5 Unexpected Ways in Which Grad School Loans Are Changing My Lifestyle

In August, I summoned my life savings, took out a Stafford loan on top of them, and headed back to school to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of Southern California.  I was prepared for the basics of living on a serious budget: cooking more and eating out less, watching my spending, avoiding shopping centers… but my terror of forever paying off graduate school loans struck me even deeper than I expected.


As I’m reaching to end of my first semester in grad school, I’ve noticed significant (sometimes accidental) changes in my lifestyle that didn’t exist while I was working full-time. While it’s true that I’ve essentially transformed into a metro-riding, hulu-watching, caffeine-deprived vegan, I’m amazed by the overall value of these alterations and how much money I’ve already saved through these good-for-me changes.

1) I’m accidentally vegan.
I didn’t realize that I was essentially vegan until I went home for Thanksgiving.  It makes sense, though, when you consider that tofu costs $1.69 and two chicken breasts cost $7.49 (Ian is also lactose-intolerant, which accounts for the lack of dairy). There’s also a lovely little Farmer’s Market in Los Feliz, so I just didn’t notice the lack of meat and the sudden abundance of fresh veggies in my diet.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

Here’s what I’m saving (roughly): I simply swapped the price of tofu that I buy in a typical month per ounce ($0.14/ oz; $1.69/12 oz) with the price of chicken breasts per ounce ($0.31/oz; $4.99/lb).

  • ADD: amount that would be spent on chicken per month if each ounce of tofu is swapped out for chicken: ($29.76 (0.31 x 16 oz = 29.76)).
  • SUBTRACT: amount spent on tofu per month ($13.44 for 96 oz (96 oz/month; 2 packages of 12 oz/ week) $0.14x 96 oz = $13.44)).
  • TOTAL: $195.84 per year ($16.32 per month)


2) I’m metro-savvy
It would be a blatant lie to say that it’s easy to live in this city without a car, but I live in a fairly walkable neighborhood, and I’ve grown to appreciate the bus commute. I get all of my work done, and often by the time I get home from class, I can spend the rest of the night enjoying myself. I’ll admit that one of the happiest days of my life will be when busses have wireless internet connections and airplane-style tray tables.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

Here’s what I’m saving (roughly): I used Ian’s spending as an outline for calculating this information.

  • ADD: car payment ( $250/mo; $3,000/yr) + insurance ($1,000/yr) + gas ($250/mo; $1,440/yr) + parking in apartment building ($40/mo; $480/yr) + on-campus parking ($600/yr; $50/mo)= $6,520
  • SUBTRACT: 9 month student bus pass ($324/yr) + 3 month regular bus pass ($228/yr)= $552
  • TOTAL: $5,968 per year (which excludes initial cost of buying a car)


3) I gave up cable

The idea of losing HGTV and the Discovery Channel was painful at first (RIP, access to Mythbusters), but I think these savings are worth it. Ian created our new system for watching TV, and he did the math. Check out the link for more detailed information.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

  • Hulu allows me to continue to watch addictive shows.
  • I watch much less television. In Seattle, I watched about an hour everyday to wind down after work. Now, I watch about one hour every week.
  • When I do watch TV, they are shows that I’m turning on the television in order to see.
  • I used to relax by watching TV. I now relax by cooking or reading.

Here’s what I’m saving (roughly):

  • ADD: cost of cable. Installation charge ($50) + monthly costs of Netflix, Comcast Cable Internet and Comcast Cable ($1,380 per year; $115/month x 12) = $1,430 per year
  • SUBTRACT: cost of current system. Antenna and cables ($72) + costs of Netflix and AT&T DSL Internet ($600/year; $50/month) = $672 per year
  • TOTAL: $758 per year


4) I have a job that’s not on my resume
I work 10-12 hours each week at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts as an assistant for the MFA program. It’s low stress and laid back.  While the essence of the job is indeed in line with my interests in arts, culture, and education, there isn’t a great deal of leadership discretion required. This low-key job is not going to be on my resume or my LinkedIn profile, but it’s a nice way to meet new people and make some extra money.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

  • I’m introduced to different organizational cultures outside of my program in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development.
  • I meet folks from an entirely different USC grad community, and I work for Rolling Stone’s 2005 “Hot Artist” of the year.
  • I get to research current artists and art happenings, which allows me to feel connected to my background in art.
  • I make money.

