad school, gas cost about $1/gallon, so we could often entertain ourselves for the cost of gas, by seeing natural things, going wine-tasting (no fees in my part of the country). We went to the dollar theater a bunch. An evening hanging out usually cost maybe $10-$15 (burger, couple of drinks)? Or people had house parties, where you bring a bottle/six-pack. I’d say I ate at an $18+/entree restaurant maybe 2x/year in grad school? It was rare. I generally shopped at TJ Maxx/Marshalls/Ross and not thrift stores (and the sale rack at Ann Taylor LOFT-type places), but never splurged on massage, pedicure, haircuts, etc. A single textbook was rarely more than $30, and more often $20. (I think medieval ones run higher?) I didn’t have a daily coffee habit until my last year or two. The student gym was free (nominal fees for aerobics classes). Vacations were usually road trips to visit people. I bought probably 2 plane tickets/year to go home to California.

    I did borrow money from my sister—$3000 at graduation, to cover transition between grad school and faculty paycheck, and I think at least one earlier time, but paid it back within a year. My mother did not supply any grad school funding. In 2008, four years into having a real job, I was able to pay off both the car and the undergrad loans.

    I was intending to do a better-off-than-parents post, and might still, but short version, YES, I am better off than my mother. In fact, I had more disposable income than she did even while I was in grad school.

  6. We came out with 10K of loans paid and 50K saved up for a downpayment for a house and maxed out IRA-Roths (though the limits were smaller then). We each had external 3 year fellowships going in (though at the time they paid a lot less than they do now). We each did a year of TAing. DH’s other two years were supported by his lab doing research assistant work, and my other year was supported by another external fellowship. We both made a bit extra doing Research Assistant work… and volunteering for academic experiments (small luxuries such as eating out were paid for from being a guinea pig). I also had a couple thousand leftover from college earnings, but I still had to borrow money from my mom for the apartment deposit (first month and last month due before we got our stipends).

    Rent was over half our income (our first apartment was literally 100 sq feet– we had to close up the futon to use the computer during the day and open it up again at night to sleep) in a high cost of living city. We worked as resident assistants for two years and that’s how we were able to save up 50K (combined with some investing luck) and also how we were able to live in an apartment in a nice neighborhood our last two years.

    As a first gen kid on one side I am VERY good at frugal. I do think we took it a bit too far that first year when we were paying off DH’s (unsubsidized crazy high interest) undergraduate student loans… I lost my ability to digest red meat and had to wean myself back on it. That was unpleasant. I am very glad not to be in that situation anymore.

    Also we didn’t have the space to buy anything. There would be no where to put it. Now that we have a house in a low cost of living area it is much easier to buy things. It’s crazy how much money we spend now compared to what we made do with back in graduate school… but a whole lot nicer too.

  7. M.A. and Ph.D. totalled six years. I had no debt from my undergraduate (free tuition since I was a faculty brat). Grad school required some loans since I was a U.S. citizen and couldn’t work outside of the U. I always had a GTA position during the school year and got a fellowships over two summers (I still sing hosannas in praise of the NACBS for the fellowship that allowed me to complete my doctoral research and get jump-started on writing the actual dissertation).

    I figured the best way to minimize debt was to finish as quickly as possible, so getting through quickly was a top priority. I didn’t make a lot, even with funding. I think my best year as a grad student was clearing 14k in income (and being chagrined by the heavy bite of taxes for that).

    My loans were pretty small: the total was under $20k in 1991 when I finished. Living in Toronto, I didn’t need a car. I lived in co-op housing near campus for the first few years, then moved into a shared apartment with two non-students. That was a sanity saver since we could talk about other things (Twin Peaks, for instance). I still ended up with about $2k in credit card debit when I started my tenure-track job and that was tough to eradicate with costs of setting up a household, a car and paying off newly-due student loans.

    However, I know that I was fortunate as all get-out to have landed a tenure-track job in my last months of being ABD. If I hadn’t, I’d have moved back to my parents and taken up temping or the job offer to train as a manager of a fabric store because those loans would still have been due.

  8. I’m finishing grad school with no additional debt than what I brought with me from undergraduate (which would be about 20k, my family finances weren’t great at the time I was in school). I was in a program in which I had tuition remission and a stipend for 5 years, a dissertation fellowship for a sixth, and, at least when I started, fairly steady summer teaching work or other funding options. I didn’t get a credit card until this year, and that was to build credit. I’ve also managed to finish on time, so I don’t have to be ABD without support from my institution.

    That said, I’ve lived very frugally and don’t own a car. And my job search costs (MLA, other important conference, Interfolio, etc) have been covered by my parents. So while I haven’t accumulated additional debt while in graduate school, a lot of it is due to my own circumstances (being able to be very frugal and still happy, parental support in the past year or two), and I just got the letter about my undergrad loans coming due. I’m currently employed full time with benefits, but not TT. We’ll see how the loan repayment goes.

  9. PS. I don’t know for sure, but it’s my impression that I was both better-funded and more frugal than my classmates in history. My chemistry roommate definitely had a higher stipend, but I think even she took out some loans.

  10. I finished my undergrad with around $15K in subsidized Stafford loans. (plus a lot of scholarship and grant funding, and I think my parents took out more in loans than I did–we literally never discussed that) I actually managed to finish my Ph.D. with zero debt. There were a couple of reasons for that:
    1) I had a partner with a larger stipend than I; we shared expenses and lived fairly cheaply (we recorded just about every cent we spent for the first few years, until we concluded that that degree of obsessive budgeting might not be good for our mental health)
    2) My grandmother had died the year before I started grad school, leaving me a small inheritance, so we had a little cushion of savings to tide us over; my partner also had a bit of money saved from his pre-grad school job, I think.
    3) I managed to get small grants to fund most of my overseas research.
    4) My grad school had a unionization drive which pushed the university to improve our funding situation year by year.
    I went into considerable debt in my first couple of years of visiting assistant professor-ship, though. Although my salary was considerably higher, my expenses were also higher: health insurance cost more than the grad school health plan, we bought some furniture that was a step up from our crappy grad school furniture; it took my partner a while to find a job. We wound up moving considerable distances twice in a twelve-month period, which was also expensive. Honestly, we miscalculated our expenses badly that first year post-PhD, and I ended up putting a lot of expenses on credit cards for a year or two (and then transferring balances to lower-interest cards more than once).

