Graduate school comes with several financial challenges that require planning and careful attention to details. Chief among these challenges are the two big wallet busters: university reimbursements and international travel. Often these two combine to form a deadly, money sucking hydra. You will inevitably need to pay for something – airline tickets, hotels, fuel, equipment, contractors – out of your personal funds, and then file for reimbursement with your university. Depending on how efficient your finance office is, it could take anywhere from four days to several months for your reimbursement to be issued. If you paid with a credit card, during this time you’re paying interest on those charges.
International travel adds another layer to the mix. Most credit card companies will charge a foreign transaction fee (often 3%), there’s a high degree of variability regarding which networks are accepted where, and many nations have adopted EMV chips (a feature few US cards have) for added security. Whether it’s for a field season or a major scientific conference, you will probably have to make at least one big international trip. If you haven’t planned ahead, you may find yourself stuck with little or no functional currency, and end up leaning heavily on cash advances, travelers checks, or other high fee alternatives.
You should use a credit card to pay for reimbursable expenses, especially travel, if for no other reason than you need money in your bank account for things like food and shelter. If you’ve read my previous post–Credit, why it matters, how to build it, and how to use it–then this should seem familiar. I’m talking about your tank, with some particular caveats for international travel. If you’ve planned ahead and paid attention to the details, you can carry an extra balance for several months without incurring any additional fees.