Your study abroad semester is going to cost a lot more than just what your program fees are. It’s super important to use the time before your study abroad semester to work your butt off and save up cash for it, but how do you know just how much money you’re going to need?
I’ll help you calculate the REAL cost of your study abroad semester with this step-by-step guide.
1. Know what’s included in your program costs (and what’s not)
There are a lot of things to be paid for when living abroad– food, accommodations, travel, and more. Some study abroad programs include some of those expenses in its cost, and some don’t. Knowing what is and isn’t covered will help you better estimate what you’ll be paying for out of pocket for your semester abroad.
At some point, you should receive a list of everything that the program cost covers from your program coordinator, but be sure to contact them with questions about any additional charges you are not certain are included. It’s better to know ahead of time so you can plan!
Here are some costs that may or may not be included in your program fees:
Will your program include organized travel? If so, where will these trips go, for how many days will you be away, and are things like meals, accommodations, and transportation included? Generally speaking, the more trips that are included in your program fee, the less you’ll need to spend on your own travel plans.
Some study abroad programs give their students weekly meal stipends or vouchers they can use at local eateries. This can add up to a lot of savings, especially if the stipend is given to you in the local currency.
Does your program pick you up from the airport when you first arrive, or are you on your own when it comes to getting to your accommodation? Will you be provided with a monthly bus or subway pass that you may need to get to class, or do you have to purchase that yourself?
Textbooks, printer access, museum entrance cards, art supplies or anything else you may need for class may already be included in your study abroad program fees. If not, it’s worth asking your advisor how much you might be expected to spend on class materials.
You may be provided with small things like a local cell phone and sim card, a prepaid internet card, a free gym membership, or other things that students need while living abroad. Find out the specifics so you’ll know what you need to shell out for once your study abroad program kicks off.
2. Watch out for the exchange rate
You may think that that apartment that you’re looking to rent is a deal at £500 (British Pounds) a month, but do you know how much that is in US dollars? (Hint— at the time we wrote this, it was the equivalent of $716!)
Know the currency that you’ll be using in your study abroad country, and how it currently converts to dollars. Use an app like Currency Converter so you can get an exact and up-to-date conversion without having to do math in your head and to avoid rounding errors that can add up over time.
In some countries, you’ll find the dollar is weak compared to the local currency, meaning that you’re going to need to save up more than you might have originally thought in order to live in and experience your new city without going broke.
3. Research the average costs in your city
Knowing how much things like groceries and public transportation are in the city you’ll be studying abroad in will help you calculate the cost of your study abroad semester more accurately. Use Budget Your Trip to find the average daily living costs in cities around the world — find out the average of what you’ll spend on food, alcohol, and more, depending on your travel style (which we assume is “budget” for most students).
For more specific costs, find your study abroad city on Numbeo and see how much certain items are, like a dozen eggs, a one way bus ticket, or a domestic beer. Numbeo also lists average costs for apartments and utilities, so you can use it as a reference point if you’ll have to find your own accommodation but don’t know how much it will cost yet. You can even compare your study abroad cities to major cities back in the states to see which city is more expensive.
4. Think about your spending habits
Ok, so now you know what typical prices are in your study abroad city, and what the exchange rate is like. But those numbers won’t help you calculate the cost of your study abroad semester if you don’t know how many times a week you’ll be buying beer, going out to dinner, or using the local bus. By thinking about your spending habits, you’ll be able to more accurately calculate how much you’ll spend over your study abroad semester.
Figure out how often you typically shop for clothing and other items that aren’t food, and how much you tend to spend. Do you find yourself on a shopping spree at Nordstrom more than once a week, or do you hit up Walmart only when you find it absolutely necessary?
What’s your “eating out to eating in” ratio? When you eat out, do you usually order a few glasses of wine along with your meal, or do you stick to cheaper fast food joints? Estimate how many times you’ll want to eat out per week and what you’ll realistically spend on those meals. Keep in mind that you’ll likely be in the mindset of “YOLO” and may want to eat out more than you are used to while you’re abroad, so even if you don’t like spending money on eating out, you should budget for some fun foodie experiences.
Check the program calendar to see how many free weekends and extended breaks that you’ll have open for travel and think about what your travel style will be. Will you want to jetset to different countries every weekend, or experience the local culture, either by train or bus? Will you stay at hostels, hotels, or couch surf? Will you eat out for every meal, or take advantage of the free breakfast and guest kitchen at your hostel? Something to keep in mind is that if you’ve never studied abroad before, you may THINK that you won’t want to travel far and wide during your semester, but you may change your mind when you’re abroad. I’d recommend accounting for this in your calculations, because you don’t want to find yourself wishing you had more cash to travel with the rest of your friends.
Study abroad students are known for going out both on the weekends and the weekdays, since classes are typically easy and the drinking age abroad is usually around 18. Even if you only party on the weekends back home, you should still factor at least a couple weekdays worth of partying costs into your budget. I wish I had done that when I studied abroad— while I only went out on the weekends back in the states, I couldn’t help visiting the local student bar most nights (which hurt my bank account big time.)
5. Contact program alums
Program alums are SUCH a great resource— if you know a friend of a friend who participated in the same (or similar) program as yours in the past, definitely reach out to them with some questions. When it comes to calculating the cost of your study abroad semester, an alum will be able to let you in on what students typically do on the weekdays and weekends, ways to save yourself some money, and also warn you of any unexpected expenses students in his or her program may have incurred during their time abroad.
6. Get a no-fee credit and debit card
Many banks and credit cards charge extra fees when you’re dealing with money internationally. Call customer service for each card that you plan to use abroad and ask if there are any fees that you will incur while using your card abroad. These fees can really add up over time, so I’d recommend switching to a credit and debit card with no international fees, like a Capital One card, and try to get a debit card that will reimburse you for international ATM withdrawals, like a Charles Schwab card.
7. Put it all in excel and add it up
So it’s time to use excel to make some calculations and figure out the cost of your study abroad semester. You don’t have to do this yourself though— we’ve created a excel sheet that you can use, all you have to do is enter your own numbers! Keep in mind that most of these numbers will be estimates, and it’s nearly impossible to anticipate everything you’ll need to shell out some cash for while you’re abroad, and part of the fun of studying abroad is being spontaneous– just because you didn’t factor skydiving in Switzerland into your estimated total cost of your semester abroad doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.