4 Ways to Make the Most of Study Abroad on a Budget

Kelly Slatery is a Cognitive Science student at the University of Virginia and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Spanish Translation and Linguistics in Buenos Aires Program in Argentina in 2016. Kelly is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.

“Spend money on experiences, not things!” was the advice I got from my mom, my grandma, the cashier at the local bakery—really anyone who I talked to enough to tell them I was going abroad. And this really is a sound piece of advice, for anyone, anywhere… but skipping over extravagancies to save up for adventure doesn’t negate the price of necessities. So how do you reconcile a desire to make the most of the opportunities around you with a strict “necessities only” budget? Here are my 4 steps:

1. Make Money Abroad

One of my biggest fears leaving the States for a whole semester was the prospect of not having any source of income for six months.

So to fill the gap I started looking into scholarships, financial aid, and work abroad—and I’m glad I did! I initially thought that my search would not amount to anything since I don’t necessarily qualify for need-based financial aid. But soon I ended up getting an offer for a Work-to-Study grant through IFSA-Butler—and I’ve met at least 5 other students on my program who did, too! It turns out that financial awards are distributed to support a balance of criteria, with need being a priority, but not a requirement.

I ended up getting an offer for a Work-to-Study grant through IFSA-Butler—and I’ve met at least 5 other students on my program who did, too!

And if you’re bold, there’s always the option of finding a job while you’re abroad—just make sure you’re familiar with your host country’s international labor laws first! Here in Buenos Aires, we have tons of students who have found creative ways to make some money through informal jobs: Gabbi babysits her doorman’s kids, Rachel works with an organization that hosts a nightly bar crawl, Marcus and I give weekly one-on-one English lessons to Argentine students, and Reece worked teaching English for five weeks before our program began.

I may not be making quite as much money as I normally do in a semester, but that’s where planning and budget cuts come in.

2. Stretch Your Dollar (Or Peso)

First and foremost: make a budget.

4 Ways to Make the Most of Study Abroad on a BudgetMy first two weeks here, I had the mindset that “whatever I felt I needed” was within my budget. I was wrong. After two weeks of this mindset, and keeping diligent notes on my spending habits, I sat down and came up with a realistic, weekly budget by category. The hardest category to budget? Food.

Food is especially difficult because eating is both a necessity and a social activity (and, let’s be honest, a source of comfort… and caffeine). But here are my 5 points of advice for managing all of this:

1. Make a sub-category in your food budget called “coffee with friends” — and remember it’s okay to sometimes just meet up and not buy coffee!

2. Bring a refillable water bottle with you everywhere. Water is NOT free at restaurants and those $1 bottles will add up.

3. Plan out your food for the day before you leave the house. Trust me, the kioskos on every block don’t get any less tempting, and a $2 chocolate bar on a whim every couple days adds up after 5 months!

4. Cook for yourself. It’s always more economic—and healthier!

5. Compromise. When I go out with my friends, I’ll often go for dinner but skip the clubs after, or vice versa—still fun, but half the cost!

A couple more categories to watch for excess spending (in Buenos Aires, at least!) are transportation and laundry. When it comes to transportation, skip the taxis! They will add up big time, even if you only take one per week. Besides, Buenos Aires’ public transportation is one of the most efficient systems in the world, so use it! And as far as laundry goes, trust me when I say bring extra underwear. That way you can stretch out your laundry—if you eliminate just one unnecessary load per week, after 5 months, you’ll save $120!

3. Plan Ahead

4 Ways to Make the Most of Study Abroad on a BudgetStudying abroad really can be affordable, but that’s more true for some countries than it is for others. Last summer in China, I would pay $2 for my favorite lunch, but here it’s closer to $6! Take the cost-of-living index into account when choosing a host country and city—it could really pay off.

Another thing to research is which programs have internships built into the curriculum. Getting a paid internship in the U.S. always requires experience, right? So take advantage of your time abroad and get that experience!

And lastly, as soon as you decide to study abroad, start saving—because it’s worth it to sacrifice some material things here and there for the incredible experience that awaits!

4. Find Free Fun

After forking over enough $10 entrance fees at the boliches (dance clubs), I decided it was high time I start looking for ways to have fun that didn’t involve paying just to participate.

4 Ways to Make the Most of Study Abroad on a BudgetThe first thing I found was the free IFSA-Butler activities! So far, I have been to a tango class, a rugby game, two shows, a kayaking excursion, and more—all for free through IFSA-Butler! Talk about getting the bang for your buck.

Facebook and the Buenos Aires Agenda Cultural app are two other great tools for finding ways to explore the city on a budget. Today I went on a bike ride and took a yoga class in the ecological reserve through a random event I found on Facebook for a mere $3 bike rental charge. As a student, I’ve also gotten discounts (and free entrances) at museums, as well as access to tons of free and discounted events put on by a local organization called BAIS (Buenos Aires International Students).

With all that being said, I’ve also splurged on the occasional dinner and also sometimes participate in weekend activities that cost more than $5. But even then, I’ve still found a way to make my study abroad experience everything I’ve ever dreamed of while managing to not break the bank. And I’m sure you can, too!

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