  11. I didn’t take out loans for either undergrad or grad school. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that paid for my undergrad, and I scrounged funding for the 8 years I was in residence in my grad program and not working full-time. Stipends in my grad program were, I think, around $12-13K/year, they included health care, and during my time there, the cost of living in my grad program was pretty moderate. I’m pretty sure some people took out loans, but I think you could get through the program either without loans or with minimal loans, if you had a roommate and/or you didn’t have a car (it wasn’t the greatest place to be without a car, but it was possible), and especially if you could wrangle funding for the summers (a lot of people taught in the summer once they hit ABD; pre-ABD, people did a variety of things, although of course you faced the conflict between using summers to get research done and having an income). At least, if you were single; I can’t comment on the married/with kids students (many of the students who were married had spouses with full-time grown-up jobs, which, based on my current experience, doubtless made life easier; but then there were the grad students with kids and no spouses/spouses who were also students, who had it really tough).

    I was also super lucky/spoiled/privileged in that my family helped me out a bit with living expenses for some of that time – basically, they made it possible for me to live on my own (when I wasn’t living with NLLDH, which was about 4 years in there) – in part because my family did not want to inflict living with me upon any poor roommate!

    Despite that luck, I did start my first T-T job with a chunk of credit card debt – probably around $11K? Because I’m not very good at managing money, and because I’m not very frugal, and because (I have come to discover) I self-soothe anxiety and depression by buying stuff (and I was very anxious and writer’s-block-induced depressed through a chunk of the time I spent writing my dissertation). None of these are remotely good reasons, I recognize. Some of the debt, however, came from paying for things like books and conference trips and (especially when interviewing) conference clothes, because those were on top of my usual budget (and I couldn’t bear to ask my family for more money, even though they would probably have preferred that to me incurring the debt).

    I paid off that debt with wedding gift money (more privilege), which allowed me to start my first T-T job without credit card debt. Although that job paid fairly badly, it was in a dirt-cheap part of the country, so with both of us working, we were very comfortable.

    (We started carrying credit card debt again, later, when NLLDH went back to school and we had two households for about 2 1/2 years. That’s related to being academics, but obviously, the result of our own choices and my continuing money issues. And now, of course, I have lots of student loans! While I know this isn’t about professional programs, it is actually now a huge issue that law students regularly go into 6 figures of debt on the assumption that they will get a good-paying job on graduation, when now people struggle get jobs at all, and a lot of jobs will pay mid-$40s to start. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

  12. Thanks, everyone, for being so forthcoming! And you’re reinforcing my instinct that, at least among my cohort, Pannapacker’s estimates are pretty damn high. His low end is our high end (and I’m one of the ones nearest the top)! Then again, my cohort is but a slice of the PhD population, and probably not really representative of it, since a lot of us started blogging when we were first and second year TT profs and a number of us have tenure now, all of which makes us lucky, privileged, and, dare I say it, not quite so “young in the profession” any more!

    Anyway, keep it coming!

    A couple of more specific comments, riffing on things you all said:

    A computer! Sapience reminded me that I purchased a computer when I was in grad school. Can’t remember if that was with loan money or on the credit card (whether transferred to loan or not), but it was definitely part of the debt.

    Entertainment! I probably spent more on entertainment than most of you. I lived in LA and it was hard not to want what was out there. We went to a *lot* of movies. But, as I wrote in the “I watch TV” post, we also watched a lot of TV. Still, you had to pay for cable to be able to get any signal in LA. That was part of my regular budget, but also part of the reason why I didn’t have more left over for things that went on the credit card. And I have long been a live music fan (since a teen, actually) and lived walking distance from the El Rey. I went to a few concerts there, plus shows of my favorites elsewhere. Those probably went on the credit card, too. I tried *not* to put restaurant and take-out food on the credit card, but once or twice a year we had a friend with a birthday who wanted to go “someplace nice.” Remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Joey and Rachel are pissed about the others, with incomes, who always wanted to go “someplace nice” and then split the bill evenly? Yeah, we had a couple friends — usually ones with working spouses or family money — who did that. And I had another friend who lived crazily outside of his means and was a huge foodie and oenophile. Every now and then I’d let him talk me into going out to one of the fabulous restaurants in the area and get appetizers and dessert and a glass of wine — that would end up on the credit card, too. But there were a lot of parties where we all brought something — a six pack of beer and hummus and pita from Trader Joe’s — and a lot of take-out Thai and Chinese food.

    Hair and nails — thank *god* my hairdresser and nail ladies took only cash (and Frank, my stylist, gave me a student discount — $27 for great hair in LA! Woot!), or I might have rung up even more debt!

    Books — it’s the secondary lit that kills you, in any field, but yeah, medieval lit primary materials can be expensive, too — as Dance asks. I spent about $100 per seminar, I think, so some quarters, I had $300 in book expenses.

    NK — You made me laugh when you said your family didn’t want to inflict *you* on roommates! That’s kind of how I thought about myself. And yeah, law school debt is *huge* — and a huge issues — but another topic for another blog. Hey, there’s an idea for your blog! 😉

    All of y’all — You’re all much more frugal than I! I’m truly impressed!

    I bought everything on sale at Banana Republic or places like that (or at places like Ross, like Dance mentions) and I tried to keep things modest. Maybe it was the influence of LA? The $700/month rent didn’t help, either. But damn, I loved that apartment. And I lived upstairs from someone who went on to be a pretty well-known character actress! And across the courtyard from an Emmy-winning director of documentaries! I kind of wouldn’t trade my life in LA for anything, despite some of the misery it caused me, and despite the debt.

  13. Also, I have decided that my grad program, despite being a top-10 program, was full of Cheapy McCheapsters. 😦 You all seem to have had better funding than I did. I’m starting to think that I shouldn’t have turned down that program in rural mid-America where I was awarded summer funding as well as during the year. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten to work with fabulous adviser, and the person I would have worked with would have just been becoming a name as I was finishing, so there’s that. I think I made the right call in the end.

  14. I was lucky and privileged to come out of grad. school with no debt. I had about $1700 in loans from undergrad (from my year abroad), which I know is very, very low, essentially nothing. I am forever grateful that I chose the SLAC that gave me a full scholarship option. I paid those off during the first year of working.

