Students who study abroad often regard it as the experience of a lifetime. It’s a time when you can learn almost as much outside the classroom as within it. It can also be a time of extra expenses. But by creating a sensible budget and sticking with it, you can easily manage the financial side of studying abroad.
Covering the Direct Costs of Education
When looking at the cost of studying in the United States, it’s important to distinguish between Direct Costs—tuition, room and board, and any special fees—and indirect costs, which are more flexible, and cover just about everything else. Taking care of the direct costs should be your top priority. Funds for these could come from private or family sources, scholarships or loans.
Although it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that the best types of college funds are scholarships and grants because they do not have to be paid back. Be sure you apply for every scholarship for which you feel you are qualified.
After you have exhausted funds that do not need to be repaid, you may want to consider student loans to cover your remaining direct costs. As an international student, you will not be eligible for low-cost loans sponsored by the U.S. government. However, a wide variety of lenders, including Sallie Mae®, offer private, credit-based student loans that may be available to you.
Once you have your direct costs under control, make a budget for indirect costs, which are essentially living costs while you are in school. Because there are strict limitations on off-campus employment for international students, you will need to show that you have enough funds to cover the entire academic year when you apply for your student visa.
Managing the Indirect Costs
Housing. After you have been admitted, your institution’s housing office will contact you with information on the availability of on- and off-campus housing. If you decide to live off campus, you’ll want to arrive several weeks ahead of the start of classes to begin searching for a place to live and get settled.
Depending on the type of housing you need and the location of your college or university, the cost of off-campus housing can vary considerably. In general, housing in large urban areas and on the West and East coasts is the most expensive. In addition to rent, you should also budget for furniture and other household essentials because most rentals in the United States are not furnished.
Saving tip: Consider getting a roommate to split the cost of rent.
Transportation. If you will be using a car while you are in school, you should budget for operating expenses such as fuel, parking fees, and routine maintenance that will be incurred commuting to and from your institution. Carpooling can help reduce these expenses. But also look into the availability of public transportation—it may be more economical than having a car, particularly in urban areas. As an international student, you might also want to budget for airfare home during holidays and other academic breaks.
Saving tip: Many universities offer a free or low-cost shuttle bus service both on-campus and for the areas surrounding the school. Take advantage of it when you can.
Meals. If you’re an undergraduate, your college or university probably has a meal plan, and you should definitely use it. The food may not match home cooking, but it’s convenient, nourishing, and could be the most economical way to eat while you’re enrolled. If you have a family, meals may occupy a larger portion of your budget. If money is tight, try to eat as many meals at home as possible rather than at restaurants.
Savings tip: Use generic products instead of name brands; clip coupons; and pack a lunch rather than eating out.
Entertainment. A big part of studying abroad is what you do outside the classroom. Be sure and budget some money for movies, snacks, concerts, short trips to visit friends, and other activities. A well-rounded student is one who effectively balances study and play.
Saving tip: Your student activity fee may entitle you to attend concerts, lectures, movies, and sporting events at a discount. Take advantage of these on-campus events.
Textbooks and school supplies. The best way to keep textbook costs low is to buy used ones. Most campuses have stores on campus or close to campus that sell used books, and you can also check campus bulletin boards for ads offering texts for sale. Be sure that the edition of the book you are buying matches the one that is required for the course.
The international student advisor at your institution can help you with miscellaneous expenses such as health insurance (usually available at a low cost from your college or university) and visa processing fees. In addition, it’s a good idea to budget for items such as utilities (if they are not covered by your rent), a mobile phone, clothing, Internet service, and even a small, general emergency fund.
Managing credit cards
Even if you have the best intentions, a credit card—used freely—can ruin even the most carefully planned budget. Use your credit cards sparingly and only for items you really need. Try to pay the full balance off each month. And make sure you know what the interest rates and fees are. Sometimes just knowing how much extra you’ll be paying if you make a late payment or carry a balance from month to month can provide the incentive for fiscal discipline.
This is an exciting time in your life. Make sound financial management a priority so that you can fully enjoy the uniquely rich learning experience of study abroad.