Some Money Tips for Early Career Academics (or anyone else)

I’m not a money genius but have picked up a few tips over the years. After I served as department chair for 3 years and managed a million dollar budget, I realized I could do better at home.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

Remember, money is money:  How much you have or owe after expenses is the most important financial figure.  A person with low income and low expenses can live better and with more security than a person with a high income and high expenses.  Remember that there are no “exceptions” either.  For instance, for a few years after 2008, my employer has offered raises that look good on paper while cutting benefits.  I guess profs felt better with a higher salary on paper, but the raise was actually much smaller when you factor in the additional costs we had to absorb (like paying in more to retirement).  I’m not complaining: we still got raises in a time when people had freezes or cuts (and we had jobs!), but at the end of the month, the actual amounts were less than they appeared to be.

People get really emotional about money.  Know how it ties into your feelings and figure out a way to deal with it that isn’t self-destructive or a source of conflict in your relationship.  It’s worth it.

If you’re broke or poor:  This is way better than anything I can offer.  It’s for grad students but applies to underemployed PhDs as well.  The stuff on academics and social class is serious and worth reading carefully.  I also highly recommend this document if you’re not poor, so you have a better understanding of how class privilege affects you.  Everything below is written from my perspective as a middle-class person, raised by professionals who didn’t have a ton of money, but who had financial security.  Except for a short string of shitty service jobs as a teen that still help me appreciate what I have now, I have never been underemployed.

Budgeting: Some people maintain elaborate budgets and track every expense.  This gives them peace of mind.  I recommend doing expense tracking for a month or two to learn how you spend, but I find the process beyond that maddening.  The other way you can go is just to figure out how much you accumulate or owe at the end of each month, and then you know the direction it’s all going.

Debt: If you take it on, have a clear plan for how much it will cost over the life of the loan and how and when you will pay it off. And a backup plan.
Beyond that, how to think about debt is very class-based and emotional.  Debt if you’re poor or working class can be very dangerous and exploitative.  Debt if you’re middle class or wealthy isn’t as big a deal in manageable amount.  The hitch is that you can manage a lot less than the banks will tell you that you can.  And if you guess wrong, that class position won’t necessarily save you if someone in your family can’t or won’t bail you out.

Profits off debt have skyrocketed, and are a major source of income for financial institutions.  Their interests are the opposite of yours.


Part time, non-tenure track:

–> If you just need money, in most places adjuncting/sessional work is a terrible way to get it.  From term to term and year to year it is unreliable.  If you break it down to an hourly wage, you are better off waiting tables (or doing something else) and you won’t take the work home with you; and you’ll have more time for other stuff, whether that other stuff is childcare or working on getting publications ou).  If you can find another way to maintain an institutional affiliation and to participate in academic/intellectual life for a year or two while seeking academic employment (or a postdoc, or whatever), do it. Exception: teaching a course (or a few) in your own grad program–and as part of or in addition to a graduate funding package–while a grad student–is a very good idea. 

–> Adjuncting/sessional work can be good for expanding the list of courses you’ve taught, as a stopgap for maintaining some kind of institutional affiliation while seeking academic employment, or because you love teaching.  Know why you’re doing it.

–> Contact-limited employment, visiting assistant professorships, etc., are a better deal.  They come with more pay, more status, and the chance for better experience.  But they should also be subjected to the “is it worth it?” test.  Do not believe schools that say part-time positions are auditions for permanent positions unless there is evidence that they have recently hired someone from a temporary position into a full-time, tenure-track position.

–> Permanent or tenure-track teaching positions at research-intensive institutions offer second-class citizenship compared with regular professor positions.  They offer limited options for career advancement and pay raises, but they do offer stability if that’s what you’re looking for.  They also don’t come with the same publishing requirements, which may be a bonus for some people.

Tenure track:

–> Negotiate, and educate yourself before you negotiate.  Not everything everywhere is negotiable, but you want to be known as someone who asks for (and uses) resources.

–> Nobody will ever tell you to turn down a tenure-track job.  I am not telling you to turn down an offer for a tenure track job without another offer.  However, people do it all the time.  It will not destroy your reputation or your career.  How you feel about it after the fact depends entirely on what happens in the subsequent years, which nobody can predict.


Life Insurance: When you first land a job with benefits, there is an initial enrolment period for life insurance.  Buy way more than you think you’ll need.  You may someday have a partner or kids you do not now have.  The reason is that after this period, if you want to add value to your policy, you will need to undergo a physical and preexisting conditions will make it prohibitive.  Several times your salary is worth it given how cheap it is.

Retirement contributions: Institutions generally match your contribution up to a certain amount.  If you can swing it, invest the max that they match (usually 5-10% of gross pay to start out), even if it hurts, and even if you save no other money.  It’s worth it: your employer doubles your contribution, and every year you pay in makes a difference later.

Other Benefits: Learn your institutions offerings.  McGill, for instance, covered massage for awhile, and through the staff assistance program could get people 10 free sessions with a therapist.  It’s not good for years of psychoanalysis, but in a crisis, that’s something.

Renting vs Owning where you live:

If you own a home outright when you retire, that’s one less expense you have.  Some people want to own for peace of mind or other reasons.  Your home is not an investment, though, unless you move to a cheaper market.  If you sell in Sydney and buy in Cleveland, you’re golden, but most people can’t do that.

It is perfectly do-able to rent your whole life and retire comfortably, but that requires a) investing extra for retirement (a rough measurement is the amount that would have gone to equity if you’d owned) b) accept the additional cost of rent in retirement.

I do not believe in real estate as an investment.  High cost of living in the form of high rents and mortgages are great for realtors and landlords.  They are terrible for local people, arts, and political participation.  If it costs more to live, people have to work more, which takes them away from other things that matter in life.  Also, I hate the idea of being tied to property I don’t live in.  YMMV.

Where down payments come from: See notes on social class above.  Most first homes are bought with help on the down payment from relatives, at least in the US and Canada. I don’t have current stats, but that’s where they often come from.  If you don’t have that help, it will take longer to get a down payment together.

Moving Money:

This is mostly for people who move internationally or live across borders where the currencies are different.  Bank rates are more expensive than other options.  In Canada, there is Transferwise and Knightsbridge.  In terms of wasted account fees over the years, I have definitely lost more money through using my bank for transfers and current conversion than in any other form.


If you’re read your Marx, you know that increased investment values come from the extraction of surplus value somewhere along the line.  As institutions and states have made people responsible for their own retirements, they’ve forced more people into investing who might otherwise not have done so, to the benefit of wealthy elites.

This is to say that as someone with investments, or a retirement fund, you are making moral compromises.  I live with this as I want to be able to retire someday, but it’s politically and ethically complicated to say the least.  Ethical Investments may or may not actually be ethical.  They may take you out of oil, but over leverage you in tech stocks that are also damaging to the environment, exploitative of labor and contrary to democratic values.

If you don’t know anything and aren’t that interested, learn about passive investing and indexed funds, and find a fee-based financial planner.  Do not trust your bank.

If you think you can consistently beat the market, you are doing better than some hedge fund managers.


Learn about what deductions and incentives you qualify for.  For instance, RRSP / IRA contributions (Canada and the US, respectively) reduce your tax burden.  Right now under US law I can’t take advantage of Canadian tax-free savings accounts, though.


PLEASE DO IT!  People on the right and who are religious give away far more of their money than people on the secular left.  Canadians donate way less than Americans because of our stronger welfare state here.  But there are countless organizations that could use our money and support.  Donations are often (though not always) tax deductible, and they can make a big difference.  Find organizations you support and give to them.

If you can’t give money, consider giving time.  Or do both!