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How to Study Abroad for Cheap: Six Budgeting Tips

students studying abroad
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You don’t have to be rich to study overseas. But you don’t have to eat beans and rice three times a day, either. To keep your study-abroad cost low, you can head to a country that’s relatively cheap. You can get scholarships and financial aid. Most importantly, you can be smart about your budget, so you won’t end up panhandling in Prague. Here’s how.

1. Seek Out the Cheapest Places to Study Abroad

If you’re trying to figure out how to study abroad for cheap, start by picking a destination where living expenses are low. ValuePenguin recently crunched the numbers on how much rent, airfare, food and other necessities cost in 48 study-abroad countries. The cheapest destinations: Mexico, India and Guatemala. The priciest were Singapore, Switzerland and Norway. If you’re determined to study abroad, but you’re flexible on the destination, opt for a country where you can expect to spend under $5,000 per semester on necessities (not including tuition).

2. Consider Reducing Your Study-Abroad Cost by Enrolling Directly

Direct enrollment means you register as a student of the university overseas, without going through a U.S.-based college. Going this route is often cheaper because you’re not paying for extras, like a meals plan or organized excursions, and the tuition may be lower. Some international universities even offer scholarships or financial aid to American students.

However, direct enrollment is also more complicated. You’ll have to handle all the paperwork and make sure your credits earned abroad will transfer to your stateside college. Without a program leader, you’ll need to make your own emergency plans and obtain your own insurance. Also, will you choose an “island” program (in which you study with a group of American students) or an integrated program, in which you take classes with locals?

3. Come Up With an Accurate Estimate for Your Study-Abroad Costs.

$500 for going out. $700 for meals. $300 for souvenirs. That sounds about right. Right?
Not even close. Take a look at Expatistan’s global cost-of-living calculator to get a more accurate sense of what you’ll spend in one semester studying abroad. In Accra, Ghana, for instance, public transportation could cost you $42 per month; in Tokyo, it’s $102. For a semester abroad, you’ll have to factor in all your living expenses: tuition, rent and utilities (unless these are included in your program fees), meals, entertainment, transportation, mobile phone coverage, clothing and personal items, excursions, etc.

4. Budget for Vacation While You’re Studying Abroad

Yes! You get vacation! When you study abroad for a semester, you’re not working nonstop. Chances are you’ll get some time off for university breaks or local holidays. Or, you may want to extend your trip by a few weeks so you can explore nearby destinations. When your friends say they’re popping over to Paris for the weekend, or hopping on the bus to Belize, you don’t want to be left behind because you’re broke. Add some extra money to your study-abroad budget so you can go on a few adventures.

5. Have a Secret Cash Stash

While studying in Spain, one guy in my group ran out of spending money about two-thirds of the way through the trip. His solution: Play his guitar by the beach and collect spare change. As you can probably guess, he earned enough to buy one beer. Maybe two.

It’s very easy to overspend your budget when you’re studying abroad, so you need a Plan B that’s better than busking. It might be wise to try the ol’ cash envelope system: Divide your spending money into envelopes, one per month, and restrict yourself to that. You could even bring a few travelers checks as your emergency stash (yes, they still exist). Travelers checks are a safe way to carry money overseas, but you’ll have to bring them to a bank to cash them.

6. Protect Your Study-Abroad Trip with Travel Insurance

Want to know how to study abroad for less, without stress? One secret is travel insurance. Travel insurance exists to protect you — and your budget — from all kinds of mishaps, from minor mishaps to major emergencies. If the airline loses your suitcase, forcing you to buy new clothes, travel insurance can reimburse you. If your mother suffers a stroke and you need to return home right away, travel insurance can reimburse the prepaid, nonrefundable expenses you lose from cutting your semester short. And if you’re hurt in a car accident while you’re abroad, travel insurance can pay for your emergency medical care. Find a travel insurance plan that fits your budget.

Remember, however, that travel insurance doesn’t cover lost tuition if you need to withdraw early from your semester abroad. To protect your education investment, consider a low-cost tuition insurance plan. Wherever you go on your semester abroad, travel happy!

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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