Peer Advisers are upperclassmen who are trained to assist incoming students make the transition into professional grad school. One of the way they assist is through the Peer Advisor Blog. Here is an example of such a blog article that may even be helpful to you as a pre-optometry student as you go forward…
By Peer Adviser, Mariam Alkawally, SCCO Class of 2020
As a Canadian, moving to California for school is a dream come true. Sun! Beach! Pools everywhere! You can actually wear pretty, light outfits and sandals more than 5 times every year! NO SNOW! Being a “California girl/boy.” Did I mention the beach? It truly is the adventure of a lifetime, one that I will cherish forever. However, it is still a big change, and trying to discover the rules and prepare for the unknowns all by yourself can be very stressful and can dampen your fun experiences during that first year.
I made this guide as a starting point for all the Canadians coming to MBKU. Some of this may also apply to students from other countries. Mainly, I want you use it as a launching pad: Here are the things you need to take care of and keep in mind, as well as my experiences with them, so do your research because your mileage may vary. However, I am here for you, so comment/give me a shout if you have any questions, want some advice, or someone to rant to.
Now this is going to be a loooooong read. Go somewhere pretty, get something to take notes on, and grab something fun to drink. Skim the article, and use it as a guide when you need it.
First, let’s start with the finances. School is expensive, and finances might be a bit tough to obtain when the Canadian Dollar has a lower exchange rate than the US Dollar. Having emergency support, like family, can be very important.
PS: Unless stated otherwise, all prices are in USD.
How much do you need?
Refer to MBKU’s website here: https://www.ketchum.edu/img/uploads/admissions/pdfs/12017-18-SCCO-Standard-Budget.pdf . This list gives you a budget that you can start out from.
Now let’s break that down a bit:
- Tuition: Unless you’re paying all tuition up front, keep in mind that every year, tuition goes up by about 2-3%, so factor that in your calculations.
- Rent: If you’re living with roommates, you can probably expect between $600-$1,000/month – it depends on how many roommates you’re living with, whether you have your own bedroom, sharing a bathroom, and so on. It can get quite a bit higher if you’re living alone. The range is probably around $1300-$1800 if you want an apartment all to yourself. Another thing you want to pay attention to is that a lot of places don’t have fridges or other appliances, which you may have to rent or purchase. Additionally, many don’t have in unit washers and dryers either, so you also want to take into account laundry.
- Utilities and Water: Utilities and water are fairly cheap. In my apartment, there are three people and we pay a total of ~$120 a month (although water is covered by the landlord). If utilities and water are not covered where you plan to rent, ask the landlord how much they normally cost over the phone.
- Internet: For 50Mbps internet, you’ll probably pay around $50/month/apartment. Thing is, you’re stuck with whatever provider is hooked up to your building, so you can call the landlord, find out your provider and call them for quotes.
- Phone: When you first move to the US, it’s probably a good idea to extend your Canadian phone plan to cover you until you get a phone in the US. Once you’re in the US, you can decide on a provider and a phone. If your phone does not come with a chip, there is a chance you will have to buy a new one in the US, so you want to factor that into your budget too. You won’t be able to get a phone on a plan since you won’t have US credit history, so you’ll have to buy a new (or used) phone outright. I bought a Sony phone when I got here for ~$250 from Best Buy, got a prepaid phone plan through AT&T, and I pay about $50/month for unlimited texts, calls and internet in the US (throttled after 6 GB), and when I go back home, I pay an extra $10/month for the plan to be extended in Canada.
- Transportation: Gas is slightly cheaper compared to Canada. It costs about $2.90/gal (that’s $0.77/L, or in CAD $1.00/L) , and oil changes will run about $25-$80 here (Depending on your car, and where you go, this is based on a Toyota Camry in a convenient and fast oil change place). Thing is, a lot of fun things are quite a drive away (45+ minutes on the freeway). Unless you’ll be taking many of those long trips (honestly, you probably won’t have time for that), and assuming you live about a 20 minute drive from school, and you drive everywhere, and go somewhere fun on average around once a month, you can expect to travel ~500 miles a month during the school year.
