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PhDs and Money | Interview with Dr. Emily Roberts of Personal Finance for PhDs

Dr. Emily Roberts is a personal finance educator specializing in early-career PhDs. Through her business, Personal Finance for PhDs, she equips graduate students, postdocs, and PhDs with Real Jobs to make the most of their money. She spoke to us about launching a personal finance blog, what she’s learned about building and growing wealth for PhDs, and finally, money advice for would-be entrepreneurs.


Welcome, everybody. Today, my guest is Dr. Emily Roberts. She’s a personal finance educator specializing in early-career PhDs. Through her business, Personal Finance for PhDs, she equips graduate students, postdocs and PhDs with real jobs to make the most of their money. So welcome, Emily.

Thank you so much for having me. Chris, It’s a real pleasure to speak with you again.

It’s really great to speak with you again, too. And I guess it was maybe three weeks ago that we spoke on your podcast.

Yeah! And I just published the interview on November 16th. So, if people want to check that out, it’s Personal Finance for PhDs.

So, I’m really excited to have you here. And I think it’s a really neat conversation to have—this conversation about personal finance. And I know, because our conversation is so fresh in my mind, there’s a lot that we bring to the table as PhDs around personal finance.

And I think that’s obviously why what you’re doing is so valuable. So I’m hoping we can talk about that a bit. I wonder if you could start us off by talking about, first of all, your journey through academia and how you got to how you got to where you are today.

Yes, so I guess I’ll start with undergrad. So I went to Harvey Mudd College. I was a physics major and I graduated in 2007, so pre- Great Recession. I was fortunate in that respect. And I mention that because my awareness of personal finance only started after I graduated from undergrad. After I finished, I started a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. And I did that for one year before starting my PhD at Duke.

And so it was really, you know, kind of that first summer after undergrad when I started learning about personal finance. I was reading books at the time and later got, you know, more into the online space with following people. And yes, I started learning at that time, started implementing a few tactics.

I started my Roth IRA and started budgeting and opened a savings account, got a credit card like, all the sort of really basic stuff, because I had done none of that prior to that point. I had a checking account, but that was it.

So I did one year as a postbac fellow, and then I did six years at Duke doing my PhD in biomedical engineering. During that time, I guess I started my business. We’ll talk about that more later. It’s hard to even point to the genesis of it.

But after I defended in 2014, I had some other, you know, sort of part time side gig kind of stuff going on for a little while. But then I sort of was diving more and more into the business. So really, 2014 is what I point to as the start of being serious about the business that I have now, which over the last six years has certainly evolved quite a bit and expanded in many ways. I wasn’t even called personal finance or PhDs back in twenty fourteen.

On Money Mindsets [00:04:03]

OK, so I want to talk about before you started your undergrad. We always talk about, like, the money mindsets that we bring to school. And obviously school impacts those, too. But could you tell me a little bit about what your attitudes towards money and your money mindset were before you actually started the journey towards personal finance?

Yeah, totally. And I think I pick up after college because that’s when I had some awareness around this. But certainly there were money mindsets and influences that were going on before that point. So, I grew up in a middle class, or maybe even upper middle class, family. And my parents did not talk about money, at least not in an intentional way or in like a positive way maybe. They always, always provided for my family, like, own their own home. So things were really very privileged in that front. And my parents did send me to a very, very expensive private college. And I still look back at that and wonder why they let me do that, because it was, just, I have no idea what they were thinking. I think their awareness around money issues is very sort of low as well. You know, I think they’re the type of people who, you know, yeah, they’ve always been saving for retirement, but they don’t budget.

So, they’re doing some good stuff, but it’s not in full control. They’re not really into it. So that’s kind of where they were. So, they footed the bill largely for a very, very expensive education. I had some scholarships. I took out some loans, but they paid the bulk of the cost. Yeah. And so I think when I finished college and kind of realized, wow, I need to survive on my own and to support myself on this, like, stipend, it was a big wake-up call because I really had no awareness. I knew not to get into credit card debt. I mean, at least I didn’t open a credit card before then, before I had any idea what was going on.

And I had only ever worked like a little bit. I’d only ever had sort of like side positions, you know, maybe a summer job full time. But I wasn’t like supporting myself. It was always like maybe ten hours a week or work per less like kind of through my undergrad journey.

