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Financing Study Abroad: The Cost When You’re There

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It was early morning when I landed in the Auckland Airport in New Zealand following a 13-hour night in the air full of naps and binge watching The Lord of the Rings. I made my way through Customs and Biosecurity and took my first step into the rainy, warm, New Zealand air. After some time absorbing kiwi accents and people driving on the other side of the car, I gravitated toward a coffee stand to get a cup of coffee and a breakfast: $20 NZD. I got a new SIM card and a small phone plan so that I could access data on my phone: $50 NZD. I bought a bus ticket to make it from Auckland Airport to Auckland city: $20 NZD. Before even making it to the city, I had burned through almost all of the cash that I had exchanged before my flight. I was taken aback by the high cost of living, but my money-consciousness was nonexistent when I had so many adventures in my mind – this was what I’ve been looking forward to for months and months.

You’ll undoubtedly be excited to be abroad, and your expenses will start to add up right away.

You’ll be in a place where everything is new, and you’ll be surrounded by people who want to go out and explore as much as possible. But being aware of your budget and ways to save money is critical to your success abroad.

Here are a few of the costs that you can expect to spend a bit of money on:

  • Books and school supplies – You’ll need to buy some sort of school supplies unless you were able to cram a few notebooks into your luggage. These costs should be very similar to costs at your home institution for books. You can always save some money by renting books at a library!
  • Initial necessary expenses
    • Stocking up on food – Most study abroad programs don’t put you on a meal plan, leaving you to fend for yourself. The first trip to the grocery store will be the most expensive, especially if you’ve never had to live independently before. You’ll have to buy things the small necessities that you’ll use throughout the semester such as salt, oil, containers, butter, etc. Don’t worry – after the first big expenditure, you’ll only have to top up on foods that you run out of.
    • Bank account cost – Depending on which bank you have at home, you could end up spending heaps of money on international transaction costs. A common way to avoid this is to open up a new bank account in your host country and transfer money to it. Oftentimes, this has some start-up costs associated with it.
    • Phone – You’ll likely not be using your phone plan from home for the duration of your time abroad because it’s quite expensive. Most students turn to using a local phone plan with their original smart phone by swapping the SIM card to get a new phone number. Depending on how many international calls you make and how much data you use, you could end up spending quite a bit on this. For me, it’s about $40 NZD per month.
  • Weekly grocery shopping – Every week, you’ll have to go grocery shopping. The cost here varies extraordinarily depending on your choice in groceries: if you’re eating the most expensive meats and buying other gourmet ingredients and meals, you’ll spend quite a lot here. I spent about $100 NZD per week on food alone! You can save quite a lot of money by learning how to eat cheaply (but not too cheaply – too much Ramen isn’t good for you). One good tip is to look for local farmers’ markets to get cheap fruits and vegetables.
  • Hitting the town – At some point, you’ll probably end up going out for a night on the town for some good fun, but there may be high costs that follow! In New Zealand, a dinner at a restaurant is universally expensive and over $20 NZD due to the high cost of living. Then, a club “cover fee” is always charged, ranging from $5 to $15 NZD. Of course, any sort of drinks at a bar are always going to be extremely expensive. An extravagant night on the town can easily break $100 NZD!
  • Trips – This will undoubtedly be your most expensive expenditure. You need to budget wisely for this. Transportation (flights, bus, etc), accommodation (camping, hostel, hotel, etc.), food, and activities add up extremely fast. If you’re going on a trip every weekend, you’ll quickly feel the impact of this. Planning wisely and setting a budget can save you a lot of money – stay at a cheap hostel, grocery shop for food rather than eating out, and find local cheap activities rather than defaulting to the tourist traps. A cheap camping weekend away from my campus here in New Zealand exceeds $100 NZD. You can have tons of great adventures, but try to explore frugally.

Yes, there’s a hefty list of expenses. But, don’t be overwhelmed – remember, it’s all a part of paying for once-in-a-lifetime adventures and experiences. Undoubtedly, there are a few steps you can take to ease the financial burden (and leave money for some other adventures):

  • Get a job abroad – I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’re studying abroad for a full year but getting even a part-time job could significantly ease the financial burden of your weekly adventures. But, be careful, studying abroad can spread you pretty thin between academics, adventures, making friends, living independently, etc. Studying abroad has a whole set of its own challenges that comes along with it. Make sure your visa allows for this!
  • Start saving early – The second you start considering the idea of studying abroad, you should start saving money for your adventures abroad. Finances can weigh heavily on your happiness abroad, and planning far in advance will be a significant investment that will have a huge impact on your experience.
  • Make a budget and stick to it – It’s not wise to simply spend money when a cost comes up. Rather, you should create a budget for each trip and each week, and stick to it. This will leave you with much more control over your financial situation. You don’t want to run out of money before you’ve had a chance to conclude your semester.
  • Live cheaply – There’s no need to stay in extravagant hotels; hostels and camping are cheap alternatives. Don’t eat out every night, cook your own meals for the week and save some money (try to learn how to cook some super awesome meals – a skill that goes a long way). Rent the cheap car if you’re going on a road trip: it’s fine if a car doesn’t have an auxiliary cord, just bring a portable speaker!

Brandon Barry is a Computer Engineering major at Brown University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in Spring of 2017. He is a blog writer for IFSA-Butler through the First Generation Scholarship program.