Thursday, October 8, 2015

Smuggling Satsumas in a handbag (Post PhD financial hangover)

Being a PhD student, particularly a self funded one, or one later in life I stills certain values of thrift and certain fear of running out of money.

This was brought home to me last week in a couple of ways. I'm making a steady wage now and a decent one, but it is fixed term. And a pathological fear of spending money continues. The trouble is after 4 years of existing on next to nothing, or a continually fluctuating wage,  there's a lot of stuff, sometimes quite big stuff that I need to buy now that I have money. Or 'while' I have money as I'm now conditioned to think of it. 

This means I'm stuck in the troubling impasse of wanting/needing to use this new income to replace or purchase everything I haven't been able to for the past 4 years...and a crippling fear of it suddenly disappearing. For example I was lacking in both office clothes and well decent clothes in general having been on a severe budget and/or at the mercy of gifts form 4 years. So a lot of the first couple of pay checks went on clothes. None of which were expensive (I'm a supermarket and M&S outlet kind of girl!) but of course add up. I did treat myself a little bit, buying clothes and/or books and other things a didn't so much need as want, but after years of not being able to "want" it felt incredibly indulgent, and when adding it up (still not to tallying much in the scheme of things) I felt guilty.

Then comes the fear of it all being taken away again. Being on a fixed term contract this is a very real fear, but having existed on zero hours contracts for years in which there can be months without income I have a fear of allowing too much money to leave my account at once, because often one months income had to last three. So even though I know that even if I spend a lot this month the same amount will appear again next, it doesn't quite sink in. The idea of making a long term commitment to outgoings like a new phone contract leave me stressed, as do any major purchases or upcoming expensive events.

So while I know I had the money to pay for a holiday and indeed pay for Mum as well (the first in nearly 5 years in fact) I felt horribly guilty about spending money on something like that. I've also um'd and ah'd over a new car which I do need (in part so Mum can have my old one to replace the one that we've had since I was in school) but again despite being able to afford it (or at least having the facility to pay off the credit card bill) 
The side effects aren't just in terms of my own larger outgoings but my general attitude to spending money. I'm one of the few people in my office who brings their own lunch 90% of the time because I'm not used to having an option not to, and spending what £5 a day? That's £25 a week that's £250 a month. If I find myself buying too many coffees or bottles of water I chide myself. I also instinctively gravitate towards the cheapest food outlets when I do buy lunch- I love Pret, but Boots or Tesco meal deal is half the price...

This week I went on a training course, for which I had to feed myself out and about for a day and a half. While other delegates dined in the hotel restaurant, I went to the food court of the shopping centre. Stopping at the supermarket for a few top up supplies I knew that the warm bottles of water in the drink aisle are cheaper than those with the sandwiches and that it's cheaper to buy the standard bags of fruit rather than individual. And this is also why I'm carrying 3 apples and 5 satsumas in my backpack from Leeds. Its not just the PhD student in me, as Lorde said "we don't come from money" but also 4 years of making 1 months pay stretch to 3 across the summer or trading off new clothes for needed books will do that to you.

This is far from a PhD student problem-it's a people on zero hours contract problem, it's a minimum wage job problem. It's an hourly paid lecturer problem. And I'm well aware there are people far worse off than I ever was. What I'm getting at here is a particular mentality that's at odds with many of those around you as a PhD student. I remember vividly the first (and only!) department Christmas meal I and another PhD student went to. When the time came to split the bill at the expensive gastro pub we'd found ourselves in...well let's just say we were handing over more than a day's wages (that were about to stop for a month due to the Christmas break) for a lot of wine that we didn't drink...when everyone else around you is on £35k plus and you're struggling to hit £10k the gap becomes startling. 

So back in the day when Universities could afford biscuits in meetings that's why you'll find PhD students stealing the leftovers (and the tea bags)...Also when the training day has not just a lunch buffet but a proper meal included...well that's just Christmas. I'd have paid to see a hoard of PhD students let loose on that.