[00:06:06] So you said basically there was kind of the idea that you just didn’t talk about the money. Did you kind of think like money was always there, like when you needed it kind of thing before you got to hear it? What were some of your other kind of attitudes towards it?

Yeah. So, I think I definitely so I can see very clearly in my parents now that one is a spender and one is a saver and they have conflict around that. And I was definitely taking after my spender parent because I was spending with the spender parent. So, it was like activities and things that we did together which involved going to the mall. And like I was willing to buy books like go into the bookstore and just bought books and did not care at all how much they cost, because my parents would just give me money because they think buying books is great. So, like, why wouldn’t you spend money on that? So yeah, I, I don’t know.

My husband actually likes to tell this story of when we were in college and, I think I was moving into like a dorm situation where we had our own kitchen. So, I had to like buy some kitchen-related stuff and he like took me to the thrift store and I had never been to a thrift store before. And he points to that and is like, “Oh, my gosh, I introduced you to frugality.” Which is not like totally true. But yeah, we always bought things new. I don’t know, that was just the way things kind of were in that spender mindset.

So when I started, you know, supporting myself on my stipend, it was a real wake-up call that I absolutely could not continue the patterns that I had grown up with because my salary just plain did not support that. And I feel like I swung completely in the other direction after that point, like I went from a little bit of a spender to just like I don’t spend. I just prefer not to spend anything like because I still like to buy new things or I like to buy like really good quality when I do spend. So I just choose to not spend like hardly ever unless it’s for something really like important.

On Becoming a PhD Personal Finance Expert [00:11:59]

OK, so as you started your PhD, what was it that you saw both what you had learned, but also in the PhDs around you that you were hanging out with that made you want to start talking about personal finance?

[00:12:13] Yes. So, a couple of different things came together as I was still learning and learning more about personal finance. One is that I realized the very strong connection between your money and your values. And so it was very interesting to me to explore within myself, What is it that I value? What is it that I’m going to allocate my money towards? What am I going to spend on?

And also, whenever it was possible, of course, a lot of us don’t want to talk about money, but whenever it was possible to connect with other people around the subject, I felt like it was a way that I could get to know them, like in a deeper way. I could expand my understanding of the decisions they were making around their money. And again, what they’re valuing, whether it’s, you know, time with family, doing a lot of travel or whatever. Maybe it’s having fun in the moment because they love being social, or maybe it’s their health because they’re spending lots of money on their groceries, because they want to buy, you know, high quality food or, you know, whatever it is.

Like your values should be reflected in your spending. And, if they’re not, then you probably feel some dissatisfaction in your life. And so just exploring that idea was really fascinating to me of just intuitively getting to know people through how they spend their money.

And then the other part of it was I just saw a lot of people making different decisions than I did around money again, because I had a little bit of a head start of that, you know, a year of reading books and learning before I got to sort of set a reset and start my life over again in Durham with a new place and a new budget and so forth. And so, like I, for instance, bought a car when I moved to Durham because I was told, like, Durham is super car dependent. You have to have a car to get around. You’re not going to be able to live without one—which, of course, is not true. But I believed at the time.

So I bought a car for$4,500, a used car. I tracked the market for months. I was really careful, really intentional about what I bought and I had really tiny car loan to go along with that. So that was like, within the constraints of “you have to buy a car,” that was like a pretty good decision that I made, financially speaking.

But then I had one of my cohort mates, for example—now this shows you exactly the time, because this was 2008—she must take out this car loan everything before everything crashed because she got a car loan where her payments were five hundred dollars per month over six years.

So it was, like, just, I don’t even know. Like that was the lending environment back then, that they allowed someone to spend a quarter of their income on loan payments. It was insane. So she had a really nice car, a really nice new car. But at what cost? Right? So that was her choice.

But did she make it because she didn’t feel like she had other options? I don’t know.

So, like trying to help people think really intensely about what they want over the long term, over the course of their PhDs or even longer than that, and set themselves up at the beginning to facilitate that became really interesting to me.

[00:14:59] Yeah, just to interrupt. Sorry. So this (trying to help people) is like coaching? Or is this just like conversation with friends kind of thing?

Well so what it was, is I started blogging about it and so people who knew about my blog, then knew that I was like a person they could talk with this about if they wanted to. And yes, of course, I probably talked about my blog like way more than anybody would want to hear.