    I was funded throughout grad. school with fellowships and TAs (1997-2003) each year. I think I earned about $12,000 the first year and that it rose to about $15,000 at the end. I was very frugal and never even considered taking out loans. I was also lucky to be in a small East Coast city that wasn’t very expensive at that time. I had a roommate and we shared a very small apartment on the third floor of an old triple-decker. Could our rent really have been $475 in the first year? That’s the number that sticks in my head. I did have a car, which was a graduation gift from my parents, but my major expense was cross-country tickets to visit my boyfriend who was in grad. school in Arizona about twice a year. Somehow I managed to pay for those tickets out of my stipend or the small part-time jobs I worked, because I didn’t generate credit card debt either. I think I was just very good at living within my means and I was also very lucky that I didn’t have any emergencies during those years. (and I was just lucky in general, I remember that my program didn’t offer health insurance during the first years, but I was till able to be on my parents’ insurance; then I aged out of that the same year that my uni started paying for grad. student health insurance).

    I got married in 2001 (to the boyfriend in Arizona, who finally moved to my city) and that did change my finances. He had much more credit card debt from grad. school, even though as a scientist he had what seemed to me to be a much higher stipend. We spent the first two years of marriage paying that off, but also by that time he had a “real” job with good salary.

    Again, Dr. V’s point about different generations of grad. students is spot on. I’m now grad. coordinator, so I know more about the stipends the TAs in our MA program earn. I don’t know how they manage at all, and I’m sure that most have loans. We can only offer about $8900 and a 70% tuition waiver, which leaves about $700 for them to pay. The 70% is university policy, and I am sure that richer departments supplement that through grants, but we can’t . All the requirements of daily life are so much more expensive (I remember $1 gas, too) but grad. student stipends have not kept pace.

  15. What’s all this about $1 gas? Last time I heard my mom comment on that, I was like 10 years old! Crazy.

    Ok, then, I am here to raise your averages, woot! Spendthrift idiots represent!

    I was lucky enough to have my parents pay for my entire 4-year undergrad education at a very nice school Dr Virago has heard of — and which, I recently unearthed from my parents, cost them about 35K total, including the dorms/sharing an apartment.

    I got some spare money and travel money from my parents to supplement my MA, and then lived at home and tutored full time at a learning center for those first two summers. I didn’t take out any loans until after I went ABD. Then I managed to rack up 46K in subsidized loans and about 10K in credit card debt, just to get me through that last home stretch and actually finish.

    Here’s the thing: I managed to stay within my budget in my Very expensive grad school as long as I did a shared-room roommate situation — 5 or 6 of us in a 3 bedroom house. I could only handle this with a very special subset of people, and once I figured that it didn’t work with new roommates I got my own place and was totally hosed on rent expenses.

    Like Dr Virago, I was never covered for summers, and I found that the people who did extensive summer teaching to “cover” summer, which it didn’t, were not getting any writing done or finishing the program, so I was waiting until the spring and then maxing out the subs. loans and just living off it each summer. I was also starting to go to conferences and my department paid for none of that shit. And, as you might remember from my archives, this was the time that the UC was hiking tuitionfees by 30 or 40 percent a year, so the cost was _insane_ and nothing like the rates I started under. _And_, my guaranteed funding was only for a set amount of time and after I went ABD (as is the case with everyone in my department), I started having trouble picking up TAships for every single quarter of the year, so some quarters I just had to pay outright. 3 grand of fees one quarter, 5 grand another quarter, before you even get to living expenses, really adds up.

    I think it also depends on your cohort. I thought I was very frugal, compared to my compadres —- but I lived nothing like you all on this thread. A bunch of my friends are first-generation college students and they took out 70, 75 and 95 k respectively —- partly because they could and they didn’t want to live like shit, partly because they would similarly get hosed on teaching assignments, and mainly because they were the only people in their extended families who *had* access to any sort of credit and people kept coming to them to bail out various emergencies. Which reminds me of the friend who had to deal with her dad’s entire immigration/visa snafu and take a leave to help clean up his small business records — I think she had about 85k. So because I didn’t have to bail family out of jail or save the family farm or ever travel or take vacations or get massages, I felt I was being very frugal, comparatively.

    The 10k on credit cards is another scenario people don’t tell prospective grads enough about: what happens if you file and graduate and *don’t* get an academic job? And you can’t piece together a full 40 hours out of Kaplan and Sylvan and tutoring at city college? You no longer *can* take out loans at that point, so the credit card becomes the default to live off of when you’re unemployed.

    And I am watching this happen to a bunch of friends on facebook right now; budgets you thought would work for the courses part of the degree and TAships you had guaranteed for that time get you just far enough in you feel you *have* to finish the dissertation in order for it to be “worth it.” And then you get sucked into all sorts of terrible, ill-advised things.

  16. I realize I forgot to clarify several things in my previous comment.

    I bought many books over the course of graduate school, but as many of those that were for courses, I had familial support for most of them. I didn’t buy many clothes, but the pieces I did buy have served me well. I’m a bit of a foodie, but I’ve made a conscious choice that cooking delicious food that I love is important for my mental health. That, and nice haircuts (which, given the cut I have, I only get 4 times a year).

    I was very lucky to live in a place that, while a pain in the ass, is possible to do without a car. I’m naturally a home-body, so the constant going to bars that a number of people in my cohort did wasn’t of interest. Also, during graduate school we had the expense of my partner’s immigration process (o hai heterosexual privilege) and our trips back and forth to see each other when we didn’t have permission to live in the same country, each of which cost at least 1k, and that we would do several times a year. Our immigration process was several thousands of dollars between fees and appointments and one legal consultation, and ever increasing, too.

    That said, if I hadn’t had the expenses of immigration and travel to consider, I may have engaged in more consumer spending. But I doubt I would have spent much more, since I grew up in a family that had definitive boom and bust periods, financially, and my parents were very upfront with us about that. Frugality was key.

  17. About Pannapacker’s numbers… he went to Harvard, so I wonder if that was a different experience, financially, than some other schools? (Of course any of you here could be talking about Harvard…) On the one hand, Harvard should have the money to fund everyone. On the other hand, going to Harvard without funding might have seemed like a reasonable gamble, even if it’s expensive. (Then again, I might be influenced by law school experiences, where a common dilemma is whether to go to the highly-ranked school and pay through the nose, or go to a lower-ranked school and pay very little to nothing, but miss out on the opportunities that the highly-ranked school provides.)

