study abroad 101: how to budget while studying abroad

This week on the blog I’ll be continuing my “Study Abroad 101” series with a not-as-fun post, but one that’s really important: how to budget your money while studying abroad.  While figuring out where you’re going to study abroad is fun, the next steps—like figuring out how to pay for four months in another country—can be a more difficult conversation to have.

This blog post will cover how to budget your money once you’re actually abroad.  If you’re looking for my tips on how to budget for studying abroad (like scholarships, etc) check out Part I of this series on how to choose a study abroad program!

Part 2: How to budget while studying abroad.

Even though it’s not super fun, it’s so, so important to keep track of your money while you’re abroad.  I so get it—the last thing you want to be doing on your way to an incredible museum in Paris or a club in Barcelona is checking your budgeting spreadsheet (which I’ll get to in a little bit!) or bank’s mobile app.  But isn’t that better than arriving there only to have your card declined?  Sometimes you have to sacrifice some of the glamour (i.e. gallivanting through Europe) because, you know, eating a dinner that isn’t microwaved can be nice too.  And a plane ticket home (well…that’s negotiable, I suppose!)

Below I’ve listed some of my favorite, tried-and-true, tips for how to best make it through studying or traveling abroad.  I started traveling internationally at a pretty young age and have used these tips on most of my travels.  Even if you’re not studying abroad—even if you’re just going on a short trip internationally—hopefully these will still help you have just a few coins left in your wallet when you return home!

1) Take out cash in larger segments.  This is one of my biggest tips.  Why?  Because most ATMs you use will have pesky little ATM fees that seem insignificant at the time, but will really add up.  On a trip about five years ago, I racked up almost $200 in international and ATM fees.  Y’all, I made these mistakes so you don’t have to.  If you go to the ATM once every few weeks and take out the equivalent of, say, $200 or $300, you’re in a much better place, wallet-wise, than if you take out $50 once every three days (or day…if you’re like me and get sucked in by shopping because “I just have to have it!”)

2) In the past, it’s been my personal philosophy while traveling to try only paying cash—pulling out a credit card only when it was a larger purchase that would have dwindled my cash supply.  It makes sense: when I could see my money, how much I’d spent, and how much was left, I was less likely to part with it.  I knew where it was and had to physically watch it leave my hands when I spent it.  And then credit cards happened.  Which is bad.  For one, it’s so much easier to spend the money when it’s in the magical land of your bank account than when it’s in your wallet.  Second, international fees on cards (usually around 3% on purchases, though it varies by bank) add up super quickly, just like ATMs.  Remember when I said earlier that I spend almost $200 on international and ATM fees?  It’s because I went into the same clothing store on that trip approximately six or more times and used my card every time.  Don’t ask me why I am the way I am.

Note: technology advances at the speed of light and some countries are moving towards a more cashless society, meaning there might be some stores that don’t accept cash.  This means that there will be a lot more of me handing over my card at the register and holding my breath because I’m only, like, 64% sure there’s enough money in my account.  Know this about the country before you get there and plan accordingly.

3) Look into getting a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Like I said, those fees can add up, and some companies (like Capital One) offer credit cards that have no international fees on purchases, which can be a huge buffer to your savings account.  If you’re a broke college student with no income who won’t be approved for a credit card, talk to your parents about them getting the card and then having a companion card for you.

4) This doesn’t necessarily fall under the category of “how to budget,” but it’s something important to remember that has to do with money.  Make sure you call your bank or banks before you go and let them know what countries you’re going to be in and when.  If you don’t do this, they’ll most likely (and kudos to them for being on top of it) put a freeze on your account because they’ll think your card has been stolen.  Avoid this by taking care of it ahead of time, so you’ll be smooth sailing the second you leave the airport!

5) Look for student discounts.  EVERYWHERE.  You never know where you might be able to score discounted tickets to a museum or theatre, and literally the worst thing that can happen is that they don’t have one.  Businesses are smart and have realized that college students still like to do things…but we’re cheap.  Make sure, however, if you purchase a student discounted ticket that you have your student ID or some other proof that you’re a student, otherwise they might make you pay the difference (this happened when I was studying abroad last summer and it’s really not fun).

6) If you plan on doing a ton of traveling by train, then looking into Eurail passes might be a good idea.  There’s quite a few different options, so make sure you choose the one that’s right for you; for example, if you are taking classes almost continuously and only get a 10 day break for travel, you could get the less expensive 15-day pass rather than the 22-day pass.  The other great thing about Eurail passes is they count “youth” as up to age 27, meaning even undergrad or graduate students can get discounted passes.

7) Finally: decide what you prioritize.  If you LOVE buying clothes and want your wardrobe to reflect your unique adventures, buy the dang elephant pants from Thailand and don’t beat yourself up about it.  It’s not realistic to say you’re not going to buy any clothes, or mugs, or spoons, or whatever you want to collect.  Set aside a certain amount of things you want to spend money on (for me it’s museums and keychains and, yes, clothes) and then perhaps limit your spending elsewhere.  It’s all a give-and-take.

That’s all I’ve got for today!  Do you have any tried-and-true tips for budgeting your money while traveling abroad?  I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Happy travels!


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