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A guide to budgeting for university life in the US

Prodigy Finance - March 12, 2020

Real budgets for your MS in the US

Planning to get your MS degree from a US university as an international student? Your finances will play a big role.

The cost of your education is based on several factors, including the country and region of study, university and course, length of study and lifestyle choices while you study - known as living expenses.

If you’ve ever wondered how to accurately budget for life in another country, this guide is the tool you need right now. 

Cost of Attendance for MS in US

Start with understanding the term ‘Cost of Attendance’, or CoA. It is the beginning of every financial discussion regarding the cost of studying in the US.

Cost of Attendance (CoA) definition for international student loans

The CoA is set by your university and the cost will vary widely from course to course. American universities are legally required to publish the Cost of Attendance for each course so you’ll find the specific CoA for the course you want to pursue on the university website.

See what a CoA looks like for 3 different universities in the US:

Cost of attendance for 3 MS engineering schools in the US

2 things international students must understand about Cost of Attendance

Before you begin budgeting make sure you understand the difference between the CoA and your budget:

  1. The CoA is an estimate from your university. Some costs included in the university’s CoA are non-negotiable, such as tuition, mandatory fees and health insurance. Living expenses, on the other hand, are educated guesses based on the cost of university-provided services.

  2. Your budget will be different from the university’s CoA. Because your university is estimating the cost of living expenses as an average across all students, the actual amount you’ll need at university for living expenses may differ from their estimates - it could well be lower. 

Don’t make this Cost of Attendance mistake when taking a student loan

If you anticipate that your living expenses will be less than what the university estimated in their CoA, then your budget may be lower than the CoA.

However, you’ll still need to prove to both the university and immigration officials that you have enough money to pay for the total CoA, regardless of what your budget is.

If you only secure funds to your budget and not the full school-provided CoA, you won’t be granted your visa. 

This is what a real budget for MS in the US looks like

Prodigy Finance borrower Ankit Shah

Like many Indian students headed to the US for their master’s, Ankit Shah knew his budget would be less than the CoA provided by the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

“The cost of attendance provided by most schools is way higher than what one needs to survive and live a healthy life during their master’s.”

Even with the relatively low living costs found in Pittsburgh, Ankit’s budget was roughly $10,180 less than the school’s academic-year estimate.

Here is an example of CMU’s CoA compared with Ankit’s budget:

MS student budget for CMU 2018-2019 Ankit Shah


* Mandatory fees.

** The CoA provided by CMU covers the 9-month academic year. The living expenses represented above reflect the same 9-month period. 

In this example, you can see that the student estimated they would spend less on room, board, travel and personal costs than what the university had estimated.

Ankit budgeted to spend $1000 to $1500 monthly on living expenses and admitted that this was conservative, but he wasn’t disappointed during his studies.

“My budget for the US was very accurate. I knew exactly what was required for my expenses and how much leeway I had for extra expenditures”. 

How to budget for your MS in US

Ankit advises talking to people and getting as much information as you can about the true cost of living.

“One needs to be savvy about the best possible resources to achieve the same goals. Sometimes it takes extra research and learning from other people's experiences to find alternatives that change the way you approach budgeting”.

Start with your school’s CoA. You won’t be able to reduce the cost of your tuition, fees and health insurance, so look at the expenses you can reduce. Research where you can save on living expenses such as room, board, travel and personal costs.

Don’t forget that you’ll need to prove you can fund the full CoA, not just the amount you plan to spend. But, the amount you save on your expenses during the first year of studies will reduce the funding you need for your second year. With that money you’ve saved in the bank, you can reduce your second-year loan amount and still provide proof of funding to maintain your visa status.

Need a loan for your MS in the US?

If you want to fund your own education with a security-free loan, discover what rate and amount you could qualify for with Prodigy Finance.

Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. 

Post updated for accuracy and freshness on March 12, 2020. Originally published on July 31, 2018.


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