International Students

Preparing your Finances for Life in the US

From completing applications to packing your clothes and belongings, you have done a lot to prepare to study in the US. However, there’s one major item that is sometimes overlooked: finances. Proving that you can pay for tuition and living expenses in the US doesn’t always prepare you for the culture shock that can occur when you get here.

You may be accustomed to paying for things solely with cash, or your experience with financial institutions (banks or credit unions) may not have always been positive. But, once you get to the US, you may be surprised by the differences in how purchases are made and who you can trust with your money. That’s why the Student Money Management Center (SMMC) has developed this resource page for you. We hope the information provided below will help you understand the terminology, meaning and culture of US financial management.

Currency and Coins – Identification and Usage

The US system of money, or currency, is commonly referred to as USD and often refers to the paper representing different values.  Coins, in addition to paper currency, are pieces of metal representing smaller values of the United States Dollar.  You can identify the worth of paper currency by the number printed on it (1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100), but coins are sometimes more difficult to decipher, so we have developed an infographic to help!

There are a variety of methods one can use to make purchases using currency and coins: physical use of cash or coins, plastic (debit or check card), promissory notes (check), electronic (direct deposit) or wire transfer. 

For most transactions, or exchanges of money, in the US, some type of checking account is required.  Although cash is accepted almost everywhere, it can be dangerous to carry around large amounts of cash.  It might be beneficial to find an online US bank account to transfer money to before arriving to the US.  (More info on choosing a financial institution listed below.) That way you won’t run the risk of losing your money or someone stealing your living allowance before you arrive on campus.  Once you arrive, you can always choose a financial institution on campus if you feel it has services that meets your needs better than the online financial institution.

Basic Banking – Some Definitions

Certificate of Deposit (CD):

Also called a time deposit, this is a certificate issued by a bank or thrift that indicates a specified sum of money has been deposited. A CD bears a maturity date and a specified interest rate, and can be issued in any denomination. The duration can be up to five years.

Checking Account:

A deposit account held with a financial institution that allows for withdrawals through checks, automated teller machines, or debit cards. Typically pays no interest or lower interest rate as compared to Savings account.


A written, dated and signed instrument that contains an unconditional order from the drawer that directs a bank to pay a definite sum of money to a payee.


The ability to borrow or to purchase goods and services with payment delayed beyond delivery.


An expense, or money paid out from an account. A debit transaction is one which the net cost is greater than the net sale proceeds.


A bank deposit is simply the process by which a customer of the bank (or other financial institution) entrusts their money to be held in the bank; whether it be in a savings, current, business or other type of account, until the customer wishes to withdraw that money, depending on the rules surrounding their given account.

Funds Availability:

Funds that are available to an account holder for withdrawal or other use. This may include funds from an overdraft facility or line of credit, as well as funds classified as the available balance, such as from cleared and existing deposits.


The price paid for borrowing money. It is expressed as a percentage rate over a period of time and reflects the rate of exchange of present consumption for future consumption. Also, a share or title in property.

Minimum Balance:

The minimum amount of money required to be in your account before being charged.

Money Market:

Money markets are for borrowing and lending money for three years or less. The securities in a money market can be U.S. government bonds, Treasury bills and commercial paper from banks and companies.

Non-Sufficient Fund (NSF):

note: related to "overdraft protection" features in bank accounts: a term used in the banking industry to indicate that a demand for payment (a cheque) cannot be honored because insufficient funds are available in the account on which the instrument was drawn. In simplified terms, a check has been presented for clearance, but the amount written on the check exceeds the available balance in the account. An NSF check is often referred to as a bad check or dishonored check, or more colloquially, a bounced check, cold check, rubber check, returned item, or hot check.


A draft for more than the balance in the account on which the draft is drawn. A bank may honor an overdraft, depending on the importance of the customer and on prior arrangements (if any) to cover overdrafts.

Savings Account:

A deposit account held with a financial institution that pays interest but does not allow for direct withdrawal through checks. Pays interest at a rate higher than that of checking account but lower than that of treasury bills.


Piece of paper that proves ownership of stocks, bonds and other investments.


The removal of money from a bank account.

Terms taken from here.

Below are some financial dictionaries to help you understand the much more extensive financial vocabulary that exists in the US:

Choosing a Financial Institution

As an international student, you may want specific services or products from a financial institution, including ATM or online banking that is provided in several languages, lower wire transfer rates, or nation-wide branches (for easier access to your money when you travel over breaks!). Whatever you choose, it must be the right fit for you, and if the financial institution that you choose no longer meets your needs, you can always change to a different one. The following is a list of things to consider when selecting your bank or credit union:

What are the types of accounts or "products" to choose from?

  • Checking Account – checking accounts are often used to make purchases with a check, debit or direct deposit/ routing number.
  • Savings Account – savings accounts are often used to save money and pay interest on the balance; they are most commonly associated with emergency funds (used for unexpected expenses) or savings goals (like a trip or other expensive purchase).

