The Grad Student's Guide To Surviving After Your Parents Cut You Off

Megan Durisin

Photo: Megan Durisin

Growing up in Midland, Michigan, I was incredibly lucky that my parents were able to fund my undergraduate degree.I walked away with my Michigan State diploma as one of the shrinking minority of students who didn’t have to borrow from Uncle Sam, or worse, private student lenders.

But when I decided to pursue my Master’s degree, I knew one thing for sure: My parents weren’t going to keep me on their bankroll any longer.

I enrolled in New York University in the Fall of 2012 and I’ve been learning how to get by on my own ever since –– from navigating the tricky world of student loans to scraping together enough cash to pay rent. 

Chances are there are a lot of graduate (and undergraduate) students who can relate.

Network on the university's dime.

My school e-mail inbox is always piled high with networking events and grad school social outings. My department sponsors lots of speakers and career events with people from big-name media organisations.

Besides being a resume boost, they often come with free snacks and company swag. And the graduate school also sponsors a happy hour the first Friday of every month at a local bar ---- a great way to meet people and snag a couple free drinks.

These meet-and-greets are events most schools have, and it's wise to glance through your email alerts if you're in the mood to mingle on the university's dime.

Apply for every scholarship possible, no matter how small.

The scholarship NYU offered me was a deciding factor in my grad school search, but I needed to look for even more funding opportunities if I were going to last 18 months.

Finding the motivation to write an essay for a $1,000 scholarship was difficult knowing that a single semester at NYU cost roughly $20,000. But every bit counted. NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has a great tuition incentive program that matches at least half of all external scholarship dollars with tuition credits.

Many other universities also offer merit-based graduate fellowships or teaching assistant for certain majors, and research grants are often available for Master's candidates as well.

Don't take out a student loan until you've read the fine print.

As a newbie to student lending, I spent a solid day examining all of my options.

My advice: Take the time to read the fine print. Some federal loans don't start accumulating interest until you're finished with school. Many others begin accruing interest as soon as you sign up.

And even though private loans can look attractive, federal loans are almost always better ---- you won't have to worry about variable interest rates jumping all over the place, and they have more flexible repayment options.

Online student loan calculators helped give me a better picture of how much my loans would cost me in the end. It wasn't a friendly number, but I was happy to have a realistic idea of what I was getting myself into and have a plan to pay it back before I signed on the dotted line.

Don't be afraid to mingle with the undergrads.

Rowdy undergrads have a way of ruining off-campus haunts like bars and restaurants, but you'll have to put up with them if you want to cash in on great student deals.

I use the gym in an undergrad residence hall. It's a short walk from my apartment, and it's also free. That's way better than coughing up $100+ fees for a public gym. I also make good use of the student health centre and free university bus system as well.

Many schools also offer student lounges or study areas with free printing and computer labs.

Get a couple of roommates and live off-campus.

No matter how you slice it, rent in Manhattan (or any big city) is a scary thing.

And dorm life isn't much cheaper. According to The College Board, room and board fees have jumped 65 per cent over the past decade.

Rent is easier to stomach when you're splitting it. I was fortunate enough to know a friend who was already living in the city and we found a reasonably-priced apartment about a 30-minute walk from my classes.

As a New York newbie, I regret overlooking cheaper boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens or across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Search the Web or ask around to find out where most students live ---- chances are you'll come across something in your price range.

Look for opportunities to earn extra cash.

During my first semester, I took my parents' advice and focused on school rather than immediately looking for a part-time job.

Now that I've gotten in the swing of things, I've enjoyed balancing an internship on top of class ---- and the extra cash it brings in.

Many grad schools offer night or weekend classes, giving students a chance to be in the working world during the day. Don't shy away from stopping by your department's internship or careers office or getting in touch with alumni from your program on LinkedIn. They're often more than willing to help you find the right opportunity, potentially with a paycheck attached.

And even if the position is not paid, the added experience might help with the job search post-graduation.

Milk your student ID every chance you get.

Manhattan has more than its fair share of five-star restaurants and fancy bars, but I've found the most success at places that give off a college-friendly vibe.

Many bars and restaurants near campus offer good deals for people with student IDs, and NYU often sends out deals for Broadway shows and concerts. Students also get free admission to a number of museums with ID.

Pro tip: Some colleges even give students discount rates on cell phone service. U. Penn co-eds get 10 per cent off major carriers like AT&T and Verizon.

Peruse your college's website to see if similar deals exist near you, and don't underestimate the value of being a student when it comes to going out on the town.

Don't be afraid to take loans from family –– or your boss.

When I told my grandparents my plans for graduate school, they made an offer I couldn't refuse -- a loan for several thousand dollars towards my first year's tuition, interest-free.

Granted, many students aren't as fortunate, and I don't mean to imply that everyone should rely on extended family for emergency funding.

But if you are considering taking out student loans anyway, why not ask a family member to take a chance and loan you the cash? They may charge some interest, but chances are it will be far less than the 6 per cent rate for federal student loans, or the double-digit rates on some private loans.

Not having to worry about interest fees for a portion of my borrowed money has been a huge help toward the initial sticker shock of moving to NYC.

And for graduate students who plan to keep their full-time jobs during school, some employers may be willing to contribute toward Master's degree tuition.

Don't let your stomach eat away your budget.

Bargain-hunting has never been my strong suit, but I've gotten better at it since being in New York. Making the journey 10 blocks further to shop at Trader Joe's instead of the boutique grocery store on my block has saved me a good chunk of change on my food bills.

And little things like grabbing a coffee at the business school cafe instead of the Starbucks across the street (or brewing my own before class) has helped save me a few bucks along the way.

Make public transportation your best friend.

If you're moving to a city with a solid public transit system, do yourself a favour and leave your car behind. You won't have to deal with insurance, parking permits or car payments.

The 6 train has become my constant companion since living in New York, and I've gotten used to the bus system, too (students ride for free).

Now that a lot of large cities are investing in public bike sharing programs, there are even more options to save on getting around.

Don't forget your roots.

When I moved to New York, I joined a list serv for the MSU Alumni Association's New York chapter, which has a surprisingly large network in the city.

The club has partnerships with two Manhattan bars, which makes it easier to watch big games on the cheap, and most other large colleges have their own sponsored locales in the city.

Plus, being in a crowd of people singing your college fight song is a good way to quell the urge to make a trip back to home when homesickness hits.

Acknowledge that you're going to be in debt –– and come up with a plan to get out.

The sooner I came to terms with the fact that I was going to be in debt after grad school and made a plan to deal with it, the sooner I was able to enjoy life in grad school.

Keep track of your expenses and draft a budget for yourself throughout the semester. If you can start saving even a little bit of your extra income each week, you'll already have a head start on paying down student loans after graduation.

Maybe you'll even wind up not needing your entire student loan after all. If that's the case, think about returning the unused money to your lender rather than blowing it on a vacation. Even if you earned the down-time, chances are you'll be better off with less debt than a nice tan in the long-run.

College doesn't have to be a budget buster...

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