But I didn’t, like, force the conversation on people who obviously were not interested. I was not criticizing my friend (who bought the car). I was just observing what, really I mean, I almost see that as more of like a victim scenario than like she made a terrible decision. Like she was taken advantage of at some capacity.

But other things. Like living alone versus living with roommates is obviously a big decision that can make a huge impact on your finances. So that was just seeing like lifestyle wise, you know, maybe my peers could do a little bit better if they knew a little bit more or if they had, you know, had spent more time thinking about their priorities and their values, maybe they could make different spending decisions.

And then the third part of it was definitely like sort of getting really interested in the weird legal and financial status of graduate students in the U.S. At the time, if you were on fellowship income, so non non-employee type of income, you were actually not allowed to contribute that money to an IRA, to an individual retirement arrangement that changed actually just last year around this time. So thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. But I wrote about that on the blog that I eventually started.

I’ve mentioned that even though I haven’t talked to detail about that, but I wrote about that and about how, because I had discovered this, I was so offended by the fact that things were set up this way and I was really mad about it. So I wrote about it and that that post just got years and years and years of high traffic and comments and emails coming in for people being like, Oh, I never realized this. Or like, What do I do? I contributed anyway.

On launching Personal Finance for PhDs [00:18:00]

So how did where did the blog come in? You just kind of decided you wanted to start blogging about this.

Yeah. So basically, you know, I started off my personal finance journey, like reading books and then the personal finance blogosphere really started blossoming during the Great Recession because people are very interested in blogging about their debt repayment and you know, what’s going on.

They’re buying houses because the market has crashed. Now they’re getting investment properties. And so there was just a lot. I don’t know what the state was maybe before then, but there was a boom in the personal finance blogosphere right around, you know, 2010-ish.

So I was reading those blogs and I started commenting on them and I was starting to, you know, sort of a little bit get to know you have Internet friends, like get to know people online. And I just realized, well, I would really like to have a home base where, like, I can just write about the topics that I want to write about and then I don’t have to leave my full thoughts on someone else’s, like a comment on someone else’s post. I can link back to something I’ve written. And so that’s when the blog started and it was called Evolving Personal Finance, and it was very, very personal to me.

So I was just writing about, you know, blogging about like what I was spending on. So I did like monthly like spending reports and just a lot of personal stuff like decisions that I was making, you know, strategies that I was trying out, and different challenges that we came upon.

I say “we.” I got married during graduate school as well to another student. So, you know, blogging about a couple’s finances, like just anything related to me, not specific to graduate school, but I just found that in the personal finance blogosphere that I was a little bit of a unique voice because the people who tended to be writing were people with much, much higher incomes.

And so I found that, you know, for instance, sometimes people write about frugal tactics. And I was like, this is novelty. Like, this is how I and everybody I know, like, live, because we are on grad student stipends.

So, the blog was about personal finance and was very personal to me. But as I mentioned, I did sometimes write about issues that were specific to graduate students, and I realized that that sort of more well-researched and informational like style was a more popular and drew more people in than just me talking about, like the decisions I made in my own life.

And so, when I finished graduate school, I decided that I wanted to dive more into making this a thing where I call myself a personal finance educator. I wanted to help educate early career PhDs, I wanted to start a new website that had a different tone and so forth. So I kind of rebranded at that point and started, as I mentioned earlier, sort of started my business, even though there had been a blog and there had been a little bit of site income like before that point.

On money advice for grad students [00:21:08]

Take me back into the grad school journey and what are you seeing? First of all, I’d be curious to know, what you were seeing in terms of what graduate students’ relationship to money. And then secondly, what do you want to tell them about money in grad school?

So a few like observations are that most people don’t want to think about money when they’re in graduate school at all. It’s discouraging. It’s depressing. They feel like they just want to completely not address the topic. A lot of people are in that boat and of course, those are the hardest people to reach, because they don’t want to engage with the topic at all. And, yeah, that’s really tough. And so those are not people who tend to find me and work with me.

