How to Not Break the Bank When Studying Abroad

Apr 12, 2019 10:32:00 AM / by Sarah Mai

Budgeting before and during your study abroad experience can ease your worries when you're living in a global city. In this week's post, Sarah shares her comprehensive guide with 10 ideas on how you can plan ahead, build up savings, and maintain a budget while studying abroad in London. The last thing you want to do is worry! Check out some of Sarah's own experiences and lessons. 

(Original illustrations by Sarah Mai)

Okay, folks, here it is: my unique and comprehensive guide on how to not break the bank while living in London. It is true that studying abroad will likely be the most expensive part of your college career, but it doesn’t have to leave you wallowing in despair. After all, it might just be the only opportunity you get to live in another country and jet off to places all over Europe for semester. Here is how to manage studying, traveling, and eating for those precious months, all based from personal experience and mistake making.

Study Abroad on a Budget

Think and Plan Before You Leave

The expenses for being abroad begin before you have even entered the country, so it is good to know what you are getting yourself into far in advance. First, your plane ticket to Europe will likely be one of the most expensive purchases. Make sure to buy your ticket right when you are accepted to ensure you have a wide range of options for times, dates, and prices. Some websites offer discounts for students, like StudentUniverse, so make sure to look at all your options to get the best price. Another expense is the visa, which should be around $550 including shipping fees, but can double based on how late you get it done. If you don’t have a current passport, that will be another $100-$150, and other files like police records can be about $10. Be sure to keep a log of your spending on these items for your final expenses.

Start Living More Frugally in the Year Before Going Abroad

This may sound difficult to plan so far ahead, but it is very important to feel financially secure while abroad. Getting an on-campus job or two will be important (if you don’t already have one) the year before you leave, rather than relying on summer jobs to fund your time. An extra few hundred or thousand will help an immense amount and allow you to make the most of your time in Europe. Students generally spend between $2000 to $5000 on top of their program fees during a semester abroad. To save this amount, try putting a percentage of each paycheck into savings. Increase the percentage you put into savings each month leading up to being abroad. Set the goal, and do your best to keep it! This might mean cutting back on extra expenses, like going to bars, shopping, and eating out, but it is WORTH IT.

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Jobs do not always make ends meet for programs abroad, so it is important to know that scholarships and other funds can make it happen. It is likely that the semester will be more expensive than others since housing is included in your bill, so to offset the extra fees, apply for scholarships and grants that fit your needs. Any amount can help you save up for an extra trip or dinner out.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Spring2019_London_Sarah Mai_Travel Photos

Plan All Your Trips and Travel Details in the First Month

One of the main expenses that isn’t usually a part of student life in the US is how much traveling you will want to do while abroad. I could write an entire post on how to save money on travel, but I have a limited amount of posts left and I must put it here. The main point is to think about where you want to go before you arrive and quickly plan around your schedule once you know it. Also, plane tickets are very cheap here compared to the US, but you also must be flexible with flying to more remote airports since those tickets almost always cost less. This also might mean you will need to purchase an extra train or bus ticket to your final destinations. In some cases, a more expensive ticket to a larger airport might end up being the best option since two rounds of train and bus tickets could add up to be more. AirBnbs and hostels will also be cheaper if you plan advance and with others. Basically, do some research and do it in the first few weeks since it will always cost less if you plan early.

Get a Young Person’s Railcard

If you plan on traveling around the UK by train, make sure to register yourself for a young person’s Railcard. They are for people ages 16-25 and give you a discount on train tickets to any destination in the UK. They cost around $30, but will pay for itself on the first ticket purchase. For example, my train ticket to and from North Wales would have cost me about $100 normally, but with the card cost me $70. I can now travel to other locations from London, like Cambridge and Oxford, for a fraction of the normal price! Do it.

Don’t Splurge Out on Souvenirs

Some of my favorite keepers from trips are the tickets and maps I saved and pasted into a sketchbook, as I can write beside them and give some context for where I went and how I got there. There are, of course, times where you fall in love with something and must buy it, but don’t feel obligated to collect an item from every place you visit if there are many since your luggage might not be able to handle it on the way home. Just use your discretion!

Take Advantage of the Off-Peak Season

Since London is a travel destination, there are seasons with lots of tourists and seasons without them. Make sure to visit big tourist locations (if you can) on days that aren’t flooded with school children or incoming folks. For example, the best days to visit the Tower of London or the Museum of Natural History would be a Tuesday or Wednesday since many schools visit in the later part of the week and there is nearly nobody there. February and March also see much less travelers in the city, so plan your trips accordingly to places like France or Italy. If you hate crowds and queues, know your off-peak times.


Take Out a Certain Amount of Cash for Extra Monthly Spending

This is a simple but effective method of budgeting—which will also keep you in check of the way pounds convert to US dollars. Keep a certain amount of cash in your wallet for the month and spend accordingly. This way, you must stick to your set budget and space the spending out based on how much you have left. This is money for eating out, shopping, going to the market, sports events, tourist spots, and whatever else you like to drop your coin on. Also, keep in mind that going to pubs and clubs can be very expensive, so try to leave that toward the end of the month if you can. Use an ATM for transactions rather than a currency exchange office since you can extract larger sums with less charges in most cases.

Save Your Money on Everyday Meals

I cannot emphasize this enough: do not waste your money on lunch. So many students find themselves strapped of cash halfway through the semester because they haven’t packed their own lunches and spend $10 on lunch a day. This clearly adds up very quickly. There are foods made in shops and restaurants you should try in London, of course, like fish n’ chips or pasties, but daily sandwich and coffee purchases should not hold you back from taking an extra trip.

Aim for the Low-End of Your Budget, But Allow A Bit of Wiggle Room

This might be one of the most important tips for budgeting: if you come in with the mindset that you have less money than you actually do, you will stay on track with your financial plan. There are, of course, times when you will have some unexpected expenses while traveling or while living in a large city. If you plan for those times, and keep enough wiggle room in your budget for those times, you will feel much more secure. This extends to all parts of your lifestyle abroad. For example, it is entirely possible to spend about £15 to £20 on groceries a week if done correctly. Some weeks, you won’t need to have such a strict budget, and others you will. That just seems to be the ebb and flow of spending here.

I also feel I must admit, in a post note, that I came with a rough plan of how I could spend my money here. There seems to be endless lists of advice about budgeting online and in university finance offices, but nothing teaches you budgeting like doing it. There are times where mistakes are made; for example, I bought an expensive and broken converter from a corner shop and was forced to exchange it for a somewhat tacky sweatshirt instead of getting my money back. (This is where that wiggle room money comes in handy.) I also came knowing that I was going to have to spend some money on clothes since I arrived with very little and had glaring gaps in my professional wardrobe. After looking for items in my local mall and coming out unsuccessful, I decided that shopping on high streets in London would prove more fruitful. So, I decided set aside about $150 for some new pants and blouses, which has been spent and was very worthwhile. In the end, it is all about your unique lifestyle and where compromises can be made. Budgeting does not have to feel like sticking hot pokers in your eyes, and instead can bring a bit of ease to your time abroad.

Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Mai


Sarah Mai is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English and Art major at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she is studying abroad in London this semester.

Sarah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA London Program

Topics: London, England, Scholarships & Financing