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Understanding the "True Cost" of Attendance for US Colleges
Make sure you budget for cost of living, moving, travel, and lifestyle expenses.
Studying in the US is expensive and you need to properly budget for the hefty expenses outside of just tuition costs. College tuition fees make up the bulk of your expected costs and certainly are the biggest expense you should account for as you begin your student journey in the US. However, there are several other costs associated with your student journey that you should budget for to calculate your true cost of attending college in the US.
1. Settling In
Your student journey in the US begins with settling into your new dorm room or off-campus accommodations. Expect to spend anywhere between $500-$1,500 on the following expenses:
Living essentials (bedding, linens, cleaning products, laundry essentials, etc.)
Furniture (storage, lighting, desk, chair, bed, mattress, etc.)
Technology (laptop/desktop, smartphone, tech accessories)
New clothes or weather-appropriate clothing (jackets, boots, gloves, etc.)
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the best places to shop (locally and online) for these items as prices and quality can vary quite a bit. We also recommend prioritizing items and thinking about what you will absolutely need during your first week and what you can slowly shop for and acquire within your first month or two.
2. Textbooks and Case Studies
Although some universities provide textbooks and include textbook costs in tuition fees, most universities will require you to separately purchase textbooks for your individual classes. Textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars and each professor typically chooses which textbook(s) they’d like to use for their curriculum. Some professors also use case studies as part of their syllabus and students are typically required to purchase case studies to participate in classroom discussions and complete assignments. To save money, you can share textbooks with classmates or rent required course materials from sites such as Amazon or Chegg.com. If you try to buy everything yourself, you should plan on spending anywhere between $500-$1,300 per semester on textbooks and case studies.
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3. Food, Drinks, and Tips
Prices for food and drinks at restaurants can vary based on the quality of the venue and the city you decide to study in. Tipping culture can also vary from business to business and offering 15-20% tip is the generally accepted standard. Alcohol and social expenses can quickly add up; be sure to budget appropriately for social events and meeting new friends.
Once you get to campus and adjust to being a student in the US, you might find yourself subscribing to several services that seem affordable but can quickly add up in monthly / annual costs. Here are a few services that you might want to consider subscribing to as a student:
Shopping: Amazon Prime, Costco, Sam’s Club
Streaming: Netflix, Hulu, Youtube TV, HBO, Spotify
News: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg
In total, the subscriptions above will cost you over $500 every year. To help manage costs, consider sharing with friends or signing up for “family” or “group” plans when available.
5. Ubers and Lyfts
Most international students avoid buying or leasing cars as getting a driver’s license and dealing with insurance and maintenance in the US can be painful. Using ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft is certainly easier, but the bills can start stacking up fairly quickly. To help control costs, consider splitting rides with friends using Uber Pool or Lyft Shared and watch out for expensive surge pricing during peak travel times. In addition, you should try to use public transportation and free, campus-operated shuttles or buses as much as possible.
6. Mobile Connectivity
Setting up a phone plan with a trusted carrier is probably the first thing you’ll take care of once you land in the US - everybody needs cellular service. The most common carriers in the US include AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon and unlimited talk, text, and data plans can cost anywhere between $50-$100+ per month after taxes and fees. Mobile connectivity is expensive and enticing new phone offers are often coupled with expensive, binding contracts that lock you into a specific carrier for 2-3 years. This can be especially expensive as you will be forced to continue paying for service even if you’re traveling back home and not in the US.
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7. Traveling Back Home
Traveling back and forth between the US and your home country is an expensive affair. Airline prices usually surge around the beginning and end of the semester (August/January and December/May). You should book your flights as early as possible to avoid higher prices, but know that it can be difficult to time your flight back home since exam schedules are typically not finalized until midway through the semester. You should plan on budgeting a few thousand dollars for airfare each semester; be sure to use sites like Google Flights to help optimize travel dates and costs and make sure you get your immigration paperwork in order before you depart.
8. Spring Break and Thanksgiving Plans
Most US colleges offer a few days off during the Spring semester in March (Spring Break) and the Fall semester in October/November (Fall Break and/or Thanksgiving). If you plan to travel, you will need to budget for flight and hotel costs as well as food and activity costs. Because these are typically peak travel seasons in the US, you should be prepared for surge pricing and expect to spend $1,000 or more in total.
As an undergraduate, if you’re living in on-campus housing, you won’t have to worry about paying rent until you move off-campus. When you decide to move off-campus, you will need to start planning and budgeting for your monthly rent expenses. Rent prices will vary quite a bit from city to city and depending on quality and location, students can pay anywhere between $650-$1,500+ per month for rent. If you’re thinking about moving off-campus, be sure to check out sites like Zillow or Apartments.com to find apartments and research average pricing in your area.
Cost of living differs from student to student and depends on your personal lifestyle choices as well as the city you decide to study in. On average, you should budget approximately $3,500-$5,000 per semester in additional costs as part of your college journey. These costs are often overlooked and can quickly add up, greatly inflating your overall “true cost” of studying in the US.