During my second semester of junior year, I decided to study abroad in the coastal town of Brighton, England. Having never been away from home for longer than three weeks, the prospect of climbing into an airplane and traveling 3,200 miles to live with a bunch of strangers for a few months was both exciting and terrifying.
Part of my trepidation stemmed from the collection of horror stories I’d heard about the exorbitant costs of living abroad. While England was the perfect fit for me academically, financially, it posed a huge problem. As a third year college student with loans already piling up, I was petrified of the British pound and its unfavorable exchange rate.
To make matters worse, I had secured an out-of-state internship in New York that summer, meaning I would not only have to budget for the spring, but also for a few months afterwards. For this reason, I was forced to develop some unique survival skills to avoid arriving back on campus in the fall completely and utterly bankrupt. Here’s how I stretched my bare-bones student budget while living abroad, and how you can do the same.
1. Freeze Your Groceries
As many Europeans are quick to point out, their food contains fewer preservatives than food in the United States. While this practice certainly helps to promote a healthier lifestyle by limiting the number of chemicals you pump into your system, it can also prove to be terribly inconvenient, especially when you come home to find your loaf of bread covered in mold just two days after you bought it.
Three weeks and five wasted loaves of bread later, I decided that I needed a new strategy, one that would allow me to enjoy my favorite foods without breaking the bank every week. I began freezing my grocery items, shoving everything from bread to berries to chicken fingers in the ice box in hopes of saving a few extra bucks.
My plan turned out to be surprisingly effective. By storing my groceries in the freezer, I managed to extend their shelf lives by a few weeks.
2. Bring a Calculator to the Grocery Store
I’d never before spent my Sunday mornings cutting out coupons from the local newspaper and planning my weekly expenditures, but with food prices in the U.K. being almost double those in the U.S., that’s exactly what I found myself doing during my five months away from home.
After setting a strict $30 weekly food budget for myself, I set out for Sainsbury’s with a grocery list and a calculator in hand. By sticking to store-brand foods and scouring the aisles for the cheapest prices, I managed to keep my food costs low. Having a calculator on hand helped me stay within my budget and calculate the exchange rate. It also helped curb my impulsive purchases, though I did allow myself one “cheat” product every week, an item outside my regular diet that was a little pricier than the rest.
3. Skip the Plane or Train and Take the Bus
Whether my fondness for buses originated from their affordability or whether it developed on its own, I have no idea. It’s kind of a “chicken-or-egg” situation. What I do know is that, compared to planes and trains, buses in Europe are incredibly inexpensive. A roundtrip bus ride from London to Edinburgh can be hundreds of dollars cheaper than the corresponding train or plane ticket to the same place.
Towards the end of my stay abroad, for example, I took a 15-hour overnight bus ride from Munich to Paris, not only because it provided the opportunity to see the German countryside (that was a nice bonus) but also because the tickets were three times less expensive than a plane ticket for the same journey. Plus, many bus lines offer special “loyalty programs” that allow you to get discounts or free rides after a certain number of trips.
4. Choose Your Priorities
Before you embark on your trip abroad, it’s important to identify what your main travel priorities are. Personally, I’m not a big foodie, so I didn’t mind cutting back on grocery trips and eating cheap pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but not everyone shares my blasé attitude towards cuisine.
However, I love seeing new places and experiencing the thrill of physically moving from one place to another. Because I knew this going into my trip, I was able to budget my money to better accommodate my interests, reallocating the money I was saving on meals to new trips or activities. If you understand yourself and what makes you happiest before jumping into a long stay abroad, you’ll be able to adjust your spending accordingly and have a better travel experience.
5. Find a Backup Source of Income
One of the hardest parts about studying abroad is the employment limbo that comes with moving to a foreign country for a limited period of time. Visitor visas, which are generally issued to travelers staying in a country for six months or less, do not permit you to work abroad, forcing many exchange students to go without a source of income for their entire stay. Some students apply for long-term visas to avoid this problem, but the costs of obtaining these can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
One way to circumvent this issue is by finding an “under the table” or virtual source of income. Papering the local area with babysitting, au pair or tutoring ads can help you find a temporary side gig and offset some of the costs of living in a foreign country.
Those with a knack for writing, web design or other skills can also pick up freelance jobs online and work from virtually anywhere. Not only will freelancing give you something to do on your own 15-hour bus rides, but it will allow you to make a few bucks while you’re traveling, which sounds like a good deal in my book.
Your Turn: What are some unique ways you’ve been able to save money abroad?
Tyler Vendetti is a recent college graduate who hopes to win the lottery and lead a carefree life, or if that doesn’t pan out, work in television. When she’s not traversing the world or liking cat pictures on Facebook, Tyler can be found on Twitter @HeyThereFuture. You can also reach her via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), if you feel so inclined.