Here’s what I’m saving:

  • ADD: I make a total of $3,000 for the 9 months that I am in school.
  • TOTAL:  $3,000 per year


5) I’m caffeine-free

This was obviously a conscious (and semi-painful) decision. It was a big part of the culture of Seattle to meet friends for coffee (in LA it’s more often meeting for drinks). I was also drinking a few-too-many Diet Cokes everyday. I got horrible headaches when I stopped drinking caffeine, but now I don’t miss it.

Here’s why it’s not so bad:

Here’s what I’m saving:

  • ADD: average amount spent on caffeinated beverages per month before I quit, according to my Wesabe.com account. ($487.20/ year; $40.60/ month)
  • TOTAL: $487.20 per year


Projected savings resulting from these lifestyle changes: $10,427.04 per year

It adds up!

Posted on by colleendilen in Generation Y, Graduate school, Lessons Learned, The Small Stuff 8 Comments

About the author


MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

8 Responses to 5 Unexpected Ways in Which Grad School Loans Are Changing My Lifestyle

  1. Trina Isakson

    Congratulations on all these changes! Even though they may be accidental or cost-savings, they are positive to make no matter what your financial situation.

    Think you’ll keep them when you’re back making the big bucks?

  2. Tera Wozniak Qualls

    I love this post. These are all things I hope to do in my life. Taking public transport is something I think about a lot. Although I get car sick easily and have trouble reading on the bus. If that could be fixed, like you, I would take the bus to get some reading time in.

    I also envy you going to school full time. Right now I am in Grad school part time and working full time. It is definitely tough.

    Congrats on the new life style!

  3. colleendilen

    Thanks for the support Trina and Tera!

    @Trina- I hope I’ll keep them! I’ll report back. :-)

    @Tera- Yes, there is certainly a lot of jerking on the bus so getting car sick would be a difficulty– also, sometimes it’s rather crammed on the bus and hard to focus during rush hour (overall, I’m generally productive there, though). I completely understand how crazy it must be working full-time and doing grad school part time! On the plus side, it sounds like a financially lucrative move. I’m exactly the opposite: school full-time and working in the free moments! Ohh, maximizing time, money, and education….

  4. Tess

    Don’t forget the lowered environmental impact you now have thanks to your vegetarianism! Much less energy used to produce your food, fewer problems of nitrogen fertilizer runoff killing the coastal ocean, and just tighter carbon cycling in general, too name just a few. Congrats!! Can’t wait to seek out veggie-friendly fare with you in LA in a couple weeks :-)

  5. Elizabeth Sheppard

    I really think your post gives me food for thought. Like you, I have made some big changes in my lifestyle lately, too. I have begun to select healthier foods. Though I am not vegan, I have cut way down on my meat consumption.

    I also have cut down on my TV watching. I find I have loads more time to read now.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and lifestyle changes. This would make a terrific article for a magazine.

  6. Valentina

    Wow! Thanks for this thoughtful and very resourceful post. It made me think a lot about my own lifestyle now that I am out of university and in my full-time job for almost 2 years. Especially as we are in Christmas-consumer frenzy at the moment. Thanks for reminding me of the basics. My resolution for 2010 just received another chapter ;)

    • colleendilen

      Elizabeth, thanks for the comment. Isn’t it incredible how much time you find that you have when you cut back on TV? For me, it was kind of incredible.

      Valentina, thanks for posting! Some of these things were changes I didn’t even notice until after I had been in school for a little while and stopped to think about them. Good luck with your resolutions and happy 2010!

  7. Pingback: Rethinking consumerism in middle of the sales season « Targeting (work) life in Barcelona. Sustainably.

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