Can I afford to study abroad?

When I was thinking about studying abroad, cost was a major consideration. I quickly ruled out programs that cost far beyond my tuition at home as I would be paying for my program myself.

What are the major expenses when it comes to study abroad? How much money do you need to make it through a semester? What does it cost to travel? And how can you save money while overseas?

Here are the most important things I learned about spending and saving while studying abroad.

1) Find a program that matches your budget

Sticking to a budget meant giving up a few things. I had to choose a program that was affiliated with my school, because I needed my financial aid to go towards my semester abroad. I had to let go of my dream of studying in Italy, because the programs there were too expensive. That was hard! I had dreamed of going to Italy since elementary school.

My study abroad office advised looking into cheaper alternatives to my top choice. For example, if you want to practice your Spanish, but Spain is too expensive, South American countries are cheaper overall and may have programs that are closer to what you can afford.

I didn’t know a word of Spanish, so I decided South America was out. I scoured my school’s study abroad website and landed on three options: Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Oslo, Norway; and Norwich, England.

These three finalists were not traditional study abroad programs, where you go and study with other international students at a American school in your destination country. They were exchanges, which often means that you pay the same or similar tuition as you would at your home university. You go to school with students from the country you are visiting. There is less onsite support, and you are more integrated with the language.

I ended up choosing Norwich, England for a number of reasons detailed in this post, not the least because it would take the smallest chunk out of my bank account.

2) Cost of living

While the program in Norway was actually cheaper than the program in England, the cost of living in Scandinavia is extremely high (I learned this by accident when I bought lipstick in Sweden that would have been $20 cheaper if I’d waited to buy it in London). And comparatively, dollars are a bit closer to euros than they are to pounds, so the program in the Netherlands would have been nearer still to what I was used to spending on a daily basis back home.

Spend some time researching the cost of living in your chosen destination and see how it compares to your home city. That will give you a better idea of what your spending will look like during your time abroad.

3) Flights

I had a moment of panic when I realized flights to and from Europe would likely cost me upwards of $1000. That’s a large amount to come out of your savings before you even embark on an expensive semester.

My best advice when it comes to flights:

  • Book early. As soon as you know your arrival date, book your flight. Prices will only go up if you wait.
  • Look for resources. I recommend Student Universe. This organization works with airlines to provide cheaper flight options for students or individuals under 25. You need a valid student email to set up an account. It’s worth looking to see how the prices compare with similar flights on Kayak or Expedia. I’ve had a lot of luck getting cheaper flights to London (my one-way from Minnesota cost $250), though the discounts vary a lot based on your destination.

Overall, I’d budget $1000-$2000 for flights depending on where you are going.

Pro-tip #1:

Caveat emptor. Student Universe is a helpful resource, but be very careful when booking. Because they provide such good deals, they will charge you hundreds of dollars to cancel or reschedule your ticket. They’ve refunded a ticket for me within 24 hours of purchase, but only some tickets have this refund period attached. Just read the fine print carefully and be sure of your date and time before you book.

4) Before you go

Administrative costs add up. Some of the money I made from working part-time the fall before my trip went towards my study abroad application, passport, and visa. According to Travel.gov, a first-time US passport costs $110. Visas vary based on the country you are going to; I ordered my six-month UK student visa ahead of time instead of getting a stamp at the airport, just to be safe. It cost around $130.

5) Accommodation

Housing, if it isn’t included in your program fee, is a significant cost to take into account. I did a lot of research on the housing options at my new university. Since I was on exchange, my accommodation choices there were just like at home. Homestays were not available, but I could live in an apartment off campus if I wanted to look for one on my own, or I could stay in the dorms. I chose the cheapest dorm that would give me my own room, which was about $3000 for the semester.

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you have to provide everything your room needs. If you’re in an apartment, does it come with a bed, or will you have to furnish it?

My dorm room provided a bed, wardrobe, desk, dresser, bookshelf, and lamp, so I didn’t have to worry about any of those things. I did need to buy:

  • Bedding. My school offered a cheap bedding pack for around £20; I also bought an extra throw blanket, and many of my friends bought new pillows and sheets.
  • Over-the-door hooks to hang my towels on
  • Dishes to use in the kitchen. This was my biggest expense—if you’re living with other people, see if you can share the cost of pots and pans.
  • Office supplies—I am always caught unprepared when I need tape, scissors, or mailing envelopes, so I made sure to have those things on hand.
  • Shower supplies such as a bathmat, bathrobe, hand towel, and washcloths
  • Toiletries

Grocery runs also cost more the first few weeks until I had located the cheapest supermarkets and stocked up on some staples.

Pro-tip #2:

I’m going to go against all study abroad packing advice here and say DO fill up your suitcase when you go. Fill it with things you can throw away at the end of your program. If you already have stuff like older towels or shampoo at home, bring them along with you. Bring toothpaste and other things that will run out. That way, you don’t have to buy them once you’re there, and you also don’t have to worry about them taking up room in your luggage when you go back home.

6)  Food

This is an obvious tip, but you can keep your costs down a lot by not eating out.

It’s tempting to try everything in a new place. When I went out to eat in England, I tended to get a main dish, a dessert, and a drink. That added up really fast! I had to recognize my habit of wanting to order all these things every meal and limit myself.

