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#55 Save $$$ While Studying Abroad

January 30, 2009

Studying abroad, as I’m currently going through right now, is easily the most wonderful experience a college student can ever have. It feels like a dream, you’re technically on an overseas study program, but since grades are not transferable, you can choose to do a minimal amount of work and still (hope to) pass, and with the remaining time you have, you can go travelling, shopping, eating, chilling and basically do everything one would do while on vacation. Sounds fabulous, isn’t it? Until you realise that fun comes with a price tag, and it’s no joke if your home currency is weak against that of the country you’re visiting. Even if your currency is strong, you may run into the trap of thinking that everything is “OMG so cheap so cheap!” and start to clean out the stores one by one. That could easily be the biggest mistake, because not only will you be overspending without knowing it — it’s hard to keep track of how much you spend when the absolute numerical value of the prices are completely different from what you are used to back home — you won’t be able to fit all that stuff into your luggage when it’s time to say ‘sayonara’ and head home.

Realistically speaking, it is impossible to bring wads of cash on exchange and use them slowly as time goes by. Not only would you NOT feel safe with all that cold hard cash lying around in your dorm room while you sleep at night in a foreign place with a roommate you barely know, you also run the risk of your luggage getting lost, being robbed on the streets before you can keep them in a safe place, and of course most commonly, spending it all before you can sit down and draw up a budget on how to use your moolah.

The ATM is a lifesaver when it comes to this situation. Setting up a bank account can be a pretty hassle-free process, except that some banks need you to ensure that a minimum amount of deposit is in the account at the end of every month, and you need to remember to close it before leaving the country. You can choose not to, but if you need to exchange some money, they will charge you bank fees (bummer). You can’t live without money on you, so once in a while you hit up the ATM, some will charge a small fee for every withdrawal you make from your own bank account back home and some won’t, depending which one go to. For example, if your ATM card has the Cirrus logo, you can make cash withdrawals at JETCO machines with the Cirrus logo on them in Hong Kong and Macau. (You gotta figure it out, or ask a local student.)

The best thing to do to avoid all the trips to the ATM is to work out your budget and withdraw a set amount, say USD200, at regular intervals (bi-monthly or weekly) to cut down on the bank fees you incur for moments when you need “emergency cash” because you were too busy to realise you only have $20 in your wallet and it’s too late to be searching for an ATM that doesn’t charge you the extra few dollars.

Being frugal isn’t easy especially when you’re in a holiday mood (which may last up to 7-12 weeks, but then you might very well be bankrupt and ridden with debts). Here are some tips that may help tide you along, while you shake off the ‘Paris Hilton on a shopping spree’ vibe.

1. Learn how to cook, or if you can’t, learn to love the crap you cook.
Most dorms provide a kitchenette/pantry, may it be well-equipped or stripped to the bare minimum utensils (by kleptomanical residents). You can grab an inexpensive saucepan, a bowl, spoon and fork, chopsticks and a cup, and you’re good to go. If your roommate has all these and doesn’t mind letting you borrow them, go ahead and do it. Buy some food from the local supermarket and get your Rachael Ray on! Cooking can be fun, since you definitely have the luxury of time to do so, and it might be easier than walking out to the nearest restaurant to grab some takeaway.

2. Resist the urge to buy clothes!
How many pieces of clothing can you buy?! I know this contradicts the universal girl mantra of “You can NEVER have enough clothes” but seriously, your closet is teeny and you already brought some clothes from home. If you harness your creative energy by mixing it up, or if you have mastered the godly art of the “capsule wardrobe“, you just need a few essential, classic pieces, and you can look like a million dollars without a closet-full of tees, hoodies, jeans and cute dresses. But if you absolutely need new socks and a jacket so you don’t freeze in cold weather, or a bikini to hit the beaches (because like me, you stupidly forgot to bring it along), then by all means, go hit up the stores.

3. Call home using Skype, and avoid those long distance telephone calls (especially on your cellie!)
Skype is free if you just use their video call services. Just grab an inexpensive headset and a webcam (most laptops come with webcams nowadays anyway) and you’re ready to go. No more expensive long distance phone calls and having to rush through a conversation of “I’mgood, thepastweekhasbeenamazing, yeahI’meatingwell, youtakecare too,bye” while holding on to a stopwatch.

4. Take public transport, and find out the cheapest routes to go to places you frequent.
Hong Kong is a funny place when it comes to transport, sometimes taking a cab with 5 people (yay to HK taxis) in it cost even cheaper than taking a public bus, but I doubt it’s the same in most cities all over the world. Taking public transport will definitely save you more money. Resist, resist, resist putting out your arm to flag down the taxi. You know your money can be better spent.

5. Plan your day to save on transport.
Sometimes if you have a few errands to run, you can pack them all into one day and do them all at once in a smooth circuit, instead of making multiple trips out and spending extra money on transport. Sounds idiot-proof, but if you fail to think through what you want to do, it’s easy to make repeated trips to the same area.

6. Don’t buy textbooks, stationery, DVDs and electronic goods unless absolutely necessary.
You can photocopy the chapters you need from textbooks (come on, don’t pretend to be a saint now), after all it’s for “private study” or it’s not as though you’re going to sell the copied versions. Shipping textbooks home will COST A BOMB, and since you spend $ buying them you’re likely to not want to sell them back to the bookstore or worse, have to think about throwing them away. Stationery-wise, you only need pens, pencils, one or two files…just the bare minimum. Avoid buying colored pens, fancy folders and all sorts of cutesy stuff you’d have trouble throwing out later. DVDs again, take up lots of space and you can always watch movies in your school library, the local theater or online! Electronic goods usually cost more overseas, especially if they are imported, and since you’re not familiar with the new place, chances are your foreign accent and “lost foreigner look” make you a prime target to be ripped off by the shrewd sellers.

Now that you’ve saved plenty of moolah, you can consider planning a trip to a nearby city…’cause you deserve it! 🙂

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