For international students planning on studying in the United States, the I-20 form estimates basic mandatory expenses, such as tuition and fees, meal plans, health insurance (if required), and textbooks. But having funds to cover these expenses doesn't help with budgeting for personal expenses, such as clothing, school activities, and entertainment.
Current international students should follow these three tips to budget for and slash the costs of personal expenses—and prospective students should take note, too.
[See how international students can start saving for college.]
1. Reduce academic expenses to boost personal funds: Smart textbook shopping and saving leftover change from purchases add extra money for international students to distribute to other areas of their budgets. With textbooks, often the money used to estimate costs on your I-20 is based on purchasing new books, says Michelle Larson-Krieg, director of international student and scholar services at the University of Colorado—Denver.
However, professors are becoming more cognizant of textbook costs and will often wait to change to a newer edition to increase availability of used books for students, says Pat Kirby, international student coordinator for Missouri's Westminster College.
Students can save hundreds of dollars by a combination of renting textbooks, shopping on websites such as Half.com and Amazon.com, using electronic textbooks, and checking out available textbooks from public libraries, Iowa State University International Recruiter Timothy Tesar says.
[Find out how to get cheap college textbooks.]
In addition, save the change in your pocket at the end of each day, says Dottie Durband, director of the Red to Black student money management office at Texas Tech University. Fifty cents stashed for personal expenses five times per week adds up to $40 in a 16-week semester.
2. Budget and shop wisely for clothing: To develop a clothing budget, a student must first consider the amount and type of clothing needed and then subtract already owned items. Durband recommends students shop for new items based on what they don't have from this list: casual clothing for classes; some business casual outfits if seeking a part-time job; and one nice suit or a couple of business professional separates that can be mixed for a university function, religious service, or even a party.
For campus-specific recommendations, Durband recommends E-mailing the student money management center because staff members "can answer questions about clothing needs related to details such as climate, region, prices, places to shop, and local events." To save money on clothing, she suggests "shopping for gently worn clothing or accessories at thrift stores, consignment stores, and local garage sales."
Renuka Raja Rao, India country coordinator for the United States-India Educational Foundation and a former graduate school student at Syracuse University, similarly suggests students shop at discount stores such as Target and Walmart. Off-season sales also provide savings.
[Learn more about cutting U.S. college costs.]
3. Plan social activities carefully: To find out about expenses for social activities on your campus, E-mailing "the student government president or country-specific international student organization is a great way to make a connection and to inquire about costs of living abroad," Durband says.
Students can get advice on strategies for reducing transportation, dining, and entertainment expenses. For instance, Nikita Sacheva, a student from India in her second year at University of Chicago, has managed to never take a cab. She plans most of her off-campus outings based on when the free shuttle her campus offers runs to downtown Chicago.
Other times, she takes public transportation for $2 each way. She also attends a lot of on-campus events within walking distance. "I've been to theatre shows, ballet shows, and dance classes on the weekend and they're a lot of fun," she says. "Some shows have a minimal fee, like a dollar or two." When she dines out with friends, they choose a restaurant they can all afford. Students can view menus online beforehand to check prices.
Budgeting can begin even earlier: Before leaving your home country Rao suggests visiting your local EducationUSA advising center. They keep track of everything from the cost of hamburgers to movie prices near U.S. universities, she says. Pre-departure orientations are also offered to prepare students—and their budgets—for studying and living in the Unites States.
Reyna Gobel, frequently quoted as an expert on student loans and college costs, is the author of "Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life" and "How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt." She has appeared on PBS's Nightly Business Report and speaks regularly at CollegeWeekLive.