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5 Budgeting Tips for Students Going to a U.S. College

By Diane Amato

Published July 19, 2023 • 5 Min Read

Whether you’re going to a U.S. college for the first time or you are a few years in, your student budget is always a crucial factor in the success and enjoyment of your school year. You need to make sure you’ve got enough cash to last the year without having to stress over your finances. After all, you have enough to think about.

These five tips can help you set a budget, save money throughout the year, and feel financially secure.

1. Assess the money you’ll have available

The first step in setting up your student budget is to take stock of your available cashflow during the school year. Do you have money set aside from a summer job? Are your parents planning on helping with tuition or living expenses? Have you set up a student loan or line of credit to use throughout the year? While scholarships and financial aid are hard to come by for Canadian students heading off to U.S. college, if you have secured any financial support from your school or government, add it to your list.

If you have a lump sum of money available, break that into equal parts to last you for the time you’ll be away (typically eight to nine months).

Tip: If you have secured a student line of credit, which you can draw from at any time during the school year, it’s a good idea to plan how you’ll use it. Rather than withdrawing money whenever you’re short on funds, determine a set amount that you’ll pay yourself every month — this way, you’ll be better prepared to stick to a budget without building the balance higher than is needed.

2. List and categorize your expenses

Next, you’ll want to determine all the costs that will come with your school year. If you’re not sure what you’ll be spending your money on, try the RBC Student Budget Calculator — it will give you a great idea of the types of expenses you’ll face as a student.

As far as the major categories go, separate them into your essentials, such as tuition, books, rent, food, cell phone, transportation, and your nice-to-haves, including clothing, entertainment and eating out. Estimate the costs associated with these line items to figure out the total of your monthly expenses.

3. Save where you can

As a student, money may be tight, so once you’ve listed your expenses and estimated costs, see where you can trim. Here are some ideas:

  • Books: Most schools offer the option to buy physical books or e-books. E-books are less expensive and worth seeing if you can effectively learn and study with them. And there are online retailers for students who offer discounts.

  • Rent: If you’re not in a student residence, you may have some flexibility when it comes to rent. While this will be a big expense, try to find affordable housing regardless of where you go to school. Sharing a house with friends and/or other students is one of the best ways to reduce costs.

  • Food: You may be on a meal plan if you’re entering your first year. If not, be thoughtful about your groceries and buy healthy yet inexpensive food. Plan your meals to eliminate food waste (and wasted money) when you can.

  • Cell phone: While you may already have a Canadian cell phone plan, it’s smart to get a U.S. SIM card and plan so that you’ll pay less to call, text and stream while studying south of the border. Some providers can help you get a U.S. phone number and plan while in Canada. campusSIMS specializes in cell phone plans for international students.

  • Transportation: Try to walk, bike or take public transit whenever you can. As you assess your housing options, consider the potential cost of transportation. Living far from campus can negatively offset any savings on rent.

4. Take advantage of student deals

From take out to transportation, retail to technology, many brands and companies offer deals for students, some of which are fairly significant. When you’re out shopping, look for signs promoting student savings — and if you don’t see one, ask if there are any student discounts.

5. Pay in U.S. dollars

As a student, you need your money to work as hard as possible — you can’t afford to pay fees every time you buy something or take out cash from the ATM. Here are ways to reduce foreign exchange, transaction and ATM fees.

  • Get a U.S.-based bank account. While you’re still in Canada, get a U.S. bank account and start moving money over from your Canadian account regularly to even out the cost of foreign exchange. When you’re in the U.S., you won’t have to worry about exchanging money and be in a position to use U.S. cash for purchases, as well as pay bills and expenses through online banking in U.S. funds.

  • Apply for a U.S.-based credit card.1 Did you know? When you use a Canadian credit card in the U.S., you’re often charged a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 2.5 per cent of the amount of your purchase. These fees can add up, especially when making every dollar count on a student’s budget.

While you’re at college, you want to concentrate on school and not your money. These tips can help you prepare for a great year ahead.

Cross-Border Banking for Canadians Studying in the U.S.

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1. All loans and lines of credit are subject to credit approval.

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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