Saturday, June 26, 2010

Postdoctoral Money Woes

All PhD students should take note of Tenured Radical’s important financial advice for when you go off to start that tenure-track job. It’s useful and very important. However, they should also be aware that this advice is the best-case-scenario: from grad school to the tt. My posts are going to be about a more difficult, and more common path: from grad school to adjunct teaching to unemployment to postdoc. (to, I hope, a real and permanent job in the near future.) And it’s not so much going to be advice posts as me going off a cliff and saying afterwards, ooh, I wish I hadn’t done that. (imagine that as a little voice fading away into the canyon: Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!)

I’m planning money and its really frustrating. I’ve already spent my entire year’s salary. Imaginatively. Luckily I like the planning and the window-shopping and the waffling indecisively over what type of thing or color of thing I want to buy almost more than the actual buying, so when I made up a big list of all the stuff I would like to replace with new things, I slapped in some estimates and toted them up and decided I should probably save some of it at least for food and rent.

So I started making a budget and looking at apartments on the web. That’s really frustrating too. I should stop and note that I have always been very good at entering all my expenses in to quicken and keeping track of my money and avoiding overdrafts or other fees or spending to zero balance, but being strapped and unemployed is so hard. I wouldn’t check what I spent against my budget, since the budget was essentially “zero,” and I would often treat myself or let myself get a little something just because I get so depressed and feel so strapped, you know? So I kept records but didn’t really look at my spending patterns. Just now I used these last couple years of expense tracking to make a retroactive budget in all the important categories.

When I totaled up everything to make a typical budget month I was pleased to see it almost exactly match my soon-to-be take-home pay. Wait. I haven’t added rent in there. How can that be? How can I be moving to a (slightly) bigger salary than what I had here in GradSchoolLand and not be able to fit in rent? How have I been surviving with these levels of expenses --- these are actual expenses recorded from my receipts --- with an exorbitant rent rate? I am so confused. And pissed off. How can I buy some new stuff like a couch that doesn’t need propping up or a working vacuum cleaner if my budget doesn’t even cover rent?

Not only that, but this is not a permanent position ---- I will need to budget moving expenses (more likely mooch them off of my dad) and pay for another job market run this year. Know how much I spent on job-related expenses last year? 2000 dollars! I spent 1600 the year before that! I will have to put aside over a hundred bucks a month to pay for that again! And if I am lucky and land a permanent job I will need to pay to move again, so I’d like to have money saved for that eventuality. And I’d like a savings cushion in general. And to start saving actual retirement-type stuff. At least to not add any more debt while I’m there.

Sigh. Clearly I need to see this not as My First Job but as an extension of grad school living. A year of field research, as it were. Scratch tv from the list and movie outings. Back to no alcohol. Continue holding as close to zero as possible on the clothing expenses. (My shoe expenses have been a totally-uncalled-for pick-me-up and I need to go back to just admiring them in pictures.) And I had really wanted to move on up to a bigger apartment, have an office separate from my living room and bedroom, and I think I should stay at a one bedroom. Double sigh. (Yeah, rent is much cheaper in Somewhere Else, but I’m not going to go all the way down into the lowest rent rates for someplace skeevy and potentially unsafe. Or unairconditioned.) I even looked into asking for a spot in grad student housing, if you can believe that, but I’d have to drop to a studio there to go cheaper than the off-campus one bedrooms I’m looking at.

My cats are a large fixed expense that I can’t exactly skimp on --- what, should I not feed them? Not take them to the vet when they are sick or licking themselves raw?

I’m even more waffly on the food expenses, since I know from experience that writing at home and not having tv or being able to go out for fun means that those expensive coffee drinks are so important just to get me out of the house and not go stir crazy. But yeah, they really do add up. But then, sanity and being able to force myself to grade for two hours is also vital.

(much like beagles, Academic Cog is lazy, stubborn, and highly food-motivated. She's not as cute as actual beagles, but more housebroken.)

