Studying Abroad on a Budget

If you’re studying abroad, going to be studying abroad, or even considering studying abroad chances are you’re doing so on a budget because, well, you’re in college. With the ever increasing costs of tuition and your limited earning potential while attending classes full-time, you’re probably wondering if studying abroad is not only affordable but might be looking for some advice on how to do it on a budget. While I by no means have all the answers, I have studied abroad in Spain – Granada, 2010 – and did so on a pretty tight budget.


Find the Right Program

There are countless study abroad programs out there, and your university undoubtedly is associated with a few of them. Take a long look at all the programs your university is partnered with. Some of the programs will probably be run directly through the university itself and others through private study abroad companies which the university partners with. Each program will have its pros and cons, which you will have to weigh yourself.

First off, if you’re looking to study abroad in a specific country or city or during a certain term that will narrow your options significantly. Cost and courses that transfer back to help you graduate will also be huge factors in finding the right program. It’s a myth that studying abroad has to be more expensive then normal university’s semester or year tuition. I found a program that was equal to the cost of tuition for a semester at my university. Yes, there were plenty of programs that charged more then normal tuition for the given time period, but those were not an option for me. Also, I do not feel like I settled on a program based on cost. It offered all the amenities that other more expensive study abroad programs did.


Now, courses that transfer back to help you graduate. This was the biggest qualifying factor in deciding on a program for me. I needed to have the courses transfer back and help me graduate. I researched the programs through my university and spoke with all the departments in which I was going to need courses to transfer back. A few of the courses already had equivalent courses set up, but others I needed special permission for. I talked to professors and department heads and got the required paperwork and signatures. All four of my courses during my semester abroad would transfer back and count as courses I needed to graduate. I should mention, too, that while I studied in Spain and took Spanish courses, I was not a Spanish major or minor; I majored in Political Science and Public Administration with a 3D Art minor.

Do your due diligence, and research all the programs available to you. There is certainly one out there that fits all your qualifications and requirements. I remember looking everywhere from Egypt and the Netherlands to Argentina and France. Ultimately, I ended on Spain.

Also, search for scholarships! There may be some through your study abroad provider or your university that can help lower the cost of studying abroad. They’re out there; you just have to find them!


Create a Budget

If you’re anything like I was, after you found a program and were all ready to go you once again realized that you were in college and had very little disposable income. Buzzkill. During a typical college semester, I would budget my money by simply buying more or less beer. However, there was not the temptation of jet setting across Europe, or whatever area you study abroad in. This definitely created more of a problem because being able to travel and experience everything was something that I wanted to do while studying abroad. So what did I do? I created a budget.

This was not your financial analyst budget riddled with pie charts and Excel formulas, but rather more of a conceptual one. I arrived ready to study abroad with amount of dollars and knew I wanted to come home with left in my bank account so I wasn’t completely broke. In the end, I was successful and arrived back stateside with the amount I set out to keep in my account.

Create a budget and remember that it does not have to be a super fancy, detailed one. Stick to it. You’ll be happier in the end. And does anyone truly want to call mommy and daddy back home to send them money? Didn’t think so.


Check Your Bank’s International Fees

Wow! This one is important and relates to creating a budget. If you’re studying abroad, you most likely will not be opening a foreign bank account. Therefore, you will be taking cash out of ATM’s and probably being charged a fee by your United States’ bank to do so. My bank charged me something like 10% up to 10 euros (this fee is purely based off memory) for everything I withdrew from an ATM. When I’d take money out, I would take out a lot so that fee wasn’t getting used up on a tiny amount. Every bank is different so make sure to check with them ahead of time. You may want to consider a new bank, or at least a new bank account, where the fees are lower too. I’d also make sure I was headed back to my apartment so I could safely store the excess cash and not being walking around with an absurd amount of money on me.

All banks are different, so make sure to check before you leave. I’m assuming you already know this, but tell your bank when you’re leaving too because you don’t want your card(s) blocked.


