Posts Tagged ‘Savings’

Money Tips from a Professional Student: On Expensive Eating

This is the second in a series of articles directed towards college students – both graduates and undergraduates. As a PhD student in my 5th year after being an undergraduate for 4 years, you can call me a professional student. Through various experiences, I have learned a few things that can save money and help to reduce expenses. This series is dedicated to these suggestions. In the previous article I looked at textbooks.

After the costs of textbooks are taken off the table, the next area in which spending can easily get out of hand is food. Everyone has to eat, but the question is how you can eat without hurting much in the wallet? Here are a few of the things that I have seen that could help in managing costs of eating.

Attend Cultural Events: Every college campus has an international student organization and as a current (and former) member of several international student organizations I can attest to food being a major item in planned events. Most of these events take place on weekends, during dinner and cost little to no money. So instead of spending money at a Chinese buffet off-campus, support the Chinese Student Organization by attending their cultural event. You get the added bonus of interacting with people of other cultures in addition to eating well. Check your campus newspapers for details on these events and prepare yourself for some delicious dining.

Buy groceries: This is the most common way to save money. Knowing how to cook is an advantage but even if you don’t know how to cook there are easy food packages from Ramen to 5-minute rice to Hamburger Helpers. It’s a guarantee that you will save with a $2 ground beef and $2 hamburger helper package because it costs less than buying a similar food item that’s premade and you will usually have enough left over for a full meal. There are plenty of cheap and easy-to-make food packages ranging from oatmeal to Ramen to 5-minute rice. This is useful whether you live on or off campus. For more on grocery shopping tips, check out an older article from Get Rich Slowly

Cook in bulk: If you’re already buying groceries, take time on the weekend to make 2 – 3 different meals in bulk and refrigerate them for the rest of the week. Cooking more than one meal provides the variety required in a regular diet and reduces the monotony of only eating one meal (Of course if you’re like me and loves eating rice for days on end, there’s nothing wrong with that either). Another way this helps to save money is when it comes to resisting invitations from friends and co-workers who are constantly asking you to go to lunch when you just can’t afford it. Now you can say “I packed my lunch already.”

Make friends: If you don’t have a kitchen on-campus, offer to cook for a friend/classmate that lives off-campus and you both can share the meal. If you do have a kitchen off-campus and can’t cook or don’t have the time to, invite someone who can but doesn’t have a kitchen. This is basically an exercise in trade by barter. It still works even in 2009 (and beyond)!

Organize a Potluck: Although potlucks are usually organized as social events to foster camaraderie and conversation, it can also be another way to cut expenses. Consider that instead of eating out at a restaurant and paying individually, you can have a variety of dishes at a low cost. Although graduate students organize potlucks more frequently than undergraduates, this is a benefit to both parties. Using this idea, potlucks can be organized around themes (Game Night), sporting events (Super Bowl) or even T.V. shows. And if you are unable to cook, you can always offer to provide drinks.

Coupons: Before you skip over this section, remember that using coupons are more of a mental hurdle than anything else. How would it look eating at Applebee’s with a coupon for $5 off? Does $5 really make a dent in a $30 meal? It’s an internal battle, but when you think about it $5 is essentially half of a movie ticket or a haircut or 2 cups of coffee from the campus shop. Websites like campusfood.com and restaurant.com regularly offer deals and coupons to local restaurants. For those living off-campus, there is regular bulk mail delivered featuring pizza coupons and fast-food deals. Although these foods are inherently unhealthy, and minimizing them in your diet is the most beneficial habit, the focus here is not to eliminate bad habits but attempt to reduce their cost.

Brew your own coffee (or tea): From helping you make it through an all-nighter to giving you that extra kick in the early morning, caffeine intake usually increases proportionally with the time spent in college. A cup of coffee can range from $1 – $5 depending on the temperature, flavor and size. Yet this cost can be highly reduced if you make your own beverage from home. A little research using Wal-Mart and Walgreens website provides the following

Item

Cost

Coffee Maker with a Timer

$20

Folger’s Classic Roast (33.5 oz)

$13

French Vanilla Liquid Creamer (For Flavor)

$3

Coffee Mug

$10

Total

$46

Some people don’t consume that much coffee, but if these numbers are way lower than the amount you spend on coffee (Check out these useful tools) it might be time to modify.

Eating well does not have to come at a premium and food doesn’t have to bite into your pocket money if you network with people and make some of the things you pay high prices for. What are some of the other ways in which you have been able to reduce costs? I’ll update this article based on the suggestions I receive.