There’s kind of another group of people who have some awareness that they need to do some things with their money, but they’re not really sure what. And they need a lot of help with like sort of budgeting and prioritizing and figuring out how in the day to day to survive. And maybe be able to eke out a bit of a savings rate, no matter what their ultimate financial goals that they’re working on. They need to somehow generate some cash flow in the in the here and now to make that happen. And that could be either by, of course, increasing income or decreasing expenses. And which one is more accessible depends a lot on your starting point.

But I think that increasing income, speaking for myself in graduate school, I did not think that was at all a possibility. I mean, of course, I applied for fellowships that I did that I mostly didn’t get. And so, there are some known ways to increase your income in graduate school, like getting an outside fellowship, which is wonderful if it happens. But aside from that, I didn’t really think it was like a priority or like a possibility to increase my income. And yet, as I have had many more conversations and gotten a wider perspective on what’s going on in graduate school finances, I realized that there are many, many ways that people can and do earn extra money while they’re still engaged in the pursuit of their graduate degrees.

It’s not possible for everyone because, at least in the U.S., for international students that’s a no go. You can’t have any kind of extra income aside from, you know, what you’re getting for your position as a graduate student.

So for other people there are time constraints, you know, maybe they have so much else going on in their life, a family or whatever, that, you know, they can do their graduate school work and that’s it.

But there is a very, very large group of people for whom earning more is a possibility. And I’ve seen now very many creative ways where that can happen in a way that you can balance with your schedule if the time management is OK. You can really bring in a very-high hourly rate, potentially, if you select what you do very carefully, using your skills from your you know, you’re developing in graduate school usually. So, to me, my eyes were very open about the possibility of earning more even while in graduate school, which I did not at all think about when I was in the thick of it. I focused much more on the decreasing expenses side of things. And of course, it’s a somewhat viable area as well. But there’s a certain point, of course, where you cannot decrease your expenses anymore.

[00:27:35] How grad students can raise their income

I was going to ask a follow up, I was going to ask if you could give a couple of examples of some of the ways you’ve seen people making money, either creatively or maybe there’s things you see all the time.

Yes. So, I think another really accessible one is doing a summer internship. And that I love to point to that as an example, because it’s both what I call career advancing as well as, you know, bringing in money for the time being. So, I actually published an interview just a few weeks ago on my podcast with someone who did an internship at Google Research. And so that was something where she literally made as much in that summer as she would on her stipend the entire year.

Now, that’s an extreme example of being paid very, very well to do an internship. But there are other ways, like other internships are still available to you. You can do a part time internship. So, it’s essentially a part time job, but it’s called an internship because it’s a training opportunity for you and an opportunity for your employer, the company, whatever, to get to know. You and I have another interview on my it’s on a podcast one, but a written interview on my blog with someone who, you know, did that kind of internship. I think it was like five hours a week, maybe for a few months during his last year of graduate school. And then that employer was his first post PhD job.

So it sets you up. You can set you up very, very well, if not happening that way, like directly at least it helps you expand your network. You get another letter of recommendation in the hopper. You can demonstrate a skill you’ve been learning during graduate school, demonstrate how it translates into the private sector.

So internships are, I think, becoming more accepted within academia. It’s spreading a little bit. Obviously, there are certain disciplines where it’s always been pretty normal for people to do internships like in computer science and engineering, but it’s becoming more so in other areas

And for another example of a career-advancing side hustle definitely would be anything in the freelance space, which is really easy to balance with your, you know, your primary duties as a graduate student. So, I knew a lot of people when I was in graduate school (actually, I found out about this after I finished graduate school), But apparently at the time they were doing freelance editing for journal articles. You already have that skill. Like if you’re, you know, a decent writer and you’re in academia, you already have that skill. And if you’re not going to want to go that direction in your career, maybe that’s not a great side hustle for you. But if you do want to go in that direction, then it’s great work experience. So freelance editing, freelance writing, doing freelance research projects.

And writing and you know, actually like kind of technically what I do now, which I do a lot of public speaking at universities. You might be able to start that earlier even while you’re in graduate school and you’re sort of a freelancer in a way, and you can call the money that they pay you an honorarium and then it’s all academia-sanctioned, if you call it an honorarium.

So, yeah, I love the idea in general freelancing. What I like, whatever individual, you know, niche you go into, I think it’s just a really easy way to be able to balance with the rest of your life.

This interview has been shortened for length. To see the full interview, watch the video.

If you missed my interview on Emily’s podcast, you can find it here…

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