Shelby Trail is a Spanish major at Gettysburg College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Universidad de la Habana in Cuba in Spring 2017. She is a First-Generation Scholar for IFSA-Butler through the First-Generation Scholarship Program.
Going abroad can be a stressful process. For me, the biggest stress was not determining where to go or what to pack. It was the financial aspect of actually going abroad. Being a first generation college student, there is a lot of pressure already on my shoulders to do well and succeed. When I decided to be a Spanish major at Gettysburg College, I knew going abroad would be a part of my college experience. The only downfall was not knowing how I or my family would ever be able to afford it. I knew the second semester of my freshman year that I would have to put in some work and start making some extra cash. I already have bills, such as my phone, car insurance, and half of my tuition, so saving to go abroad meant picking up extra hours at my current job and then picking up a second job. I would work my weekends away, cram in my homework wherever possible, and stash every dime I made into my savings.
There are other methods to saving for abroad, though! I found myself “nickel and diming” my cash. My mom uses this saying all the time, for it means you are spending your money in little pieces that will gradually add up. I found that I spent a lot of money on coffee or clothes, so I had to force myself to stop and ask if these were things I really needed. Often, I found I did not need those things, and I would take the cash I would have spent and put that into savings.
Why would I buy a four dollar t-shirt, when I could buy something awesome abroad later? You’re saving for the trip of a lifetime, not short monetary things.
Also, if you are balling on a budget, location can greatly impact how much you should save. A ton of people I know go to Spain, which is great, but when you can’t save a large amount of cash, it can feel like a major burden. I chose to go to Cuba, not just for the political atmosphere, or the antique cars, but for the double currency. Cuba has two economic systems, the CUC and CUP (otherwise known as moneda nacional). When I got accepted to the program, I learned that bringing the American dollar into Cuba was a bad idea: for every American dollar converted to CUC, there is a 13% tax, meaning the American dollar was only worth 87 cents. Therefore, I brought Euros, which you can exchange at your bank before leaving the country. This is way easier than exchanging at the airport before takeoff, and you know what you have. Once I landed in Cuba, I converted a small amount of my euros at a CADESCA, and then converted what was now CUC to moneda nacional. Moneda nacional is interesting, for this is the most common currency to buy food and drinks with. One CUC equals twenty five moneda nacional, and most foods cost less than fifty moneda nacional. I went to a local cafetería the other day, where I received a full meal for thirty eight moneda nacional. The servings are huge here, for I ordered pollo con piña, arroz morena y ensalada. That is a ton of food for how little I paid!
There are exchange shops all over Cuba. Seek out the closest shop near you, and always remember a copy of your passport. Otherwise, they will refuse to serve you. They will not, WILL NOT let you exchange money without it. Pack a copy in your backpack and purse just to save yourself the hassle later. Also, when you start using the currency, be sure you get the right change back. Some people will try to swindle foreigners by giving back different different coins and currency in general, since they are not accustom to the currency yet. Regardless of where you are, or what currency you are working with, always be sure you know the cost of objects and how much change you should be getting back. When you only bring a certain amount of cash with you for four months, you must be sure that you are getting the right stuff back. Don’t sell yourself short!
If you do decide to venture to Europe, which a lot of my friends have done, it is possible to do on a budget as well! The euro is worth more than the American dollar, so keep in mind the difference in cost of living. Also, if you want to save while abroad, you could limit your travels on the weekends or find cheap hostels to stay in. There are tons of places that offer student discounts. Also, shopping for lunch at a market instead of going out every day helps save a few euros!
A lot of my friends made budgets for the four months they would spend abroad. After exchanging your money, count it out (ask for a receipt) and break it up over the next four months. This will alleviate a lot of stress later. When planning for Cuba, I had to bring all of my money with me, for there is no access to a bank or use of your debit card. This can be extremely scary, but if you budget right and develop a frugal hand, it is totally possible to survive for four months on very little. In Europe, it may be easier to access banks and your checking from abroad. Seek out the cheap cafeterias and don’t go to the bar all the time. There is so much culture to embrace, and you definitely should not be living like a tourist for four months. Learn the ways of the people and see how they make ends meet day by day.
With all of this in mind, some students bring more cash than others. Remember that you are there to learn about the culture and the life of the people. You are not a tourist for four months! Try to live like the people. For Cuba, the salary per person is significantly lower than anyone in the United States. There is immense poverty, and it is reflected greatly in the streets and buildings of Havana. If they can live on so little, you can try to as well. Open your mind and do not revert to typical American habits. Be willing to try new things, and be humble. The same mentality can be applied anywhere, regardless if you are in Barcelona, Shanghai, London, or Havana. Everywhere has a rich culture, and money should not hold you back from embracing it. Be smart, be conscious, be frugal, but always have fun!