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Cost of Living in the U.S.

Understanding the cost of living in the United States is an important first step to creating a budget for your spending. Creating a budget is a crucial component of a successful graduate school plan, and a thoughtful and thorough budget will help you avoid financial distress. This webpage attempts to walk you through some of the common costs, but please note this is not an exhaustive list of all the expenses you will encounter while living in the U.S. Costs and tax amounts are also subject to change, so please be sure to research the most up-to-date information prior to your travel to the U.S.

Step 1: Understand Cost of Living in the U.S.

Understanding the cost of living in the United States and the city in which your university is located is fundamental to thriving both as a student and a member of the broader community. The U.S. may differ in some ways compared to your home country, and some cities are more expensive than others; it is important to understand what expenses you may encounter while living in the U.S. and get an estimate of how much those expenses may be. Visit our estimated cost of living webpage to get an idea of overall figures for Raleigh, North Carolina, where NC State University is located. 

Several considerations or expenses in the U.S. that may be unexpected include:

  • Sales tax that you will pay on purchased goods in additional to the listed price
  • Income taxes on employment or fellowship income
  • Payroll schedules and paying employees in arrears
  • Utilities and deposits
  • Security deposits for housing leases

More details on these things can be found below. You will also need to purchase certain items before your trip to be prepared for living in the U.S., so make sure you budget for those items as well. Purchasing items in your home country may be cheaper than purchasing them in the U.S. These may include:

  • Cold-weather clothing
  • Voltage converters or adapters for electrical appliances
  • Laptop computer, if you do not already have one
  • Mobile phone, if your current one is not compatible in the U.S.

Keep in mind that your first month in the U.S. will likely be more expensive than subsequent months, as there are additional costs associated with signing a housing lease, buying furniture, paying utility deposits, and so on. You will need to arrive in the U.S. with a credit or debit card or a certain amount of cash on hand to get you through the first month. If you have an on-campus job, knowing when you will receive your first paycheck is vital for proper budgeting. At NC State, student employees are paid two weeks in arrears. Paying employees in arrears means an employee is paid after they have logged his or her time. For example, you work the first two weeks and then are paid for those two weeks a full two weeks later, meaning you will not receive a paycheck for almost your first full month of employment. Assuming you work continuously, you will then continue to receive a paycheck every two weeks. You must plan accordingly to ensure you have enough funds to get through your first month in the U.S. 

Step 2: Calculate your Monthly Income

To know how much you have to spend on expenses, start by looking at your total income. This may be employment income from an on-campus job, money from a loan or scholarship, or personal or family funds. Calculate how much you have each month for all of your necessary expenses. 

If you have a job in the U.S., the government will take something called income taxes out of your paycheck. Many graduate students will have an assistantship, on-campus job, or internship during their program, and thus have to pay income taxes. For those new to the U.S. income taxes can be as much as 30% of your paycheck unless you qualify for tax treaty benefits. You will be required to schedule an appointment with the International Compensation & Taxation office once you arrive to know the exact amount that will be deducted from your paycheck. Make sure when calculating the monthly income that you first subtract any income taxes out of your payment to know how much you actually have left to spend.

Step 3: Make a Budget 

Making a budget for yourself is vital to ensure you do not overspend your resources and to know how much you can spend on housing and other activities. Find estimates for all of the below expenses and subtract them from your monthly net income (take-home pay after any taxes). This will indicate the amount remaining for entertainment and emergency expenses. You should always make sure you have some money left over for unexpected expenses, such as healthcare emergencies. Subtract the following known fixed expenses:

These are paid per semester of enrollment. Student fees are a separate cost in addition to tuition, and pay for your access to campus resources such as the gym, library, as well as the health and counseling centers. Your tuition and fee bill can be paid in full at the start of each semester, or you can enroll in a payment plan that allows you to pay it in smaller amounts over the course of the semester. For those with a teaching or research assistantship, student fees can be paid for in increments by enrolling in paycheck deductions. View our current tuition and fees rates here. For those with assistantships, student fees, including enhancement fees, and any program premium tuition are usually not covered, so you will be responsible for paying those costs.

Students enrolled in the University Student Blue insurance plan will have it added to their semesterly tuition bill, so you will pay it the same way as above. Currently, the student blue insurance is about USD$1300 per semester. Students on the Graduate Student Support Plan (GSSP) do not have to pay for health insurance, as this is covered as part of your assistantship. For all other students, if you waive out of the Student Blue insurance plan, you will have to pay for your private insurance policy. Please be sure to note what your insurance plan covers and does not cover, as not all healthcare-related expenses may be covered. Note also that health insurance in the United States does not include dental care.

