“Another Chai Latte to Get Me Through”: A Grad Student’s Money Diary

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In this edition of MR Money Diaries, Parker, a 23-year-old Grad Student in Tuscaloosa, Alabama documents their spending for a week. 

I’m in my first year of grad school at the University of Alabama (in Tuscaloosa) so most of my money goes toward food, rent and books. Because I went to undergrad here, too, this semester has been one big attempt to form different spending habits on the same campus. While I buy groceries regularly, breakfast is the only meal I make consistently. I usually buy lunch on campus for convenience, and dinner for the same reason, or because my roommates are using the kitchen. This week was an outlier and an odd one to start tracking my expenses — over the past weekend I bought groceries with the express purpose of curbing my food spending ahead of Dead Week, when I’m most likely to treat myself.

I’m lucky to live in a spot where my utilities are included in my rent and my grad stipend, about $1300 a month, is more than enough for me to live month-to-month without giving too much thought to my bank account. (And it’s certainly a step up from the $7.50/hour on-campus part-time job I lived off of for three years.) Although my stipend makes for a comfortable monthly budget, my parents will occasionally help me with rent, especially since I’m currently saving to study abroad this summer. I’m not bad with money in general, but I’m not great at self-control, either. I’m more likely to cut into my budget in lots of little pieces than in one big hunk, but I’ll also drop $20 on a book while sitting in class because a professor said I need to read it. Which is why this week starts with…

My professor suggested Guattari’s book for my final project and it seemed like exactly what I needed so I ordered it on Amazon Prime in class. I brought my lunch to campus, so no cost for that. I did buy coffee, though, which was actually $0.89 because I brought my own mug.

I ate some leftovers when I got home and then decided to grab drinks with my roommate — it’d been a week or two since I had gone out, and even longer since he and I had gone out together. We had three drinks at one bar, but got caught in post-Christmas parade traffic on our way out, so we headed to another bar for one more drink. They had an $8 minimum on card payments, so my roommate bought mine and I paid him back on Venmo.

I saved money by bringing my lunch again on Tuesday, but there’s that Dead Week treat of a $4 chai latte to get me through my second to last class of the semester, and another coffee (no mug this time) in the afternoon. In my work-weakened state, I was easily convinced to go out for drinks again, especially since all of my roommates were able to come — a rare occurrence! I had three drinks again.

I treated myself to another chai latte on my way to my final class of the semester. And because it was our final class, and our professor wears us out, several of us decided to go get drinks from a beer bar. It’s not actually a brewery, but it serves about 50 different local and small-brand beers, and is fairly expensive — four drinks cost me 25 bucks. In the middle of our drinks, I ran across the street to get a gyro (our class ended at 4:30, and we went directly to get drinks, so that was my dinner). We went to one more bar where I realized I have a habit of giving a $3 tip. I usually only adjust for percentage when I’m at a restaurant.

Thursday was uneventful. I went to campus with my lunch prepared, so my only expense was a coffee refill. When I got home, two of my roommates decided to go buy wine, so I went with them to Publix. In the spirit of Dead Week treats, I got myself a bottle of wine, some cheese, and some olives.

Another uneventful day with my coffee to keep me company. My roommates and I were hosting a wine and cheese party that evening and I didn’t have time to both cook dinner and clean up after myself before it started, so I picked up a sushi roll and split some rangoons with one of my roommates. There’s that $3 tip again.

I had a slow start to my day, so I got a Jimmy John’s sandwich on my way to campus to save some time, and grabbed another chai latte pick-me-up. My parents invited me out to eat, but it was raining so badly that I met them at home for pizza instead. (I’m from Tuscaloosa, so they’re just a short drive down the road.) I suggested that they order a pizza from a place that’s a slight step up from delivery, and that I could just pick it up on my way there. I picked up the pizza $24, and my mom, bless her, gave me two twenties to pay me back.

After a few weeks of try-before-you-buy back-and-forth thanks to Amazon Prime’s “wardrobe” feature, I finally decided on a winter coat: I’m very loyal to my outerwear and figured a nice one that I really liked was a better investment than a cheap compromise, so I coughed up the $124 required for the purchase — a.k.a I confirmed to Amazon which coat I was keeping and sent back the last batch of rejections. This is not a paid advertisement for Amazon Prime. In fact, I’m trying (obviously unsuccessfully) to quit the service and find alternative solutions. But damn is it hard to beat the chemical rush that comes from the instant gratification of using Prime. Capitalism has gotten my little monkey brain again. Sigh.

On Sunday I powered through a whole day’s worth of writing in about five caffeinated hours. After another slow start to my day, I went to campus and got a large coffee instead of using my mug. It disappeared quickly, so I got myself another chai latte, this time at Starbucks because my favored library coffee shop had closed. I used a gift card for the chai but as far as I’m concerned that’s still money out of my pocket. When I got home, I ordered one of my roommates her Christmas presents — two children’s books for her upcoming first semester as a teacher. I also bought myself the final book in Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy, which was about $15.

$318 after the $40 my mom gave me. Not including the coat, that’s about $200 in one week for mostly practical spending. That’s more than I anticipated, but since a good chunk of that came from going out with friends, I’ll happily cut my losses there. I kind of hate to say it that way, because I truly try not to nitpick about money. My spending habits are important to me because I want them to be habits — I want to be used to spending within my means so I don’t have to constantly do math, especially when I go out with friends. Bringing my lunch was a renewed attempt at habitually cutting down on my spending in one place so that I don’t end up bean counting in another and I think it paid off. I probably saved about $30 on lunch, which would add up if I had been doing that all semester.

Tracking my expenses for a week was itself a good habit starter because I rarely stop to get a larger picture of what my spending looks like. Breaking it down instead of just looking at how much is in my account is a much more intentional approach. I need to use the next three semesters (while still on my stipend) for saving. Studying abroad this summer will certainly be expensive, but I’d also like to have a safety net for wherever I end up living for a PhD program — because it sure won’t be as cheap as Tuscaloosa.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

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