    Despite being told what a great time it was to go to grad school :-P, I also got told very clearly NOT to go to grad school without funding, and I do think people are pretty good about sending that message. But that doesn’t address the point Sisyphus makes, about getting to a certain point in the program and not being able to get the funding you’ve had so far… and I think the more years you’re in school, the harder it is to avoid debt, even if you’re officially funded. I know in my grad program, people used to take forever to finish, because almost all funding was in the form of teaching – even if you’d used up your TA allotments, you could usually get a course of your own to teach – which was decent money, and good experience, but totally got in the way of timely progress. Now, I believe, the program only admits people it can guarantee to fund for 5 years, and 2 of those years are fellowship years (usually intended to be used your first year of classes, and then either to do research or write up the dissertation after going ABD). I suspect medievalists are still likely to take at least 6 years, but finding one year of outside funding, or RAship money, or ABD teaching, isn’t as bad as multiple years, and a post-ABD year of no teaching is a huge thing. The program has become much stricter about getting people through quickly, which may help in the debt department.

  18. I came out of undergrad with something like 50K in loans–my mother told me she would help pay that back but when the time came, she just…refused. I wish I had known. I might have chosen a less expensive undergrad. But in any case, 50K in loans that were all paid off by the time I finished with my PhD because my husband was a software engineer (and we were quite frugal).

    We did take out a 10K loan my first year in the master’s program (where I had full tuition but no stipend). In my PhD, I had tuition plus stipend for four years (fees were on me) and a fifth year fellowship that continued the stipend. After that, just a tuition waiver until my last year, when I had to pay tuition (on some sort of pro-rated basis that was irritating but not outrageous).

    All of this works nicely when your spouse makes six figures (and had no educational debt of his own starting out). He’s since quit to become an academic but we’re still debt free (except for the mortgage) because we managed to save when he had his engineering job.

  19. I finished UG with 15k in debt (which I just paid off! like two weeks ago!!) and got through grad school without adding to that number at all. I was lucky: I got into my program just as they started raising stipends (they went from 12k in my first year to 18.5k in my seventh/last) and added the option of applying for summer funding ($1,500–not much, but something–and I managed to get this for all six summers, despite actually being rejected one summer. Seriously–I got a rejection letter, and then the money showed up in bank account. I still wonder whether I’m morally culpable for not having reported it–but I justified my silence with the argument that the people affected would probably prefer that I *not* say anything, since it would’ve messed up their end-of-year accounting. Maybe one day I’ll donate $1,500 to their grad fund to pay it back?). And I graduated just as funding started being cut for students past their 5th years.

    Obviously, I went to a well-endowed university possessed–at least for a time–of a feeling of generosity, and I’m really, really glad that it worked so well. TM still has about 40k in grad school debt precisely because his equally well-endowed university was *not* so generous.

    Life situation: Roommates for 4 years (including 2 years living with a boyfriend), then 3 years in a sweet one-bedroom that was only $550/month for some reason. I did get a little help from my parents when I needed a root canal (Dad gave me $800 as a gift) and when I broke up with the boyfriend and needed to hire movers to get my stuff out of our place ($500 from Mom). No car–didn’t really need one where I lived, although it meant that I never went anywhere more than a mile or so from my apartment. I took the bus or train to visit family. Loved my local Salvation Army. Outings consisted of yoga classes (my big luxury–about $100/month in my last few years) and beers at the (cheap) grad student bar. Pizza once a week with H. Went to maybe one conference a year, and the university gave me up to $750/year for that, so they were pretty well covered.

    Extra income: Sold a bunch of stuff on ebay. Worked at the Writing Center for 6 hours a week (about $10/hour). Adjuncted for one semester ($3,800) when I was also receiving full funding for working for a dean. Got two small external fellowships imy last year ($2k and $2.5k, respectively); this was hugely helpful in covering that summer between graduation and the first paycheck.

    Trips: I managed three months in Cambodia (by subletting my apartment, I actually broke even–airfare + rent on an apartment in Phnom Penh = rent in Grad City) and stretched a conference trip to London into a couple of weeks to see Scotland and Iceland.

    Anyway, I don’t think that this adds a particularly new perspective here; figured I’d just throw in my story as a data point. It seems abundantly clear that situations vary wildly. (I never had to pay fees, for instance.) Living within my means actually didn’t seem that hard–but my means were better than a lot of people’s, obviously, and everyone I knew seemed to pick up free furniture off the streets and get their clothes used, so it all seemed pretty normal–and I still haven’t gotten used to being able to buy things if I want them, even four years into the steady paycheck; it continues to seem like something of a miracle. (In fairness, I rarely want a thing that costs more than $40–still, miracle!)

  20. I’m a bit older than most responders here, I think. My undergrad cost about $400 a quarter (three quarters a year) when I finished, and I’m thankful to say that my parents paid my tuition, housing, books, health insurance, and big stuff. I later went to a community college where each credit cost $5 a semester. No, I didn’t forget any zeros. Talk about great value!

    I took several years before going on to a PhD program, had some parental help (and my brother had bought me a computer, yay brother!), and ended up with 7K debt.

    I think the huge drop in state funding for secondary and post secondary education is a massive mistake for the US, one we’ll regret greatly. The debt we’re forcing young people to take on just to go to public colleges and universities is going to cause many difficulties for decades to come.

    ps. I think Pannapacker always assumes private schools and tends to think east coastish. Does anyone else sometimes wonder if he’s not expressing a bit of bitterness at not gettting the golden ring a Harvard PhD seems to promise?

  21. No debt coming out of undergrad. MA funded via TAship. Only thing on credit cards was medical expenses, a few clothes, some books. Mostly, I lived on what the TA ship provided. Left MA for Real World, where I actually lost money. I worked in downtown SF and lived across the bay in Cheaper Area. Same apt layout I’d had in MATown, $200 more a month. Car insurance higher, even tho I drove less. The 4 months I was there, I went into debt trying to make it work. Didn’t. Sold my car & paid off remaining debt. Went to France, lived on what I made there, no credit card debt. PhD school #3 offered entry, no money. I took out loans for one semester (~$15K) and told them that if they couldn’t help me with funding, I’d not be back for the next term. While I never got into the ‘funding stream’ thereafter, I always had some kind of funding. Always had a couple of different classes going – averaged 4 per term while I was doing the diss. That more or less paid the bills, except – you guessed it – anything medical. Vision, dental. For a couple of years I relied on public transportation, but 2 years in I bought a used car. Debt for school, in that the car enabled me to take CC jobs that public transit would have kept me from taking. I left PhD with about $15K in debt as student loans, but overall loans that made life possible over that period (books, transportation, insurance, food, clothing) about $10K. Went into a VAP that went TT after 1 year and have been here ever since. And I just paid off that damned student loan.

