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Dubai resident talks about her money experiences as a student in US

Offers tips on spending habits when you are attending university far from home

Gulf News

Madhu Suresh, who is going into third year from this fall at the University of California, Berkeley, talks about her spending habits in the university town as an undergrad. Supported by her parents, she spends about $44,000 (Dh161,480) a year in tuition and living and that’s only for eight months of the year. Suresh is double majoring in public policy and psychology. This summer is interning at American Red Cross and it’s an unpaid internship.

How has your experience been money wise in the first two years of college, which is one of the top colleges in the United States and an expensive one?

Berkeley is a pretty expensive city, especially in terms of food and textbooks, like any other university town. Last year, I ate at the dining halls more often than eating out, and it definitely saved me some money. Obviously I had to sacrifice on the quality of the food. This past year I have been cooking and eating out, and I had to take into account grocery expenses in my budget.

Taking higher level classes means more expensive textbooks, so I had to forego some social and leisure activities, such as a day trip to San Francisco, because transportation in this region is pricey.

I am glad I grew up in a financially conscientious home, because those values stay with me as I go through college. I tend to be wary of my expenditure. Whenever I go shopping or eat out, I convert the price from dollars to dirhams in my head by habit.

The frustrating thing about purchasing items here is that sales tax is added to literally everything, so the price you see on the tag is less than what you will actually be paying.

This summer, I have been working in a research lab and I have an internship in the city. I am not paid for either, but the experience I gain is invaluable. Moving from the dormitory into an apartment near campus also saved me a lot of money, since I pay less than half of what we had to pay for university housing, and it is more comfortable.

Any surprises, financially speaking, you would like to share?

The minimum balance in the bank account I have is pretty high so often, for example when I pay rent, I have to remember to ensure that I did not go below the minimum.

The first couple of months, I did not realise this and was charged a monthly fee. This opened my eyes and I started to pay more attention to my bank statement.

On a positive note, I noticed that since I started college, I have actually been spending less than I thought I would. I would say that my spending habits have changed for the better here, which is unexpected.

Could you share some general tips on money management for students who are about to start college abroad?

— Many people suggest carrying cash so it limits your spending, which is true at times. However, I found that using my debit card helped me budget better and physically taking out of my purse would make me think twice about the purchase. Also it was easier to monitor my spending by looking at my monthly bank statement, rather than saving receipts to account for my spending.

— I would definitely suggest incoming students to ensure they budget properly. It is easy to forget about personal finance and responsible spending.

— Also, try not to get pressured into excessive spending habits by your peers, many of who may come from a different background or upbringing than yours.

— Take advantage of on-campus jobs if they are available to you as it is a source of income, to even slightly make up for the tuition you pay.

— Overall, just be wary of your spending and saving habits.

(Gulf News had interviewed Madhu Suresh in 2011 as she was about to leave for college in the US on her preparations of managing finances on her own as a student.)


Suresh budget

Average living expenses per month: $675 (rent, utilities), $230 (food, groceries), $100 (leisure/social/transport)

Tuition: $18,000 per semester (including health insurance, berkeley campus fee, tuition, student services fee)

Total per year: $44,000 (Suresh is in Berkeley for eight months, so only counting that)