- Health Insurance: It is absolutely crucial to have sufficient healthcare insurance in the US, in fact, it is mandatory as an MBKU student to have health insurance. Make plans to be covered in the US while you’re still in Canada. See if your current insurance can cover you in the US. Alternatively, there are some other good student plans from providers such as Manulife, Costco, and there is also Tugo. Call around and see what kind of quotes you get, as costs can vary widely between different people. Once you move to the States, you have the option to get American healthcare insurance, but you’ll need to visit a Covered California building (don’t bother using the website, they can’t verify your identity through there) and discuss your options.
- Moving Expenses: It’s important that you estimate one-time expenses. For example, you will definitely need an AC, if your apartment doesn’t have a central AC (surprisingly not very common) or there isn’t already one installed in your room. A good one will run you about $450. You will also need some furniture, like a bed, bedsheets, pillows, hangers, and so on. You’ll also want some school supplies (I’m not adding a laptop in those calculations). Not including travel tickets, it might be a good idea to set aside about $2000 for that initial set up. You can go cheaper if you’re particularly frugal and/or patient or it can be higher if you don’t shop wisely and look around. You can get a more accurate number by deciding exactly what you need, and look around some (American!) websites to see how much they would cost you (Ikea, Walmart, Amazon).
Add to that initial transportation expenses: Did you bring your car? Make sure you factor in importation, gas, and paper work fees. Are you renting until you buy a car? It’s about $500/week if you rent from the airport. Are you using Uber or Lyft? It’s about $50 (without tips) from LAX to the school – to get a general idea of how much it costs.
- Groceries: Your first few grocery bills will be a bit high as you stock up on essentials. Once the dust settles, a small, frugal woman can get away with $250/month. To allow some fun in your meals (but still making some effort to be price conscious), you can be okay with about $350/month
- Travel Expenses: This one is easy to miss: Chances are you’ll want to visit your family at least once every year. How much do those tickets cost? And how many times a year do you plan on going?
- Taxes: You certainly need to file Canadian taxes. As for US taxes, you should get a US tax accountant to advise you. If you do have to file both taxes it can get quite confusing to do yourself so have someone with experience do it for you, at least for the first time. Costs can vary widely based on your individual situation, so it might be a good idea to call around and see if you can get a rough estimate (or see if any family or friends who are versed in this kind of thing would be willing to help you out!).
- Fun Money: You’re going to want to go out, eat out, buy clothes, games, or whatever your hobbies can be. Make sure to set aside some money for fun.
- Convert all this into CAD!: Unfortunately, it’s rough to see the numbers balloon when you convert to USD. With all the fluctuations lately, it’s rough to even make a decision to convert!
For the school year of 2016/2017, the average CAD/USD conversion was about 1.325. To be on the safe side, discuss with your bank or a financial advisor about a safe conversion number.
Where can you get the money from?
Ideally, you don’t want to borrow any money. In a perfect world, you’ll have savings, family will pay for everything, your GoFund me page will give you all the money you want… Since it’s not usually a perfect world, and you probably do need more funding, here is how you can get it:
- Canadian Federal and Provincial Student Loans: This is the first resource you should be using, as it has the lowest interest rates and will be the most generous in regard to amount to award you. The lifetime limit for Optometry school is $175,000 CAD, although they also subtract the amount you have taken out for your undergrad. In 2016, even if you had paid the undergrad debt back, it was still subtracted from the total lifetime award that could be given to you. However, it seems that starting 2017, if you had paid off your previous loans they don’t get subtracted from your lifetime loan amount. You can call and check on that.
Unfortunately, assuming your needs far exceeds their maximum limit (which it will unless you have significant help from family or have your own savings), they simply divide your lifetime maximum by 4, and that’s the amount you get every year. However, you’re better off getting as much as you can from them upfront, and use bank loans/line of credit in the later years, because the bank will always want a higher interest rate than the government. Additionally, bank loans don’t have a grace period, and payments begin as soon as you start using the credit. You’re allowed multiple levels of reassessment requests, so as soon as you see the amount awarded to you and you feel you could use more, request that reassessment! And let them know that it makes better sense financially to use up your Canadian student loans before you even touch bank loans or lines of credit.
