Decidedly mundane…

Tips for Living and Studying in the U.S.

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Photo by krossbow

I’m now on day 175th here in the U.S. This being my first time long-term experience living abroad, I made a lot of, let’s just say, missteps along the way. If I had the chance to start over, here are a few pointers that I’d like to know prior to going here.

A.Clothing & Attire

  1. If the place where you’re going is cold (i.e. Eastern U.S., Europe), ditch the wool/knitted gloves. They won’t cut it with the temperatures. For anything below 15°C, you should go with insulated gloves.
  2. When buying winter coats, look for something with a neutral color. You have some latitude if you’re a woman, but as a general rule of thumb, save the bright colored ones for the slopes. You don’t want people looking at you strangely because you’re wearing that neon blue jacket on the bus. Trust me, this happened to me. Try black, dark blue, grey, or something along those lines. You might also consider those wool formal/semi-formal pea-coats or trench-coats which will go more nicely with your formal attire.

B. Shopping

  1. Buy your winter clothes stateside. This will save you a lot of lugging around and you’ll definitely get the latest models. The price difference is not to big of a deal, and you’ll definitely get newer models. Try to buy the clothes before the winter actually starts to kick in in order to get better prices, or better yet, buy the winter clothes in the Spring to really save some money.
  2. Buy your clothing at thrift or discount stores. Try DSW for shoes, Marshalls or T.J. Maxx for clothes, and Burlington Coat Factory for everything else. You should avoid retailers like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. If you want to splurge a bit, you can try AmericanEagle Outfitters.
  3. Be on the lookout for discounts and coupons. Believe it or not, discount coupons are a big thing in the U.S. I regularly check sites like Groupon or Woot’s Community Deals to monitor for those. I also check DODTracker once in a while, although I most warn you that the deals on that site are not to good. Often they try to sell cheap knockoffs or Chinese made products. Nonetheless, I got nice Oakley sunglasses through that site. My other favorite site is RetailMeNot, which also offers discount coupons for retailers online and offline.

B. Transportation

  1. If you just need a car occasionally, consider joining Zipcar or similar car-sharing services. This way, you can avoid the hassle of looking for a car, transferring the title, paying insurance, car maintenance, and eventually selling the car again. Of course, I live in a bigger city, so the service is available and the cars quite ubiquitous.
  2. Before reporting that Zipcar damage, you may want to purchase the additional insurance waiver. You’ll regret not doing so, buy it while you still can. They have a policy that you have to wait a whole accident-free year before you can buy the waiver after you report an incident.
  3. Install GoogleMaps on your phone. This is quintessential. Printing a map is so 90s. With GoogleMap on your phone, you’ll easily browse your way around and even figure out the public transportation required to go to your destination.

C. Apartment

  1. Find an apartment with central heating. It’s the best method to distribute heat evenly throughout the place. If you can secure an apartment with all utilities included (sewage, trash, water, gas), it’ll be even better.
  2. Not all Internet services are available. The service which you can use depends on the building management. For example, my apartment’s neighbourhood is serviced by Verizon’s FiOS, but they couldn’t hook it up to my apartment because for an apartment building with more than a certain number of units Verizon requires an on-premise equipment, which they can only do with the building management’s permission. I was practically stuck with Comcast service (higher price, lower bandwidth, dang) because of this.
  3. Try to leverage your student status to get discounts with the cable company. I got a discount of  USD 50 from the monthly subscription when I mention that I’m a student at CMU.

D. Household Appliances

  1. Find these on Craigslist first. Instead of buying new, you can get them cheaper used. I got a microwave oven for USD 20 (instead of USD 60 at Walmart), a toddler high-chair for USD 15 (delivered to my front door, no less), a bike complete with helmet and accesories for USD 80 (instead of USD 150+ new).
  2. You can also try garage sales. Usually with the hordes of freshmen coming, these will come abound.
  3. If you do buy new, keep all the boxes for selling later. You eventually have to sell, right? Keeping the boxes will help a lot. You can also get out on a limb and save the details page of the things you buy to make it easier for you when you advertise it on Craigslist.

E. Communication

  1. If you don’t need the data plan, go for the prepaid services. They will save you quite a sum of money. Oh, and mention that you’re a student when you apply for the services. Sometimes they will waive the application fee that way.
  2. To call home use Skype (obviously). Skype’s new beta version even offers multi-party videoconference. You can try ooVoo if you want an alternative.
  3. To really call home you can use international calling cards. I used GlobalMind fro eCallChina. For USD 20 you can get like 400 minutes calling to a landline or about 200 minutes to a cellphone. The call quality is not bad, aside from the occasional 1 second delay and failed call. They also have local phone numbers in most U.S. cities you can also save the local call needed to use the service. As an alternative, you can use Skype’s paid offering.
  4. If you really want to skimp on local calling, you can use GoogleVoice from your computer. It’s free until the end of 2011.

F. Financial

  1. Open an account at a bank which has a partnership with your school. Most often than not you’ll get benefits such as free tuition transfer fee, discounts at merchants, and other free perks. I opened an account at PNC because they’re ubiquitous in Pittsburgh, offer a free checking account. Another benefit is that they allow one free incoming wire transfer per month (saving me USD 8, if I’m not mistaken, per transfer). Their online banking system also rocks!
  2. To save on monthly administration fee, you and your spouse can opt to open a joint account. They will give you a separate card and separate online banking user IDs for both of you at no extra cost.
  3. Don’t bother applying for credit card. First of all you’ll need a social security number and it takes years to build your credit profile. If they approve your application, the limit on your card will likely be on the lower hundreds of dollars. You couldn’t do much with it. Besides, all Visa or Mastercard debit cards can be used just fine with online and offline merchants.

G. Other

  1. Try to get a social security number if you can. It’ll make your life much easier. You can get phones for cheap (albeit with the whole or 2-year contract), get discount cards at retailers, and other perks. Too bad today they require written job offer letters before they will issue one.
  2. Tipping. Tipping is a rather hard skill to master. There’s a lot of different arguments about this one. However, as a rule of thumb these apply.
    1. 15%-25% tips is expected at restaurants & services. Leaving less means that you had an unpleasant service and sometime the waiter will confront you about this.
    2. No tipping is expected in places where you have to get your goods yourself (self-service) e.g. fast-food chains, supermarkets, & if you get your goods to go.

2 Responses to “Tips for Living and Studying in the U.S.”

  1. Bagaimana kalau kita buka Zipcar untuk mengurangi kemacetan di Jakarta?

    • @ Bung Ben:
      Serem, Oom. 1) Modal gajah. 2) Bakalan banyak yang telat balikin karena Jakarta traffic-nya ancur-ancuran. 3) Bakalan banyak yang nabrak/bikin rusak tapi nggak ngaku. Negaraku, oh, negaraku.

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