How a Grad Student in the Bay Area Does Money

Photo credit: Rasmus Zwickson, CC BY 2.0.

Callie (not her real name) is a 29-year-old graduate student in the SF Bay Area.

So, Callie, how much are you making?

Right now, I only have one job, which is unusual for me! I’m making $22/hour as a research assistant to a professor, and then will be starting an full-time summer internship where I earn $18/hour in a few weeks.

How many jobs are usual for you?

For most of this past school year (so August through March) I was picking up contract work for two former employers. That was great because they paid me like a contractor instead of a grad student ($75/hour) but the workload was too much and I had to quit.

I also took a class this past semester that offered me a stipend to manage a student consulting project, so at one point earlier this year, I had four jobs on top of going to school full time. it was a lot!


Yeah, exactly! Luckily I’ve had enough cash on hand that I knew I would be able to make it work when I quit the contracting job.

So I’m assuming you’re earning less now than you were when you had multiple jobs? How are you handling the income shift?

I’m paying for grad school tuition with loans, and then living expenses through a combination of work + savings + help from parents (thanks, parents!), who very generously are helping me with $5K/semester.

Are these loans in addition to your undergrad student loans?

Luckily, no! I’m super lucky — my parents covered almost all of the cost of undergrad. I did what I could to help: throughout college I always worked at least one job (usually two) to help with the cost of living expenses, and I also finished my coursework in three years rather than four. I also had a small amount of loans that my parents had me take out more to show my mutual commitment to the cost of school, but I was able to pay them off right away.

It sounds like you have a really good handle on your finances — both the earning and the spending/saving end. Would you agree?

Thanks! Something that’s been really important for me to realize about myself is that I’m not wired in a way so that I’m the most frugal person out there, haha. I would say that I spend more money than the average person in my grad program, but also that I’m really clear on where it goes, what the implications will be for me in the future, and where I like to spend money to maximize happiness.

How did you develop that clarity? And what do you mean by “you spend more money than the average person in your grad program?” What are you spending on that they aren’t?

Those are two good questions! I’ll go with the first one first.

My very first year out of college, I took an AmeriCorps job in the Bay Area, which meant that I was making very little money while living somewhere really expensive. I wasn’t very on top of my finances, and I wracked up ~$10K in credit card debt without really doing anything too wild. When I was 25, I got really serious about paying off the debt, and for me an important part of that process was getting really clear on where my money was going.

I started manually tracking expenses in an Excel spreadsheet, and have stuck with it for the past four years or so! I feel so much calmer when I know where everything is going, haha.

I know I’ve written/said that exact phrase: “getting really clear on where my money was going.” It’s so helpful!

Yeah! Exactly.

In terms of expenses — and I’m a little nervous about revealing this to a blog with so many financially-minded readers — I have a very serious eyelash extension habit, you guys.


Hahaha! It genuinely makes me so happy — I tried to quit last summer and made it a few months where I missed them every single day. So that sets me back $125/month and is SO worth it.

Big expense #2 — I have some chronic pain stuff (lower back and TMJ) that I do a lot to manage, including spending $175/month on a Pilates package. I’ve been doing Pilates consistently for nearly five years and notice that my back stuff flares up whenever I take a break from Pilates (I’ve tried a ton of other stuff, and this is what works).

And then finally, big expense #3 — I budget $200/month for going out, and typically end up spending $250–400, which is made up of a lot of days/nights where I spend $25–40 (so less that I’m dropping $100 at a bar, haha).

You just have a lot of friends who want to hang out with you! 😉

Haha, what a nice way to look at it! I’m really lucky that I’ve been in the same city for so long and have also had jobs + other experiences where it’s been easy to make cool friends. My community is really important to me!

What are your other major expenses? Rent, etc.

My rent is $915/month, which is ~$400–500 under market for my neighborhood. We have a great deal on a rent-controlled house (I have one of four bedrooms).

My other fixed expenses are around $200 a month — utilities, phone, Netflix, that kind of thing.

I also budget $300/month for food, $100/month for the line item that includes things like toilet paper and shampoo, and $125 for Uber Pool.

I’m doing some math on your total expenses every month, and getting… $2,500? From rent to eyelash extensions?

Yeah! Exactly.

Anywhere else your money is going?

I also budget for few things annually (clothes, student loan interest, travel) that add up to $5K per year, which means my total cost of living is ~$35,000/year.

How about retirement savings?

Sadly, not right now! I have ~$10K across two IRAs and am excited to do some catch-up there once I’m working full-time again.

So is it fair to say that getting $5K per semester from your parents covers a little under 30 percent of your living expenses?

That sounds about right. It is amazing and super cool of them.

This year I made a little bit more money than I thought I would, so I moved the $5K from my parents this semester to my loan balance.

Oh nice!

Yeah! It definitely felt good.

Where do you think you’ll be financially after grad school? You’ll have loans to pay off, but you might be earning more as well?

Yeah, exactly! I’m expecting to earn $75–90K year after finishing my program a year from now. I’ve done a lot of spreadsheeting to understand what that will mean, and it looks like I’ll be able to put at least 40 percent of my take-home towards loans and savings, which will be wonderful.

You’ll still be in the Bay Area?

Yeah! I love it here, and at this point feel like I have deep roots. I plan to be here as long as I can make it work financially!

Also, for the kind of work I do, I’d have to be in a big city, and I’m so not cut out for East Coast pace of life/Midwest winters,

I’m guessing that you won’t be lifestyle creeping much, then? 60 percent of 75K won’t get you that far in the Bay Area. Do you think about homeownership or any long-term goals like that?

Yeah! Exactly — I’m imagining the same kind of lifestyle that I have now for that scenario.

I would love to own a home one day, but the median home cost where I live is $600K, and the down payment is totally out of reach for me. It’s one of those things where it’s not feasible unless I have a partner, which I would like to happen but obviously am not banking on as a given.

For sure.

Last question, then: What advice do you have for Billfold readers?

First of all, do what works for you and ignore my advice if it doesn’t seem right.

1. Consider tracking your spending! It’s been enormously, enormously helpful to me to know exactly where my money is going. It helps me make choices that make me happy without making me stressed out about spending money.

2. Don’t go to grad school until you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of it (I’m SO glad I waited until I was 28 to go back).

3. Be kind to yourself about your spending! Life is better when you don’t beat yourself up when you make the occasional bad choice.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.