Broke and Abroad: My experiences budgeting overseas

Shana Pike
September 25, 2016
Cheese Market in Alkmaar

Most teenagers I knew growing up couldn’t wait to move out of Redgranite, Wisconsin. This little village of 2,000 people where the biggest attraction is a quarry, surrounded by a street with five bars, two bowling alleys, and cornfields as far as the eye can see. Most teenagers in small towns around the States can relate, I’m sure. You hate the city that you live in. Unfortunately, most of those teenagers who dreamt of travel are still in Redgranite (or a stone’s throw away in a nearby village), doing the same jobs their parents did, settling down, and getting married.

The last thing I wanted as an 18 year old was to get stuck in that small town. When applying for college, I was told I couldn’t attend a liberal arts university because it would be too expensive. I heard this from family, friends, even my boss at the time.

Embracing the best side of my stubborn tendencies, I applied at only liberal arts universities, worked 50+ hours that summer, and waited to see which university would financially support my education the most. I’m now a fourth year at an institution with a ridiculous price tag and a great reputation, but only because I applied for countless scholarships, worked multiple jobs, and prioritized my education.

To anyone out there who also pays an American tuition bill, this struggle of budgeting isn’t foreign.

I’m not about to say studying abroad isn’t worth the cost. I haven’t done anything else more worth it in my life. What I will say is that studying abroad requires extra planning for those students who are balancing their own bank account. These are some things I’m doing to reduce the financial burden while still optimizing my study abroad opportunities:   

     1. I only eat out for new experiences, otherwise I cook at home! Cook with friends! Cook at my friends’ homes! As someone who adores cooking and sharing recipes, this my favorite way make plans with busy schedules (everyone has to eat!), try new recipes. Plus, what better way to get to know about someone then to eat their favorite foods from home? 

     2. Keep a budget. I don’t keep a strict diary of everything I spend, I generally track how much money I’m pulling from ATMs (and the fees!). Things like transportation or even your morning coffee (if that’s your thing) can really add up quickly. Personally, I make my coffee at home because that extra 2 euro a day (120 days abroad x 2 euro = 240 euros) could pay for a trip to Budapest and back.

     3. If I’m traveling with friends and I feel comfortable, I let them know my financial situation. This is something I have to do frequently for my own sanity. If I’m in a situation where I don’t feel comfortable, I’m constantly trying to finagle my way out of going certain (expensive) places or am stuck ordering the cheapest thing on a menu and tap water. These actions always warrant questions: Is that all you’re ordering? Don’t you want a drink? We should get dessert! Just because I’m on a budget doesn’t mean I always skip dessert when eating out. There are cheaper options if you are willing to look! For example, gelato in The Netherlands is a super affordable, delicious treat (usually around 1,50 euro for one scoop). An alternative is to suggest buying stroopwafels (or some other sweet treat) from the local market and taking a stroll through town.

     4. Before going to the grocery store, I explore the open air markets for some of my groceries. There are a ton of markets in Amsterdam and many operate throughout the week from 9:00 to 17:00. I find tons a cheap fruits and veggies there by shopping smart and going to stands where the prices are posted. If there aren’t prices posted, you can almost guarantee that upon asking “How much is this?” in tourist-accented English, the vendor will tell you a higher price than they would tell a local. It’s also good to know roughly how much a kilogram and ½ kilogram is so you know what you’re getting versus what you’re paying.

     5. When looking on traveling websites in Europe, Skyscanner has been one of my favorites. I recently booked a solo trip to Ireland for November and, prior to picking a day, I searched to see which weekend was the cheapest. Skyscanner also allows you to find the cheapest flights for any given time. For example, I can search flights leaving Amsterdam Schipol Airport to “Anywhere” and get a list of the cheapest places to fly over that time period.

     6. Further regarding travel, I could hypothetically plan a new trip every weekend. However, this is extremely expensive, exhausting, and unrealistic for my situation (and for many student travelers). My plan is to pick 2-3 long distance trips that are “must-dos” while I’m in Amsterdam. For other adventures, there are countless amazing places you can travel to using public transportation both within and outside of the country you’re staying.  

     7. This last tip applies prior to departing, but before studying abroad don't forget to apply for scholarships! There are quite a few opportunities to earn supplementary funding for your trip if you look for it. Check through your university, the study abroad program, even local volunteer or service organizations from your hometown or college town. For example, in exchange for helping to fund my trip, the local Kiwanis club from where I grew up asked if I could give a small presentation about my experiences in Amsterdam. Also, crowd-funding websites like GoFundMe is a great tool, as well. Get creative!

If you asked me this time last year if I wanted to study abroad, the answer would have been yes. If you asked me this time last year if I was going to study abroad, the answer would have been no. Studying abroad obviously isn’t a cheap endeavor, it’s an investment like many worthwhile things in life. Now that I’m in the middle of my study abroad experience, it’s difficult to find the right balance between experiencing the opportunity to the fullest and maintaining a strict budget. I don’t expect this balancing act to get any easier, but hopefully my experiences helped someone out there get a better sense of studying abroad on a budget. Succes (Good Luck)!


Shana Pike

<p>Hello folks! I&#39;m Shana, a small-town tree-hugger with a big appetite for experiences, culture, and knowledge. I&#39;m an undergrad student of Psychology and Gender Studies, yearning to understand my surroundings better each day. Welcome to my conglomeration of ideas and passions, all nourished by traveling, friends, spinach, and coffee.</p>

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