Studying abroad is an exciting adventure—but it can also be an expensive one.
In addition to your regular schoolwork, you are probably going to get a crash course in budgeting. (That’s especially true if your trip abroad is also your first time leaving home!)
In the United States and Canada, international students also face limitations about how much they can work while they are enrolled in school. So, you could have a more difficult time financing your extracurricular activities than some of your peers. That’s another reason to be even more frugal with your wallet.
You might not be able to control how much money you can earn on a student visa. However, one thing that you do have control over is your spending and saving. Below, discover some tips that will make it easier for you to enjoy your study abroad experience to the fullest—even on a strict student budget.
Try Living Off-Campus
Many international students choose to live on-campus when they study abroad. That’s because they feel like there is an advantage to being close to their classes, extracurricular activities, and other amenities (like the gym, food hall, quad, and more).
However, living on-campus can also be very expensive. If you have lived on your own before, and if you feel reasonably confident getting around your new city, you might want to consider living off-campus. This gives you greater flexibility (for example, you can choose your own roommates). It also means that you can seek out cheaper rent.
More expensive areas, like New York City, make living in a dorm more cost-effective. However, if you are attending school in a smaller city—like the college town of Raleigh, North Carolina, for example—you may want to look at off-campus listings maintained by the university’s student housing department. This will help you avoid common housing scams (which often disproportionately target international students, because they are less familiar with the typical processes for locating and renting an apartment).
Here are a few features you might look for when you are browsing for off-campus housing:
- An address that is close to campus, or an easy commute to campus
- An apartment that is close to a grocery store and post office
- A neighborhood with low crime rates, and a building that seems secure (cameras, locks, good lighting)
- Other students who live nearby and attend your school
Contact the student housing department to help you fill out any documents related to your off-campus rental. You want to make sure that you are signing a fair, standard lease, and know what is included with your rent (such as utilities, cable, or hot water). You will also want someone to double-check what kind of payments you will owe—like security deposits, broker’s fees, pet deposits, and any other small “extras” that might be added onto your rent. Sometimes a deal seems really great, until all of those little extras slip in!
Compare Campus Meal Plans
If you live on campus, you might be required to choose a meal plan. This typically gives you a certain number of meals you can use each week. But in some cases, it means getting a certain allowance to spend at your school’s cafeteria and on-campus restaurants.
However, some college campuses offer apartment-like housing with full kitchens. In these cases, meal plans might be optional. If you like to cook for yourself, rather than eat at the school’s cafeteria, you might prefer this option. This choice is probably best for people who have lived on their own before. If you are new to living on your own, you might want to stick with the school’s meal plans so that you do not have to worry about going to a grocery store, planning a nutritious meal, and then actually cooking in the middle of exam week.
Think about your budgeting plans, as well. Food is one area where you cannot cut back much, since you need a certain amount to stay healthy and focused on your studies. While you can keep snacks in your room, you will need access to complete meals—every day, all throughout the semester. So you might want to do some basic math based on the cost of local groceries and determine if you will save more money with a meal plan.
However, you might decide that you do not need the full-service meal plan. They come in all different varieties. You can choose a more basic plan (such as one meal a day, or a few meals per week), which you can supplement with trips to the grocery store or meals you can make in a microwave. Sometimes, balance is the key!
Buy Used Textbooks
The price of college textbooks can be astronomical. That is mostly the case when a book is new; but those prices are often heavily discounted when a book is used. For example, a new $100 USD book could cost only $60 USD used. You can also look for digital copies of the book online for a fraction of the price. Just make sure you are getting the correct edition!
Typically, there will also be a bookstore selling used textbooks near campus. There is also such a thing as textbook rentals, which have, ironically, led to a slight drop in new book prices.
Most colleges and universities allow students to sell back books at the end of the term, which means you can get a partial refund on your investment by “recycling” your used books.
Look for Student Discounts
Even the most expensive cities offer discounts for students. That’s especially true the closer you are to your college or university itself, since many businesses want to cater to the local student population. That is particularly true for restaurants that are close to the campus!
Look for coupons and advertised specials that offer you a discount for showing your student ID. Admission to some museums may be discounted (or even free); sports events and movie tickets could have a discounted price category for students, too.
If you travel, you might find that discounts vary by city—but your student ID is not only allowed to be used in the city or state where you live. (Plus, the travel itself might be discounted! Look for savings on bus and train tickets.)
Shop at Thrift Stores
Want a really good way to save money? Shop at thrift stores instead of purchasing clothes and home goods at full prices. Thrift stores sell used clothing that is still in good condition at much lower prices than the item was originally sold.
Other options include outlet stores (which sell new clothes at marked down prices), consignment stores (which are like thrift stores, but typically offer higher-quality items), and discount stores (which are often from wholesale retailers). You can also look for “dollar stores” where there are household goods and nonperishable grocery items that sell for about one dollar (or sometimes more—make sure to check the price tag). And don’t limit yourself to just the local chains; many larger cities now have outposts of Japanese “hundred yen” stores and similar discount retailers.
But pay attention to quality! A store might be selling quality items for less because they are out of season, or for other reasons. Sometimes, items are simply used—but in perfectly good condition. However, in some cases, cheap items are worth exactly what you paid.
Be a savvy shopper with these tips:
- Research brands online; find out what an item was originally worth and what others are reselling it for now on resale sites like eBay or Poshmark.
- Look at clothing items carefully to ensure they are not torn or stained; be sure to try everything on to see if it fits!
- Find out if you can get any additional discounts. Sometimes stores offer student discounts. Also, learn about return policies and if something is a “final sale.”
Get Apps to Track Spending
Between classes and living in a new country, you are going to have a lot on your mind. Keeping track of your expenses does not need to be an extra burden.
But, even when you are trying to be responsible, sometimes it’s easy to lose track of exactly what you are spending. That’s why apps can be extremely helpful. They do the work for you!
First, you might want an app that compares currency exchange rates between your home country and your new country. That will help you put your spending in perspective. This can also be useful if you are withdrawing money from a bank back home and then using it in the U.S. or Canada. Options include My Currency, Amount, and Currency.
Second, keep a list of your monthly expenses. This can include monthly payments—like rent and utilities—as well as one-time costs, like a concert ticket or special event that you know will be an extra payment in a few months. If you aren’t sure about keeping something like this on your phone, you can keep electronic copies of your important notes safe using secure cloud storage. You can also learn about ways to stay safe with your electronic devices while traveling abroad.
Third, there are also budgeting apps that do a lot of the guesswork for you—like breaking down your spending habits into specific categories. Once you see how much money you spend on food, for example, versus entertainment or travel or other costs, it will help you change your lifestyle to spend and save where it really matters most to you. One of the most popular apps for this is called Mint. Your bank’s app might also offer similar budgeting features!
Studying abroad might be one of the most memorable opportunities of your life! The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time worrying about how much everything will cost. If you do solid research, make prudent plans, and watch your spending, you are sure to have a safe, fun, and educational experience.