Learning Your Finances As An International Student: 5 Money Tips To Keep In Mind

Wave Learning Festival
5 min readJul 18, 2023

by Puja Sarkar, Press & Written Media Team

Living in a new country can be hard. If you’re an international student studying in the States for the first time, i.e., doing your undergrad (or Master’s), you’re most likely living on your own either in a dorm or with roommates. Regardless, you’re in charge of your expenses and you won’t have your parents making a big fuss about every penny you spend. However, this freedom to spend isn’t all that free to exercise.

It’s easy to think that without a plan and spending money as you go will create no problems. But what if it does? You’re already an international student struggling to understand the culture and classroom environment, why make it harder for yourself with your financial mismanagement? When you have to figure out your own travel expenses, manage to get food on your table, and hopefully, keep some savings, it’s best to have a plan so that you’re not struggling at the end of the month.

So, here are 5 tips to keep you on top of your finances:

Choose a financial institution

Sometimes, before you even get to the States, it might be worth looking into what kind of banks and credit unions there are near your campus. Reaching out to other international students regarding which banks they recommend is always beneficial. It’s very likely that there are institutions in your area which are accustomed to having international students as clients.

You want to pay close attention to fees, student-specific accounts and on-campus ATMs when choosing a financial institution. Additionally, consider if you want to keep cash on hand or if you’d prefer using a card from your daily expenses, and which banks offer what kind of cards and which best suit your needs. Moreover, if you anticipate performing several mobile transactions, you should also take into account how sophisticated or user-friendly the mobile banking app and/or online banking is.

Open a bank account

This is something you’d want to take off as soon as possible when you get to the States. It is safer to keep money in a financial institution than at home, and there may even be added benefits to it.

You have the option of opening a checking account, a savings account, or both if you prefer.

Checking accounts typically do not pay interest and may have monthly fees. They work well for covering monthly costs. Some banks even offer a student checking account. Savings accounts frequently pay interest, although they may need a minimum deposit to be opened or for interest to be paid.

With a checking account, you will almost definitely be given a debit card. These have a credit card look and feel and can be used anywhere that accepts credit cards. When you use a debit card, money is deducted immediately from your account; credit cards operate on a monthly billing cycle. However, remember that getting this card on hand takes a bit of time, approximately 2 weeks. So, plan to open your account accordingly and plan to have some cash on hand for the time being.

Find a job

As an international student, it can get stressful if you’re relying on your family or sponsor back home for your daily expenses, especially if you have no income. It’s always a good idea to find a job that complies with your visa so that you have some kind of income which you can use to build up a savings. As an international student, you’ll have to work on-campus and are only allowed to work for a certain number of hours for the week.

To get this rolling, you’ll have to get your social security number. This can be a little tricky to do on your own, so reach out to your college’s international students’ affair department for help.

Create a budget

This might be an obvious tip but nevertheless, a very important one. You want to have an estimate of how much you’ll be spending weekly or monthly. Your budget should account for your food and housing (if you’re living off campus), purchasing study materials, travel expenses, weekly groceries and other essentials you need. It’s wise to keep a record of your spending and you can also do so by using budgeting apps.

Heads up: Your first 1–2 months won’t be an accurate reflection of how much you’ll be spending weekly. This is because when you first get to the States, you’ll have to buy and invest in things which you are likely to purchase just once, i.e, a mop to clean your room, a microwave, a heavy jacket, pots and pans, electronics you might need for studying, etc. So, keep your initial budget flexible and look for ways that’ll help reduce expenses for the months to come.

Avoid non-essential purchases

If you tend to make impulsive purchases, you should learn to restrain yourself from doing so just because you believe you need a certain item right now. Impulsive purchases might severely impact your finances and put you in a difficult situation. When you pay attention to your spending patterns, you might learn more about non-essential expenses. Additionally, it might seem tempting to skip on cooking your own meals and opt for takeout every night or buy your morning coffee at a café. However, if you do the math, this adds up at the end of the month to quite a large sum of money. Learning to cook your own food in your dorm or housing can help you settle in better and not to mention, it’s an important life skill to have. That’s not to say that you can’t treat yourself once in a while.

It takes a little time to understand what’s expensive, cheap and reasonably priced when you’re in a new country and learning to budget with a new currency. Take it step by step and focus on what you need instead of what you want, even if that means living a little frugally. As a student, international and/or otherwise, budgeting is a skill that’ll be needed for the long run as well. So, there’s no reason to wait and get started now!

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Wave Learning Festival

Wave Learning Festival is a nonprofit committed to combating educational inequity.