My Budget as a University Student in Canada

Being a student can be expensive. Three undergrads share where the money goes. 
MACLEAN'S
A smiling student sitting at a desk

March 21, 2024

Alex Li, 20

University of Waterloo, Architectural Studies, co-op

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Alex Li, a student from The University of Waterloo, shared a studio apartment with another student while doing an internship in Vancouver, B.C. December 16, 2023Photograph by Jackie Dives

I’ve always been an artist, but my parents told me I should be an engineer, to make money. I found a happy middle and enrolled in architecture.

I’m in a co-op program, so instead of having summer breaks, I do three four-month work terms and one eight-month placement over five years. I have to move every four months because the co-ops are in different cities. Thankfully, the landlords near campus offer four-month leases on furnished rooms to cater to co-op students. It’s always a mad rush to find a new spot at the beginning of the term.

I pay for school using my co-op earnings, which can range from around $18 to $26 an hour, $8,500 of Alberta Student Aid per term and between $200 to $500 each term from an RESP. I started working part-time when I was 17, and I put all of my savings into a TFSA.

Rent: $1,300
My fall co-op placement was at a firm in Vancouver. It was one of the highest-paying placements, at $26 an hour, but it was also really hard to find affordable housing in Vancouver. I got together with another architecture co-op student and we hunted for apartments on Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace.

The landlord of the spot we found was an architect who took an interest in us because we were architecture students. The apartment is surprisingly big for a studio—around 600 square feet.
Our rent includes all utilities and furnishings, including two Murphy beds.

We got really lucky. Two classmates of ours couldn’t find anything so they had to split an Airbnb and pay $4,000 a month each.

Groceries: $200
My roommate and I buy our groceries together and split the cost. We cook a lot of Asian food—usually rice or noodles with veg and meat or whatever is on sale that week. We shop at multiple grocery stores, paying attention to where items are cheaper in order to save money. We often make a big dinner so we have leftovers to bring for lunch the next day. We don’t buy too many snacks because our offices have a lot of treats, like granola bars and trail mix. Someone brings in a
box of Timbits most days.

Transportation: $105 for a SkyTrain monthly pass
I have a monthly pass for the SkyTrain because I take it every day for work. I also take it to meet up with my friends on the weekends and explore different parts of Vancouver. I fly back and forth a lot for my co-op terms and also to visit my parents in Calgary, but luckily my parents often cover this cost.

Textbooks and class costs: $0
Since I’m on a co-op term, I don’t have any textbooks to buy. All the architecture software I need to use is covered by the company. Otherwise, that software could cost something like $1,000 or $2,000 a year for a subscription.

Entertainment: $40
Once a month, I meet up with other co-op students and we do something fun in the city, like going to Stanley Park, the Vancouver Art Gallery or the Vancouver Aquarium. I might buy a little souvenir, like some postcards from the art museum or a keychain for my brother from the aquarium. Once or twice a month, I get bubble tea or a muffin from a bakery as a treat.

Recent splurges: 

$35 for a second-hand Neewer NW-7000 USB microphone from Facebook Marketplace
I have a YouTube channel where I vlog about applying to universities and the architecture program at Waterloo. This microphone would have cost $60 brand-new. I didn’t want the hassle of taking it home with me, so I ended up selling it on Facebook Marketplace for $25 before
I left Vancouver.

$100 for a mechanical keyboard from Amazon
I bought a keyboard on Black Friday and got it shipped to my home in Calgary so I could pay less tax—it’s only 5 per cent instead of 12 per cent in British Columbia.

$11 for a precision screwdriver set from Amazon
One of my hobbies is taking things apart and 3D printing better custom parts. Right now, I’m working on designing an ergonomic custom mouse that fits my hand perfectly.

