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How to reduce the cost of living as an international student in USA

The United States is ranked as the 18th most expensive country to live in, according to Numbeo’s cost of living index. Compare that to, say India, and life seems way more comfortable at its 120th position.

What does this mean? Well, Numbeo’s stats claim that if New York’s living were to be considered as the standard scale at 100%, the rest of the countries are measured relative to the Big Apple. So, Norway is a Bigger Apple at 106% cost of living index, while India is happily lounging at 25%.

Though the individual cities, in the US, do obviously have to offer a varying level of little to some form of relief, there is still a harsh contrast for anyone popping into the US, from outside, intending to stick around and live through a degree. As a glimpse of the financial hole, read the following article aimed at highlighting the cost for someone moving to the US, from India.

How to manage a budget lifestyle? Especially in a place where everything costs multiple times of what you maybe used to? You could try carrying a hefty ration each time you make your trip back to your home country, but quite frankly that may become an unusually expensive shopping habit to keep up – spending $2000 to get $10 off on five pounds of rice!

International students, enrolled in graduate schools, either get paid an average pittance of a little over $25,000 a year for teaching/research assistantship, or end up having to take on campus jobs to sustain themselves with even fewer dollars each month. Compare that to the budget obtained from the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) calculator, for a modest and adequate standard of living, and you have very little wiggle room to buy a pair of socks, let alone save!


Teaching Assistant Salaries in USA
Source: (Teaching Assistant annual wages) and (Cost of living by major city)

Clearly, a cash strapped international graduate student has to find ways to live over the poverty line. With student loans weighing heavy on their shoulders, and the inability to phone home for relief allowance, they are pretty much left to fend for themselves. And with F1 regulations restricting them from taking up additional jobs, their tired, their poor and their huddled masses, yearning to breathe free are left with the only possible solution – live on a tight budget. So here we are, throwing some light on your piggy bank.

How to reduce the cost of living as an international student in USA


Lair, lair!

One of the biggest salary eaters is the monthly rent. Depending on the city, you can imagine it to be around $2500, for a single bedroom apartment in San Francisco and New York, even if there are more than a few miles between your not-so-humble abode and the city centre. Or, you could get a single bedroom in Dayton, Ohio for less than $500. But no matter what your situation is, it is often better to look at both the on and off campus options before signing the lease.

Most on campus rentals have stringent rules about how many residents can occupy the apartment. That bit is usually flexible, when it comes to off campus housing. So, if money is a concern, you can perhaps try to accommodate another budget conscious soul to share the monthly rent, with the living room functioning as the second bedroom. Not as if a living room’s social setting has much of a meaning in a grad student’s life anyway!

You could try moving further away from the university/city center. However, it may backfire if you don’t own a car. No matter what, choose wisely and talk to people about high crime areas. The rents may just be extremely cheap there, but certainly not worth losing your sleep, or your left arm, over!

There is yet another option of simply sleeping in your research lab – not recommended, of course, but you will be expected to be there 20 hours of each day. Might as well make the sweat pay for itself!!

Unleash your inner accountant

Food can take up $500 per month. Graduate lifestyles are usually on the run, deprived of sleep and rest. So it is understandable when students often take the way of eating out frequently or in the other extreme, live on instant noodles. Unfortunately both are heavy spenders, the first one on monthly wealth and the second one on your health. Feasting on cheap third aisle food can leave you with lasting problems.

The best solution is to develop your cooking skills. You’d be amazed how quickly you will be able to make a week’s worth of cooked ration, freeze it and reheat for a subsequent quick bite. Simple grocery spending can be limited to well within $200 per month. Your local grocery mart might give you better, fresher, produce than the larger stores.

As for everything else, there are surplus stores like Sam’s club, that sell their items in bulk. You may have to lug in the 4 feet tall pack of toilet paper, but you do end up making massive savings with the 6 months supply, unless you are going through a particularly bad bowel month.

Some enterprising people, especially around campus areas, often deliver home cooked food. All you have to do is provide the groceries and outsource the cooking for a very nominal fee. Check your local campus laundromats or community centers for their paper ads.

With food expenses in control, the rest of the budgeting becomes rather easy to manipulate.