And a major major part of my budget expense would be those damn student loans. Yeah, I totally appreciated them when I was a student. And if I had gone straight from being a student to a decently-paying tenure track job, they would be a big but manageable and slightly annoying payment to make every month, like a car payment or something. But instead I’ve had one job to pay them, another to (not really cover) the rent, and a third little job to kinda pretend to cover my actual living expenses but really need my dad to step in and help a lot. They really suck. I don’t want to not pay them back right now because I have been paying for a year or two now and that was just on the interest! I haven’t even started chipping away at the principal. So I’ve just been pretending that my rent is 250 dollars higher than it is and assuming that it’s non-negotiable. This makes the super-cheap rental rates in Somewhere Else much less so, as well.

Meh. But, you make your choices and you live with the consequences. This would be why I rant and fume at grad students about not taking out loans if at all possible. If you think this is tough, ask some of my friends who have 70k and 100k loan balances ---- they have tt jobs but are still living like students --- living more like students now than when they were students! *(and as long as we’re on my friends as object lessons, they haven’t really started paying down the loans yet because they had to get their credit card balances under control first. Racking up the student loans is bad, but the credit cards can be even worse news so be careful and try to stick to loans with the subsidized interest rates.)* Ok, this ends my latest installment of ranty advice.

Maybe I will have to make a note to myself about “being a grad student on field research” and post it somewhere I can see it to keep my spending in line. But I am buying that new couch, dammit. There’s no point in paying to ship a broken couch cross-country.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Oh yeah, that first year or two after graduation tends to be brutal on the finances. (In my case, it didn't help that I wrecked a rental car when I went to VAP City to scout for apartments, to the tune of $4,000 in expenses that weren't covered by insurance. Ouch.)

Good luck with everything!

Susan said...

This is definitely the companion to TR's post. I kept the (free) dining table that a grad school classmate passed on to me for about 5 years post graduation. I think the free lounger, with a big slit in the vinyl, lasted even longer.

It's always tricky knowing what's worth putting in the u-haul and what makes sense to leave. Fortunately, Craig's List is available even in places where they have weather :)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Freecycle furniture. Your new colleagues might even have stuff they want to get rid of and would be happy to give you, if you're not proud. I scored a dining room table, 2 chairs, and a washer and dryer from my new colleagues when I took my job.

Lucky Jane said...

Agreed on the bounty of Craiglist, Freecycle, and especially of new colleagues giving stuff away. Also agreed on how facultyhood-as-financial-panacea is a myth: as you point out, even your tt friends have discovered the necessity of a lower standard of living than grad life. That was my experience as well. The handful of folks I know who finished with no debt described their first year post degree as "grad school, with money." Good for them.

If you have tried to negotiate moving expenses, how firm was their "no"? My first temp gig paid mine as a matter of course, but the second did not, at first. That offer was handled by an associate dean, who claimed he couldn't authorize such an addition, so I did the equivalent of asking to speak to his supervisor. Since they were desperate to make the hire (this was in late April), moving expenses were added the contract. At this point, 7-11 weeks before classes start, your soon-to-be employer may be even more anxious about not losing their first choice, but it is a different economic climate, so tread gingerly with such a request.

Depending on your relationship to your books, this next might be too horrific to contemplate: if you have many unmarked or gently marked books (especially textbooks that publishers still send to anyone who's ever taught a course at a large institution), you might be able to fetch pretty decent prices for them on Amazon, which gives you a lot of exposure but also takes out a hefty chunk of fees. Plug in some ISBNs to see how much a neglected volume can fetch. Had I to do it over again, I would not have moved 2000 pounds of books with me three times. Never mind the expense, which, though reimbursed, was absurd; the fuel consumed makes me shudder. Almost any book is replaceable.

With regard to the budget, not eating meat and knowing how to cook can save enormous sums of money. For all I know, you're already a vegan who points out how all the dishes on Top Chef can be improved before the judges do, but food is the most flexible part of the budget. As an inveterate spending-tracker, I'm horrified by how often I ate out as a grad student, when life was so much more leisurely. Sites like Cheap Healthy Good abound with ideas for eating low on both the food chain and the budget. If Somewhere Else has good farmers' markets, go late, when vendors will virtually (and often literally) give stuff away because they don't want to pack it up. Cook once a week and stock your freezer with your own superior Lean Cuisines. Coffee drinks are shockingly easy to make, though cleanup is a bore.

