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Graduate Matters

Financial planning for grad school: helpful tips from a financial consultant

Creating a budget and sticking to it will help alleviate a lot of financial stress.


While many graduate students plan their academic development meticulously, financial planning often feels foreign in comparison. Yet, financial education and management play a vital role in students’ standard of living, wellness and academic success. To shed light on this critical topic, I sat down with Sarah Schmoll, a seasoned financial consultant with Investors Group Wealth Management, to gather financial wisdom and practical wealth advice for graduate students. In this column, I share her top strategies to address budgeting, debt and implementation.

A budget is foundational

Most students are just beginning to handle their finances independently but have yet to become financially independent. With that in mind, understanding your expenses and income is the first step to effectively managing your finances. A budget, while simple, is a timeless tool for just that. “The most foundational thing is a budget,” Sarah states. It gives you an idea of your starting point: whether you have enough for your needs or must adjust your spending or increase your income.
“The biggest misconception about making a budget is that it’s restrictive,” she says. From her years of experience, Sarah saw that it’s not just students and young adults who struggle with budgeting. Rather than seeing it as a senseless restriction, she recommends that students see budgeting as a life-long discipline. “It’s a limit that frees you from other concerns,” she says. “I would describe it as something that helps you attain your financial goals and gives you peace of mind.”

Treat debt with respect

While some students can afford their tuition and living expenses entirely through parental support, employment, savings, or grants, many other students take on loans and debt. While money may be in their bank accounts, students should be cautious not to mistake borrowed money for free money. “For many students, they’re going into debt for the first time in their life, but they have this chunk of money in the bank,” Sarah explains. “It’s a real schism from reality; you don’t truly have that money.”

Sarah advises to “treat debt like gold.” Debt may be necessary for many students, but it should be used sparingly. Students should “have a very healthy respect” for debt to develop strong financial management habits. Ultimately, taking on debt is an investment in your future earning ability.

A financial challenge

Understanding is not enough; Sarah challenges students to implement their knowledge. For the next month, try and jot down everything you spend. Keep every receipt. “A realistic budget builds awareness of your financial situation and spending habits.” That is, tracking your cash flow to the dollar, not just hypothetically, but in concrete numbers. This can include giving that amount a name, whether it was for a fixed cost (i.e., housing, groceries, phone bill, etc.) or discretionary spending (i.e. eating out, entertainment, personal interests, etc.). You might be surprised to discover that your take-out meals cost four times as much as your grocery bill.

Becoming financially wealthy is all about good habits. Small habits compound over time. Starting with something as simple and commonplace as a budget can still yield substantial benefits. Consider it a form of self-care, or as Sarah says, “a gift to yourself.”

Final words of advice

“Finances can seem so daunting that people don’t want to think about it. But eventually, what happens is a sick feeling in your gut one day,” says Sarah. If you can’t track it, you can’t manage it. In those cases, it is as if financial decisions occur in a black box, often without planning or awareness. Over time, such spending patterns can leave students feeling uncertain and overwhelmed about their future.

“Avoidance doesn’t bring you peace of mind,” she says. Yet, it’s difficult to be motivated without understanding that financial planning habits have the potential to be life changing. “If you can change your perspective on financial planning, it’s a ticket to freedom.”

Financial planning resources

To help you get the wheels rolling, I’ve gathered a few resources:

Chelsea Chen is a student in the MA program in counselling psychology at the University of Ottawa.

Chelsea Chen
Chelsea Chen is a student in the MA(Ed) program in counselling psychology at the University of Ottawa.
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