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Cost of Living in US as International Student – $250 or $950? Factors ?

As an aspiring student to study in US, many think about the total Tuition fee and cost of MS in USA , but some tend to overlook the cost of living. Many of the questions around cost of living are like below.

  • What is the cost of living in that region if I stay off campus ?
  • Why does the cost of living vary from one place to other ?
  • How could I minimize the cost of living ?

I will try to add few of my thoughts based on my experience of living with as low as $250 and then going up…

Typical Cost of Living for MS or MBA student in USA

The below breakdown is for a student living in a decent size town ( small town, NOT metro cities) having four roommates in  a double bedroom apartment.  Except Apartment RENT, the break down will be same for most of the cities too.

Student Expense Item


Reason/ Description

Apartment Rent$175Assuming you live in a small decent house with 4 roommates and apartment rent is $700. This is NOT applicable in metro cities like in California or New York. I suggest you check rental prices in the area you plan to study to get this idea.
Electricity$15It does not change much with place. But may vary in north states if there is no heat included.

(Cooked Food at Home)

$125Groceries (vegetables, rice, etc) are typically almost same priced if you buy in Walmart or a chain. The tax and some stuff may vary. But should not be much different
Calling cards (Home)$10This is good enough to call home more than 3 times a week. The calling card rates are cheap now.
Home Phone$15You just have a landline just in case someone may not have cell phone. But you just share bill as a roomies.
Internet Home$15High Speed internet at home.
Cell phone$50Normal Plan will be $50 with taxes.
Eating Outside$75Ideally, you should eat at home. But on weekends you may get a nice dinner.
Movies, Shopping and other expenses$100This is like your pocket money for all the stuff.
Total$580(Health insurance is assumed to be part of tuition, Not listed here. If you take from outside, add another $80)

All the above listed are very common and what students expect to spend. But, some students buy car and also spend more on few things and have fun, so may have some extra expenses. These are discretionary spending.

Student Expense Item


Reason/ Description

Car  Insurance$100Car insurance varies by lot of things, but average per month if you just take basic insurance plan should be around $100 or even less.
Car  Gas (Petrol)$75This depends on how much you use. But, assuming you use it less only to school and few trips.
Weekend Fun

Dance Clubs

$100This can vary a lot, but very basic if you get into a decent club paying $10 cover charge and spend $10 for a drink and supposedly go out once every weekend, it goes to $100 for 5 weeks.
Shopping, extra food, movies,  & Misc spending$100I know people who spend on variety of things like clothes, some electronics, eat out more, go to movies a lot, etc.
Total$375This total is  discretionary spending.

So, if we add these two, it can go up to $580 + $375 = $955. It can be around $1000 if you spend more.

My Very first Cost of Living itemized – Only $250 Dollars

This may not be very practical, but it was the case for a very short time.  I lived in a very small town and I was just like any typical international student who lands in US for the first time. I was spending very less by NOT eating outside, NOT spending anything for clothes, No trips, etc. Was very thrifty.

Student Expense Item


Reason/ Description

Rent$100We were four people and it was a double bed. Rent was $400. You cannot get any cheaper anywhere in US. It was NOT a great place to stay.  It just worked.
Electricity$10Per head it was only $10. We would get around $40 in total

(Cooked Food at Home)

$100We used to buy groceries at Walmart or similar store and we would get around $400. We would not buy any expensive stuff. We would only COOK at house and come to home to eat. NO eating outside.
Calling cards (Home)$10I used to call once a week. It was expensive back then to call.
Home Phone$15We had long distance on our phone and it would come to $60, as we were four, it was $15. No one had cell phone.
Misc Expenses$15Some expenses.
Total$250Travel was free, We had shuttle from campus to house and for getting groceries too.  NO cell phone, NO Laptop.

You can the lifestyle is very poor and probably very bad without having a Cell phone or not going out for eating food or watching movies, etc. This was only for a very short period. But, what I am trying to say is it can be done. I know few people who live with even less money.

Why such a huge variation in Cost of Living as International Student ?

Well, this answer depends on variety of things like below.

