You don’t have to wait until you graduate from your PhD to learn important money lessons that will make you successful.

I wish someone would have shared these very simple yet crucial money facts with me when I first began. Nevertheless, I am glad I learned them so I could share them with you!

Don’t have the mistakes I made.

PhD Money Lessons: 3 money lessons I wish I had learned sooner

Start investing RIGHT NOW

I used to think that investing was for rich people. Investing in the stock market seemed so out of my reach as a graduate student. Thus, I did not even bother to research what my options were. And sadly, few academic institutions are intentional about giving grad students crucial financial education.

While it is true that you can invest in the stock market at any time, the truth is that it is better to start early. If you are like me and you are getting some kind of stipend as you pursue your degree, I highly recommend you look into putting some money aside into the stock market. Even if all you can do is $50 per month, please start.

Here is why.

In August 2009, when I started my PhD, one Apple stock (AAPL) was around $6. By mid-2020, when Apple split individual stocks into four, one Apple stock was around $500. This means if I had invested just $6 in 2009 into one Apple stock, I would have made a return of over $400 by 2020. And with the stock being split into four, I would now have 4 stocks in Apple from that original single $6 stock!

That is just one stock friends! What if I had 10 or 20 of those Apple stocks?

Don’t wait until you have bucket loads of money to invest.

You are smart. Start looking into the stock market now and putting money into it.

I invest using the TD Ameritrade app.

I enjoy it because they make it easy for the most clueless beginner to get started.

If you are a post-doc, ask about your 401K

This is something else I did not know.

When I started in my role as a post-doc in 2015, I did not know it came with a 401K.

If you’re unfamiliar, a 401K is a type of retirement investment account in the United States that your employer sets up for you. As long as you get a paycheck with that institution, an amount will be deducted each time you’re paid and invested in that retirement account. When you turn 59.5 years, you can then begin to withdraw money from this account without paying a tax penalty to the government.

Because in my mind post-doctoral scientists are considered “temporary staff”, it did not occur to me to ask the folks in the HR office about this 401K. In fact, I did not know I even had this account until about a whole year after I left my post-doc!

By the time I found out, I had over $10,000 sitting in a retirement account with my name on it.

Please find out about these things from day one.

Some companies are really good at telling you. Some even give you the option to decide how much you want to contribute each month.

Even if you are not told, make sure to inspect your paystub.

Look for any line item that suggests a portion of your paycheck is being deducted into a retirement account.

If there is, reach out to HR immediately to find out more.

Take FULL advantage of institutional benefits

I did this to an extent but I think I could have explored this more.

It was not until I left my post-doc that I realized how much I under-utilized my health insurance benefits during my PhD and my post-doc.

If your program is paying for it, don’t be afraid to take care of yourself using those benefits.

I was in my PhD when I had my first child and the school’s health insurance paid for it!

Beyond health insurance, look for and use other benefits like:

  • Access to gym facilities that you would otherwise have to pay for
  • Discounts you can access as an employee like discounts on phone services or tickets to certain events
  • Counseling and mental health resources that are freely available or heavily discounted

All of these cost so much more money when you pay for them out of pocket.

Take advantage of your institutional benefits and save (or better, yet, invest) that money!

These are the money lessons I wish I had learned sooner as a PhD.

I still kick myself for not getting into the stock market earlier but I am glad I am now. I am also grateful that I have a pulse on my retirement accounts.

What PhD money lessons do you wish you had learned earlier?

Let’s hear it in the comments.

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