Financial Breakdown, Part I: Expenses

Money clip by Jessica Todd.

Money clip by Jessica Todd.

Pun intended. Money is a huge consideration when deciding whether or not to go into a graduate program and subsequently which program to attend; it can be a major source of stress and anxiety. As artists we cannot (typically) count on a big payday immediately after graduating to pay back loads of student loans. I have seen MFA students graduate only to go back to unrelated jobs similar to those they had before graduate school because of the pressures of looming student loan payments. Doing so can cause those graduates to lose the momentum gained through their thesis work and leaves them with massive debt and a fading dream of getting back into the art world. Planning ahead before you decide on a program will help you to stay on top of your finances and better serve the education and future career you are literally investing in.

In Part I of this discussion I will break down expected costs:

  • Tuition and Fees (per semester or academic year) – Make sure you are adding up all of the little extras that get thrown onto your bill – activity fees, art fees, payment plan fees, etc. – universities can be tricky! If you receive an assistantship, check to see how much of your tuition is paid for (a 20-hour appointment will usually pay 100% and a 10-hour appointment 50%). You may still need to pay academic fees, which can be a considerable amount of money.

  • Materials (per semester) – This will depend heavily on the type of work you do and the materials you typically use. For example, if you are a jeweler who uses a lot of silver, stones or specialized equipment you will want to take those costs into consideration. This may also include a computer, printer or software. Find out what tools, equipment and materials each program provides its students and what you will need to provide for yourself.

  • Books (per semester) – If a program requires you to take Art History, look into the price of required texts by searching the course reserves and the university bookstore.

  • Housing (per month) – Look at prices for on- and off-campus housing for each university. This will vary greatly by location. A studio apartment in New York City can be somewhere around $1500 a month whereas a one-bedroom in the Midwest could be as low as $200. That is a big difference, especially when you add it up over two to three years. Consider the cost of furniture too. If living with parents or relatives is an option it may well be worth the small sacrifice of independence!

  • Utilities (per month) – Gas, water and electric will vary slightly by location so you may need to approximate. Reducing your use of air conditioning, heating and electricity will help keep those costs low (and help the environment!). Add up your monthly cell phone, internet and cable bills (also vary by location). Consider forgoing cable or internet and choosing a cheaper cell phone plan.

  • Transportation (per month) – Living close to campus and walking or biking will reduce these costs but also may mean higher rent. Calculate transportation costs versus rent ahead of time to decide which is the best option. If you are using public transportation, calculate a monthly budget. If you plan on driving, remember to consider car insurance, car payments, gas and on-campus parking. If the university is far from family or a significant other, add up the costs of travel for visits and holidays.

  • Health Insurance and Medical Expenses (per month) –If you are under 26 and a full-time student you are likely eligible to stay on your parents’ health insurance. Universities usually offer discounted health insurance and health care to students and Graduate Assistants. Graduate Assistants are typically required to have health insurance.

  • Personal (per month) – This includes food, clothing, toiletries, entertainment, travel, conferences, credit card payments and any additional expenses you may have in your life (significant other, children, etc.). These costs can be kept to a minimum with mindful budgeting and cautious spending habits but should be calculated realistically into your total expenses.

Add up all of these costs within the timespan of a year. Create a financial picture of each university you are considering by adjusting the expenses that vary by location such as tuition and rent. Subtract any funding you have received, hope to receive or need to receive in order to attend that program. For a two-year program, multiply the total number by two and for a three-year program by three. You may be surprised by the numbers you come up with! Once you have all of this information in one place you will be able to use it to create a budget in conjunction with your income or loans once you decide on a program.

Part II of Financial Breakdown will discuss the various ways you can pay for these expenses. And, as always, I welcome and encourage comments below!