The true cost of living abroad is not in getting there, but being able to stay. It’s easy to look at a plane ticket as the largest financial obstacle of going abroad, but unfortunately (not to put anyone off the foreign exchange experience) there are more significant and frequent costs to consider. But with a careful budget and self-control, it is possible to avoid running out of funds.
My own reference point on this topic is Iceland, one of the most notoriously expensive countries to live in. Being a rock in the middle of the Atlantic that relies heavily on imports can be inconvenient.
While costs will vary from country to country, there are some strategies that apply more widely and I will try to emphasize these.
When arriving in any new country, the first thing to do is to listen. The small, local secrets are worth finding out and not always easy to locate. Nobody wants to spend a month buying coffee from the nearest Starbucks equivalent when there is a charming, inexpensive coffee shop just in the next block.
If the university in question has a buddy system, as the University of Reykjavik does, buddies can often assist newcomers in finding the student-friendly (read: cheap, delicious and open late) eateries and shops.
However, sometimes the best places to shop are more obvious than this. In Reykjavik, it’s hard to miss. The local flea market, open on weekends from nine to five, sells everything from fresh fish to old stamps, and displays a great range of secondhand, inexpensive clothing. What an observant exchange student can take from this is that it is important not to overlook the big places in the search for smaller ones.
Using what advantages exist for students is another important strategy for those studying abroad. One of the easiest ways to save money on an exchange in Europe is the Erasmus Student Network card, a convenient way to save on a variety of things, including phones, shopping and beer in pubs. The card also provides discounts on Erasmus events, which, contrary to the name, are not reserved solely for European students in the Erasmus programme. These events are open to all foreign students and include weekly parties, cultural events and occasional trips. However, students buying the card should first be certain that they intend to take advantage of the opportunities it offers, as it is fairly costly itself (just under $50.00) and not worth it if it goes unused.
Another major cost of living abroad is travel. The urge to explore when living in a new country is strong and unfortunately it is not always possible to find a decent public transit system. Iceland does not share the convenient network of trains that Europe enjoys, mainly because a bridge that big would be very expensive and look a bit silly. Where convenient public transit fails, it is again best to look to the locals for help.
In some countries, hitchhiking is the norm (though most do not recommend this for the solo traveler). In some countries—Iceland included—ride-sharing is fairly common and keeping an eye on rides going in the right direction can pay off. Renting a car with a group and sharing the cost of fuel and rental can be fun and worth it, giving a student a chance to go road tripping with new friends.
As for overall saving, the best advice available is to be observant. Asking questions and paying attention to your surroundings are the easiest ways to find good deals. This principle applies to every city. The local people will know where to look, so making friends in the city or town of study—while highly recommended on its own merits—is useful. Listen, take advantage of student discounts and bonuses, and if there is no free bus pas provided with your student card, walk.