Total monthly spend: $1,791


Maham Raza, 22

University of New Brunswick, business administration

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Maham Raza splurges on hot chocolate from Tim HortonsPhotograph by Chris Donovan

I’m originally from Pakistan, but was raised in Dubai where I went to an American high school that followed a North American curriculum. I knew I wanted to study somewhere in North America, and a Canadian university degree is internationally known as being a good degree.
University tuition in Canada is expensive for international students—I pay $22,000 a year. I applied to universities in Canada that had good scholarships for international students. I got into most of the schools I applied for, but the University of New Brunswick gave me the largest scholarship—equivalent to $32,000 over four years.

I’ve been working at the campus library since my first year. I work 10 hours a week during the school year for $16.25 an hour, and then I work full-time over the summer, from May to August.

Rent: $330

I share a five-bedroom house that I found on Facebook Marketplace. I was worried because the rent was so cheap, but the room is almost double the size of other spots I looked at. The landlord understands it’s hard for students to pay rent, so he keeps it affordable. Our rent only goes up by $5 a year and laundry is 75 cents per load. I really like having roommates. We make meals together and chat after school to talk about how our days were. It’s like having a second family.

Utilities and internet: $96
Heat and hydro are an additional $40 to $100 a month. The bills are in one of my roommates’ names, so we just e-transfer them our share every month. A different roommate is in charge
of Wi-Fi, which costs $26 per person per month.

Groceries: $150
I usually shop at Walmart about once a week and at Costco once a month. One of my roommates has a car and a Costco membership, or I’ll go with another friend who has a car and lives nearby. At the start of the semester, when it’s not as busy and I have time to cook, I’ll grocery shop weekly. But when it gets busy and I’m studying for exams, I live on snacks and bread. I’ll only go grocery shopping once a month.

Meals and snacks on campus: $70
I love hot chocolate. I drink it daily, even in the summer months. It’s something I discovered after I moved to Canada. I buy a big container of hot chocolate powder to have in the house and I’ll also buy it two times a week while I’m on campus, from Tim Horton’s or the cafeteria. One hot chocolate costs about $2.50. Once a week I’ll buy a crispy chicken sandwich from Tim Hortons for lunch, which costs $5.50, and a small pack of 10 Timbits for $3—I get all chocolate ones. They’re my favourite.

Transportation: $55 for a monthly bus pass
I take the bus to the grocery store if no one can drive me, to visit friends who live farther away from campus or to pick up a package if no one was home to receive it. If I don’t think I’m going to use the bus as often one month, I might not buy the pass and just pay per ride, which is $2.75.

Textbooks and other class costs: $110
Only one of my professors this semester told us we had to buy a textbook. It was for a human resources course. Otherwise, our professors usually just make PowerPoints that we can study from, or I find free PDFs of the textbooks I need online. Sometimes I need to print out assignments and research pages to study from, which costs 10 cents per black-and-white page. I topped up my student card this month with $10 for printing.

Dining out: $80
My meals out are usually fast food. I go to McDonald’s a lot since there’s one on the way to Walmart. I get a 20-pack of chicken nuggets or a Big Mac meal and some ice cream. My roommate and I also get food from Costco whenever we go. The prices are so reasonable and it fills you up. It’s $1.50 for a hot dog with pop and $2.50 for an ice cream. Once every few months, I might do a restaurant meal. I went for ramen once this semester, but it was about $20 after tax and tip, which is pretty expensive for me.

Movies: $15
I go to the movies once a month. This semester, I saw Scream and Barbie. The theatre near me
shows Bollywood movies sometimes too. I saw the Taylor Swift Eras Tour movie twice, even though it was more expensive than the average movie—$25 per ticket. The first time I went
by myself, then the second time I went with a Swiftie friend. It was totally worth it. We were singing along the whole time.

Subscriptions: $6.89 a month for Spotify, on a student plan
I usually listen to music at night before I go to sleep, or if I’m on the bus or walking around campus. I’m on my parents’ family Netflix plan, so I can watch shows for free.