  22. Hey all, this is great. I think the vast differences in stories just proves the internet/advertising adage: YMMV.

    One thing I should’ve said in the original post: there’s no judgment here assumed on my part, and I’d like to keep that way in the comments. I don’t think anyone *is* judging at this point (at least not consciously), but there are few phrases popping up here and there that can be read that way — or at least as pride (in the traditional, more pejorative sense), which then suggests implicit judgment. I come from a bourgie enough background that debt is something ordinary and expected that you take on and manage, not a mark of profligacy, so I can easily talk openly about it. But others may be sensitive about it, so please avoid expressing things in a way that suggests any kind of moral hierarchy to being with or without debt. Think what you will in your own lives, but for the purposes of this conversation, it simply is what it is.

    What’s more, I think what’s becoming clear is that the commenters here on the high end of debt took out loans simply to be able to pay for educational, professional and living expenses (Flavia’s and Notorious’s unfunded MA years, for example, or Notorious’s unfunded research travel, or my unfunded summers). And that’s really kind of the whole point of this conversation — to let the googling prospective grad students out there know that graduate school can be more expensive than you might at first realize, even when you do have funding of some sort. And as Bardiac points out, it’s getting worse.

    That is all. Carry on.

  23. Belle — Oh man, yes, CA car insurance is freakin’ *insane*. One of the reasons why I waited so long to get a car at all was because of the outrageous insurance rates. The year I decided to get it I actually had one of those rare summer jobs, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. And then I told my dad that I was going to go to the cheapest possible insurance — and roll the dice — the next year because it was too damn expensive (even as a 30 year old woman) and so he agreed to pay. (Quite remarkable for my skinflint dad, but he’s big on being fully insured.)

    All people considering moving to CA — for whatever reason, at whatever income level — need to take into account CA’s outrageous car insurance rates!

    And dental expenses! How could I have forgotten those? I went to the university’s dental school and suffered through 3-hour visits just to get it cheap, but it was still pricey.

  24. No debt. For undergrad, I lived at home and my parents paid for tuition (and fees) and books. I also worked 10-15 hours a week, so I saved some money there. I took a year off between undergrad and grad school, travelled for part of it (with the saved money), worked 3 jobs in another part, and took an intensive language course in the last bit; I think my parents might have paid for that, as well. After that, I had full funding in graduate school, including summers. “Full” meant around $9K a year to live on, after tuition, and people I know took out loans, but I was like someone upthread who was terrified of debt, and also very good at living frugally. I was shocked when I found that one of the people I knew lived on frozen pizza, to save time cooking, for example; I always cooked, to save money. Though I bought some new clothes, I mostly shopped at thrift stores, and only bought used books. I went out once or twice a month, when there were group things going on, like dinner after an invited speaker. For the first two years, I did not have a car. I used a small grandparental inheritance to buy my first computer, went through the rest of the money I’d saved before starting grad school, and had to use one of those credit-card company checks to put a deposit on my first post-school apartment, but that was my only real debt. I was in a small and well-funded program, in an area with a low cost of living, and I got very lucky by finding a studio apartment that was very affordable, so I could live alone for four years (though in a basement). That was actually in some ways the nicest place I’d ever lived, up to that point; it helps to grow up in rundown circumstances, I think. I rarely travelled anywhere I couldn’t drive and stay with friends. One of my siblings paid for a summer trip to visit family, once. Oh, and there was a summer program in a Big City that came with some funding, but I think keeping my home apartment as well meant some credit card debt, for a few months, but I paid that off fairly quickly. Like I said, terrified of debt. You’d think I’d be better with money now, but the thing is, I love having a car in good shape, with proper insurance, and getting necessary dental work taken care of promptly, and travelling, and buying books, and belonging to a nice gym, and not cooking when I’m worn out and pressed for time. I’m trying to avoid moral judgment here, but I feel I should acknowledge that when I was a grad student, I was very judgmental about other people’s loans. Less so now; I’ve mellowed with age.

  25. Speaking of not traveling to places you couldn’t drive to (as Dame Eleanor was), I think if I had to do it all over again and took that into account along with the mad car insurance rates of CA, I think I’d nix SoCal for grad school. Too far to drive anywhere but LV and other places in CA! I only went to K’zoo once because it was *hella* expensive to get there from LA, even if you stayed in the dorms. As someone upthread said (I think it was Heu Mihi), there’s a lot to be said for the Eastern seaboard! And even here in the upper Midwest, things are a lot closer together than they are out west.

    Your mileage may vary, indeed! *Where* you go to graduate school matters in terms of your finances not just because of funding packages and cost of living, but also because of geography.

  26. Yeah, I went to Kzoo about 8 times as a grad student, but that was only possible because it was within driving distance (okay, 10 hours, but still, doable by midwestern standards, especially since we’d all carpool). That made a HUGE difference. SoCal would be tough (though there are a lot of cool things there!).

  27. NK – 10 hours is *totally* driving distance by Midwest standards, LOL! But two days? Not so much! But yes, there *are* a lot of cool things about SoCal, and when all is said and done, I’m glad I spent 9 years there. And it was a great place to be a medievalist, distance from K’zoo and the UK notwithstanding! (Though I’m glad not to be living there now.)

  28. I had no loans and no credit card debt; I was lucky enough to be on fellowship for the first year, and after the first year the University of Basketball was pretty good about paying its grad students a living wage. Also, I had a steady roommate for the first five years, an elderly landlord who didn’t raise the rent even when he could, and my mom’s old car, which helped a LOT.

    I even managed to do a fair amount of traveling on the savings from my stipend, though it was basically at the price of buying no clothes except from the thrift store, ever, and having only furniture that I got for free.

  29. Great topic, Dr. Virago! Here are my specs:

    Like some other commenters, I got through undergrad with no debt, because my parents took it all on themselves, knowing that they could pay it off sooner or later. (Turned out to be sooner, when my grandparents died and my dad inherited a sizable amount of money.) I am grateful for this, because my undergrad cost an arm and a leg. I can’t think how I would ever pay off that kind of debt unless I sold my soul to…well, whomever might buy it. Another benefit of this inheritance is that my dad handed down to me his car when he upgraded, so my auto expenses were limited to maintenance and insurance.

