U.S. Life: Savings Tips

Entering a U.S. college or university? Congratulations!
Wondering how you’ll afford U.S. life? You’re not alone. We’ve gathered dozens of ideas and resources to help you through your international experience in the best possible financial health. Also see our Living in the United States resources page for links to sites that can help you save during your travel and U.S. study.


To save on tuition after you’ve started college, explore the possible existence of merit scholarships awarded for high grades. Some state institutions offer out-of-state tuition waivers under certain circumstances. Some institutions offer scholarships or tuition reduction to students involved in cultural or leadership programs. All of these possibilities can save thousands of dollars—research them.

Many U.S. undergraduate programs will award credit toward your degree for successful completion of examinations demonstrating your mastery of college-level knowledge. While some of these tests, such as the Advanced Placement examination, need to be taken during secondary school, others, such as the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) and DANTES Standardized Subject Tests (DSST) typically can be taken and accepted for credit at any point during your enrollment. All AMIDEAST EducationUSA centers can administer CLEP and DSST tests, and many colleges and universities have also have test centers that offer these tests. Speak to the admissions office at your school about policies and local test center availability.

At some schools, tuition rates are lower during the summer sessions than during the academic year. Earn credits then, not only to take advantage of the savings but also to reduce the amount of time it will take to earn your degree. You may also want to consider taking summer or night classes at a local community college or other institution with lower tuition than your own college if your college will accept the credits.

Be realistic about your limits in terms of the number and types of classes you take. Hurrying through a noncredit English program in order to take for-credit classes or trying to take too many classes at once can be a recipe for trouble. If you have to retake classes, not only will you be frustrated but you will have to spend more money.


Employment of international students is strictly regulated and limited in the United States. You will be restricted to twenty hours per week of work during the academic year, and during your first nine months of study any job you take must be on-campus.

Even after that time, off-campus employment involves fairly complex legal requirements and limits—discuss this issue with your international student adviser. Look into whether your college has a “cooperative education program” or can provide information on off-campus internships related to your field of study. Unfortunately, you can’t expect employment to pay your way, but it can help with your day-to-day expenses.

You need to manage your job schedules carefully so that your employment makes the best use of their time. Try to get a job that promotes your academic progress (for example, compiling databases for the business school or working in the chemistry labs). Such experiences look good on your résumé, and may also allow you to study while working (particularly some positions in the library or computer lab).

Housing and Food

Where you live will be your biggest expense after tuition. Living off campus is sometimes less expensive, sometimes not. If you are in your first year of study, you will almost always be better off living in campus housing, not only because dormitory life usually provides good support for the adjustment to U.S. life but also because it requires local knowledge to find and furnish a cost-effective apartment in a safe neighborhood. Rent may be lower than campus housing fees, but expenses such as utilities, heat, computer access (campus networks are generally superior), security, and transportation costs may add up to make off-campus life more expensive.

Many universities have cooperative houses or apartment-style housing that can provide an ideal compromise for those who prefer the privacy of off-campus living or have family members coming to campus with them. New international students can often apply for such housing. Be sure to ask as early as possible since such housing options are likely to be in high demand.

Meal plans in campus dining facilities are generally more expensive than cooking for oneself. However, consider if you will indeed be willing and able to cook for yourself regularly—campus meal plans will provide cheaper (and generally more nutritious) options than a restaurant diet can.

Some other options for saving on housing and meal costs include the following:

  • Sharing an apartment with friends or fellow students and splitting the rent. Be realistic, however, about how many people and exactly who you can live with comfortably. Beyond the fact of housing codes (which limit the number of people who can legally share living quarters), you will need some private space to pursue your studies. Roommates, especially those with different habits and priorities than your own, can be amazingly stressful.
  • Becoming a resident assistant in college or university dormitories. (This opportunity, which involves helping other students adjust to campus life and resolve housing concerns, is usually open only to graduate students or undergraduates who have already spent several years on campus.)
  • Living off-campus with relatives or family friends. Of course this is only an option if you're lucky enough to find a suitable university near people willing to host you.
  • Taking part in a “homestay” if these are available at the campus or community where you are located. These will not provide permanent housing but can help you get settled and give you a taste of life with a U.S. family, free or for low cost. Building a good relationship with your “host family” also often helps to reduce long-term costs. Host families may be able to offer you a place to stay over during holidays, provide transportation to a dentist on the other side of town, or provide advice on the best places to shop.
  • Students on some campuses may be able to work in the dining hall in exchange for “all you can eat” free food.

Study-Related Expenses

Buying used books is a crucial skill for budget-conscious students. The keys to success are to get to the bookstore early in order to get the best deals, and to make private deals at the end of the semester with students who just completed a course that you're about to take.

You can also often sell your textbooks at the end of a course, but you need to remember to keep your books in good shape in order to get good resale prices.

Using the campus computer labs is less expensive than buying your own computer, but at the end of the term, these labs will be crowded with last-minute writers. If you're dependent on the campus lab, you must be disciplined and not a procrastinator.

Health Care

Before you leave home, have a dental and optical checkup, and take care of health needs. Health care will generally be more expensive in the United States than at home.

Skimping on health insurance is the worst possible way to save money. Health insurance is very expensive in the United States, but it’s worth it. It will cost you much, much more if you become ill or are injured without sufficient insurance coverage. Don’t compromise.


Try to minimize transportation costs by either staying as close to campus as is possible or by staying where most of the services that you will require are located. Do not try to own and operate a car unless that is an absolute necessity where you are located. Keep in mind that the purchase of a car is only the first expense—required insurance as well as repairs will add significantly to the cost. If you do need to buy a car, take a car owner’s maintenance and repair class at a community college to cut down on mechanic’s charges. Get advice on mechanics from someone familiar with the area so that you are not overcharged by an unethical mechanic.

Clothing and “Incidentals”

Winter clothing can be a major expense for students from warmer climates. Talk to experienced students about how to buy that all-important winter coat, how to dress in layers, which fabrics retain heat most effectively, and what kind of footwear protects your feet against ice and snow. Once on campus, try to make friends with people who know the community where you are located—they can tell you the best places to shop.

Purchase necessary items before entertainment and desired items. Learn to get your “extras” from free sources. Many public libraries have movies to loan for free. Read magazines there as well instead of buying them. Seek out fun activities available for little or no money, such as free concerts on campus or in the community, free movies sponsored by campus groups, picnics in area parks and forests.

Here are some other money-saving ideas:

  • E-mail, IM, and/or write home. If you need to phone, try taking advantage of Skype or another less expensive Internet-based phone service.

  • Consider what you can bring from home rather than purchasing in the United States. Research what basic supplies are likely to be significantly more expensive (or hard to find at all).

  • Shop in second-hand and discount stores. Explore garage, yard, and rummage sales for bargains.

  • Buy generic rather than brand-name items.

  • When going out with friends, take a limited amount of money with you. Leave your credit card at home.

  • Think long-term. Avoid high interest credit cards and loans.