Total monthly spend: $912.89


Nneoma Ndukwu, 19

University of Regina, nursing

A smiling student sitting at a desk
Nneoma Ndukwu saves on rent by living with her familyPhotograph by Danielle Tocker

My family is from Nigeria. In 2016, we visited my uncle, who lives in Ontario. We really liked it in Canada. My parents applied for permanent residency for our family in 2020, but their application was still being processed when my sister and I were ready to go to university. We applied to Brandon University’s bachelor of nursing program as international students. The tuition was expensive—$9,000 per semester. I paid $400 a month to share a bedroom with my sister and another roommate in a two-bedroom apartment. I got a part-time job working as a cashier at Sobeys, earning $13.75 an hour. I usually worked about 16 to 20 hours a week.

By November of 2022, our family’s permanent residency came through, and my own came through in January of 2023. We moved to Regina with our family a few months later. Being a permanent resident means we pay much less tuition—$3,000 per semester.

I don’t have as much pressure now to earn money for rent and groceries, but I’m saving up to get a car and rent my own place in the next few years. I work part-time as an administrative assistant and youth mentor for an NGO for Afro-Caribbean children. Sometimes I pick up shifts doing caregiving work through an agency. Over the summer, I’ll try and get a job working in a care home or at the hospital so I can earn and save more.

Housing: $0
I live with my parents and four siblings in a three-bedroom house in southwestern Regina. My two sisters and I share a bedroom and my two brothers share another bedroom. I’m the eldest of the family. I usually study in my bedroom, but if it feels too noisy or crowded, I’ll take the bus to a public library 10 minutes away to study. Our house is pretty far from campus—it takes an hour on the bus to get there. But, since I have some online courses this semester, I only have to go to campus twice a week.

My parents pay for our rent and all the utilities, but I might start to chip in with some of the bills, like the internet. We took over the previous tenant’s internet contract with SaskTel for $87 a month. When that contract ends, I’ll be able to get a student discount for $60 a month.

Groceries: $60
If I’m out and buying groceries on my way home, or I’m the one who pops out to buy some items for our family, I’ll pay for the grocery bill. It varies every month. Sometimes I spend $50 on groceries for the family and sometimes I spend $100.

We make a lot of African meals, like jollof rice and egusi soup. We also buy bread and tea for breakfast, and we’ll make tortilla wraps with vegetables and chicken since it’s fast and easy. We’re considering getting a Costco membership since we’re such a large family. Sometimes we’ll go to an African shop to buy different kinds of leaves, melon seeds and dried fish that you can’t get at regular stores.

Our family doesn’t really go out to eat at restaurants. We’ll go once a year, like over the summer when my uncle was visiting, to try some Canadian foods like mac and cheese.

Transportation: $50 for Ubers
I take the bus a lot—about 20 times a week to go back and forth to school, work and just heading out to explore Regina. A bus pass is included in our school fees. Sometimes, if I’m running late, or it’s really cold outside and the bus is running late, I’ll cave and get an Uber. For example, I had to take a test for one of my nursing school certifications recently and I needed to be there by 5 p.m., but my previous appointment ran late.

Class costs and fees: $293 for certifications and uniform fittings
We have clinicals starting next semester, so I had to order a set of scrubs in the school colour, which is turquoise. It cost $214 for two scrub tops and bottoms. I also needed to be fitted for a special mask, which cost $79 at one of the St. John’s Ambulance branches.

Subscriptions: $6.99 for Netflix
I pay for my family’s Netflix subscription. We watch a lot of Nigerian movies. We’ll get together most days after dinner in the living room and watch whatever we’re in the mood for. We watched Merry Men 1 and 2 and a Nigerian movie called King of Boys. I recently signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime. I get six months free as a student, then after that, it’s $4.99 a month or $49 for the year. I’m not sure if I’ll continue the subscription after the trial. I’ll see how the next few months go.

Recent splurge: $7 for eyeliner from Amazon
I don’t wear a lot of makeup. I bought it on a whim, just to test out.

Total monthly spend: $416.99

As told to Andrea Yu


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