I was recently talking to someone who mentioned that they managed to pay off around $40,000 in debt incurred from their masters program, during their PhD. They said they managed to do this from their yearly stipend alone, living in a relatively expensive American city as well. I'm wondering if there are others who have attempted this for themselves and had reasonable or even moderate success.

I should also add that I am not seeing advice here concerning the general advisability, financial or otherwise, of an academic career, or of incurring debt during graduate studies.

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    This seems odd, even impossible. Are they named Gates or Bezos? Don't expect to do this a a general thing.
    – Buffy
    Apr 9, 2021 at 17:33
  • I agree that this is odd, but it keeps occurring to me that given my relationship to this person it would have been odder for this person to have lied about this to me, or to have obscured the truth (that they received financial assistance from an undisclosed source, or something along those lines). So, I am nonetheless curious. Apr 9, 2021 at 17:39
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    I'm pretty sure it happens on occasion. In the US, you aren't likely to incur additional education debt in a doctoral program but stipends aren't very rich. A married person might be able to live off of a spouse's income and apply their living stipend to existing debt, of course.
    – Buffy
    Apr 9, 2021 at 17:41
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    I didn't have student debt, but I was able to actually put a decent amount in savings during my PhD. Had moderate living expenses, didn't eat out, didn't travel. $40k is a bit much, though. I wouldn't recommend anyone plan for it, but also wouldn't necessarily doubt someone who claimed it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 9, 2021 at 17:45
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    In some markets, buying a house when you start a doctoral program is a good bet, assuming you can get the required down payment. You can build equity as you study rather than paying rent. Some of my peers did this to good effect (long ago). It is risky, though, of course.
    – Buffy
    Apr 9, 2021 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


Possible, but very difficult.

A typical annual stipend for a US PhD student in the $20k-$30k range. If you allocate $10k of that stipend each year to paying off debt, the leftover income will put you near the federal threshold for poverty-level income for a single individual (~$13k). If you take into account that the cost of living is usually quite a bit higher in large cities, you would usually have to live a very meager existence for several years in order to pay off $40k worth of debt on only a PhD stipend. It's not outright impossible, but you'd need to be extremely motivated, diligent, and willing to live in poverty (or at least poverty-adjacent) to accomplish such a thing. Of course, this becomes easier if you enjoy a larger-than-average stipend. Pooling expenses in a shared living situation can also make things easier, as the poverty threshold for a larger household is not a simple multiple of the individual's threshold.

I would expect this level of saving/debt payoff to be very atypical among PhD students who live off their stipend alone.

  • Group living with shared expenses can help if this is a necessity.
    – Buffy
    Apr 9, 2021 at 18:08

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