“One thing I’m concerned about,” an incoming student told us several weeks ago, is “whether there are any hidden costs that you can’t really find out about unless you’re there.” He was worried that, even if he was able to cover his tuition at an American university, he might still end up in financial trouble thanks to other, unanticipated costs.
He was right to be concerned. No matter how much of your living expenses were included in what you already paid to the university, coming to the U.S. will involve some out-of-pocket expenses. Books, coffee, travel – it all adds up.
To how much? Several thousand dollars. $9,580, to be precise.
Well, that’s according to our writers, anyway. We asked everyone to try and remember how much they spent this past year and what they spent it on.
If our experience is anything to go by, here's what you can expect to spend (amounts listed are averages for all responses):
Just getting to school ended up being one of our biggest expenses. On average, flying to and from home cost about $1,850.
“Traveling is super-expensive,” said one student, “and it’s not factored in some people’s financial aid; it comes as a surprise to them that sometimes they get full aid but still have to pay for their flights.”
Once we factored in vacations and weekend getaways, the total amount we spent on travel ranged from just $200 up to as much as $7,300.
Those of us who also traveled for fun took an average of four trips over the course of the year, spending about $440 per trip. But one savvy adventurer traveled nine times, reporting weekends in New York, Boston, Vermont, Philadelphia and Kentucky, among other day trips, and spending only $1,110 total for those excursions.
The most consistent cost we faced was textbooks. Everyone reported spending at least a couple of hundred dollars last year to buy or rent their course materials. 70% of us spent upwards of $400.
Two of our writers managed to spend only $200. “There are so many students who just buy all their books in our bookstore because that’s what people do,” one of those students said. She saved money by realizing that “many books we need for classes are actually in the library or our friends have them from last year.”
However, relying on library books left her with an additional, unexpected cost. She ended up paying $200 in late fees for failing to return her books on time. Why? “Carelessness.”
Most of our writers lived on campus or in university housing, but for those who lived off campus, rent was a major expense. The most common rate was $450 per month.
That’s about comparable to what universities charged those who lived on campus. “We pay $4,000 for 8 months of board, sharing a room between two,” said one undergraduate. He described that cost as “extortionate,” saying that at his university back home he paid “$4,500 for my own room and bathroom and this was on a 10 month contract.”
Food and entertainment were the other major costs we experienced, although how much we spent varied widely. Some spent almost nothing at all on food or entertainment, while others spent several thousand – as much as $4,000 on each.
Most of our writers purchased meal plans to eat at campus dining halls, making food largely a discretionary expense. “There are weeks when I don’t spend any money whatsoever if I don’t want to,” said one student. As a result, half of us were able to spend less than $1,000 out-of-pocket on food last year.
Likewise, several students said that they were able to keep their entertainment costs low because they mostly spent their time at free activities on campus. “Hidden costs are low,” said one, “because my school has free entrance everywhere – art exhibitions, theaters, …”
We also spent money on: Drugstore and personal care, cell phones and phone calls, cars and public transportation, health insurance, laundry, participation in university clubs, printing, clothes (particularly winter clothes), and computers/electronics.
Which all added up to: $9,580
On average we spent $9,580 over the course of the year, but a massive $20,000 separated the highest and lowest spenders. When all was said and done, our biggest spender had shelled out $22,175, while our thriftiest student had spent just $2,260.
|Rent (if paid)||Books||Food||Drugstore||Entertainment||Shopping||Travel||Other||Total|
It’s important to point out that this is not a scientific study. We tried to remember all the types of things we’ve spent money on and how much we spent, but memory only goes so far. And these numbers describe our spending habits, not yours.
But it’s a fair bet that you won’t get away with spending less than several thousand – 80% of us spent over $5,000.
Case study #1: How to spend $22,175
How does one manage to spend over $22,000 in one year? By living off campus in a relatively pricey city, for a start. The student at the top of our range spent $1,250 per month in rent, a total of $11,250 if you assume he lived there for a 9-month school year. That’s already more than 70% of our other writers spent all year.
This student also spent about $4,000 per year on food and another $400 per year on drugstore-type items. Again, this was at or near the top of the range of what our writers reported (although one of our female writers said she shelled out a hefty $600 on drugstore items – we won’t give you any hints who that was!).
In general, the students who lived off campus reported paying more for food than those who didn’t, presumably because they were more inclined to purchase their own groceries or go out for meals, even if they had a meal plan through their school.
Finally, this student told us he spent money on public transportation to get around the city, and on attending cultural and networking events off-campus – $125 per month in total (in addition to what he was spending on other types of entertainment). None of our other writers, all of whom go to school in less urban areas, recorded these as costs, although one reported spending $50 to participate in clubs and activities.
Still, he said, his university helped prepare him for the extra costs he would face while studying there. “Yes, there are other costs,” he said, “but the university estimate was pretty accurate."Case study #2: How to spend $2,260
By comparison, the student who spent the least money during the year was an undergraduate at a university in a small town. “After my first year or two I figured out what situation worked best for me,” she said, and her spending patterns bear that out:
Cost of food: $0 – “Everything is covered in my meal plan. I didn’t go out to eat at all.”
Cost of drugstore items: $0
Cost of entertainment: “very little”
It’s not these items came cost-free, it’s just that the cost was included up front in her university fees – nearly $15,000 for room and board. She bought drugstore items, for example, using “points” that were purchased from the university in advance.
Her number one extra cost, she said, was “alcohol and other party items … until I discovered I could get those for free.” (She’s over 21, in case you’re wondering.)
Even travel didn’t cost this student much. Though she went home last summer, she received a fellowship from her university that covered her summer travel costs.
She was a rarity among our writers, however. Others who lived on campus in a relatively all-inclusive environment still reported spending some money on food and entertainment. One student who described his school as having “no hidden costs at all” also said he spent $25 per week on food and coffee and about $35 each month on drugstore items.Though our writers didn't complain about how much they spent in a year (or, not nearly as much as they complained about how much their universities charge in tuition and fees), many did admit that there were costs they hadn't anticipated – heavier winter clothes for one student, replacing a broken computer for another.
And even if, as one student said, “most of [the costs] can be expected beforehand, like having a cup of coffee in between classes or buying books,” those costs add up.
At least one of our writers was left surprised at how much she had spent when all was said and done.
“They weren’t an immense amount,” she said, referring to her out-of-pocket expenses, but “I often didn’t think about the money I was spending, and probably spent more than I should have.”
For some, though, this extra cost was the price they paid for getting the most out of their experience. “Non-tuition costs have been high,” said one student who racked up a number of extra expenses through travel, “but that is mainly because I see this time I am living in America as a once in a lifetime experience and I am very eager to make the most of my time here.”
“Although when I return I will have no savings left,” he added, “I have no regrets!”