5 Tips to Manage Your Budget While Studying in the United States

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K201 Peer Tutor at Indiana University
K201 Peer Tutor at Indiana University (courtesy of Kelley School of Business)

A good education can be expensive, even more so if it’s at an institution abroad. In this article, Indiana University graduate Farah Savira shares tips and tricks to manage your budget while studying abroad.

“Use your money wisely, Farah. The United States dollars are pretty expensive,” said my mom back in 2013, where one US dollar was equivalent to Rp 10,500. As per December of 2017, the US dollars have strengthened against the Indonesian rupiah to approximately Rp 13,500. Not only did this worry my parents, but the high exchange rate forced me to be fully aware of my financial decisions. Despite this expensive exchange rate, the United States is still one of the top student destinations. Tuition varies based on the type of school (private vs. public) and the state.

For me personally, I was fortunate enough to have my parents cover my expenses from day one until my very last day of college. Within the four years of college, I’ve studied at two different states, California and Indiana. Living in these two states has allowed me to adjust my budget accordingly. With so much entertainment and places to explore in California, I had the temptation to spend more than I should rather than Indiana. Throughout this journey, I learned about my spending habits and best practices to manage my finance.

As I write this article, I had a chance to quickly interview two people – P and R, who both went to Indiana University Bloomington as I did. P was a scholarship recipient while R received her allowance once every semester. Each of them had different approaches to managing their budget, but generally, they had less than $1,500 to spend each month, excluding tuition. Instead of telling them to break down their expenses, I asked them about how they allocated their money and what they’ve learned about managing personal finances as a student. These five tips that I am about to share are a collective of experience from P, R, and myself.

Farah at her first college football game
Going to my first college football game, ever!
  1. Live a lifestyle according to your budget

As I asked P and R about tips for managing your budget, they both agreed on the advice “do not follow your lavish friends’ lifestyle.” Although the majority of international students who study in the United States are generally fortunate, they all come from various economic and social backgrounds. I’ve known friends whose allowances were above $5,000 and friends with less than $1,000 per month. According to the living costs in Bloomington, Indiana and San Francisco Bay Area, here’s a quick breakdown on the basic monthly living costs:

Interior of Hunter Ridge Apartment in Bloomington, Indiana
Interior of Hunter Ridge Apartment in Bloomington, Indiana (one-bedroom, shared bathroom costs $300 per month)

Accommodation (one bedroom in a shared apartment): $300 – $1,500
Groceries: $150 – $200
Phone bills: $30 – $50
Transportation: $20 – $75
Home internet: $15 – $20
Entertainment, Shopping, Weekend trips: $200 – $500

Total = as low as $715, as high as $2345

In this case, we have to pick the best lifestyle that fits our budget. My friend, R, specifically mentioned that she often said no to her friend’s offers like dining out or going on a weekend trip because she wanted to “save up for her next backpacking trip.” Prioritizing your expenses is one way to live below your means.

2. Cook more to save more

Buying your groceries and cooking your meals can save you up to 50% of your budget. Fresh produce in the US is cheaper and healthier as opposed to Indonesia. Though it is a hassle to prepare your meal every time you want to eat, the process is pretty fun. You’ll get to explore different cuisines and be creative. During my unemployment days, I remember browsing around Pinterest to find healthy recipes that cost less than $150 per month. The tip is to always prepare your meals when you are less busy. I usually spend my Sundays doing groceries and preparing my meals for the week. When choosing items to buy, I think about two dishes I want to eat that week.

3. Look for on-campus jobs that fit your schedule

My friend, P, advised international students to explore on-campus job opportunities. By spending 20 hours of his time weekly as a food server, he earned as much as his expenses covered by his scholarship. As he worked part-time, P was a full-time student, with 15 to 18 credit hours each semester. He said, “I have less time to socialize or get involved in more than one student organization, but my goal was to bring more money back to Malaysia.” As opposed to P, there were some of my friends who chose to work as peer tutors and professor assistants. These two jobs were more skillful than being a food server, as they need to understand the class materials well and build rapport with students and the professor. Overall, on-campus jobs are available for students to earn more money and hone their skills.

4. Utilize your mobile banking app to keep track of your expenses.
This is by far mine and my friend R’s favorite to keep track of our expenses. During my five years in the US, I’ve opened two accounts at two different banks, Citibank and Chase. Both banks had access to mobile and internet banking that saved my life. I signed up for the mobile-alert feature that allowed me to get a notification if there was any transaction beyond my “maximum limit” that I set for myself. Here’s a sample

The bank also has features that allow you to download and print your monthly statement. You get to choose whether you want the statement in a PDF or CSV file. I usually choose the CSV format, then label each of the transactions manually. This method helps me group my expenses accordingly and understand the type of expenses I spend the most.

Chase Mobile Alert Setting. I put $125 as my maximum amount of transaction
Chase Mobile Alert Setting. I put $125 as my maximum amount of transaction

5. Find more student or daily deals

McDonald’s always has daily deals that you can browse on its mobile app. Back in the days when I was considered ‘broke,’ I remember going through the selections of the  meal at McDonald’s app. Then, I’ll use the digital QR code coupon when ordering at the restaurant. The deals can only be used once a day, therefore the company wouldn’t go bankrupt lol.

Another website that saved my life is studentuniverse.com. My senior in college recommended me to use this website to book an international flight ticket. All we need to do is verify our student enrollment status by uploading our last semester tuition payment or a valid student ID. The site will ask you to update your student status every couple of months, just to make sure that you are still enrolled. I remember booking a flight to London through this site and it saved me almost $200.

Screenshot of the Student Universe website
Screenshot of the Student Universe website

These practical tips have helped me survived and managed my budget throughout my college years in the United States. The resources and tools are available for students to use. So, comment down below on which of these tips you find the most helpful and why!

Photos by author unless otherwise specified.

Farah with PERMIAS Bloomington
Meet my alpha team, Permias Bloomington 2016-2017
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Farah currently works as Marketing & Communications Coordinator at FirstPathway Partners, a Milwaukee-based company that assists foreign investors seeking U.S. green card and citizenship through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program. Before joining FirstPathway, Farah graduated with distinction from Indiana University Bloomington with concentrations in Management and Marketing. She’s passionate about exploring the unseen, brainstorming creative marketing ideas, and self development. In her spare time, you’ll find Farah learning new digital marketing tools, running outside, or traveling to a new place. Reach her on social media by searching “Farah Savira” on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter!