The International Student Guide to Building a Budget

In addition to building a credit history with a U.S. credit card, an important part of financial success for international students on F, M, and J visas is building a personal budget. Budgeting carefully allows you to:

  • Save for major purchases
  • Reduce impulse buys
  • Manage your money without stress

The average annual cost of attending a four-year public university for out-of-state students, including tuition and expenses, is $38,544 USD1—and that’s if you live on campus. Major U.S. cities are expensive places to live, with the average San Francisco apartment costing renters $3,803 per month.2 Budgeting is not just a recommendation—it can be essential to your academic and financial success in the U.S. Even if you don’t think you can afford to save money, start keeping track of your expenses and you’ll be surprised by what you discover.

1) Write it down
This is the first and most important step of building a budget: write down what you have (cash, credit, and other financial resources) and what you need (food, rent, supplies, and transportation). Be realistic: write down high estimates for flexible expenses like dining, transportation, and entertainment expenses. Determine how much money you will have each month. This may be difficult but it can only help you make better plans for your money. Finance expert and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren recommends a 50/30/20 budget: 50% for needs (food, rent), 30% on wants (entertainment, travel), and 20% on savings and debt repayment.3 That may not be possible depending on your situation, but it’s a good starting point.

2) Set goals
Now that you know how much money you have available, set goals for per month, per semester, and per year budgets. Plan to reduce your spending by small manageable amounts at first.
Figure out the difference between what you need and what you want when shopping. The basic goal is to fulfill those needs before moving to the next stage and getting wants that make life more enjoyable at an acceptable cost level. Small behavior changes can make a big difference in the long-run. For example, reduce your spend at restaurants by drinking water instead of high-priced beverages. Skip an expensive rideshare and take the bus. If you reduce your spending by only $5 per day, that’s over $1,800 per year in savings.

3) Find free stuff online or on campus
Every student who leaves their campus gets rid of hundreds of dollars worth of items including mattresses, rice cookers, kitchenware, and furniture. Seek out and buy used items whenever possible. Use your student network to buy used items at extremely low cost. Search local for-sale listings at, Facebook resale groups from your school, or find more local groups at

College tuition usually includes payment for many on-campus resources, such as gym, student health center, open events. Don’t forget to find and enjoy these benefits.

4) Compare prices
When you find something you need, wait and look for deals and discounts before you buy. Look for it online or at a competitor (if you find a deal while you’re in the store, some businesses will match the price immediately). Subscribe to online deal services like Groupon, LivingSocial, and DealMoon to receive promotions from local businesses and sales on electronics and home supplies. Visit outlet and thrift stores in your area to find items you need at reduced price.

5) Lower transportation costs
Ridesharing and taxis are expensive luxuries that will challenge your attempts at budgeting. Buying a bike (especially a used one) and/or using public transportation are cheaper alternatives. If you live in a city that demands a car, buying an inexpensive and reliable used car can lower your overall expenses if you plan correctly. Having a credit history can also help lower your monthly payments when you seek financing from an automotive dealer.

6) Use credit to reduce your housing deposit
On-campus housing is often subsidized by your school and can be a cheaper alternative for students than managing expenses independently (including food, furniture, utilities, and deposits). If on-campus housing is not available to you, you can minimize your expenses by living in neighborhoods further from campus or connecting with a group of roommates. Because you have a short financial history in the U.S., you may encounter challenges when renting. Many apartment properties require a background check for applicants. If you don’t have a U.S. credit history, you may be asked to pay a higher security deposit, or, in the worst case, your application may be rejected.

7) Cook meals at home
This is easy: you can look up video instructions detailing how to prepare any meal you can imagine right now. Cooking at least one meal per day, buying food in bulk, using discounts and sales, and reducing your restaurant dining will dramatically reduce your food expenses and may improve your health. Avoid on-demand food delivery services (which often come with premium fees, delivery charges, and tips) and make big portions that can be saved for meals throughout the week.

8) Find part-time work
Whether you’re still in your home country or your classes have already begun, seek out campus jobs. Your F, J, or M visa permits you to apply for on-campus jobs while enrolled in a degree program at your school. Having some extra money, either from a campus job or an internship, will help you be more financially flexible in case of emergencies while offering you important experience in U.S. work culture.

We’ve included a PDF of a sample budget template to get you started. Good luck with your plans for financial success!

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1 College Board: Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2015-2016
2 Investopedia: How Much Money Do You Need to Live in San Francisco?
3 NerdWallet: How to Build a Budget