In case you haven’t applied before, the application is online and extremely easy to file.
For the application and everything you need to know about the Canadian Federal and Provincial student loans, click here: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/student-financial-aid/student-loan/student-loans.html Apply for the loan as soon as you can, don’t wait until the last minute: it takes about 6 weeks for the money to arrive.
- Scholarships: If you haven’t applied for it before, you should apply for the Alexander Rutherford scholarship. This is a scholarship based on high school merit, and the amount you’re given depends on your grades. You can apply for that straight from the Canadian Student Loans portal.
Unfortunately there aren’t many other scholarships that accept Canadians going into a US school. But you should look around in case something pops up.
- Bank Lines of Credit for Students: You should go visit the big banks (CIBC, BMO, ATB, Scotiabank, RBC, TD) for student lines of credit. You’ll probably need a co-signer to help out. Ask around multiple banks to get the best rate and the highest amount. Get the highest amount you can get, because unlike a loan, a line of credit simply sits there ‘unborrowed’ until you actually need it and take it out. You don’t pay interest unless you actually take it out. However once you do, you’ll need to pay a monthly interest until you start paying back the principal. You’ll probably have the best luck with a bank that you and/or your co-signer have banked with for a while. Personally, I’ve had the most success with ATB and BMO – but that’s probably because my co-signer and I already had accounts there.
Make sure you do your shopping as soon as you find out you are accepted! It took me the entire year to secure funding. One of the biggest hurdles I had was that before I got accepted at MBKU, and before I actually began applying for lines of credit, a lot of banks promised a much higher amount than what they could approve. Once I was accepted at school and began applying for the promised line of credit amount, I found out that I couldn’t get anywhere near the amount they had originally promised, which was quite stressful. Finally, don’t accept the first line of credit offered to you unless you’re certain it’s the best deal you’re given: Once you sign for one, no other bank will give you another one.
Now that you know how much money you’ll need, and where you’re getting it from, there are some things to take care of before you move to make your life easier:
What do you need to do BEFORE moving?
- Banking: Once you have your finances figured out, there are a few other things you’ll need to deal with:
- California taxes capital gains from both your RRSP and TFSA
Obviously you shouldn’t touch your RRSPs, but maybe you can take out your TFSA and put it towards your school expenses. After all, chances are the interest you’re making on your TFSA is less than the interest you’ll be paying on loans of the same amount for school.
- Using your money in the US
Using your Canadian credit card in the US can be costly, because in addition to the conversion rate, you also get billed a 2.5% conversion rate by most credit cards. Therefore it is important to have a US credit card.
American Express can give you a US credit card if you’ve been a member for more than a year. Otherwise, you can get one through a Canadian bank that offers a US account.
So, let’s get that US bank account. The following banks offer a US account for Canadians: BMO, RBC, TD, and HSBC. You will also need to open a Canadian account with the same bank you’re opening the US account with – it makes moving the money from Canada to the US so much easier if you’re moving it between accounts (Canadian and US accounts), and most banks offer minimal transfer fees, if any, for such transfer (but you’re still charged about 1-2% exchange fees on top of the conversion rate, depending on the amount you’re transferring at a time). Otherwise, if you do this between different banks, you’ll be paying wire transfer or other transfer fees.
For each bank, check out the fees and benefits for the two bank accounts and the US credit card. Let them know you’ll be a student; most banks have special rates for students. Also, check how long it takes and how much it costs to transfer money between the US and Canadian accounts, and what’s the maximum amount to transfer each time. You also want to know what the maximum amount you can spend every month from your credit card – you’ll need a high-ish cap for the first few months as you settle down. Additionally, make sure you also ask where or if you can take out cash in the US, and how much it would cost. Personally, I found RBC to be the best option and I’m quite happy with them.
