Written by: Loh Yun Jin
I’ve always been an avid fan of old European architecture and Harry Potter since I was a kid, so when it was time for me to pick the country of my choice for my semester exchange, I chose the United Kingdom without any hesitation. On the first week of January 2019, I travelled to the University of Hertfordshire.
It is said that exchange is a time of growth, where one can explore the world and travel. That said, I believe that an essential element of the exchange experience is learning how to be independent, but more importantly, learning how to manage your finances wisely.
It’s easier said than done, of course. For my fellow students’ benefit, then, here are some tips that I’ve learnt that may help you better manage your expenses and get more bang for your buck.
Prioritise, and sacrifice
I chose the UK because of its proximity to other European countries, of which was included in my itinerary. As such, I deliberately set aside a significant proportion of my budget for the purposes of travelling. In short, I prioritised travelling over other activities. For everything else, I would scrimp and save whenever I could.
For example: eating out was expensive, so I learnt to prepare meals on my own. It was a personal achievement, considering how my family and I rarely cook back at home. Through this, I was able to go grocery shopping and cooking with my housemates too – and it’s little memories like these that infused my overseas experience with meaning.
By the end of my exchange, I had become more comfortable with dishes beyond pasta and fried rice!
When I went shopping, I would limit myself to clothes on discount. Clothes from charity and thrift stores were similarly available at more affordable prices. By being thrifty in such areas, I was able to cut back on money spent on food and clothes. This left me more money to indulge myself in my priority – travelling.
Having a relatively large amount of money to manage across the duration of your overseas exchange can be daunting. Having a budget and dividing that into different categories (such as food, travel, household necessities) can help you to stay on track.
An application that I found particularly fuss-free and useful was Trabee Pocket, which assisted me in budgeting. Furthermore, its two-currency feature eliminates the effort of doing mental conversions.
The last leg of our 2-weeks Eastern Europe trip, kept within a $1.5k budget.
3. Look out for affordable deals
If you think that air tickets are the most expensive part of any trip, think again! With the rise of budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet, the prices of short-haul flights are at an all-time low. One-way flight tickets can cost less than 20 pounds (~SGD$35). Websites that I frequent are Skyscanner and Omio, which helped me to compare prices of plane, bus and train tickets. My personal tip: find the most suitable flight through these websites, then visit the airline’s website directly to book the ticket.
Besides travelling by plane, oftentimes trains and buses tend to be a cheaper mode of transport. For a two-weeks trip around Eastern Europe, I took 3 overnight buses run by bus company Flixbus. The bus ticket prices cost as low as 8 pounds (~SGD$14), plus I got to save on 3 nights’ worth of accommodation!
4. Travelling can be (quite) free
I like to start off a visit by joining a walking tour – it’s a fantastic way to learn about the history of a city, and it directs you to that city’s must-visit places. What’s even better: there are many companies that do ‘free’, or tips-based walking tours, which is great as you can work it within your budget. A well-known and reliable walking tour agency is Sandemans New Europe’s. You might want to do your research on activities beyond walking tours. Who knows, there might be free comedy nights at bars, or free entrance to certain attractions.
The best things in life are free, such as visiting the Plaza de España in Spain.
Being a student has its perks too, so bring along your student card everywhere you go. More often than not, that’s a guaranteed privilege to discounts at eateries, tourist attractions, museums, and theatres.
Managing your money is just one small part of becoming more mature and independent when you’re on your own in a foreign country. Essentially, it’s a period of personal growth and discovery. Whether it’s becoming thriftier, gaining confidence in travelling alone, or skills like learning to cook healthier meals, there’s always an opportunity for development.
Leaving UK has left me feeling an aching sense of emptiness and loss – as though I left a part of myself in the cities I’ve visited. In exchange, however, I brought home bits and pieces of shared stories and memories, which will now stay with me. That’s the beauty of going on exchange. Well, till next time then, Europe!