    MA and PhD totaled eight years, all of them at a high-profile state university that costs more than a lot of state universities. For almost all of that time, I was funded during the academic years, and more often than not, I was fortunate enough to win summertime funding of one sort or another. (Some summer class work, some language programs abroad, etc.) My TA salary went up *very slightly* once I had the MA, but the difference is hardly worth noting. Two years before I finished, I got to teach as the chief instructor of a course, which permanently bumped up my salary as a grad-student instructor, even after I went back to being an ordinary TA. That helped enormously down the road, when my funding collapsed near-completely in my last semester of dissertating. I’m pretty frugal, even with my car (almost a literal necessity in DOU-Town) and my allowances for the sweet, sweet bourgeois consumer tastes in which I occasionally indulge. This meant that I had enough cash saved up that, when I had to pay an entire semester’s tuition with nothing but an in-state tuition waiver to soften the blow, I could eat the cost and still survive.

    Through most of grad school, I took out subsidized loans, since the TAships I had didn’t pay quite as well as the fellowships, and of course the fellowships were harder to get. I also strongly prefer to live alone for writing purposes, and I considered this an essential mental health expense. (Except for one very strange year in which I shared a small house with one roommate or another.) When my funding gave out, I supplemented the loan with unemployment benefits, and took on as much contract work as a tutor as I could manage. When all was said and done, I got out of grad school with approximately $25,500 of consolidated student loan debt. I’m okay with that, with the idea in mind that it was an investment in my chosen career. I could easily have had more, had I not had a few very lucky years mixed in there.

    And if we’re checking on epilogues, this month will be the first in a long time in which I carry a balance on a credit card, since I had to buy furniture (I owned none) and move to Ghosttown from two different locales at once. (I was staying with family in Hometown, but most of my possessions were in storage in DOU-Town.) I’m annoyed at that, but there seemed no help for it. Moving trucks and gasoline aren’t cheap nowadays. But unless my financial situation nose-dives this semester, I should have all the moving expenses paid off in two months.

  30. Oh yeah, a couple people have brought up furniture (including FP in the last post). I was both lucky and unlucky to have inherited nice stuff from my sister or else have purchased stuff in my three years working full time before grad school (though I got all of it at estate sales, as I wasn’t making much!). Lucky: because I had nice stuff and got to feel like a grown-up with a bed *and* a sofabed and nice rugs, among other things. Unlucky: because there was a lot of big stuff that meant I had to hire professionals to move it. Friends and a U-Haul would *not* have been able to manage it. Really (the professional even had a hard time). But my mom paid for my move to grad school and my TT job paid for my move to Rust Belt. I *think* I paid the $900 to move across LA once, but that might have been the year my sister and I sold the NYC co-op (alas, we sold before the real estate boom and only made a modest profit) and so I had the cash. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have put that on a credit card if I wanted. Or else mom paid for it again. I really can’t remember. Maybe part of the loan money went to that?

    But it also meant I needed a place big enough to keep it all. It was all very useful, but some of the pieces — a wall-sized entertainment/library unit, for example — were *massive*. I felt a weird guilt getting rid of it (and didn’t shed any of it until 2006 — some of it I still have) because my sister had bequeathed so much of it to me or found it at said estate sales for me. And when I did live with a roommie, I felt bad that the shared rooms were so dominated by *my* stuff. Another reason why I need to find a place to myself. Luckily I discovered the Miracle Mile district before it gentrified — $700/month and rent control was a *steal* in LA! You folks with your low rents were so very lucky. My *share* cost me $475-500 a month! (So you can see how I might figure I could justify an extra $225 a month, especially once my TA salary went up a few thousand dollars at the time I moved.)

    it’s all relative, isn’t it?

  31. Btw, I’ve been meaning to say, I’m with Sisyphus on this $1 gas. Where *were* you people? Or maybe when? Not in CA in the 90s!

    Btw, it looks like we’re all still at the very low end of Pannapacker’s range. Without re-reading everything closely, it’s only those who were partly unfunded when they started or who were/are scraping by at the end or in the adjuncting years that are over the beginning of his range, and then there’s profligate me just at the start of his range.

    I think maybe NK is right — Pannapacker may have paid his way at Harvard back in the day when they admitted unfunded people and those people were willing to take the gamble. These days, that’s definitely not a gamble worth taking, especially since the “scraping by at the end or in the adjuncting years” stage is becoming longer and more common. And Travellia and others have mentioned the rise in fees and lowering (or not rising) of funding at a lot of places, so it’s getting harder for some current, funded grad students, too.

    Hey, do I have many readers in the thick of grad school right now? Anyone willing to add to the conversation?

  32. A couple of ideas sparked by Dr. Virago’s follow-ups: Dental care was… well, something that I did without, except for in two dire emergencies. Yes, you heard me right: eight years without regular dental care. By the time I got dental insurance as a part of my current job, well, let’s just say that I think I sent my dentist to Paris.

    And I have a funny-to-me furniture story. For the first six years of grad school, I had hand-me-downs, pressboard bookshelves (still have those), and an end table and a coffee table that I scavenged from a dumpster on the college town’s annual “all leases expire on the same day” day. But sometime around the end of year six, I realized that I was over thirty and still being treated like a recalcitrant and slightly dim teenager and I just snapped. Apparently something in my brain decided that if I couldn’t have a grown-up life, I’d at least have grown-up furniture. Two days and $1,000 later, I had a mid-range loveseat, table, and chairs. Probably the most useful grad school meltdown I ever had. 😉

  33. I’m at the tail end of graduate school. I have virtually no debt, aside from roughly $4k in credit card debt, the recent existence of which stresses me out enormously. I had a scholarship for college (otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go). The scholarship paid tuition; my dad paid room and board for two years until I became an RA the final two years and he just paid fees. I went straigh to grad school, and my graduate program paid five full years of funding (summers and research funds included), and for other reasons, some other colleagues and I got a sixth. I recognize now how good a situation that was, although there are serious downsides to such a program. (In that, such a program believes that the money absolves them from any responsibility to attend to the basic needs of students. On all legitimate issues–housing, missing paychecks, basic questions about how new policies affected when money was coming–the stock answer was it doesn’t matter, we pay you well.)

    But honestly, I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school if it had required taking out any kind of loans. I grew up in a family where debt wrecked my family’s finances, and their opinion of debt (after of course getting stuck in it) was clear. I’ve had to fudge the specifics around my father, b/c he’d be appalled and angry if he knew I had 4k in credit card debt.

    I spent three years living in some version of graduate dorms, which both did and didn’t save me money. (I didn’t have the cash to buy furniture, but not being able to cook cost me.) Part of my credit card debt is the result of the mental health fallout of last year’s debacle. Not only did I have to go on medication to manage depression that I was normally able to handle without meds, but the campus psychiatrist moved, and I had to go off campus and pay out of pocket. It’s amazing how those reimbursements always manage to clear right when you owe a big co-pay. I should also add that I saw a campus psychologist (i.e. free) who realized early on in the five years that I worked with hir that I was not a good candidate to be farmed out to the community, so I saved tons of money there.

