London is known as one of the most expensive cities in the world, and coming abroad for the first time can leave you feeling major sticker shock! Especially because the pound to dollar exchange rate is only £0.75 for $1. The best option is to come with a few pounds already in your pocket and then take out more in the U.K. once you’ve gotten a feel for how much you’ll be spending. Here are some items you might not have considered that you will probably need to budget for in your first week.
Restaurant and Pub Expenses
Your first week in the city will be a whirlwind of meeting new friends, experiencing London for the first time, and orientation. During this time, dinner is on you. Even if it’s just Nando’s and pub fare, your meals can and will add up, so make sure to bring along cash for all the great food in the city. For example, one mid-range pub I ate at had fish and chips for £13.95 and a pint for £3.50, which totals £17.45 or around $23.
If you’re looking to save money while going out with your mates, look for venues with half-priced drinks during happy hours and avoid paying as much as £13 for a cocktail in the city. Look for places off the main streets as well; they often have more reasonable prices.
While it is possible to get a student card for the underground while you’re studying abroad, you won’t be able to apply for discounts until you’ve fully enrolled at your institution (additionally, you’ll have to study in the UK for at least 14 weeks to qualify for the student card, which doesn’t apply to some students in the fall semester). This can take up to two weeks and in the meantime you’ll definitely be travelling throughout the city and exploring. Licensed taxis are always an option; however, your best bet on a budget is to buy a pay-as-you-go Oyster card and load it up during your first week.
Twenty to twenty-five pounds is a good amount to start. You’ll want to stick with larger top up sums less often, since your bank likely charges a conversion fee every time you use your card in the U.K. Oyster cards have a daily cap of £6.60 when you’re traveling in the heart of the city, meaning that you can explore London’s tourist attractions for relatively cheap. Additionally, the Tube runs all night long on Fridays and Saturdays meaning you won’t have to go through the hassle of finding a taxi at 3 AM. London’s bus system is also a great option with a flat charge of £1.50 to go anywhere on the bus line, and you can use your Oyster card on them as well.
Furnishing Your Room
Before you depart for London you’ll want to check what supplies are available in your dorm once you arrive. For example, Queen Mary did not provide toilet paper or bedding (although it could be pre-ordered) for arriving students. It’s important to understand that in your first week at your new university you will have to buy bedding (usually a duvet, sheets, pillow, and possibly mattress topper), toiletries (including toilet paper and towels), and cooking supplies (at least one pan, a pot, cutlery, and dishes). When shopping for home items on a budget the best places to look are Primark, Wilko, Tiger, and Ikea.
During your first few days in the city you’ll probably be staying in a hotel with no access to laundry machines, so when you finally move into your flat it will probably be something you want to get done soon. Laundry costs can add up if you aren’t smart (a wash and dry cycle costs around £5, or over $6.50) so now isn’t the time to only throw two or three items in a load. Consider pooling laundry with your friends or plan specific laundry days for yourself. And if you need items dry-cleaned look for places in the area that offer student discounts. The more efficiently you use the laundry the more you’ll save for more exciting things.
One of the biggest possible expenses during your first week could be buying a new phone, SIM card, and phone plan. While you are in the United States be sure to get your smartphone unlocked if you want to continue using it in London. If you are unable to have your phone company unlock your phone (which happens with some contracts with certain carriers, such as T Mobile or Virgin Mobile) then you will have to buy a new phone for your time abroad. If you are only staying for a semester your best bet would simply be to buy a cheap burner phone; however, if you are staying for a full academic year it would be wise to invest in a moderately priced smartphone with data. Vodaphone and O2 both sell affordable data plans (£20- £35).
If you are able to take your current unlocked smartphone overseas then you will need to purchase a UK SIM card and phone plan once you’ve arrived in London. When looking for a UK carrier it can be easy to be dazzled by pay-as-you-go plans which offer unlimited talk and text, but what you’re really after is a plan with a good amount of data. iMessage, WhatsApp, Kik, and basically every other messaging app which you’ll be using require data rather than minutes. Additionally, look for plans which offer their data and services throughout the whole of Europe and not just England. The company Three offers the best deals on large amounts of data for students who have unlocked phones, and Three’s data is the same cost throughout all of Europe.
Tessa Reading is an English major at Trinity College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Queen Mary, University of London in 2017-2018. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.