If your student loans/lines of credit are with a different bank than what you’ve opened the US/Canadian accounts with, then you should open an account with Tangerine (it’s free). Tangerine helps you move money from the Canadian account with the student lines of credit, and the Canadian account in the new bank where you opened a US account. Although free, the whole process of moving money from bank 1, to Tangerine, to Canadian account of bank 2, to US account of bank 2, takes multiple weeks, so if that’s what you’re using for school tuition, start early!
Your best option however, to move money from a Canadian bank account to a US bank account (even within the same bank), is to go with a Foreign Exchange trader. I’ve had very good luck with Knight’s Bridge Foreign Exchange http://www.knightsbridgefx.com/ They exchange and move the money in 48 hours, and what you pay them in fees and exchange rate is much less than what you pay the bank in exchange rate. So it is both faster and cheaper to use this trader than to do it yourself. However, it is a good idea to also have a way to make the money transfers yourself as I mentioned above as backup.
- Get a Place to Live: There are plenty of options to choose from. Start on MBKU’s portal (Student Life tab): there is a list of places for rent or you can make a post on the portal asking for (a) roommate(s). You can also add yourself to a waitlist of MBKU’s owned places to rent, or even follow the Facebook posts on the MBKU incoming students group.
- Rent a Hotel Room/Book an Airbnb: You will probably need this for at least one or two days after you arrive in SoCal before you move into your apartment. It will give you time to sort your apartment out: Mainly, food, something to sleep on, and internet hooked up. I’ve quite enjoyed Chase Suites in Brea, let them know you’re a student at MBKU for a discount.
- Order a Bed & Other Furniture: At least one week before you move, you should order a bed through the ikea.com website, and have it delivered. The cheapest bed you can get there is basically a mattress, a box and 4 legs to screw on! Make sure you bring a screwdriver with you. Either have the bed delivered after you arrive or if you already have roommates in the apartment, they can make sure it makes it into your room. You’ll obviously still need to put it together.
- Health Insurance: See above for details!
- Make a list of things you need to buy: Write down what spices you like to use, food staples, essential kitchen things, toiletries, etc. It will come in handy so that you can try to get your essentials squared away before school starts.
- Make a decision: Are you importing or selling your car?: If you are thinking about importing, these guides can be helpful: http://thisbeautifuldayblog.com/import-car-from-canada-to-usa/
Make sure that your car can actually be imported to the US. My 2012 Hyundai Elantra wasn’t allowed to be imported because it didn’t have a factory installed tire pressure monitoring system in it.
If you simply decide to buy a car in the US, you won’t be able to finance or lease as you won’t have credit in the US. So you can buy a used car from a dealership or an individual. Look around Craigslist.com, cargurus.com, and cars.com to get a feel for how much cars cost, and set your budget. You’ll be paying about 7.5% in taxes for the car.
- Internet: You don’t get many options for internet if you’re renting. Find out which provider you’re supposed to get internet from, and call them before you move: it could take two weeks for them to set up your internet, so call before you move and set up a time where they can set it up soon after you arrive.
- Study for the written driver’s test: I’m sorry to tell you this, but you do have to take both a written and a driving test to get a California driver’s license through the DMV (make appointments online – do NOT walk-in…you’ll wait for hours). You can only use your Canadian license for 10 days once you arrive so you want to go get your written test as soon as you can and then schedule your road test when you pass. The driver’s handbook is online, and you can also find plenty of practice questions online that you can practice with. Important Note! You must be an accompanied by someone that is 25 years of age or older and has a valid California driver’s License in order to take the driving test.
- DO NOT unlock your phone! Yet: You want to make sure that there is a provider in the US that can actually use your phone. For example, for a while Bell didn’t use chips in phones so I wasn’t able to get a provider in the US to get my phone hooked up.
- Car and Renter’s Insurance: Apartment (renter’s) insurance is fairly cheap but mandatory. It’s ~$150 for the apartment for the whole year. Car insurance is a little more pricey, for my Camry it’s about $1200 for the whole year although you can probably get that cheaper.
- Get Amazon Prime!: It’s a lifesaver. As a student, you get the first 6 months free, then you pay $49/year for free two day shipping, and great discounts. You can get just about anything you can think of – even groceries.