Buying your textbooks for classes can be a significant expense. Always check the library to see if there is a copy you can check out for free or rent for a small fee before buying your books. You can also check other bookseller websites to see if they are cheaper than buying from the University Bookstore. You can usually sell your books back at the end of the semester, but you will never get as much money back as you paid for them. Our graduate students report spending an average of USD$435 on books and school supplies per semester. Since this expense is associated with the start of each semester, you will not have to budget for books after the first month of the semester. 

Our graduate students report spending an average of USD$636 per month on food. Buying groceries and cooking at home will always be cheaper than eating at a restaurant. Restaurants generally expect a 15-20% tip on top of the bill total. Keep in mind that some grocery stores are more expensive than others, and the city of Raleigh also has ethnic grocery stores where you may be able to find foods from home.

Most students purchase a mobile phone plan or SIM card when they arrive in the U.S. Tips for keeping this cost low include:

  • Shop around for mobile phone service providers for the cheapest option, and ask each if they are running any deals for new customers. 
  • If you have family or friends already in the U.S., see about the possibility of joining a family plan, as it is cheaper to add a new line to an existing account than start a new account. 
  • Making international calls is expensive, so try to use apps (such as WhatsApp or WeChat) to stay in touch with friends and family back home.

Rent is usually paid by the month. Most financial advisers recommend not spending more than 30% of your monthly budget on housing.

  • Our students report spending an average of USD$1,060 on rent and utilities each month. This average includes both students who live alone and who live with one or more others. Generally living with roommates is cheaper than living alone, and the majority of graduate students at NC State report living with two or more others.
  • You must always pay something called a security deposit when you sign a housing lease. The security deposit is usually equal to one month’s rent.
  • Most landlords require you to submit an application for housing, which may cost money.
  • On campus housing is part of your tuition bill, so be aware if you live on campus that you will have to pay at the beginning of each semester, rather than monthly.  
  • If your home or apartment does not come furnished, you will also have to budget for furniture. You will also need to purchase bed linens and towels if you do not bring those from home.
  • You will receive more information about housing from the Office of International Services and University Housing if admitted. The Office of Global Engagement has also put together this off-campus housing guide.

These refer to the water, power, gas, internet, sewage, and trash services at your home. Utilities are usually not included in rent, and so will be an additional expense each month. 

  • The cost of some utilities will be the same each month, such as your internet bill. However, most are based on your usage; so for example, months where you run the heat or air conditioning, your bill will be higher. 
  • You can cut down on utilities costs by opening windows, using fans, letting dishes air dry, only washing full loads of laundry, etc. 
  • Most utility companies will require a deposit when you first create an account, which can be as much as $100-$300. This deposit is usually returned to you after one year if you pay your bills on time. 
  • Read more information and tips about housing and utilities here.

Unless you plan to walk everywhere, transportation will be another necessary expense. 

  • The university provides a free bus line to get you around campus, but city buses may cost money. 
  • Taxi cabs and ride-sharing apps such as Uber or Lyft charge based on the distance of your trip. Taxi cabs and increasingly ridesharing apps also expect tips to the driver in addition to the stated cost.
  • Bike and electric scooter rentals are available. Prices vary. 
  • If you purchase a car and need to pay for parking on or near campus, this can cost up to several hundred dollars per semester. You will also need to budget for car insurance (which can be several hundred dollars per year), an annual inspection (usually about $30), and vehicle registration (vary based on the type of vehicle purchased, but initial fees can be several hundred dollars), which are all requirements if you own a car in the U.S. You should also have money set aside for gas and car maintenance. You can read more about obtaining a driving license and purchasing a used car here.
  • Read more about types of transportation here

Entertainment means fun, optional activities, such as going to movies or paying for a streaming service. There will always be free things to do on campus, so entertainment costs can be kept to a minimum. Any leftover funds should go into this category for unexpected or miscellaneous expenses. 

Step 4: Adjust Your Spending to Stay on Budget

Track your spending each month and adjust your budget for food and entertainment, if necessary. Ask friends and student organizations where to find cheaper goods and products; tips from current students are invaluable! Find more tips from a current international student.

Sample Budget

Below is an example of a monthly budget a student might create for themselves after paying the semester’s tuition and fee bill and purchasing any books for that semester’s classes. After viewing our example, use a budget calculator and create your own budget.

Monthly income after taxes: $2000

   Subtract fixed expenses:

Rent and utilities$1000
Mobile plan$50

= $270 remaining for entertainment and miscellaneous/unexpected expenses