Studying abroad is a life-changing experience that allows you to take in new cultures, build confidence, and gain a global perspective. Going abroad is a lot of fun, but it’s important to handle your money responsibly while you’re there. Here are some tips I’ve learned from my time abroad.
My experience studying abroad
I just returned from a semester studying abroad in Milan, Italy. It was an unforgettable experience, and I gained a lot of practical skills and cultural awareness. But looking back, there are ways that I’d manage my money differently.
I lived in the fashion capital of the world—minutes from streets full of designer stores. I spent more than I anticipated and had to buy another bag just to carry home my extra items. But overall, I did try to save while abroad. Here are some strategies I used, and some things I would do differently.
Before you go
Managing your finances starts way before you step foot in your dream destination. Once you commit to a program and decide how you’re going to pay for it, it’s time to start saving. Here are things to do before boarding that flight.
1. Apply for study abroad scholarships
There are tons of scholarships out there for students looking to go abroad. Your home school may offer scholarships, or you can apply directly to the university where you’ll be studying. Scholarships can help cover unexpected costs like travel expenses, course fees, and insurance. My friend got his whole semester abroad fully funded through scholarships!
2. Set aside money from jobs or internships
A job or internship before going abroad can go a long way in helping to save money. I worked several hours per week at my on-campus job and was extra cautious about my spending. If you’re able to secure a part-time job or internship abroad, that will help you out, too.
3. Give your bank a heads up
Once you confirm your travel details, let your bank know that you’ll be out of the country. You can do this by calling them, going online, or visiting a local branch. Keep them in the loop about how long you’ll be gone, where you’ll be, and on what dates to avoid your card being shut off.
NOTE: If you can, use a card without a foreign transaction fee so you’re not paying more than you have to. Bring a widely accepted credit card (like a Visa or Mastercard), a backup card, and some cash in the currency of your host country so you have all the bases covered.
Once you arrive
Managing your finances isn’t just a one-and-done task before you get to your destination—it takes work and regular upkeep. In short, make a game plan and be smart about how you spend your money. Here’s the nitty-gritty of how to go about it.
1. Master the basics
Before you spend, familiarize yourself with the exchange rate of your host country. I used a simple app called Currency, which easily converts U.S. dollars to foreign currencies.
Be careful about how and when you use credit cards. Credit cards are convenient, fraud-protected ways to travel, but it’s easy to get carried away spending on credit. If you’re a digital wallet kind of person, consider getting a backup payment method. It’s a good idea to keep some cash handy (but not too much) wherever you go. Your local ATM will be your best friend.
Stay on the grid and get a local SIM card—it’s your best bet to avoid racking up phone fees. You can update friends and family on your adventures, but more importantly, you’ll have easy access to an emergency line if you need it. I got a SIM card in Italy through an established mobile operator, and I only paid about $10 per month. I used a physical SIM card, but an eSIM works just as well.
2. Map out a budget—and stick to it!
I created a monthly budget once I got to Milan. I included things like groceries, transportation, and dining out. My metro pass came out to $25 a month, and I budgeted $150-200 for groceries. It’s okay to go a bit over budget for that nice dinner, but try your best to stick to the plan. Keep in mind, it may take a few weeks to figure out how much things really cost.
Pro tip: Leave some room in your budget for the unexpected, like emergencies or repairs. Plan for these events so they don’t throw you off.
Anyone can set a budget, but the real work comes in sticking to it. If a monthly budget is too overwhelming for you, take it week by week. It’s hard to visualize your expenses when they’re not physically coming out of your wallet, so I recommend using a budget tracking app like Mint.
3. Be smart about your spending
You don’t need to break the bank to have a good time. Keep an eye out for affordable ways to have fun. Student discounts are everywhere, from museum passes and transportation tickets. My friends and I would take advantage of free admission to Milan’s museums on the first Sunday of every month.
On that same note, find ways to do the same activities for less. Grabbing dinner with friends? Opt for a night in instead of going out. It’s just as fun and gives you and your friends a bonding experience that you can’t get at a loud bar surrounded by strangers. Looking back, I wish I did this more often!
Outside of leisure, think of ways to save money in your day-to-day life. Pack water instead of buying a bottle when you’re out. Cook cheaper meals. My friend chose to walk 40 minutes to school instead of taking the metro. Not only did he save money, but he also got some exercise and discovered new areas of the city.
As a general rule, don’t buy lots of things you don’t need (and can’t fit). If you really want something, use the 24-hour rule—sleep on it and see if you’re still daydreaming about that leather jacket once that time is up. My friend gave this advice: Don’t buy clothes that you can buy for less at home. These rules apply for other items too, not just clothes.
4. Plan your travels early
If you’re like most students, you’ll probably want to explore nearby destinations during your time abroad. Map out a plan early on for each trip you take. Use student travel sites like StudentUniverse to snag discounts on flights, hotels, and more.
My #1 rule for trips? Travel with friends! It’s safer, cheaper, and more fun. At the start of the semester, my friends and I sat down together and listed out our top destinations. We identified available weekends and booked everything months in advance. We researched places to eat and ways to explore the city that weren’t too expensive, as well as free events happening during our stay. Keep extra tabs on purchases you make while traveling, and familiarize yourself with the exchange rate if it’s different from your host country.
Lastly, get to know the culture surrounding money for each place you visit. For example, travelers in Italy (especially in high-traffic cities like Rome), are big targets for pickpocketing. Knowing this, I stored my money and IDs safely in a money belt or small bag under my jacket, and I locked my backpack. Regardless of where you’re visiting, get into the habit of protecting your money. It might seem excessive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We all want a memorable study abroad experience—you know, top-notch views, incredible food, and unbelievable views. But there are ways to have fun without wiping out your wallet. Do a little extra work to budget it out. Plan your travels and make smart money moves. You (and your wallet) will thank yourself later.