Saving money while studying abroad

The international student exchange programme is one of the biggest decisions I had to face as a university student.

Having been in Canada for the past three months on an exchange programme, there are some things I wish I had done better.

Whether you are still undecided about your country of choice, at your preparation stage, or already well assimilated into your school overseas, I hope you will be able to gain some tips from my experience.

Take advantage of cheap education

Although cost is often a top priority, I would suggest to consider this a little bit later.

Being able to study in an overseas institution is possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. And just for the fact that you're going to have to live in that place for a good six months of your life, it is important to pick an experience that you genuinely look back favourably on.

There are ways to spend less later and methods to support your programme, such as using the Post-Secondary Education Account, or taking a loan from your university that is interest-free up to the date of your graduation.

Paradoxically, in some cases, depending on your tuition fees, you may be able to spend less going on an exchange programme than continuing to go for classes in Singapore.

Countries like Norway, Switzerland, Taiwan and Germany provide tertiary education at little or no cost to all students, regardless of nationality.

This is otherwise known as a fee-paying or a self-proposed exchange programme where you have to apply with the foreign institution directly instead of through your own university and taking a Leave of Absence for that semester.

For such programmes, you are usually able to apply for up to two semesters in that school, which means you get a unique experience for twice the duration of your peers!

At this stage, it is important to dedicate a lot of your time to researching and sourcing for different schools and options.

Start way before the applications open.

Rethink the round-trip ticket

When you have successfully applied for the programme, it is time to get those air tickets and find accommodation for your stay in the country or city of your choice.

Most students will likely obtain a roundtrip ticket with fixed dates and will have to fit all their travel plans within that period.

At the same time, should there be any hiccups at the exchange university and a change in return date is required, a significant fee will be incurred. Therefore, buying a round-trip ticket is not necessarily the best solution.

Do not limit your options, especially since exchange programmes tend to be confirmed late when air tickets get expensive!

There are many ways to get to your destination. You may get a one-way ticket or an open ticket. You can also take a budget airline to somewhere nearer to Singapore before switching to a large carrier to complete the rest of your journey.

Because different countries have different taxes, you may be able to save a ton of money.

Stay on campus

When it comes to housing, the easiest and probably best choice will be to stay on campus. You can then experience residence halls and also enjoy the proximity to school, saving on transport costs in the process.

Having said that, it is almost guaranteed that this will cost significantly more than living off campus.

There are many schools that cover transportation around the city you are in, included in the administrative fee that you will have to pay at the beginning of the semester.

Thus, to make the most out of your budget, it may be ideal to opt for off-campus housing.

However, do note that some off-campus housing come without furniture. Coupled with potential transport and utility costs, this can snowball quickly and give you a shock.

As always, I cannot stress enough the importance of researching and doing your sums so that you can make the best decision.

Pack light

If there is one thing I wish I had done for my exchange programme, it would be to have packed less.

Large suitcases hamper ease of travel across cities. Moreover, extra or overweight baggage may attract higher transport fees especially if you are flying or taking the bus.

This will apply largely to North America where trains are not as extensive as the ones in Europe and way more expensive than travelling by air or bus.

Even when you are taking an Uber or a taxi with friends, it is likely all your luggage will not fit and you have to book two vehicles instead.

Speaking from my own experience, packing too much is not a positive thing, definitely not for your convenience, and certainly not for your wallet.


No matter where you are in the world, it will almost certainly save you money if you choose to cook.

Set a budget and eat out maybe twice a week during the weekends, but try to get groceries and cook at home.

While restaurants in places like North America usually cost less and include larger portions than Singapore, the lack of hawker centres means you will not be able to get low-cost cooked food easily.

The food courts overseas are also more expensive than ours and can set you back at least S$10 per meal.

Events, festivals, online deals

Cities usually offer many discounts when there are major events in the city.

For instance, Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. There are many events and perks from the celebration activities, including free access to all national parks. This allows me to visit the Canadian Rockies whenever I want to at no cost!

As is the case with SG50, there are too many activities going on to list here. This may be something for you to consider as well when choosing a country to visit during your exchange. Also, websites like Groupon are available in many countries and can give you deals for tickets to theme parks or zoos, and discounts on meals at good restaurants.

Make use of these so that you can do more while spending less.

Befriend locals

I have found that the best way to get the best travel guides is to make friends with the locals. They know all the events and nooks and crannies of their hometown. It is the same as how you would recommend good cheap eats to a friend on exchange in Singapore.

Sometimes you do not even have to ask because everything is going to be on Facebook. All you need to do is take the initiative to join different programmes to meet new people.

I was lucky enough to have befriended a buddy who drove, and he took me to nearby attractions and cities. I used the money saved from that bus ticket or taxi ride to treat my new friend instead.

Stopover before returning

Many students want to travel as much as they can during their exchange, so why not make a stopover when flying back to Singapore.

If this is an option for you, get a one-way ticket and you will save a lot travelling to so many countries instead of making two trips from Singapore.

Get an internship or part-time job

Going on exchange and being in a foreign place can get you carried away with all the fun and travelling, but remember that you have to complete your internship requirements and at the same time settle your expenses from your exchange.

Having an internship or a part-time job will help you clear most, if not all those expenses.

Just be sure to apply towards the end of your exchange programme and not only when you arrive back home so you can make full use of your summer or winter break.

I hope I have convinced you if you have not decided on going for exchange, or helped you if you are having any problems planning for that trip.

Use this opportunity to learn and gain new experiences in a completely different environment and visit all those places on your bucket list. You are probably not going to get a better chance than this.

I don't know about you but I'm already thinking about my next exchange.

See you in Europe!

Read also: No more student exchange woes with this handy online guide

This article was first published on April 3, 2017.
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