What services are provided by the institution and how much do they cost?

  • Online Banking
  • Bill Pay
  • Direct Deposit
  • Debit/ Check Card
  • Wire Transfers
  • Overdraft Protection
    Note:  Each financial institution will have different prices or inclusions for these services.  Make sure to ask financial institutions for prices on services that are important to you when shopping for a bank or credit union.


  • Location(s)
  • Hours
  • ATM locations or networks
    Note: Some Credit Unions have agreements with other Credit Unions to provide free withdrawals for out of network ATM withdrawals otherwise a service fee will be applied to that transaction

Additional questions to ask about accounts:

  • Will there be a monthly fee?
  • Is a minimum balance required?
  • Are there online banking, ATM or debit card fees?
  • Is there a limit for financial transactions every month?
  • Does the account accrue interest?  If so, how much?

Additional resources to help you choose a financial institution:

For more information on Choosing a Financial Institution, please visit the Banking page.

Money Management

Making a spending plan or budget can be extremely beneficial for all students, yet it can be particularly difficult for international students to estimate the costs associated with living in the United States since you may not be familiar with the currency or how your lifestyle will dictate the costs you incur.

With the high variance of cost of living rates on each of the University’s campuses, it can be challenging to plan for your expenses before you arrive. The best place to start is with your tuition and fees. You should be able to find out your tuition and fee rates by contacting the registrar’s office for your campus:

Another important office for determining the amount you owe the University is University Student Financial Services and Cashier Operations (USFSCO), which is SMMC’s parent department, where you can also pay your bill.  They have multiple methods available for paying tuition, including PeerTransfer, a wire transfer service that saves students money!

Research the cost of living for the area that your campus is located in. You can use one of the following cost of living calculators to compare major international cities’ costs of living, but it’s important to remember that your lifestyle and the particular area you stay in can cause your own cost of living to be much lower or higher than what the calculators provide:

Keep in mind that the cost of living is often higher in Chicago than in Urbana-Champaign and Springfield, and that Urbana-Champaign’s cost of living is often higher than in Springfield, but, again, it depends on your lifestyle. The less lavishly you live, the easier it will be for you to make it through all of your college career without financial hardships.

To help you make a budget or spending plan, you can visit our webpage on budgeting for more tips, techniques and tools.

Currency Exchange

Tips & Info

  1. Do not exchange your currency at the airport.  You will often pay higher fees and get a lower rate for the convenience of using the airport’s currency exchange.
  2. Exchange rates change rapidly.  If you check a rate online, be aware that if you go to a bank, credit union or currency exchange, your rate may be different from what you expected.  Some financial institutions roll their fees into the exchange rate so that will lower it as well.
  3. ATMs can be used to exchange currency, but, since currency exchange rates change so rapidly (often by the minute), you may not be getting the best rate of exchange.
  4. For tuition payments, the University Student Financial Services and Cashier Operations Office offers PeerTransfer as a convenient method for paying tuition via wire transfer.

Financial Slang – Financial US Culture

Even though there are many formal vocabulary words that refer to money, there are still quite a few slang terms referencing money or finances. We have tried to explain a few of those below:


  • someone who appears to have a lot of money; was originally used to refer to excellent basketball players; often used in reference to someone carrying a large amount of cash; sometimes is a non-financial reference.

Make It Rain

  • bringing in a lot of money; sometimes used in reference to rappers throwing large amounts of cash into the air; “Rainmaker” in the business world would be a key employee who brings in a lot of business or raises profits.

Make Bank

  • to earn a large amount of money, most often in a short amount of time.

Commonly used terms to refer to money

The US has hundreds of slang terms to refer to our currency, the United States Dollar. Below are just a few commonly used terms to refer to money, broken into categories:

Most common

  • Bill
  • Buck
  • Cash
  • Green/ Green-back
  • Loot
  • Moolah
  • Paper

Also references food

  • Dough (singular or plural)
  • Clams (plural)
  • Roll (singular; “roll of cash”)

By denomination

  • References for $1 bill – Bill; Buck; Single; Washington
  • References for $5 bill – Fin; Fiver; Five-spot
  • References for $10 bill – Hamilton; Sawbuck; Ten-Spot
  • References for $20 bill – Double Sawbuck; Jackson
  • References for $50 bill – “Fitty”; Half Yard
  • References for $100 bill – Benjamin; C-note; Yard

By $1,000

  • Big One
  • Grand/ a “G”
  • Stack

For more slang terms referencing money, visit or try out this game.

Financial Aid – Student Loans for International Students

Federal aid is not available for International Students, but you can get money from 3rd party lenders to help pay for your educational expenses.  For more information, please go here.  Remember that most lenders will require you to have a US Citizen or Permanent Resident as your co-signer on the loan