  • Rent : Rent is subject to be very different at different locations. In California, you cannot get a decent apartment for less than $2000 dollars. The rent is around $500 per person here. Whereas, in above example it is under $200, the rent dictates most of the cost of living.
  • How many people live with you : The number of people you live with decides the rent split up. So, more people you live, less expenses per person. May sound absurd, but  I had 7 roommates at one point of time. Our expense were so less and were less than $250 too some times.
  • Eating out : Eating out could be a big one too. Imagine, you spend $5 for food say three times a week, it adds up to $75 per month. Because we are hungry and we only look at $5, we do not think much and spend, by end of month, we may have spent quite a bit.
  • Car : Car is a huge factor. You may expect unnecessary expenses some times. You may spend more on gas some times. Be careful here ! Car can be a real sucker of money !
  • Lifestyle and Habits : Lifestyle and personal habits are very critical. Some smoke and some drink alcohol. This can significantly change the monthly expenditure. Some like to buy good clothes, some like to go out for dancing, etc. The point is your lifestyle and habits can change your expenses a lot.

The above listed are some major factors for the variation.

The reality is, you can live with very little amount of money if you have to.…you just need to be more disciplined and eat at home and lead a very thrifty life.  The point is not to advise you to live cheap and spend very less, but to tell you that based on your situation you have to adjust and spend to have less debt after you graduate.

Do you have anything to add ?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ztephen/3459295868/sizes/m/


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  1. According to our research, Mississippi is the best state in terms of cost of living. The cost of living in the dollar amount you need to sustain a particular lifestyle over a specified duration. This cost includes healthcare, housing, food, and taxes, so the price has a direct bearing on personal income. To know more read our blog.

  2. I see a lot of questions on rents/cost of living in a particular area. One method that worked for me was..

    1) Get the Zip code of your university.
    2) Go to websites like apartmentfinder.com etc and search for houses based on your zip code. You can send email to apartment leasing offices asking for quote(s).

    Depending on the place, you can select how far you can stay, is there public transport( use google maps – transit directions).

    Based on the place where you might potentially rent an apartment, you can also zoom in and see if there are super markets/ food chains/ restaurants etc and again the transit.

    Public transport except for big cities is pretty bad in most places in the US. You either walk or drive or wait for long time for buses.

    Bottom line.. you have enough resources to do your homework. Plan a lot in advance. Dont be in a position where you have little room to negotiate because of last minute planning or desperation.

  3. Hello Kumar,

    I just gone through your article. I was looking for similar kind of information. Just want to know few more things about living in USA. I will be first time visitor in USA. kindly let me know about cheapest city to live in USA and what salary offer by USA companies for fresher or experience professional??

  4. Hello sir,
    I would like to know the cost of living in us while working. How would I spend on living if I am working in new jersey?
    How much can I earn by doing two part time jobs a day?
    Please reply.
    Need to know urgently.

  5. You have done a great job Kumar! This was exactly what I was searching for. your blog will clear all the doubts about the cost of living in U.S.

  6. My expenses in first trimester.
    Small suburb of phoenix, Arizona. Lived in student dorm, in campus.
    Room rent – $250/month, electricity included.
    Eating – $200/month
    Cell phone – 20/pre paid.
    India calling – $15.
    Other expenditures – $100. Once a week eat out

    And so around about $600. Awesome!

    Healthinsurance was mandatory with tution fees and so have not included it.

    I had car and so that was added $250 with insurance and gas but if you don’t have it then you don’t need it. And so you can easily survive. In second trimester you can also get TA and/or on campus job opportunities that can help you earn 300 to $700 per month depending on number of hours.

    In second trimester my wife joined me and I had to move out to one bedroom apartment costing me $600/ month rent. With electricity, grocery, shopping, eat outs and other expenses I was looking at now $1500/ $1800/ month. It was not lavish. We comprised a lot but it was not bad at all.
    I spoke with others who were single and sharing with other roomates and their monthly expenses were not more than $800.
    If you are living near campus, sharing a two bedroom with 3-4 other roomates and cooking food at home, then you can easily survive in $500 to $800/month. That would be range to consider.

  7. Hi sir given information is very good.i have just completed my btec and I want to do ms,so with me my sister also want to do ms simultaneously with me,can we both can get same university and also we both can stay at a same house with limited expensive cost of living.with any external problems if there is any problem please suggest me now,waiting for ur reply

  8. Hi Kumar,

    Reading your blogs were a lot helpful to me. First of all thanks a lot for the information. I would like to apply for MS in MIS for fall-2014. Could you please suggest me with few universities to apply and also the funding details? Can we get scholarships or funding aids for MIS course? Please your reply could help me a lot.

