Managing your finances when your spouse can’t work

Being an F1 and F2 couple living on graduate stipend is challenging but manageable
Sept 2020
Aufar
K.
Technology and Policy Program

“Are you ready for the change in lifestyle?”

That is the question that most of our friends asked when they heard about my plan to go back to school. We had a good life back in Jakarta, and we were about to leave all that and live on a budget in one of the most expensive areas in the US. But we decided to take the chance and relocate to the Boston area.

For an international student, there are 2 possible administrative paths to come to the US. The first option is using the F1 visa, which means that my spouse will come as an F2 dependent. The second option is using the J1 visa, with my spouse as a J2 visa holder. The F1 is by far the most popular option for international students, as it allows students to work in the US after graduation. But there is a catch: an F2 visa holder can’t work, while a J2 visa holder can work for a limited number of hours per week. The work restriction for an F2 visa holder is very strict, the dependent can’t participate in the labour market, even if unpaid. Volunteering is possible, but only in a limited set of circumstances.

We came to Boston with some savings from our earlier work earnings. We used some of the savings to settle our initial expenses, such as the expense for the Jakarta-Boston flight. But while in Boston, we tried our best to live within our means, that is, to keep our monthly recurring expenses below my monthly stipend. This proved to be quite challenging but not impossible.

The biggest cost items for us are housing and insurance. Boston is one of the most expensive cities for rental. Massachusetts also has a healthcare regulation requiring everyone to purchase health insurance with a specific level of minimum coverage. Since we had no way of hunting for off-campus housing, we relied on on-campus housing for our early months in Boston. We were lucky enough to be allocated to a studio apartment at Sidney Pacific graduate housing, which offers the lowest cost for a couple with no child. For insurance, we opted to purchase the cheapest option. However, even after opting for the cheapest option for both insurance coverage and housing, housing and insurance costs constituted close to 75% of my monthly stipend.

Sidney Pacific is a great place to live in. On a per square feet basis, the studio apartment that we rented is a very good bargain. Sidney Pacific has vibrant social activities, which include a book club, weekly coffee hours, and occasional brunches. However, as we looked to reduce our overhead, we decided to move off-campus housing for the spring semester. We terminated the lease in January, just in time before the beginning of the spring term. Terminating in the first 2 months of the semester (February/March for Spring and September/October for Fall) will incur a termination fee equivalent to 1 month rent. So, if you look to move off-campus, make sure you do it before the beginning of the term.

We began to look for off-campus accommodation using the MIT off-campus portal. Finding a place that accepts a couple was quite challenging, as most landlords/ladies and co-tenants prefer a single occupant. After multiple attempts, we managed to secure off-campus housing on Cambridge Street, roughly 1 mile from MIT. This arrangement allowed us to reduce our housing cost by 25%.

Apart from deciding to move off-campus, we also try to leverage on-campus resources as much as possible. One resource to check out is Accessing Resources at MIT (ARM) Coalition. ARM lists all possible resources that students can leverage at MIT. This ranges from helping to reduce basic living expenses (clothing, food, etc.) to medical expenses and many other things. Take food for example. There are so many social events at MIT, that leftover food needs to be distributed. Hence, there is a specific mailing list for free leftover food. If you have kids that you need to support, you can also apply for the family food grant. In case you need help to cover medical expenses beyond what insurance coverage can provide, you can apply for the Miller Fund. There are many other resources that you can leverage. But accessing some of these resources is not straightforward. If you have any problems, don’t hesitate to reach out to others, especially your academic advisor or (if you live on campus) the Head of House. MIT is such a huge place that there may be accommodations that are not listed formally but can be made with special arrangements. 

The graduate student stipend is designed to support a single student, not a family of 2 or more. But, I believe that MIT always strives to provide the best experience for the students. The MIT administration is constantly trying to advance the support for grad students. The most recent one is the Graduate Families Support Working Group which aims to gather input from graduate students on their concerns and formulate solutions to address them. To be honest, I am quite impressed by the range of support available at MIT and the responsiveness of MIT administration. Being a graduate student and a sole breadwinner in the household is challenging. But there are ways to manage it.