For entertainment and movies, stick to weekday afternoon trips to the theatre. Ticket prices are slashed to almost half the weekend cost.

Your utility bills may set you back by $150, with an average of $50 each for electricity, phone and internet. However if you end up in an on-campus housing, all the utilities, except for your personal phone, are usually covered in the rent. Of course, having and sharing the load with a roommate, helps.

The idea is to have expected expenses. That way you can set aside some money, each month, in a separate savings account. Given enough time, you can even convert it to a Certified Investment giving you slightly more in return than the indistinguishable 1% interest on a savings account. And of course, keep track of the credit card use given its black box nature. The better way to handle money is using cash, set aside as your monthly spending allowance. That way the impulsive shoppers can be reigned in with a reality bite!

The cheap car you desire

Unless you are blessed with a city with ample public transport, you need a car to survive the US. The best way to buy one is through on-campus sale ads, university forums, or craigslist. Dealers usually end up marking the prices much higher. Just make sure you check the car’s past reports for a clean bill of health. Car loans are easy to get and car insurance ranges between $50 to $100, depending on the city, car make and your driving experience.

Having a car also takes away the chunk of a vacation cost. It is the cheapest form of travel and highways are resourced with everything imaginable. So, if you have a car and can brave the often boring highway rides, driving costs beat flight tickets any day. Trains are usually not an option.

As for petting that homesick nerve, there is no doubt that the Christmas holiday season is the preferred time when Americans visit their families. Unfortunately, for international students, December turns out to be the costliest month to travel. You can save a fortune if you plan your homebound trip well in advance for the odd times of the year – in the middle of a semester perhaps.

Health is indeed wealth, in the US

Take care of your body. Your mind, as a graduate student, is mostly a lost cause! Most international students are covered under the university health insurance. The campus clinical health center is usually sufficient to take care of occasional bouts of the ills.

But if you have an unfortunate need of visiting a hospital emergency room, you may get handed a medical bill twice your monthly salary. Make sure you negotiate with your health insurer for at least part of the billing. And as for your eye or tooth checkups, you might as well leave them for your scraped up biennial trip home.

The idea is to live well but well within your means. Much like you should always do, no matter where you are. The difference though, is in the lack of a support system when you are living all on your own, in a foreign land and with little to go by. Unlike what is popularly believed, people in the US are not  automatically subscribed to a comfortable lifestyle by virtue of the American dream. It is expensive, with often the very basic necessities being subject to a price tag one cannot afford. Especially if you are on or near the minimum wage.

Follow these tips and come up with your own plan to save some dough for the occasional drizzle day. Studying in the US is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So be glad and count your blessings, but don’t forget to count your pennies too.

Also read:
How students can reduce their international education loan burden
Health Insurance for international students in USA & other countries
How to reduce the MBA Networking costs | Business school Tips
Cost of living in Los Angeles, California and how can an International Student manage it

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

2 thoughts on “How to reduce the cost of living as an international student in USA”

  1. I think the writer has never been or lived in US. So many factual errors I could see in the post. Lived in New York all my life but haven’t seen some student spending $2500 per month. Most of the students can get decent accommodation for $400-$500 in Brooklyn, Queens. Food, utilities, commuting all together amounts to $500 so total is $1000

  2. Hi Palkesh, thanks for sharing your views.

    Instead of relying on subjective estimates of students (which can vary quite a bit based on lifestyle choices), we’ve referred to third party stats (like Numbeo) for standard costs. Here’s the one for New York.

    You are right that costs can go down substantially depending on where the student is staying. The further one goes from the city center, the cheaper things (like rent) become.

    Of course students can also avail of university subsidized accommodations, if available. Many students even share studio/single bedroom apartments to bring the rent down. While quite a few live in Brooklyn, or Queens, where rent is cheaper than Manhattan. International students figure out ways to bring costs down.

    In articles like these, we try to err more on the conservative side. Better to assume and plan for a higher budget and live within those means, rather than the other way around, right?

    You’ve mentioned there were other factual errors in the article. Would be great if you can highlight those as well, so we can validate if we’ve been using the right reference sources.


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