  9. Hie Sir, I am Krishna Teja, completed my Graduation(2012 pass-out) in JNTUK affiliated College in Electrical Stream with 83% and University Rank Holder(17th rank) . But now I am interested do my Masters in Business Management in either Advertising Management or Brand Management in US and to settle in FMCG company. Currently pursuing as Sales Coordinator in a Power transmission Belts Manufacturing Company. Could u please suggest me, how to plan for my Masters, with the following quests.
    1. Whether US or any other is better for MBA?
    2. Either Spring or Fall Admissions?
    3. Better to Quit my job after completing 1 year and prepare for the Masters…!
    4.To take an ordinary Distance 1 year MBA program in the mean.?
    5.Is it useful to take Training Programs like 6 Sigma Belt

  10. helo sir…
    im dng my btech in eee dept frm jntu atp
    i wish to do my m s in states
    nw the que is hw much percentage is required for applying G R E
    if i qualified in G R E then is their any opportunity to get scholarship ?
    and hw much it costs per year
    plz ans these que mentioned above
    thank u sir……………………

  11. Thanks for writing on cost of living in US. Really it is quite less than Europe. Only US tuition fees are more than European big names.

  12. Hi Kumar/Saurabh,

    My H1b visa got approved and interview scheduled on jan 11 2010.
    I obeserved a small typo in my VFS appointment letter.
    CEAC no wronlgly mentioned in VFS appoinment confirmation letter.
    Mentioned my CEAC no as ****MN7 instead of ****MV7 .
    Will it give any problem at interview.Please suggest on further move.

    • I can’t say for sure if it will impact your interview or not. Did you try calling up VFS and asking about their opinion on this?

      • Hi Saurabh,

        They have modified my interview letter and sent the revised letter to me.
        Now i am fine with interview appointment letter.

        I have other problem here.
        When i was filling DS-160 i selected no For educational instutaions other any elemenatry schools question.

        I forgot to give my education details here.
        Will it be any problem while interview time?

        • I would strongly recommend getting that DS form corrected. They plan to record all submitted DS 160 forms, and in future whatever information you enter will be matched against these DS forms. So it would be better to have this information as correct as possible.

        • Hi Lokesh,

          Could you please let me know how did you get the appointment letter corrected? what field did you mistype? I have a typo in on my appointment letter and would like to get it corrected before the actual interview.


    • Why do u come & study here in US? Its very stupidity coming here & paying them such a huge money for an Avg. standards which u will get for small fraction of money in India. Indian academic system is going to be sustainable & great in Longer term. Students who are coming here are just playing an important role in American spending story. In my opinion, just earn money & get out of this country, these people simply keep on rejecting so many visas daily without any credible reason.

    • Naren,
      You can cut down the expenses to less than $500, if you want to…You can only pay your semester fee if you get out of state tuition waiver and some sort of scholarship…Also, if you work 40 hours during summers, you make some money for fee as well.

  13. The account you have given is very supportive, especially in the sense that many of us consider backing off from studying in the U.S.A. , thinking of the vast expenses. I would like to know that the cost of living which you spoke about is valid for which of the states of the U.S. ? Also, in addition to this, can you please give an idea about the scholarship & TA that can be obtained based on GRE scores ? Thanks very much.

    • As I said, except rent, most of the expense would be same anywhere in US. The costs are based on me living in small town in Texas, Illinois and Wisconsin. It should be same for small towns anywhere in US. I do not think Scholarship is just based on just GRE, there are lot of other things. Read this : How to get scholarship for MS in US

  14. dude i’m asking a stupid question but i want to know that what u told about $1000 is per week or per month…….

  15. I agree with you that it is necessary to live a thrifty life when you are on a budget. But part of studying and living in the US is the whole international exposure – there are so many places to eat out and many activities to do. For socializing (and networking), it might prove essential to eat out more or host parties etc. International students should also try and maintain a decent lifestyle and be well-groomed and presentable. By your poor appearance and habits, it is easy for others to stereotype your community/country members and project everyone in a bad light. Hence, it is necessary to maintain some standards when it comes to living in the US – although you may be on a budget.

    • Yes DD. Good point. I agree that it is necessary to maintain a decent lifestyle to avoid people stereotyping about your country / community members !


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