I'm Finishing Grad School Debt-Free (& So Can You)

I’m currently doing the seemingly impossible: paying for an MFA at a private school in NYC. No, I don’t have a trust fund or rich parents. Yes, I have my own room — I also have a gym membership, and I haven’t eaten Top Ramen in years. I promise it’s possible, even while the costs of grad school and NYC housing are rising at faster rates than public disdain for Donald Trump. Then there’s the fact that much of the “how to fund grad school” advice out there forgets that getting a master’s degree requires money for more than just tuition. It’s everything from food to housing to dish soap to time management. How do I do it? Well, I have two jobs, a strict homework schedule, and scrappy spending habits.

I’m not trying to offer a manual for how to “have it all” — because that’s impossible. Knowing and having what you want, however, is obtainable. Getting an MFA in NYC has been a lifelong dream of mine, even though I’ve always known that a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy apartment in the East Village and daily $6 artisan lattes on my parents’ dollar wouldn’t be an option. My life isn’t glamorous, but it works — and it’s the life I want. Here are my tips for how to fund that daily (and nightly) grad school grind.

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Pick A Program That Works

If you don’t want to be a lawyer or doctor, finding a program that fits your calendar and your bank account is more important than going to a prestigious university. My non-Ivy league education has never kept me from getting a certain job. Ask yourself: Will I learn what I need to here?

I take evening classes that fit neatly around a 9-5 desk job. There are plenty of evening and online programs that make it easier to maintain full-time employment, though I haven’t yet found a search engine that surfaces them efficiently. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the phone with admissions departments asking about class schedules. Sure, some days I have to chug a coffee at 7 p.m. before class, but I’ll take that over $100,000 in debt any day.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Try To Get School-Based Funding (Even A Little)

My master’s program came with a 25% scholarship from my school. Fun fact: All admitted students got the same offer. Giving a partial scholarship to every student is some schools’ way of making degrees more affordable and attractive, even though they don’t usually advertise this explicitly. Investigate your school; there might be more financial help available than you think.

The best way to get this information is by talking to current students. Many colleges have public Facebook groups or meet-and-greets with their student body. Finding the right program may take a little work, but once you realize part of your tuition will be covered (and you won’t have to write yet another personal statement for yet another scholarship committee), believe me, it will be worth it.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Apply For (The Right) Scholarships & Grants

Websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb are just a black hole of essay contests. Most scholarships are for undergraduate degrees, the applications take an inordinate amount of time, and there are sometimes thousands of people applying to every scholarship. There is no reason to read The Anthem, write a 10,000-word essay about it, and track down three reference letters for a 0.05% chance of getting a one-time $5,000 scholarship (for example).

In my experience, it’s been more fruitful and less work to find grants from foundations and nonprofits that specifically support my field of study. This kind of scholarship doesn’t show up in a major search engine. I had to do a Google search for specific institutions and then search their websites for funding options. I also found Philanthropy News Digest helpful, even though it’s not geared towards college scholarships. Bottom line: Don’t waste precious time on applications for scholarships that you aren’t likely to get.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Work An Easy Job — Use A Recruiter

It may seem like a backwards career move to go from being a marketing coordinator to a receptionist, but that’s what I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. A simple, two-skill kind of job is perfect for my life right now because: It doesn’t take all my mental energy, I have a lot of down time alone at my desk to work on other things, and it pays more than waitressing.

I found my job through a staffing agency; my recruiter submitted my résumé to 30 or more positions during my three-week search. Translation: There are MANY more jobs like mine. Staffing agencies are the hidden key out of the job-hunt struggle. Companies pay them to find employees, so there’s no cost to you. Plus, you don’t have to write a cover letter, fill out endless entry fields in an online application, or send a million pleading emails to dead-end info@ addresses.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Find A Work-From-Home Job

Sometimes even one high-paying job won’t cover the complete cost of grad school and living expenses. So I also have a work-from-home job doing part-time communications for a Brooklyn nonprofit. Being able to work from anywhere is a huge advantage, and it pays enough to cover the remainder of my expenses. Finding this setup is not always easy, though; typing in “work from home job” online will mostly bring up scams.

The best route is to search sites such as LinkedIn and Monster.com for jobs within your field — whether it be transcription, marketing, or otherwise — and then select a “remote work” filter, or look through individual postings to see if location is flexible. And don’t forget to ping your connections. People might be more willing to let you work from home if they already know you’re not a slacker. Which you aren’t.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Don’t Live In The East Village

I have my own bedroom in Brooklyn on the top floor of a little brownstone, 20 minutes from Manhattan, and I pay $800/month. If you’re not familiar with the ungodly state of NYC housing prices, $800 might sound absurd. But often, in NYC, $800 will only get you the top slot of a three-story bunk bed in someone’s living-room-turned-bedroom in Murray Hill. After moving 12 times in NYC in the past five years, I’ve learned some tricks.

First, some apartments are cheaper at different times of the year; May through September are hot months for housing, but you can usually nab great apartments for cheaper if you can wait until the winter months (excluding January). Second, Craigslist is sometimes sketchy, but not always. Of course you should never respond to an ad that has been posted multiple times, isn’t legible, or won’t let you bring a friend to the viewing. And although I’ve found several great, non-broker-fee apartments on Craigslist before, I’ve also found myself in the windowless attic of someone’s house, asking, “So it’s $1,700 a month?”

Finally, RadPad tends to have better deals than StreetEasy. And don’t forget: Friends help friends move in exchange for pizza and beer.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Get Crafty With General Spending

“Good” and “cheap” aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to food. For affordable, delicious meals, I use MealPal and crockpot meal prep. MealPal is a great way to have lunch for $6/day from local restaurants. I just subtract the cost from my grocery budget. For dinner, every Sunday I throw a bunch of yummy ingredients into the crockpot and then dish it up into five servings for the week. It’s repetitive, but it beats ice soup.

Sometimes I’ll brave Costco or Soap.com — both have my face wash for less than $12, which isn’t true of Duane Reade. For fun outings with friends, I use Groupon or Pulsd. I exercise (in theory) at Planet Fitness for $10/month, and I have discounted student subscriptions to Spotify, Hulu, Netflix, and the New York Times. Every dollar counts.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell
Budget Time & Money In Advance

A remainder of my tuition wasn’t covered by scholarships, so I added that total to my monthly expenses and then calculated how much I would need to make each year to cover those bills. In other words, I made a real-live budget. It sounds tedious, but thanks to that budget, I had a better idea of what kinds of jobs would work for me. Every month, I plan out how much I’m allowed to spend on food, housing, transportation, booze, etc. If money in one category runs out, I don’t spend any more until the following month. At times, I’ve put this money onto reloadable gift cards each month. Other times, I’ve used services like Mint to track my spending. At the very least, planning in advance always helps me pay my bills on time.

It’s not a lifestyle that everyone loves (sometimes I feel like a robot), but it’s the only way I can get everything done. A lot of the “how to fund grad school” advice out there will tell you to get a job at your university or ask your employer for a tuition reimbursement. The truth is, both of these options are unlikely. And other routes, such as graduate assistantships or endless scholarship applications, don’t take into account that graduate students also have to buy breakfast, Christmas presents for their mothers, and toilet paper. Budgeting my time and money in advance (with all these tricks and services) has helped me fund an entire life — one that, lucky for me, includes grad school.

So if you, too, want to learn and live well, go for it. Even if you never thought it was possible.