Meet Locals

You know all the hotspots and places to get good deals where you live, so obviously the locals where you’re studying abroad know where the good deals are where they live. Be outgoing and meet them! Remember that locals who are your age are probably just as interested in meeting you as you are them.

The easiest way to “meet” locals is to live with a host family. They can tell you where to go and, more importantly, where not to go. I can almost guarantee that they will take you out on at least one occasion too! I lived with a host mom and 3 other study abroad students and never second guessed my decision to do so.

From left to right, Andy, Ama, me (with long hair), Lola (my host mom), and Lin

From left to right, Andy, Ama, me (with long hair), Lola (my host mom), and Lin

Keep in mind that while living with a host family might cost more, they typically will do your laundry, cook meals for you, and allow you to be deeply immersed into the culture of where you’re studying abroad. Personally, I think it’s well worth the investment. As an aside, the other students studying abroad in my program who elected to live in an apartment ended up spending way more on food then I did on paying that upfront cost to live with a host family.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Travel Within Your Country and Region

I believe that everyone who decides to study abroad is looking forward to traveling. If I’m wrong, please correct me. But I doubt I am.

Now, depending on where you are studying other countries and far off places may not be hard to get to. For example, I studied in Spain, and with RyanAir, all of Europe was just a quick, cheap flight away. There are plenty of cheap, budget airlines throughout the world – that the U.S. has yet to catch on to – that will get you tons of places for a shockingly low ticket price. However, remember that the flight is only one part of traveling. You still need to pay for transport to and from the airport, transportation within the city, hostel/hotel, food, attractions, and entertainment. The overall cost for a weekend trip just went up a bit.


I’m not here to discourage anyone from traveling far and wide because I definitely feel as though traveling is very important and is definitely part of the overall study abroad experience. What I’m trying to say is that getting to know the country you are living in and, especially, the region and city you are in is tremendously important too.


Getting a better understanding and perspective on the area of Spain I was living in made me appreciate it so much more and was one of the best things I did. I learned so much about the area and fell in love with it more than I could have ever imagined. A bonus was that it was cheap to do so. I even found trips organized through the Spanish university I was studying abroad at. Because they were meant for students and led by professors there, they were incredibly inexpensive and very informational. Plus, you go to know your professors outside of the classroom, and they were way more fun!

Along these same lines, be sure to spend weekends in the city you’re studying abroad in. Spending time, especially weekends when the city is relaxing and at its best and most pure, in the city you are living is well worth it. It also helps with that whole studying abroad on a budget thing too! There were too many people that I know of that flew around to exotic lands and didn’t feel like they got to spend enough time in the city they were actually living in once the semester was over. This was a fairly common statement too.


If there’s one takeaway, it’s that study abroad is possible! You can study abroad on a budget. Plenty of people do it and find a way to make it work. Studying abroad has been the best experience of my life so far and certainly of my college career. I always tell people considering studying abroad that if they talk to people who have and haven’t studied abroad, they will never hear the people who have say they regretted it, while they will most likely hear those who have not say that they wish they would have.



2 responses to “Studying Abroad on a Budget

  1. I love traveling too, but I actually chose not to study abroad in college! I kind of regret it now, because I shouldn’t have based myself on what my friends spent and shouldn’t have limited myself to Europe. I was actually looking at going to Spain as well, but once I added up the final cost, it was going to be outrageous! I decided instead to spend my summers abroad and regular semesters at school. I know some friends who spent $30k+ in just 4 months of study abroad, yikes (because they spent every weekend traveling to exotic locations). I wish I had looked into Asia, which I know can be done cheaply!

    • Wow! $30k in 4 months! I’m not even sure I’d be able to do that if I tried! I know plenty of people who racked up huge bills while studying abroad too. That’s why I want to make sure people know that you don’t have to.

      Asia is a place that I really want to go! I missed out on studying abroad there, but like you said, you can still travel there!

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