The Stress of Budgeting for Grad School Right Before You Get Married

by Haven Leeming

My career in the philanthropic sector, while in the field I want, has hit a ceiling. Despite praise from senior leadership, I haven’t been able to negotiate a position, title or a pay raise. To move up in the philanthropic field, I need to get a graduate degree. I’m ambitious, and when I came to this realization, grad school became the next thing to check off my list to achieve my career goals.

I made the grad school choice late last fall, independent of the fact that my fiance and I had happily scheduled our small, 14-person wedding for early September 2015. The Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago welcomed me (and my money) into the fold for a full-time September 2015 start, and since then I’ve spent many hours a week playing chess with our budget.

I’m a saver, and am engaged to a saver, with zero current debt between us. I will be able to finance my first year of grad school through a scholarship I was fortunate enough to be awarded, $20,500 in Federal Stafford loans, and cash. His salary and our savings will pay for our living costs; we’re making the cost reductions necessary for living with only one salary (goodbye, generous restaurant budget!). For my second year of grad school, we’ll certainly be looking into private loan options in addition to more Stafford loans. When I graduate, I’ll work toward Federal loan forgiveness in the non-profit philanthropic sector. As for our wedding, with only 14 attendees, we can afford to take everyone out to a fancy dinner with champagne and call it a day. Cheers!

With every single budget-chess game I play, the numbers always turn out fine, with an unavoidable affordable amount of debt. I can afford this. We can afford this. This is debt that is okay to take on, because it will advance my career. We can pay it off. No queens need to be sacrificed.

But even with these rationalizations, I go through major panic pangs once a week. I have been financially independent since 21. Even my fiance and I have kept separate accounts and budgets the five years we’ve been together. We’d write checks back and forth to each other (Amount: $45. Memo: my half of dinner you paid for last night). I now feel guilty when I see our projected future income, with my anemic number and his full-time, full-salaried amount. I’ve made a few jokes among colleagues that I’ll be living off my “sugar daddy” (not funny, but kinda funny?). No matter how many times I see the numbers, I see myself as a leech.

I don’t think this stress will resolve itself, and that’s okay. My fiance is fine with the arrangement; in fact, he was the loudest cheerleader when I decided to apply to grad schools. I think I will just always be slightly uncomfortable with spending more than I earn. I will always wince when I see my debt. At the end of the day, if the degree advances my career, then these two leeching years will be worth it. And, well, if the degree doesn’t advance my career, I’m going to be pissed. But I’ll still be able to pay off my debt.

This story is part of our College Month series.

Haven Leeming writes, works and now studies in Chicago. She’ll miss that generous restaurant budget.