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Making Cents Out of My Stipend

A woman inserts a coin into a piggy bank.

April is Financial Literacy Month! What better time to talk about money? For many, money is an uncomfortable topic. I used to feel similarly, until I realized that avoiding the topic made just about as much sense as recklessly spending my stipend. In March of 2019, I decided “getting by” with my stipend wasn’t enough, and I sought to improve my financial literacy and, in turn, take control of my money.

First, let me say, I am in the unique position to be a student in a fully funded Ph.D. program. I’m sure some of you reading this piece are in a similar position, and it is important to recognize that it’s a privilege. Many students pay to pursue graduate degrees. I am fortunate to be paid and to live in a city with a reasonable cost of living. The amount of our stipend is not the topic of this piece; rather, I want to discuss two creative ways I’ve used to enhance my financial literacy and reach my financial goals.


I’m one of those people who prefers a group workout class because I’m clueless about fitness, and I like when a trainer instructs me how succeed. I thought this same logic was the approach to gain a better understanding of my finances. I needed to speak to financial professionals about my financial situation, before I took it seriously myself.

But where do I start? I wondered. I knew of MDInvested through my personal blog, and I had met their staff previously. Their employees felt like real people, and their office was local to Baltimore. So I scheduled a FREE One-on-One meeting with one of their professionals. Prior to the meeting, I completed a spreadsheet, a financial overview to familiarize myself with my money. This was an “aha!” moment for me because it forced me to look at the numbers. It was a detailed breakdown of how much I was making and where it was going.

Ultimately, my goal was to improve my financial literacy. The following day, as I sat across from George, one of their most personable financial advisers, I talked about my money. I informed him of my goals, and he reciprocated information on where to start: bulking up my emergency fund and paying off debt. Everyone has a different financial situation; this meeting helped me develop my personalized financial goals.

One misconception is that you need to have a lot of money to talk about what to do with money. This just isn’t true. By talking with professionals about your money, you are informed. In addition to feeling informed, I felt inspired. Sure, I don’t make six-figures, but I left my meeting in control. Before developing a plan with MDInvested, I felt I was defined by the amount of money I had. After my meeting, I threw that logic in the trash. Today, I choose to find joy in how I handle my money.

If you are uncomfortable talking about money, MDInvested’s kind and realistic approach to talking finances was comforting, as opposed to intimidating. In addition to One-on-One meetings, MDInvested also offers an array of FREE virtual classes to improve financial literacy and a forum to ask your financial questions. These are a great (free) resource!


The next step to achieving my goal of bulking up my emergency fund was to take action. But how? I used to hate saving money because it felt forced. In retrospect, perhaps I disliked it because I was ashamed of my financial situation.

My mentality changed when I was introduced to Qapital, an app that helps you squirrel away money. No thought required. The app connects your bank account and helps you curate saving goals with personalized rules. Whether you want to round up every purchase (saving the change) or take a percentage out of every paycheck, Qapital makes saving money a breeze. If you’re a first-year Ph.D. student/on a training grant — like me — consider using Qapital to save money to pay  quarterly estimated taxes! Instead of panicking, I saved a percentage of every paycheck to ensure that I had enough money at the end of each financial quarter.

Currently, I’m still adding to my emergency fund. I now enjoy saving money — so much so, that I’ve also added a goal to save for a vacation, post-COVID-19. Personally, taking these two steps changed my life — and completely changed my attitude about my money.

The first step in taking control of your finances is to understand your financial needs. Even if you need to meet with a professional, do it! As a graduate student, you owe it to yourself to make sense out of your stipend.

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