    On the flip side, I do know somebody at a state school who has racked up close to $100k in debt. Pannapacker’s numbers may be slightly exaggerated, but they’re certainly plausible.

    I’d also say this about grad school being free: I hear this a lot from folks as they explain why it’s okay that they might not get jobs–after all, they’ve been able to read for free (almost a verbatim quotation). To which I always point out: even if you haven’t had to take on loans, that’s six to ten years of no retirement accumulation, no significant savings, probably no house buying, and generally extreme financial insecurity. My stipend was on the very high end of graduate stipends, and it couldn’t withstand necessary and virtually emergency dental work; it couldn’t withstand basic moving expenses on top of a higher cost of living. There was one month when I was supposed to leave the country for a research trip and I only had $40 to my name, and a computer glitch meant that I didn’t get paid that day. I had to ask my father for money, which is a no no in my family. And that was the second time in the space of three months that that computer glitch had occurred. So my new mantra now is that graduate school costs enormously, even if you don’t literally pay in cash.

  34. That 100 sq ft apartment? Rent: $1200/month.

    Gas was briefly $1/gallon sometime in the late 90s, including in Los Angeles (at the Arco stations anyway, close to $1 a the other places). Those were good days.

  35. OMG, I forgot all about the dental care thing. I went to New Zealand instead of the dentist. In retrospect, that may not have been the wisest choice…

    I also went to Canada instead of having my fifteen-year-old car re-braked, which was definitely not the wisest choice, but at least I am still alive to tell the tale.

  36. Nicole and Maggie – Yeah, Bullock just reminded me of that late 90s period of cheap gas just as I was coincidentally reading your comment.

    And as Bullock and I were talking, I remembered that there was one set of furniture I bought in grad school and that went on the credit card: my Ikea Anton desk (with ergonomic keyboard drawer!), CPU/printer stand, and roll-around filing cabinet, Ikea desk chair, and Office Max two-shelf bookcase to put near the desk. This was my “Dissertation Station” and though it went into the 10K in consumer debt, I considered it a necessary educational purchase, since I had a tiny, vanity-like desk before that (which got moved to the bedroom where it really belonged). I remember putting all that stuff together while watching a Star Trek: Voyager marathon on TV. Took me all freakin’ day! Hm, I might scan any pictures I have that for a post on “where I wrote my dissertation.” Btw, I’m writing this comment from that very same desk now, over a dozen years later. Who says Ikea furniture doesn’t last?

    Anyway, it’s interesting to see the mix of people with aversion to debt along with those of us who see it as part and parcel of managing money. I’m in the latter camp, having seen it, as Dr. Koshary says as “an investment in my chosen career.” Adding to the former group: a lot of the students in our MA program are deathly afraid of debt, sometimes to their detriment — they’ll take on a second (or third!) job to pay their last semester of fees (or all of them), but then because they’re working so much, they don’t finish by the end of their funding, and then they have to pay *more* fees because their TAship has run out, and they can’t, and then they *never* finish. To me this is mind-boggling (since I’m in the “debt is money management” camp), but Frog Princess’s story helps me understand a little more about where their attitudes towards debt might come from. If you’ve seen someone’s life ruined by it, then that first step into debt might just seem like a slippery slope toward ruin.

    And Frog Princess — Thanks for this: “So my new mantra now is that graduate school costs enormously, even if you don’t literally pay in cash.” That is so true for so many, that it needs to be repeated again and again again.

  37. Dame Eleanor — Perhaps in your case. In my case it was more about a) the confidence that I would get a job (whether in academia or not) and be able to pay it off, and b) cultural conditioning — in my world, that’s what people did (use and manage debt, that is). I mean, I *did* have a safety net, my oldest sister as well as my parents (and, in fact, I did move in with my parents for a month to transition from LA to Rust Belt, but also just to spend time with them, with Mom especially), but I tried not to rely on it being there. For various reasons, I couldn’t take it for granted. Of course, the confidence about getting a job is surely a class privilege related to the existence of a safety net (even if I didn’t consciously think of it that way or take it for granted). Or it might have come from my having worked before grad school. Or both. All I know is that I’ve never had an aversion to debt in and of itself — it’s all about the *amount* of debt I can reasonably bear.

  38. I worked at a gas station during the summer as a college student–about 1994-95. I remember very clearly that gas was regularly under a dollar. Usually 94c or 98c that summer. We complained when it was $1.04. Sometimes it was my job to change the sign, and my boss would always ask us to tell her when we got to work whether the stores on the main road had raised or lowered their prices yet. We had to maintain that 1c advantage.

    Obviously this is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an important part of my memories from those years.

  39. Travellia — OK, that’s when I didn’t have a car, so I clearly wasn’t paying attention. I think I got my car in 1999 and soon after that it went up, so $1 gas is a fuzzy memory for me.

  40. I do think attitudes to debt are highly class-specific. I don’t love being in debt, but I’m more like Dr. V – it doesn’t freak me out, it’s more about what kind of debt (I dislike my credit card debt but my student loan debt doesn’t bother me [yet – I haven’t had it that long!]). Partly, that’s because credit card debt has a different moral meaning (to me) than student loans; student loans are “good” debt, credit card debt is “bad” (it was self-indulgent and doesn’t get me anywhere) (and practically speaking, student loan debt – unlike CC debt – doesn’t really affect your credit rating, unless of course you default). But a huge part of it probably is growing up knowing I had (and still have, if I’m honest) a safety net. The irony is that my parents totally disapprove of credit card debt (and I don’t think went into debt for much of anything besides homes), and yet, they have still provided a safety net that makes it a lot easier for me to take on debt.

  41. I really appreciate this discussion; I think it’s incredibly valuable to confront this topic with real figures and stories. I think it’s the best antidote to the ‘shame factor’ that there is. I hope to someday have a guest post on my blog about grad school debt. I am not qualified to write on the subject myself because I was one of the lucky ones who finished with very little; I had parents who covered undergrad and significant funding during grad school (and, too, I was frugal). The debt I had (about 6K) dated from a grad program I dropped out of; when i went back in to grad school I made getting funding a major priority.

    Anyway, just happy to see these numbers and stories being put out there. thanks for the inspiration, Dr. Virago!