What do you need to do AFTER moving?
- Groceries: There are plenty of places you can get groceries from. Between Walmart, Target, Ralphs, and Amazon you should have everything you need to settle in.
- Get a Driver’s license: Your Canadian driver’s license is only valid for 10 days after you arrive to the US. So go to the DMV as soon as you can with all your documents. Most DMV’s require that you book an appointment, but because it takes a few days to get an appointment, you can drop in at Stanton DLPC (if you dare without an appointment!): https://www.google.com/maps/place/Stanton+DLPCemail@example.com,-117.9916514,12z/data=!4m8!1m2!2m1!1sdmv!3m4!1s0x0:0xc247d77c590b1c27!8m2!3d33.7788263!4d-117.9939151. Make sure you get in as early as you can during the week there is always a line and they will need to process all your documents before they give you your written test.
Once you pass, schedule your driving test (online!) at the DMV that will give you the closest time. Thing is, you will need someone who is 25 years older with a California driver’s license to sit with you otherwise they won’t let you take it.
- Car: If you’re importing your car then you’re set, but if you’re buying one (as mentioned above) you won’t be able to lease or finance since you won’t have credit history. Your best bet will be to buy used either from a dealership or an individual. I’ve had luck looking around on Craigslist.com, cargurus.com, and cars.com.
When buying used, first make sure you go test drive it. Also, get your car checked out a dealership for any mechanical issues before you commit to buying it and try to keep it under 10 years and 150,000 miles. Nissan, Toyota and Honda tend to be the most reliable cars (although not the prettiest). Californians typically have very long commutes so expect much higher mileages and more cosmetic damage compared to similarly priced vehicles in Canada.
Purchasing a membership at the AAA (similar to CAA in Canada) is also very beneficial. Taking care of car related issues through the DMV is extremely time-consuming. Other than the driver’s license, AAA can handle all of your other needs such as vehicle purchase and title transfers, registration, etc. along with roadside assistance and other services. Additionally, you can get discounts such as with HP and other stores.
- Cell Phone: Unless you can get your Canadian plan to cover you for cheap in the US, your options are basically AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. You can’t get a plan with any of them since you don’t have a credit history, so you’ll have to go prepaid. Verizon should have pretty solid coverage, followed by AT&T and T-Mobile. Take your phone with you to see if it can work with any of those companies, and if it does, then call your provider, cancel your plan and unlock your phone. Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a phone outright – make sure the phone you buy will work with the provider you choose. Some providers will give you small discounts (i.e. $5/month) if you set up automatic withdrawals for your monthly bill payments.
- Get a work-study position at school: With your student visa, you are only legally permitted to work in study positions at the school. Keep an eye out on your e-mail for job postings. However, you can’t get paid unless you get a social security number (SSN).
- Get a Social Security Number (SSN): You can’t get a Social Security Card on your student visa unless you have a work study position at school – so once you get a work study position, ask Barbara Breffle for a letter and take that to the Social Security office, the one in Brea is the closest. Here is more info on what you need when you go to the office: https://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/ss5doc.htm. Make sure to bring as much documentation as you can to confirm your citizenship. Although the instructions on the website indicate that certain documentation is optional if not easily acquired, many SSN employees will not process your application until you provide them with specific documentation such as your birth certificate.
- Send your SSN info to the bank: Since you have an SSN, you might as well get credit history in the US. Call your bank (with the US account) to find out how you can start building credit history with your credit card. This will come in handy if you wish to make any future purchases that require a credit check.
Now that you’re more or less settled. What else do you need to work on?
- Tax Accountant: Around January, you really should be getting in touch with a tax accountant who handles US/Canadian taxes. If you’ve been working in Canada, and took up a work study in the US, you should file your taxes so you don’t get in trouble with either the IRS or the CRA. However, a tax accountant will let you know if you really need to file taxes in both Canada and the US or not. You can ask your bank if they have any recommendations for a tax accountant.
And that’s it! Hurray! Enjoy California and welcome to MBKU!