Socializing doesn't have to be expensive. You'll earn brownie points for student engagement by attending students' readings and other functions; drag your colleagues along. If you're moving somewhere walkable (check out WalkScore), your colleagues are probably also walking to campus, and you should join them. I do so often, and we usually invite each other in for a glass of wine—on the way home, not in the morning (which, come to think of it, would make a day of meetings much more tolerable). That said, I think it is important to socialize with people NOT associated with work, especially when that work is academic. It takes over your life. Plus, everywhere I've ever taught, no matter the size, has been really insular. Befriending non-academics is necessary for a sense of perspective. gives a good idea of the types of things that interest people in Somewhere Else. That's how I met all my Tea Party BFFs. Kidding! My computer almost caught fire when I typed that.

And may I just say how impressed I am at your thoughtful planning, given the trepidation—and excitement—of moving on? Don't underestimate how hard the transition can be, but if your preparation is any indication, you're going to be much better than just fine. Best of luck with everything.

Sisyphus said...

@Porp --- ahhhh! You wrecked a rental car? That's my nightmare! Ok, if I don't do that, I'm doin' fine.

@Susan--- Sigh. I am tired of my cheap self-assembled furniture from kmart and target that is 12 years old. Even if I could get free stuff from other people at this new department, it wouldn't be shiny and new! Grumble grumble. Sigh, I can eat ramen off the floor again, I guess.

Dame Elenaor --- I have gotten rid of my bookshelves and (soon) sofa, all of which are too fragile to make the journey (the bookshelves started coming apart on the journey down my stairs even!) but I still have all my other pieces of crap, including the kitchen table/chairs. I will try to make do, but I want something that doesn't say student-poor all over it!

@Jane --- I did indeed get $500 for moving. But upack will cost me 1800 and the pods 2500, so, while it helps, it doesn't cover. And I don't have any books worth selling back, since I only own paperbacks and only buy used, and I've tried to sell back to the used bookstores. Two shopping bags full got me six bucks. So I'm hauling around the rest since I am attached to them!

Once I get to Somewhere Else you will hear all about my adventures and attempts to socialize! I've gotten quite a few private emails about how isolating and lonely and scary doing a visiting/postdoc gig is, so I'm starting to get kinda worried. Thank god for the internet! THere is no way I can remove that from my budget.

Anastasia said...

As much as I like TR's post it presumes many many many many things about my finances that are not true.

Arbitrista said...

I totally empathize. I am one of those 100K student loan types. And despite the fact that I make a decent salary, I still live paycheck to paycheck and have to carefully weigh every expenditure. It's exhausting.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Hey Sis - never underestimate the possibility of meeting a sugar daddy. haha.

But seriously. I have 100K in student loans and have been in forbearance for a couple of years. I will likely try to do something like that again this year since I'm completely unemployed. (Unless some miracle akin to virgin birth happens and I get a job before December.)

When I read tenured radical's post I laughed out loud. As Anastasia said, there are LOTS of assumptions there that just don't apply to me.

Anywhooo... good luck. Survival is important. Take care of yourself!

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, the only things I saw in her post were that you won't be paid as early as you think, you'll need to budget, and you'll probably have less disposable income than when you were a student. At first I didn't agree with the idea of an accountant, since I can use turbotax online without any difficulty, but on pondering it further I think it is good advice: an accountant will be able to help set up a budget and loan/cc repayment plan and should be able to help consolidate and get other repayment deals. I don't actually know how much an accountant costs, though (the only benefit of being poor! It's really easy to do the budget math!)

And I feel for all you Atlases of student-loan burdens! My next plan is to win the scratch-off lottery --- I promise to send you some of my spare money once I do.

Anastasia said...

A key reason I'd have less disposable income, though, is because I would presumably need to repay loans. But I don't have any loans to repay. And I haven't financed graduate school by living on credit. I don't carry a balance on my credit card. I also have a down payment for a house sitting in the bank waiting.

I'm not saying my situation is typical. I don't think it is. It's because my husband used to make really good money but it's also because we learned to budget a long time ago.

But I do I feel like she's assuming a graduate who went straight from undergrad to grad school, is single, has never had a significant income before, has never budgeted before, has many student loans, relied on credit cards to make ends meet in the past and thus has credit card debt. And on top of that, this person presumes that with their new tt income, their money troubles will disappear. Probably more common than my situation, I'm just saying...I noticed the assumptions because they don't apply to me.

This is pretty much a pointless comment because I think her advice is great and what you add to the discussion is really solid, too.