Emily Roberts received a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Grad Student Finances, PhD Stipends, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @GradFinances.
There are a few different versions of the “rule of thumb” regarding how much of your income to spend on housing. No more than 25-30% of your take-home pay seems to be the consensus, with a few outliers. But as a graduate student receiving a stipend, does this guideline apply to you? How should you figure out how much to spend on housing? Clearly, whether your university is in a high cost-of-living or a low cost-of-living area will have an enormous impact on how much you need to spend.
For some graduate students, this rule of thumb is unfortunately useless and discouraging. In certain high cost-of-living areas, rent can be 50% or more of a stipend. But even in pricey markets, it’s worthwhile to take a hard look at yourself and your surroundings to make the best choice you can among your limited options.
But, other graduate students are in an area that offers them a degree of choice in how much of their stipend to spend on rent. They have the opportunity to evaluate the range of reasonable choices and decide what is best for them, given their values and other financial goals.
Whether you are moving to a new city to start grad school or are several years into your program already, you should evaluate your housing costs to make sure you are spending the right amount of money and getting the right amount of value for you. To do so, you have to evaluate both yourself and your environment and, ultimately, balance your budget.
Since housing is the biggest component of most Americans’ budgets, you should use a mini-financial planning process to help you determine where housing falls on your priorities list. Start by determining your top life values (family, freedom, creativity, health, achievement, etc.). Then, set goals for your finances that help you fulfill those values. Once that high-level picture starts to come into focus, you can figure out where housing falls on your priorities list. What aspects of housing—space, location, safety, privacy, amenities—help you fulfill your values or are otherwise very important to you? What attributes are non-negotiable and what are you willing to let go of in favor of a lower price? This process can bring a lot of clarity because it helps you directly compare differences in the price of housing with your other financial goals.
One of the first and biggest decisions you will make is whether or not to have a roommate/housemate. Some graduate students are so tired of living with other people that they won’t consider it no matter how much cheaper it would be, while others may be excited about how a roommate would benefit their lives as well as bottom lines. If you’re on the fence, price out both options and ask yourself if having $X more per month to put toward other areas of your finances is worth the (reasonable) potential downsides such as noise/distractions, differing standards for common areas, reduced privacy, or personality clash. Living with another grad student in your same year or area of study who understands the demands of your program could be a great option.
Evaluate Your Environment
Your best resource for finding appropriate housing options is other graduate students. I have found that grad students are quite willing to divulge what they pay in rent, and widely polling can give you a great idea of the market. If you haven’t yet moved to your city, start by emailing students you met during your visit weekend, students in your (prospective) lab/group, or students in departmental leadership positions. But you don’t have to keep thinking “inside the box,” either, if it seems that grad students flock to the few most popular options. Where in your city do other young professionals or people with an income similar to yours live?
In addition to asking around, check your university’s website to see 1) if housing is offered to graduate students (and at what price and priority) and 2) if your university makes off-campus housing recommendations or maintains a housing database of its own. Searching on Craigslist is usually a good way to find housing and/or roommates, and you can also check listings on Trulia, PadMapper, apartments.com, etc. Which database is best to use to search for housing will vary somewhat by city.
Be sure to consider various types of housing. In Durham’s housing market, my observation is that the least expensive option is renting (or buying) a single-family home with several other people and the most expensive option is renting a luxury apartment near campus. In some cities, on-campus housing may be the least expensive option, and by talking with your peers you may discover the best practices for getting your foot in the door.
Balance Your Budget
Ultimately, when reconciling your own priorities with the realities of the housing market, your expenses need to be less than your income. If you are simply locked into high housing costs no matter how low a priority it is for you, the rest of your budget is going to be affected. But one additional factor to consider is how housing cost might play against other needs like transportation and utilities costs. Perhaps a higher base housing cost can become more palatable if it means you can live car-free or have low utility bills. For example, are you able to keep your total needs spending to 50% of your net income (recommended in All Your Worth), or at least minimize the whole category?
If you live in a city where you have good housing options across a reasonable range of prices, this is the situation where the rule of thumb might come in handy. Calculate what 25-30% of your household take-home pay is and look at what that will get you. If you are tempted to spend more than 30% of your income on housing and don’t have to, ask yourself if it’s really that important and if you are going to be able to meet your other financial goals. Certainly, you can spend less than 25% if you are so inclined!
Revisit the Question
If you are renting, you aren’t locked into the housing decision you made at the start of grad school. In fact, you’re likely to make a better decision about housing after you have gotten to know your city and have seen where other grad students live. Your priorities and income may also change with time. It is valuable to periodically re-run this analysis on yourself and your environment to determine if moving is warranted.
I have personally benefitted from re-evaluating the cost of my housing during graduate school. My husband lived in the same apartment for his first five years of grad school and really loved it. But the city changed during those five years, and the area he was renting in no longer seemed like the only option. When the apartment complex tried to raise our rent 6% year-over-year (the rent increases in the previous 5 years had summed to about 10%), we took it as an opportunity to shop around. We ended up moving to a townhouse with the same square footage closer to our university (reducing our commuting costs) for an 11% decrease in rent. The only downgrade was that our new community didn’t have a clubhouse gym, but that wasn’t much of a sacrifice, as we had access to our university’s gym. I count that move as one of the best financial decisions we made to reduce our spending during grad school.
For your stipend, is housing in your city expensive, reasonable, or inexpensive? Where does housing fall on your priorities list? Have you been able to find a good deal in your city?
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