Stanley Donahoo

Graduate Student at University of Arizona

Saving Money in Graduate School — With Help

Full vitae saving money

Image by moolanomy, Creative Commons

Like many a graduate student, I’ve made some bad decisions about my eating habits and my finances. But this year, I decided to make some real changes — about the latter, at least.

I used to be really excited if my bank account had four digits in it — that was my benchmark for successful savings. Yet despite whatever ad hoc plan I came up — like “buy coffee only every second day” — I always ended up with the same small amount of money in my account at the end of every month.

So this year, over winter break, I used my research abilities and my rather-limited tech skills to come up with some solutions, and created two (free!) accounts for savings apps Digit and Mint. No, neither of them paid me to write this, but both have proved helpful to me and may well aid other struggling graduate students.

Digit requires only a phone (even a “dumb” one is fine) and a checking account. After syncing your account and analysing both your income and spending, Digit makes small transfers every few days — mine have been anywhere from $1.79 to as large as $21.29 — to a Digit savings account (which is FDIC-insured up to $250,000). It has a no-overdraft guarantee, and the savings are available for transfer back to your checking account at any time. You can also pause transfers whenever you want, manually deposit more money yourself, and check up on your recent transactions and balances with a quick text.

Digit is free because it keeps any money that you would have made on interest in a traditional savings account. In essence, you get a really nice text-interface banking experience for free, but without the average .06 percent return on interest.

Once I have a respectable amount saved, I plan to transfer the money to a more conventional CD or something similar. In the meantime, Digit is helping me squirrel away amounts that I could never have saved on my own. I am a Luddite when it comes to using my phone for anything, so I really appreciate the simple text interface that Digit utilises; there is no separate app. It sounds creepy, but I kind of like the daily messages that are essentially coming from an algorithm-powered savings account; they are informative and sometimes entertaining. In my first two-and-a-half months on Digit, I managed to save $276.90 — peanuts for some, but quite the haul for a lot of graduate students who live paycheck to paycheck.

While Digit helps with building up savings, Mint is a useful budget-planner that helps me stick to my limits and cut back on those coffee purchases.

To get the most use out of Mint’s interface, you need to sync your bank account, but the site boasts 128-bit data encryption and was created by Intuit, the same company behind TurboTax. Essentially, it’s a free wealth portfolio that provides a complete overview of all your accounts in a sleek graphical interface. Where Mint outshines other budgeting software is that everything is linked to your debit card. The software can provide that slap in the face when you notice that you've been shelling out half a month's worth of rent on coffee.

Or maybe eating out is your downfall? Not only can you track your spending by category, you can also set budgets for practically anything. Like the classroom gamification movement, Mint is all about making sometimes menial tasks more appealing. Perhaps best of all, Mint provides your credit score and ways that you can improve it.

How does it do all that for free? Well, it uses an ad-based model, which might annoy some people. But even the ads are relevant and aimed at helping you save more money. Let's say you are carrying a balance of $300 on a credit card, and you plan to pay it off over the next semester. Mint can show you other credit cards with 0 percent APR and no transfer fee, so you could pay off your debt faster and more efficiently. I think I will rely on this app a lot more after I have a few more months of spending to really assess my respective budgets and determine where I can save more.

Together, the two apps have helped me save more money than I ever have before. No, it's not quite the equivalent of saving a cool 100K while still in grad school, but it's a start.

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