When I was on campus, I rarely ate out (we didn’t have a meal plan). I avoided the on-campus dining options and cooked or snacked in my dorm’s kitchen instead.

When I traveled, I would pack along easy foods like granola bars, bread, jam, and fruit. I tried to eat those instead of going to a restaurant for every meal. It’s harder to eat cheap when you’re traveling, especially because you want to try the local cuisine, and it’s not glamorous to haul around a bag of food everywhere you go. But I recommend that, as much as you can, you buy food at supermarkets, pack lunches, and limit yourself to one restaurant or less per day if you want to save money.

In a pinch, McDonald’s is so very cheap, and it is everywhere. I ate many a €1 hamburger while wandering around cities in Europe.

7) Souvenirs

I didn’t do this, but a few of my friends bought a postcard in every place they visited. It is a really cheap way to remember your trip. My method was even cheaper—using the photos I took as my souvenirs. 😉 There were a few things that I HAD to have: a bear dressed up like a Buckingham Palace guard from London, some pottery from Scotland, a glass cat statue from Venice. But for the most part I avoided buying things, as they would only sit on the shelf once I brought them home, and they take up valuable space in your suitcase. Instead, I tried to spend money primarily on experiences.

8) Don’t be afraid to splurge a little

A hard balance during study abroad is—I’m living on limited funds for a full semester, and I have to pinch pennies, and This might be the only time I’m ever here, and I want to make the most of it.

While you shouldn’t make it a habit to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on dining and clothes and experiences every weekend if you are worried about finances, if there’s something you think you’d regret not doing or purchasing, then you should. Try to make your big expenses things you’re really excited about. I didn’t want to spend £30 to ride the London Eye, even though my friends did, so I chose not to participate in that activity. That way, when I found something I really did want to spend that money on, I could.

Should you buy these beautiful €200 shoes you’ll never see again if you leave them behind? Probably not, because €200 is a lot when you’re a student. But if over the course of a week, on top of your regular expenses, you spend €30 on an awesome souvenir, €40 on an outfit you’ll wear a thousand times, and €30 on dinner at a really great place, don’t feel guilty about it.

When I returned home from my program, my main takeaways from studying abroad were experiences with friends, trying delicious foods, and getting gifts for people back home. Those things are worthwhile. Yes, they cost money. I depleted most of my savings, but I don’t regret it. My constant stressing over finances while I was abroad wasn’t worth it; now that I’m back home and working, I’m rebuilding my savings. If you are spending within your means, it’s okay to splurge here and there.

The run-down: how much does it cost to study abroad?

My study abroad program was 4.5 months long. I traveled for about 1.5 months of that since we had a lot of time off for spring break and after final exams.

The months I was primarily in Norwich, I spent an average of $1500 per month. This amount was mainly spent on:

  • Things for my dorm room when I first arrived
  • Phone service
  • Food from the grocery store
  • Toiletries (soap, paper towels, other things you run out of)
  • Eating out in the city sometimes
  • Clothes (mostly from H&M and Zara, so they weren’t terribly expensive)
  • Weekend trips
  • Bus transportation to and from Norwich, though I usually tried to walk
  • ATM withdrawals
  • Booking ahead for longer trips (train tickets, hostel deposits, flights)
  • My flights back to the US
  • Other random expenses, like schoolbooks, a case for my Kindle, movies, mailing things back home, etc.

The month that I traveled around Europe for five straight weeks, I spent $3000. When I went back to the UK a year later as a tourist for three weeks, I spent around $2000. I think an accurate guess for how much it costs one person to travel somewhat cheaply is around $500 per week. The biggest part of that price is accommodation—hostels in Europe are much cheaper than hotels in America, but they still add up when you’re staying in them every night for several weeks, and they get more expensive during high-travel times of the year (like Christmas) as well.

When I left for my semester in England, I had $16000 in the bank. This money came from financial aid I had saved by living at home the previous semester; a $3000 study abroad scholarship I applied for and received from my school; financial aid for the current semester; and savings from a well-paid summer internship. My study abroad tuition was covered by academic scholarships and financial aid from my home university. Accommodation came out of the $16000, leaving me with $13000. When I returned home, I had $4000 left.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised when looking at how much I spent. I think the main reason for the high amount is that I traveled so much. I traveled almost every weekend and for all of spring break. Some of my friends traveled more than I did, making time before and after their program. Others did not travel nearly as much as I did, and they saved a lot of money by spending the majority of their spring break in Norwich.

The other reason is that, while the amount looks pretty huge in dollars, those dollars buy less when they’re converted into pounds. $9000 translates to £6500—£1400 per month.

I’m also awful at budgeting; someone with more discipline in writing down all their expenses would probably have been able to spend less than I did.

I wouldn’t have studied abroad if I wasn’t able to accumulate the financial resources I did beforehand. My greatest fear was getting stuck overseas with no money. If you are thinking of studying abroad, make sure you know where the money for tuition and housing is coming from, whether it’s your school, out of pocket, or a loan. If you plan to travel a lot, I would recommend having $8000 to $10000 in savings, and if you plan to travel less, $6000 in savings.

 

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