Coming up next in the series – Money Tips from a Professional Student: On Housing

Image from PhD Comics
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The Emergency Fund: Your Financial Red Cross

What do you do when:

  • your source of income suddenly stops?
  • you’re suddenly ill and insurance can’t cover all the costs?
  • you have to travel immediately due to a close relative’s passing away?
  • your car breaks down and you realize you have to spend $700 or more on repairs?

Sure you can use credit cards to cover some of these expenses, but how long can you do that for especially if the first situation is also true. This is when the Emergency Reserve comes into play. It sounds basic and like common sense, but this is the most important account for any independent person (and often the most overlooked). In discussing this, we can focus on the What, Why, Who, Where, When and How?

Emerg_Fig1

What: What is an Emergency Reserve?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, an emergency is

An unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action

Two words stick out clearly here: unforeseen and immediate. Consequently,

An emergency reserve is money kept aside for unforeseen situations that call for immediate attention and action

This means that this money should only be used for things that are unplanned. Consequently, emergency reserve should be separate from your savings. Usually when we save, we are saving for a goal e.g. a vacation, new gadget, textbooks, accessories etc. As such, while savings is usually money for planned activities, an emergency reserve is money for unplanned activities. In a way, you can call your Emergency Reserve your financial Red Cross because it arrives on the scene when emergency rears its head.

Why: Why should I care about an Emergency Reserve?

As mentioned above, this money is for unforeseen circumstances which can (and does) happen to anyone. Thus the prime reason for having this reserve is simply: peace of mind. Rather than worry about money in a time of crisis, you know there is money somewhere and that helps to focus on the crisis itself. Besides, if you already insure your car and health, shouldn’t you also be insuring your finances as most emergencies hit the pockets first?

Who: Who should have an Emergency Reserve?

An emergency reserve is necessary for anyone who is (or wants to be) dependent on themselves for financial resources. Therefore, this person has some sort of regular income which pays their bills and they are not necessarily dependent on their parents or family members. This reserve is also important for those who have dependents.

When: When should I start an Emergency Reserve?

As soon as possible! Right after reading this article!! I’m kidding. Well kinda. In all seriousness, you never know when you will need this, so it’s best to start as soon as you can.

Where: Where should I keep my Emergency Reserve?

Since this money is required for immediate action, it should be kept in a savings account that is linked to a checking account. This way, the money can be easily transferred when it is needed. I would stress here that it shouldn’t be in a checking account simply because just as much as this money should be accessible, it should also be untouched. With an emergency fund tied into a checking account this is very prone to happen.  In addition, the advantage is that it generates interest while sitting in the savings account when untouched.

How: How much should an emergency fund have?

For this question there isn’t always a straightforward answer. I have heard of 1 month, 3 months or even 6 months worth of expenses saved. I have also heard of using figures like $1,000 – $5,000. I personally keep set my goal at $1,000 just because it’s a nice round figure and also because it covers a month worth of expenses at the moment. When I leave graduate school and start a family, I am sure that number will go up. The most important factor here is that you set a minimum that will give you peace of mind.

I’m hoping that I have somehow convinced you about the relevance of this very important financial tool or at least initiated some thoughts into starting your own emergency reserve. When crisis happens, you will have your own Red Cross to lean on.

Check These Out – 1st Edition

From this week onwards,  on Fridays, I will put up  links to interesting articles that I have read that also provide tips on finance and development. This could be another avenue to discover other writers and sites. Enjoy!

Pay Down Debt or Invest (@ Oblivious Investor): An article about whether to begin investing first and then pay down debt or vice versa. In simple words “Put money toward whatever option will earn the greatest after-tax rate of return.” For me that means tax-sheltered accounts and debt come first. See the article for more details

Improve Yourself Every Chance You Get (@ The Simple Dollar): This blog is one of my favorite personal finance blogs to visit. In this article Trent talks about how using every opportunity to improve your current circumstances will always yield future returns. I agree, but check it yourself

11 Ways to graduate with less debt (@ MSN Money): This article lists some ways to minimize leaving college with a large hole in your pocket. Tips include Waiting till Senior Year to get a credit card, Getting a Job, Graduating in four years etc. Some things I wish I had learned when I was an undergraduate

4 Ways Students Can Save 1,000s a Year (@ Mint): The first tip the article mentiones is reduce costs of textbooks. A friend of mine just spent close to $500 on 3 books and prices are continually increasing every year. Take advantage of amazon and barnes & noble.  Although sometimes you may not know the book for the class till you start the semester/quarter, sometimes a simple e-mail to the professor will rememdy this. Some other tips in this article include “Replacing Microsoft Office” and “Legging it”.