So, here you are: about to head off on your legendary study abroad adventure. Your bags are packed. Your phone is loaded with WhatsApp or Viber or Skype or all of the above. Your passport is never out of your sight. Your bank account is sitting pretty, not to mention that under-the-clothes valuables pouch your aunt forcibly thrust upon you when you mentioned studying abroad. You didn’t mind, though, because she also happened to slip in fifty bucks, and any little bit helps.
In fact, you realize, for the next few months, every little bit counts. The decisions you make with those funds you’ve scrimped for and saved over the past year(s) will help direct the course of your time abroad. As much as you dream otherwise, you realize that the scope of your adventures will ultimately be determined by the state of your financial resources and the (god-willing) generosity of your family members and friends. Cue minor freak out. Sure, you’ve had to manage your money as a college student, but it won’t quite be the same when you’re miles away from home and there is no such thing as a campus food court. You’re going to need to learn how to budget your funds, and you’re going to need to learn quickly.
Lucky for you, I’ve had two semesters’ worth of time to blunder through study abroad financing. Here are thirteen tips I’ve learned for wise spending and saving while studying abroad:
Get crafty with the kitchen.
Some study abroad programs cover anywhere from a few to all meals each week, but it’s highly probable that you’ll be responsible for many of your meals throughout your term abroad. One way to save money is by cooking for yourself. Whether you’ve been cooking all your life or you think you hit your peak when you mastered your microwave ramen technique, I believe in you. It’s preposterous to think that you will turn into a Master Chef overnight. You can, however, master some simple kitchen skills and recipes rather quickly. Don’t underestimate simplicity. Some of the most delectable meals I ate while abroad consisted of noodles, butter, salt, and pepper. When done well, it’s the height of cuisine (or it will at least feel like it).
- Get your groceries weekly. Buying for a week’s worth of meals rather than a few days at a time will save you money in the long run. You can overlap ingredients and buy bundled items. Plus, you’re less likely to impulsively add to your purchases when you’re already getting a week’s necessities.
- Stock up on staples. Learn all the various ways you can prepare noodles, rice, beans, eggs, etc. These staples will help you keep costs low while still allowing you to have variety.
- Fresh produce deals! Let these weekly specials help dictate your menu. Don’t know what to do with a particular fruit or vegetable? The internet can help. Most times, your culinary adventures will pay off.
Have you met my friend ALDI? If you don’t live in one of the 33 states in which Aldi operates in the U.S., I mourn for your grocery shopping experience. Aldi is a low-price grocer with an emphasis on simple, efficient, and economical shopping without sacrificing quality. They design their stores to be minimalistic in style and locally source their products as much as possible. Here are the basics about how this all works. In case you can’t tell, I’m one of their biggest fans… along with much of Europe. Aldi stores are all over Germany, the UK, and Ireland, as well as several other countries. Other similar great options include Lidl, MAS, and DIA.
It can be tempting to eat out frequently when you’re abroad—nearly every restaurant and café in your host city will look tantalizing. Dining out can be expensive, though, and these expenses definitely add up over time. Prioritize which places you most want to go to, give yourself a limit for eating out (ex: once per week), and do your best to stick to it. That being said, don’t let your financial guidelines be an excuse to turn down a lunch/dinner/coffee invitation. Sharing a meal with someone else can be much more valuable than the number in your bank account.
Plan in advance.
The earlier out you book a flight/hotel/train ticket/etc., the cheaper your travel is likely to be. Figure out the places you most want to visit and choose when you want to visit them. As early as possible, nail down your itinerary. Keep in mind, though, that this is just a general rule of thumb. Some airlines and train lines offer flash sales or seasonal prices. Spontaneity doesn’t always have to disagree with your wallet!
Know your resources.
Thank heavens for the internet, and thank heavens for travel search engines. Traveling on a budget can involve a lot of research and price comparison. Luckily, technology can do much of the work for you. You may be familiar with Expedia and Kayak stateside, but these may not be as relevant abroad. Consider using Skyscanner, for example, to open up your travel possibilities. Input the airport you want to depart from into the “from” box, input “Everywhere” into the “to” box, and search to see where you can fly cheaply. You may end up discovering a beautiful city you never would have visited otherwise! Here are a few places to prowl for deals and out-of-the-box itineraries.
This one’s simple: many of the cities you will visit are meant to be walkable, so why not take advantage of this? Public transportation can be gloriously helpful and is often not terribly expensive. If the system in your host city is efficient and economical, you may want to invest in a metro or bus pass. When traveling, though, you should approach transport differently. Over the span of a short trip to another city, or country, you’ll want to cover a lot of ground. You may have to traverse the city to get from one location to another. But if you keep hopping on the metro, all those small fares will add up to a big chunk of your travel expenses. Map out where the things you want to visit are in advance and try to use public transport only when needed.
Do research beforehand. Ask for advice from anyone you know who has visited that city before. Make friends with some city natives (wisely, of course) and get their suggestions. Not only will local food be better quality than the tourist-trap restaurant variety, but it will also probably be less expensive.
Pay up before you go out.
When you make yourself a weekly budget of expenses—which you most certainly should do—don’t forget to include your social life. Estimate how often you plan to go out to the pub or a movie or a show with friends. How much money will those outings require? Think about getting to/from the place, whether there’s an entrance fee, and any food or drinks you might buy while out. Set aside this money weekly AND nightly. Before you head out to the pubs, replenish your wallet with your estimated budget for drinks and add in a cushion for incidentals.
Going crazy every time you go out is not exactly going to further your frugality. Consider limiting yourself to fewer drinks per night out. Not only will you be able to go out more nights in the long run, but you will also get the chance to focus on the experience of the pub or club you’re in rather than seeking out another beer or cocktail. Turn it into a personal tasting challenge! Each time you visit a pub or club, you have to try a different drink from what you’ve ordered before.
Let’s be real.
Are you a late-night muncher? Do you have a fondness for taxi-ing home at the end of the night? Where and how do you spend your money in those moments when you don’t really care how you spend it? Figure this out and factor it into your nightly budget.
IMPORTANT CLAUSE: If you are in Ireland, account for taco fries from Supermac’s. Always get the taco fries.
THE DOMESTIC STUFF
Lower your standards (if they aren’t low already).
When you get to your host location, you may need to buy sheets, towels, and other basic household items. Now, as college students, we aren’t exactly used to luxurious linens and top-of-the-line appliances… but we probably also didn’t have to buy all of our stuff with our own resources. The things you buy to use in your dorm or apartment abroad don’t need to be long-lasting, and they don’t need to make you feel plush. I suggest opting for inexpensive household goods so you can save towards experiences rather than objects.
Buy in bulk (sort of).
We’re not talking Costco-level buying in bulk. But if you can pick up toilet paper, soap, laundry detergent, etc. in packs that will get you through a few weeks or maybe even a few months, you’ll benefit. Not only will you save some extra cash, but you are less likely to discover all your toilet paper has run out precisely at the worst moment.
When in doubt, ask Mom and Dad.
They know the struggle. It’s never too late to admit you’re still learning to be an adult on your own.
Tracy Kinealy is an English student at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the National University of Ireland, Galway in Ireland in 2015.