Money Matters

Money Matters

Traveler’s checks and pre-paid FOREX cards are one of the safest and easiest ways to transport money. If you choose to carry traveler’s checks or FOREX cards with you from your home country to the States, be sure they are denominated in U.S. funds. Most businesses—except taxi drivers and public transportation personnel—will readily accept U.S.-denominated traveler’s checks and FOREX cards during regular business hours, typically between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is wise to bring about $200 in U.S. cash with you, so you will be able to manage your expenses upon your arrival in the States.

U.S. Currency

United States currency is based on a decimal system, with one dollar ($1 or $1.00) equal to one hundred cents. Coin currency is used for amounts less than one dollar; the most common coins and their equivalencies follow:

  • Penny equals one cent or 0.01 dollars
  • Nickel equals five cents or 0.05 dollars
  • Dime equals ten cents or 0.10 dollars
  • Quarter equals twenty-five cents or 0.25 dollars

It may take a few days to get used to the new currency. You will learn, for example, that $1 is a reasonable price for a can of cola out of a vending machine; two dollars for the same item is expensive. Five dollars for a pizza is inexpensive, while twelve dollars is expensive. Paper currency, all printed in green and white, is most often circulated in the amounts of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 or $100. The slang term for a dollar bill is a “buck,” so $50 may be referred to as “fifty bucks.”

Most banks and some major airports and hotels will exchange foreign paper currency for a service fee; very few, however, exchange foreign coinage. Pay attention to drastic fluctuations in the exchange rates between your home country’s currency and U.S. currency. If your home currency is decreasing in value, you may wish to conduct all transactions (like student loans) in U.S. currency.


Budgeting your Stay in the US

Properly Budgeting your expenses is paramount before you arrive in the US. Living costs in the U.S. vary a wildly depending on whether you choose to go to a university located in a city, or another located in a more remote part of the country. Urban areas (in or near a big city) are generally more expensive, and cities that are considered major technology and business hubs (i.e. San Francisco, New York City etc.) are the most expensive places to stay. Smaller towns or suburban areas tend to have a lower cost due to much lower demand for housing and essentials. The costs cover prices for a full year stay in the U.S. (academic year + vacation). As a general rule, locations in the Midwest region of the States have lower living costs, while those in the East/North-East coast and the west coast are the highest. Living costs can vary depending on four factors and can be upto 25,000 USD/year on top of the tuition costs. Below are the different categries of expenses you need to budget for.

Living Accommodation costs in the States

Accommodation costs are just as varied as general living costs in the United States. In general, average room and board costs at universities amount to ~12,000 USD/ academic year at public four-year colleges and ~15,000 USD/academic year at private four-year colleges
The average apartment can start from minimum 500 USD (one bedroom apartments in more rural areas) and go up to 3,500 USD (1 bedroom apartment in Boston). Although its important to know that you can share apartments with multiple people to lower your overall rent. Also, many private houses in close proximity to the campus are usually available for rent. Depending on the size of the house, you can rent one of these homes with 5 or more people affording you lower rent, (possibly) more space and flexibility compared to traditional apartments and flats. Renting house become a great option as you get to know more people during your stay in the US.

Utilities may or may not be included in the rent, so you should check before you make a decision. Here are some of the most common values you will see for different utilities:

  • Utilities (Electricity, gas, etc.): 40 – 150 USD/month, depending on the size of your apartment and the number of people you share it with
  • Internet: 35-100 USD/month depending on location and type
  • Most cell-phone services average 50 USD/month
  • Water, sewer, and trash are usually covered by the landlord, but if you have to pay it will cost 20-50 USD/month

Food Costs

Groceries for one person amount to 200 – 400 USD/month depending on your dietary habits. If you live in residence halls, you could select the on-campus meal plans, for which you would have to pay around between 300 – 500 USD/month. Remember, you can also go to nearby supermarkets Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s, to buy your own food and lower your overall costs. However, not all on-campus housing will have a kitchen available for your use. Eating out in restaurants will be your most expensive option with each meal costing you between 5-15 USD depending on what part of the country you are in.


A public transportation monthly pass is between 45 and 100 USD, however some universities have significant discounts for students. You may be able to get passes that give you access to all modes of public transportation such as buses and subways (i.e. in New York, Boston, and Chicago). Together, public transportation is a easy and inexpensive way for you to get around. Universities may also have their own bus systems that serves the immediate locality around the campus. These buses are usually free to students. Before settling with any living accommodation, be sure to see if you can take advantage of available public/university transport options.

