We'd also love to know how you're doing. Using this form, share your own experience with living paycheck to paycheck and working in underpaid jobs.
I started a doctoral program in 2018, and those notoriously pay very little. I'm also lucky to live in a low cost of living city, but I still rely on keeping a pretty low budget and getting help from my family. I'm still in the program, but I started a full time job that pays significantly more ($20,000 vs $40,000), yet that’s still not enough to keep me from living paycheck to paycheck. I can just afford to eat out a little more and pay all of my bills on time.
Inflation has definitely made things difficult, but I've been using the same money-saving practices (building weekly meals around what's on sale, shopping at inexpensive stores, having a side job) that I've been using since I started school. Honestly, being underpaid in academia has given me financial trauma, but it also gave me skills to endure hard times economically.
It's just very frustrating being an adult heading into this possible recession and knowing how much of it could've been avoided. It’s doubly frustrating that academia has a terrible problem with underpaying employees.
Given all of this, how can I keep my financial future as healthy as possible?
Underpaid In Academia
Dear Underpaid in Academia,
Congratulations on getting a full-time job that pays significantly more! Even though you’re still trying to find a way to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, a bump in your income is certainly a step towards a healthier and more stable financial future.
You’re taking fiscally responsible action, from keeping food costs down to having a second job and living in a low-cost city. Typically, besides food, housing and transportation are the categories where folks spend the most money. So if you’ve got that under control, you’re off to a great start.
Focus on your earning potential
Being frugal will undoubtedly impact your financial health, but remember that you’ll always have a baseline level of costs required for day-to-day living. This is why I think it’s important to shift your attention to your earning potential. In the short term, are student assistance programs like grants, scholarships, or financial aid tailored to students in similar situations to supplement your income available? In the intermediate term, can you negotiate a raise?
Here is an example of how you can go about negotiating. Let’s say you want to negotiate an 8% raise next year. Before asking, you’ll want to meet with your boss well before your review. In this meeting, ask them what you’d need to do between now and your next review to merit an 8% raise. Ask for measurable benchmarks to assess if it’s possible and if it is, so you can measure your progress and report back with data. Remember, this is pretty general advice, and the organization's culture and nuances of the industry will impact your approach to negotiating.
In the long term, it’s essential to recognize that your financial stability relies on your earning ability. Being able to save, invest, and pay down debt is ultimately a function of your earnings, not just your ability to reduce your expenses.
Take the time to look honestly at what’s on the other side of the doctoral program. What opportunities can you explore, and what is your earning potential with each option? Is there a demand for your skills outside of academia that comes with better financial prospects? Your expertise and research skills could be valuable across various industries. Even just taking the time to recognize that you have different options may help alleviate some financial stress.
As you progress in your doctoral program, be strategic about your future earnings. Keep your possible future paths in mind as you choose which new skills you’d like to work on and meet folks that could expand your network and possibly be a source to tap for job opportunities.
Seek support from a community
Community is a vital aspect of our overall health. It sounds silly of me to promote community and belonging as a contributing factor to one’s personal financial wellness, but not all problems can be solved by the individual. There is power in the collective.
A community can give us ways to find meaning outside of our careers, give us opportunities for personal growth, heal financial trauma, and play a role in our general sense of well being. We can build and maintain meaningful relationships through community, which can translate to mutual support. Having a community can expand your network of opportunities, knowledge, access, and various forms of support that can indirectly and directly impact your financial well-being.
Take small steps to invest in your future self
Given your income constraints, it doesn’t sound like you’re in a position to take immediate action in tackling your debt while also saving and investing in your future. Sometimes we find ourselves in less-than-ideal financial situations. Recognize that this is only your current position and that you can take actions to help shape your future in both the short and long term.
Start where you are. Take small steps. Little, consistent actions add up over time and make a big difference, like waves eroding rock to create a cliffside. Even if you can only save a little bit of money with each paycheck, like 1% of your income, it’s more important to start building the habit now. Then, as you earn more, you can slowly increase your investment and savings rate. With debt, take the same approach: start where you are and take small steps. Map out what you owe and determine how much you’ll need to earn to keep up with your monthly payments. If negotiating a raise with your boss sounds barf-inducing, start small. Ask people you know easy questions about money. Here are a few examples: What do you love spending money on? How much money do you think you’d need to retire? Do you have any tips on negotiating pay?
As challenging as it may be to approach your financial life from new angles, facing your trauma, healing your wounds, and focusing on the income side of your financial life will pay future dividends. Taking these first few steps is the beginning of your journey toward a healthy financial future.
Your friend in finance,