I’m used to international currency exchange rates, US dollars to the Nepali Rupee, 1$= Rs106. In England, I expected more of the same: £1= 1.44$ = Rs153. At the airport I withdrew 200 pounds, or 288 dollars, or 30,700 rupees, confident that I wouldn’t need to make another cash withdrawal for a long time. 30,700 rupees in Kathmandu will buy a month of steak dinners. In England, 30,700 rupees lasted for ten days of buying just the bare essentials: food, drinks, transport, shampoo.
After my second bank withdrawal, I grew more cautious. Phone calculator app in hand, I drew up a rough budget and stuck to it the rest of the term.
I bought groceries from the nearby Tesco and ate in my college’s subsidized hall, drank in the college’s subsidized bar before going out to pubs, and thought carefully about impulse purchases. I still splurged – on society memberships, sightseeing trips, formal dinners and wine and cheese nights, and the occasional overpriced sandwich in the town center – but these were careful decisions, and my bank account remained at comfortable green levels.
It helped that I’m both an introvert and a procrastinator: when other students went out for drinks and dancing, I stayed in to meet deadlines for the next day, having put off work until the last possible moment, and when they staggered back at two am after paying for drinks, club entry, coat check, and more drinks, I went to bed too, with a just as aching head, but a full wallet. On the few nights that I wasn’t frantically rushing to meet a deadline, I was often too unmotivated to go out, Reddit and Netflix more beckoning than the cold air outside.
Other international students, more motivated than me, and indefinitely more social, swap stories about their adventures. £150 Oxford Ball tickets and shopping sprees, £50 concerts and bar tabs, of eating out at every meal, and drunkenly tipping the washroom attendant at a club £20 instead of £2.
“He wasn’t even a washroom attendant, just some guy in a suit,” someone laughs.
I laugh along and promise myself that I’ll never be as reckless with money.
Then Easter break hit, six weeks of break between terms. My peers had detailed itineraries, booked flights and hotel rooms, a packed schedule. “Three days in Dublin, then I fly to Berlin and Munich, a weekend in Athens, five days in Budapest and Vienna, a week in Prague, and Rome, and Copenhagen and Amsterdam,” they rattled off, fingering maps and brochures. I blinked back and thought of my incomplete Couchsurfing profile. Plan-less, budget-less, I planned to drift around the UK traveling at will. It was a romantic idea, not knowing where I was going, or where I was sleeping, or, as I didn’t realize at the time, how much I was spending. Budget-less, the money poured out of ATMs and out of my fingers: lodging, food, train tickets, admission entrances, they add up. A week in London: £15 for the Westminster Abbey, £16 for St. Paul’s Cathedral, £20 for the Tower of London, £280 for Airbnb and even more for food. I quickly switched to staying at backpackers hostels for £15 a night, but the cash flow continued unchecked as I went from Cambridge to Canterbury to Cornwall to Brighton to Dover to Edinburgh to the Scottish Highlands.
I never gave away money to mistaken washroom attendants, but I might as well have. Break has ended, and this term I will need to stay in and pass on clubbing, because of my ignored-budget and ignored fiscal sense. I’m back to my calculator app and calculations: to figure out how much I spent in the past six weeks, and what I’ll need to do to make it through till the end of term.