A bicycle can be a great way to get around your campus and your local area. Whether your campus is based in the middle of a city or in the suburbs, a bike is relatively inexpensive and reliable. Whenever riding your bike, always take care to observe the law of the road, and always wear a helmet. It is now a law in some states that helmets must be worn. The cost of bicycle can range from anywhere between ~$20 for a used, to hundereds of dollars for high-end ones. Although university campuses are very safe, you should also keep in mind that bikes are a common target for thieves and thus invest your money wisely and remember to get a bike lock.

At least once during your time in the US, you will probably want to travel. If you and your friends are planning a road trip during vacation, you might be surprised by reasonable vehicle rentals can be. Many car rental companies are happy to rent vehicles to international students; all you need is an appropriate driver’s license. Try to factor in vacation trips to tourist destinations and weekend getaways in the U.S., as depending on your living location and your destination, you can spend as much as 500 USD/trip.

Additional Costs

There are several other costs you need to account for:

  • Books and supplies: 400 – 1,500 USD/year
  • Health insurance: 700 – 1,500 USD/year
  • Personal or unexpected expenses for the year of about 2000 USD/year

A quality education in the United States can be quite costly, some preparation beforehand will allow you to minimize the costs of this extraordinary opportunity. It probably goes without saying, but don’t carry large amounts of cash around with you. Better options include credit cards, debit cards, checks and even traveler’s checks.

Bank Accounts

Within the first few days of your arrival, you may want to open a checking account with a bank on or near campus. You may directly deposit traveler’s checks for free in most cases, or arrange for a wire transfer from your home bank for a fee of about $35. Typically, you may make an unlimited number of additional deposits or withdrawals thereafter. Be sure to always have sufficient funds in your account to cover all outstanding checks; if you “overdraw,” the bank may impose expensive fees. Also be aware that there is usually a waiting period of a few days before you may withdraw the money you deposit, as a way for the bank to protect itself from fraud.
You will most likely need some form of identification to open a checking account. The bank representative may ask you for your Social Security Number. If you do not have one, fill out an IRS Form W-8, which the bank can supply.
Most banks offer a number of different types of checking accounts. One might bear interest if you maintain a minimum balance; another might provide a limited number of free checks. Learn about all options before deciding which type of account is best for you.
Many college students appreciate the convenience of a MAC (Money Access Card) or ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) card. The card allows account holders to make deposits, withdrawals and other transactions at any time—24 hours a day—through machines located throughout campus and shopping districts. If you have an ATM card from a bank in your home country, ask whether the U.S. bank will honor it; some Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) cross national borders, while others do not. As a safety precaution, most ATMs limit the daily withdrawal amount to $300. If you happen to lose your ATM or MAC card, report it immediately to your local bank office.
Writing a check is simple. The dollar amount is written twice: once using numerals ($67.32 for example) and once using words (sixty-seven dollars and 32/100). Draw one horizontal line through any unused space after the words, to prevent someone from adding extra digits.
Once a month, the bank typically mails the account holder a statement of all transactions. It is important to make sure that their records match your records to ensure that no errors were made by them or by you. If you have a question about your account, contact your local bank office.
Generally, retail stores accept checks only if they are drawn on an in-state bank. Be prepared to show some form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license, student I.D., or passport (though you may not want to carry such an important document with you all the time).

Credit and Debit Cards

One payment option accepted nationwide is the credit card. As a matter of fact, you may find it difficult to make certain purchases without a credit card. You need one to place an order by phone, to rent a car, or buy airline tickets in most instances. A credit card is also a good idea if you want to maintain good financial records, as your monthly statement will serve as a reminder of how you are spending money.
A credit card may turn into a very expensive payment option if you are not able to pay the balance on the account within the specified grace period—typically between 20 and 30 days. Be careful to read all of the details of the credit card offer before committing to it; some companies offer a special low introductory interest rate (perhaps 2.9%), but then increase it dramatically (to about 18.9%) after that introductory period. Also know the structure of the credit card company’s annual fees, such as how much and when they charge it to your card. As always, learn all you can so that you can make an informed decision.
Some companies are reluctant to issue credit cards to international students, as they do not have an established credit history in the United States. If you already have a major credit card from your home country (like Eurocard, Access, Chargex, Barclaycard, Carte Bleue, American Express, Visa or MasterCard), bring it with you; after the U.S. bank reviews your credit limit on the foreign card, they may be more likely to offer you a credit card. Banks with which you have accounts are also more likely to accept your request for a credit card.
Debit Cards (also referred to as “bank cards”) are another option. When you open an account, you will most likely get a bank card which you can use to withdraw money from an ATM. You can also use it like a credit card to make purchases. Unlike credit cards, the money is instantly taken from your account, so if the money is not there it will be rejected.
For students new to the USA, the debit card is a great way to pay for things until you can establish credit.
If you’re going to be living in the US for a while, you will probably want to earn money during your stay. Visit our Working in the USA page to learn more about the options you will have during your stay.