When I decided to study abroad in Paris for a semester, I found the task of budgeting daunting because I had no idea how much money I needed or where I’d get it. Now that I’ve gone abroad, I have plenty of advice to share with you all!
Before You Go
Save as Much as You Can
If you have a job during the semester or summer, consider putting a percentage of each paycheck in a savings account specifically for study abroad. You can also do little things every day because they do add up. For example, make a cup of coffee at home so you can buy one in Italy!
Once I knew I was going abroad, I tried not to eat out or go shopping as much as I used to. This is really hard, especially because your friends might still do these things without you, but try to keep in mind what you’re saving for! I made a list of a few things I wanted to do once I was abroad to remind me that it would be worth it.
Credit and Debit Cards
Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted, and I recommend a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. This is important because you won’t be charged an extra fee every time you use it. Make sure you put travel notices on your credit and debit cards before you leave so they don’t get frozen. Before you leave, you should also set up pin numbers for your cards. Many countries around the world use pin numbers, but don’t worry, these are really easy to set up online!
Banks and Cash
Taking out foreign currency in the U.S. is not necessary, but many students feel better about going abroad if they have some local currency when they arrive. Most banks can do this for you if you give them some notice. However, their exchange rate can make this expensive. While you’re there, ask about ATM fees abroad and foreign partner banks. Every bank is different, so knowing this can help you avoid fees while abroad!
Understand the Cost of Living
Pay attention to how much you are spending each week or month the semester before you go abroad. This is a good way to estimate the minimum amount you’re likely to spend while abroad, not including extraneous travel. I used Numbeo to get a feel for what the cost of living is in your chosen study abroad location. It even lets you compare the cost of living in two different cities.
Determine what your budget is for your time abroad. It is important to understand how much money you are willing to spend to ensure that it lasts throughout your semester. I personally budgeted $4,500 for my personal expenses, including groceries, weekend travel, shopping, and more. I did not include rent or tuition, but you may want to.
Now is also a great time to find a budgeting app or create a spreadsheet to use while you’re abroad so you can keep track of expenses. It’s not necessary to be extremely detailed with this—I kept track of approximate totals from my credit card bill and bank statement just so that I was aware of what I was spending. Here’s what mine looked like:
When You Arrive
How Do I Get Cash?
Use a Bank ATM instead of a currency exchange booth; you’re likely to get a better rate this way. There are almost always ATMs by airport exits for you to use. If you can wait until you’re in your study abroad city, ATMs in the city and directly attached to physical bank locations may have better rates than those at the airport.
How Much Money Should I Take Out?
If your study abroad location is a place with mainly cash transactions, you will want to carry a bit more. In Paris, there were very few places that did not accept credit cards, so I didn’t carry much cash. However, in Rome, people carry more cash because more transactions are cash-based. It is a good idea to always have at least some cash on you.
If your ATM fees are percentage based, then take out as little or as much as you want. If your ATM fee is a flat charge, you should take out more at a time, even if you don’t carry it all around with you. This way you won’t spend as much on ATM fees in the long run.
For anything you need, you should shop around the same way you do in the US. When I was in Paris, there were two grocery stores right by my apartment: a Carrefour City and a Lidl. To someone not from Europe, there may not be any obvious difference between these two stores, but after a few visits, I realized that Lidl is cheaper. Additionally, you may find that which foods are cheaper or more expensive may vary from what you are used to. I adjusted my diet a bit when I was abroad to accommodate this: I ate more fruits and vegetables and less meat and fish. It takes time to choose the right store abroad so make sure you shop around. Don’t be afraid to ask local students, too!
I chose to purchase a monthly transit pass while I was in Paris. This gave me unlimited access to every zone and every form of public transit: metro, bus, RER, and night bus. This made the most sense for me because I took the metro every day, but some of my friends chose not to purchase this pass. They walked most places, and when they didn’t they would purchase single-trip tickets. Look into the different options available for your location and figure out what works best for you.
Pay Attention to Your Spending
It is important that you have an idea of what you’re spending so that you know how far your budget is stretching and what more you can afford to do while you’re abroad. I set aside a few minutes each month and just added up expenses from my credit card bill and bank statement.
Traveling While Abroad
This is something a lot of students really want to do, and for some, it’s a big reason they decide to go abroad. However, it isn’t really what studying abroad is about. While traveling can be a lot of fun, remember not to get so wrapped up in weekend trips that you miss out on the place you decided to live! With that said, here are my top tips on how to travel while abroad on a budget:
If there are specific places you want to visit, find out the best time to go. You should avoid “peak” season so that it’s cheaper to visit and less crowded. If you don’t have specific places in mind, use tools like Skyscanner and Kayak.com Explore to find flight deals and Omio for buses and trains, which are often cheaper than flights. Overnight buses are a great cost-effective travel method because you’ll get to your destination and save on a night of accommodation—just remember a neck pillow!
Hostels are usually the cheapest option for accommodation. My favorite resource is Hostelworld because it has reviews and rankings for security, location, cleanliness, etc. If you are going with a large group (at least 4 people), Airbnb can also be a cost-effective way to find accommodation.
I don’t use taxis or ride shares when traveling both to get to know the city better and because public transit is cheaper. Most cities offer some kind of three-day or 10-ride travel pass, which I usually find is sufficient for getting around the city. Don’t be afraid to walk either—it is the cheapest mode of transportation. Plus, walking through a city is how I stumble upon streets, markets, or shops that I otherwise would miss!
Activities and Tours
A lot of hostels offer walking tours, which are a great way to get oriented to the location you’re visiting. If yours doesn’t, there are a few companies that offer “free walking tours.” Keep in mind that these tours are not actually free—you should tip your tour guide at the end.
Next, think about what you want to do. You may not be interested in everything on the “Top 10 Things To Do” list, and that’s fine! Going to every ancient ruin in Rome or trying to see the entire Louvre in one day is not everyone’s idea of fun. Don’t look at visiting new cities like a checklist—make sure you’re spending your time and money on experiences you enjoy.
Budgeting for studying abroad does not have to be as difficult as it seems. If you plan ahead and keep in mind what you want to accomplish while you’re there, you’ll be able to do it. These are just some of my tips on how to make studying abroad affordable. You can reach out to people who have studied abroad or have traveled to the place you’ll be living to see what they have to say about it, too. Every place is different, so it’s always a good idea to do your research!