How to budget for expenses studying abroad

Feb 15, 2020

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Studying abroad is one of those “once in a lifetime experiences.” For many, it might be their first time out of the country and truly immersing themselves in another culture. This opportunity is invaluable and can truly set college students up for great success in years to come. During college, it was important for me to study abroad. I chose a program at the University of New South Wales in Australia (near the beaches in Sydney) and look back fondly at that experience quite often.

Unfortunately though, the study abroad experience comes with a big price tag. According to GoAbroad.com through the research done by the International Institute of Education, the average study abroad costs are around $18,000 per semester. These costs are generally above and beyond what parents think college students spend. Of course this number can be higher or lower depending on your specific program, the country where you are studying and other external factors, but this is a good number to start with. For me, the cost of studying abroad was actually similar to the semesters cost at my university in the US. Finding a program that partners with your university is important as it will make the process more seamless and potentially more financially possible.

With such an expensive cost, it is a good idea to budget early. You’ll also want to remember studying abroad is more than just tuition, housing and a plane ticket to that country. You truly want it to be an experience. You’ll want to eat at local restaurants, travel around the country and spend a night out in the town.

Here are some tips to budget for your upcoming study abroad experience:

1. Plan out Your Expenses

Aside from your program costs, there are many additional expenses that you might not have thought about. Since you are in another country, you might have to get a different cell phone and sign up for a separate plan. You also might be on the hook to pay for WiFi and electricity in your place of living.

Transportation to your school is another cost to think about. Are you within walking distance or will you be relying on local transportation? Also consider how you’ll get to the grocery store and around town. For some, the costs will be minimal, while others might have a decent line item in their budgeting tracker. This is something that I did not consider initially. My school was about a 20 minute walk, but for late night classes, I didn’t love walking on my own in the dark. The grocery store was also close to the school so walking with bags in hand (with many hills) was not a great option. Every time I took the bus I was out another $2. While this might not seem like a lot, it can add up, especially if it’s on a daily basis.

The London Underground transport system. (Photo by Travelpix-Ltd/Getty Images)
The London Underground transport system. (Photo by Travelpix-Ltd/Getty Images)

Your housing situation will also play a big part in your additional expenses. Are you living on a campus with an included meal plan or are you on your own for food? Do you have a kitchen where you can cook your own food, or will you primarily be eating out? I lived in a house with seven other students and was fortunate enough that we would all take turns cooking for one another. Cooking in bulk and splitting trips to the grocery store helped keep us on all track with our budget.

Using an excel spreadsheet or creating a monthly budget can help you fully keep track of your potential expenses and help you budget accordingly.

2. Pick a Budget-Friendly Country

When you are budgeting out all of your expenses, make sure to take your country of choice into account. For example, studying in Western Europe will most likely cost more overall than Southeast Asia. This is not only due to potentially lower program costs, but also your everyday living expenses as well as entertainment and travel costs. Finding street food for a dollar is quite easy in Thailand, but nowhere close to realistic in Switzerland.

Humboldt University in Berlin. (Photo by Norbert Michalke/Getty Images)
Humboldt University in Berlin. (Photo by Norbert Michalke/Getty Images)

It’s important to understand what personal finance is and how to manage money early on in the process of preparing to study abroad. Just using a general study abroad cost calculator might over or underestimate your actual costs, so make sure to fully understand the overall climate of your country of choice. You’ll also want to take into consideration exchange rate changes. If you are budgeting a year or more out, keep in mind that the exchange rate might be slightly different after actually arriving in the country. This may or may not be to your advantage. Hint: you could consider using a no foreign transaction fee card to pay for your expenses.

3. What is Included in Your Program Costs

Figure out what is included in your program costs as you might be surprised to see the additional costs add up. Is the flight to the country included? (Of course you can always consider using points and miles to get you there if not). Will you have to furnish your apartment or housing option, or will it already be furnished for you? When I studied abroad, although our apartment was furnished, we were on the hook for non-essentials, like televisions. We went to a second hand store to buy a television for the semester and then we sold it at the end of our six month stay. We also had to rent a washing machine from a local store and opted to hang dry our clothes to save on the dryer expense. These were not expenses I had originally budgeted, but they can add up.

4. Determine the Cost of Living

Do some research about the country you are planning on visiting to figure out the cost of living. Talk to students who have studied at that particular school or join a local online group and speak to individuals currently living there.

This will help you determine essential costs, such as housing, cell phones, transportation, restaurants and groceries. Of course you’ll also want to budget for experiences as well, such as restaurants, excursions and nightly entertainment.

Street food in Thai market. (Photo by Cristian Mihai Vela / EyeEm)
(Photo by Cristian Mihai Vela / EyeEm)

5. You Will Want to Travel

Travel is a huge part of study abroad too. While getting to know your new university and the city where you are living is great, seeing other parts of the country is part of the experience. Depending on where you are studying will determine your travel expenses. You’ll want to determine if there are inexpensive train options or if you are bound to more expensive airplane tickets.

During my study abroad experience, we were pretty much on our own for sightseeing. One weekend trip in the program, a visit to the Blue Mountains of Australia, was included in the program fee.  However, our other travel and sightseeing expenses during the study abroad experience made up a hefty part of my budget.

Fortunately, I knew other students who went to my university of choice the year prior and they were able to help me figure out my travel schedule in advance. My research ahead of time helped me understand to budget for a spring break trip and a week-long study period trip at the end of the semester. I then also planned on a few weekend trips to see other sites within the country. Having friends you can stay with while traveling is also a great way to reduce your travel cost and help you stay on budget.

(Photo by Edward Pizzarello/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Edward Pizzarello/The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

Studying abroad is an amazing experience and should be an opportunity to consider. Of course the cost can add up, but for some, you might actually find it to be a similar price as your semester cost at your home university. Ultimately though, you’ll want to ensure you budget properly to be able to fully enjoy the entire experience out of the country. Make sure to live like a local, see everything there is see and make the most memories to look back on.

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