  42. Finishing next month, and no debt. I paid my own way through undergrad through a co-operative program (school terms alternating with work terms); my parents chipped in maybe a year of tuition? Then I worked for three years. I made my way through three more years of school, undergrad and a masters, on a mix of savings/summer jobs/RA jobs/one year of tuition stipend (MA). Just finished my overseas PhD on a full tuition and living expenses scholarship. All in countries with socialized medicine and dental care.

    I feel I should point out that I actually do have retirement savings already: this is mostly due to the three years of work, but I squirreled other bits away here and there as I could. It’s not much, but decent for a late twenties/early thirties professional.

  43. Forgot to say, I’ve been to Kalamazoo/Leeds/Medieval Academy seven times in the last six years. Whichever was closest! Last year I did one in-country and one overseas. I’ve had full or partial funding almost every time.
    No car ever: biked everywhere.
    Some furniture purchases, but of the Ikea/thrift shop variety.
    My PhD funding has actually enabled a lot of expensive clothing, travelling, and the associated drinking (to the detriment of my dissertation!)

  44. Sorry! I only realized after I posted how lucky I’ve been; jealousy wasn’t my intention! But I also worked to pay my own way through during my undergraduate and masters’ degrees, including some dishwashing! I’m proud of that. I’m also fairly frugal in day to day living and have only been able to relax that recently due to a generous PhD stipend. Looking back, the biggest help was the fact that I’ve always been at public universities with low tuition (still top research institutions, though.)

  45. Pingback: One Link Leads to Another « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured

  46. $10K. Where it went:

    – subsidizing rent when I couldn’t stand roommates anymore
    – filling in gaps on a fellowship that just wasn’t quite enough
    – not working, or not working enough to really support myself, the semester I took my exams (very good call)
    – the job market / living the summer after I graduated.

    That is pretty good I think — I got a lot out of $10K!

    Why I didn’t have more debt: my parents paid for some things like the time I had my wisdom teeth out. I didn’t have a car (didn’t need one where I was) and lived well enough because I didn’t have expensive habits (and so didn’t feel like I was scrimping, either). I would also take on .25% time readerships in addition to the TA. And in some summers, I got paid by the government for taking intensive language workshops.

    But: professordom has been much more expensive and I owe about $15K in bank loans and 0% credit cards right now, and I only own about 25-30% of my house (if in fact it is worth what they say it is). And that is after YEARS.

  47. I’m late on the discussion, but I might be the one who is skewing those figures Pannacker is throwing out (then again, I may not since I’m not an American and mine may not be counted). I ended up with about $160,000 in student loan money at the end of the PhD. (This amount was reduced to about $145,000 as I explain below.)

    How that all got spent? Well, most of it is because I was a non-traditional student throughout my whole academic life. I didn’t walk into a university till I was 29 and had three children to support. So I took on a good bit of debt for undergrad, even though I also had grant and scholarship money. Undergrad was about $40,000 of the total borrowed. My undergrad and MA loans were gotten in Canada through the national loan program, which means that about $10,000 of that loan money was forgiven because the program has caps on how much it thinks it should cost you to go to school.

    The MA only cost about $1,000 in loans, but that was because I worked and had an RAship and a TAship for the first and second years respectively.

    For the PhD, I attended a university in the US Northeast. I had a full TAship, which meant a stipend for 9 months of the year. I lucky that a couple of the years I could get summer teaching, which amounted to the same amount as the stipend for the other 3 months. But because this was in an expensive northeastern city, the stipend didn’t even cover the rent on our very small townhouse that was barely big enough for two adults and three teenagers. So all other living expenses were borrowed.

    Most of this debt was taken on in a calculated manner, and although it’s a heavy load to be paying back now (especially since my children are now old enough to be going to school themselves and we want to help at least a little with the tuition), I don’t regret it. We lived frugally the whole time, knowing that each dollar we spent would be several we’d have to pay back later once the interest was calculated (it’s sobering when you realize a $2 coffee will actually cost you $6 by the time you pay it back). But the money went to things like food, utilities, insurance, transportation, kids school fees (public, not private of course, but there’s still lots of costs involved), sports (cross-country, soccer, you know, the inexpensive ones).

    The PhD borrowing ($115,000) is something we’ve always understood as family loans rather than personal, even if they are only in my name. My husband went to medical school at the same time I was doing the PhD, and because of that workload and the fact that all his loans went to paying his tuition, I took on living expense debt for the entire family. But obviously my husband’s employment is lucrative, and it allows us to pay off those monstrous debts (his debt is actually higher than mine) while living modestly, and helping our kids pay for their tuition (they still have to work because we can only help at this point; we can’t pay their full way).

    So I’m one of those people skewing the numbers up. But I’m also not the typical student and am I paying more for my education because I made the decision to start a family before getting it. But in a strange way, I’m happy with those decisions and can’t imagine what my life might have been like had I not made those decisions.

    Yes, I’ll be paying a lot every month for a long time for the experience. And I may just be deluding myself, but I really am fine with it. It’s a bit scary, having so much student loan debt, but at the same time, I think it was worth every penny.

  48. I’m not sure whether a UK perspective is any kind of useful here because the system, particularly the one I went through, is just so different, but what the heck. My undergraduate degree was paid for with a government grant and a parental contribution which was approximately the same amount; my fees were all paid by the state. (I was in the last cohort where the combination of paid fees and maintenance grant was possible; the Student Loans Co. fired up the year I finished. The fees payment only began to crumble in 2007, however.) My M.Phil. was paid for partly by my parents, partly with a grant I’d raised from a charitable trust, partly with my own earnings from a gap year and substantially by the institution using a bursary fund. My Ph.D. was paid for by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, fees and maintenance, for two of its five years; the other three I did part-time, and fees then were always paid either out of a bursary scheme or in part-exchange for teaching. My maintenance, I had a lot more trouble with: I was working some very cheap jobs in that time, and got into a mess with rent that still has my credit score messed up, but loaned enough from friends to get me paid off when the clouds burst and then paid them back once I had steady work. The mess probably could have been mostly avoided if I’d been more careful with my money; the landlord stopped cashing cheques for six months, long story. Eventual outcome, however, no debt except what this summer’s conferences put me into, most of which I will eventually recoup when various bodies pay my expenses. So I was very lucky, both in timing, in parental wealth and in friends. Those coming after me or from less comfortable backgrounds would have different stories to tell.

  49. Pingback: Stock Take VI: the work, the job, the life? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Add to the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s