Prague Updates: $$$

So one of the things that most worried me about going abroad was that I would officially be responsible for my own meals and budgeting. Up until this point I had always been on the WashU meal plan – even if it was always the smallest plan available – and that usually curbed the bulk of my spending since my main financial drain is food. I’m not really the type to cook so I would eat meals on campus, occasionally go out and then only prepare meals for myself when I had free time or when necessary. After that, I normally ended up spending money on clothes, makeup, and books (not textbooks. I always felt okay asking my parents for money for that).

But in Prague things were different. There wasn’t really a dining hall at the university I was studying at. We were completely responsible for our own meals and other such living expenses. Luckily for me, I just ended up being lucky enough to pick a country where the currency more inflated than in the States. As a result – with the exception of very touristy areas – everything was significantly less expensive than at home. I can’t imagine how much more money I would have spent had I been somewhere like Paris or London.

However, knowing everything was cheap quickly lulled me into a false sense of security. Since I knew I could spend more money, I did, and it became hard to maintain the budget that I had set up for myself. For the most part I spent around the same amount of money I had been spending in my last few semesters at WashU, but my goal had been to spend less so I knew that I needed to make some changes.

So I decided to write this post for the people out there like me – those kids that are bad at budgeting and weak to take out and fast food (especially if the alternative is cooking actual meals). It’s very daunting to be completely responsible for your own living expenses, especially when you have no guidelines or advice going in, so I’ve collected a few of the tips and tricks that I learned in my experience being here.

So here are a few lessons I took away:

There are such things as frozen meals. At WashU I’m constantly surrounded by people healthier than me that always go grocery shopping for raw food to cook for dinner. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; under normal circumstances, I would happily say that that’s a good thing. But in this case, I began to associate cooking dinner with preparing raw ingredients and that, of course, often took more time or skill than I had or was willing to give. As a result, I ended up eating out more because I didn’t even want to think about making dinner from scratch. But when that started eating up a big chunk of my budget, I went back to the grocery store and took advantage of something that’s didn’t really occur to me for some reason: I started buying frozen foods. Frozen veggies, frozen fruit, frozen pizza, frozen chicken – all pre-prepared meals or sides that only required heating up and, as a result, were often much more convenient than cooking from scratch. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone live like this forever. Eating raw is always healthier. But for me, I was always wasting raw food by buying it and then letting it go bad in my fridge so frozen food became a much cheaper alternative, especially when compared to getting take out all the time.

I also downloaded a budgeting app. In the past, I was able to keep track of my spending by setting up my bank account so that I received a text with my remaining balance every time I used my debit card. That was usually enough to curve my spending because it was like getting reprimanded every time I splurged or bought something I didn’t need. But now that I’m abroad, I’m not using my debit card if I can help it (due to expensive bank charges), I don’t have unlimited texting, and I have a new number thanks to my new SIM card. So the texting I had set up was no longer an option. But I still needed to keep track of my finances so I made use of two apps: my WellsFargo banking app and a budgeting app called Mint. That way I could see my bank account and usual spending, and use Mint to create acceptable budgets based on that information. Mint even includes helpful tips for keeping your finances in check and shows you your free credit score (perfect if you’re like me and you’re trying to build it up).

Have a source of income when you go abroad. It’s not always possible, but if you have the opportunity take it. There are a lot of jobs that you can have even when you’re abroad, especially if your goal is just to get a little bit of extra money to curb a particularly hard spending month. Virtual jobs, for example, are great. In my case, I’ve been blogging for money but there are other possibilities such as, photography or creating videos for money or designing websites. Look for freelance opportunities – you’ll be surprised by how many you’ll find – and be open about your search. I like reading so I was thinking about taking up a job as a proofreader. But if that’s not your thing, don’t worry. There are plenty of other opportunities out there.

Be frugal with your traveling. Studying abroad is a perfect opportunity to unleash your inner world traveler, and when it comes to experiences I would definitely recommend some occasional splurging since you never know when the opportunity may come again, but it also helps to be practical. For example, I knew I wanted to travel but it also hurts my soul to spend so much money. So to compromise I decided to try traveling to places that I wouldn’t necessarily spend $2000 to cross the ocean for once I’m back in the States. I stayed away from big, popular cities like London or Barcelona and instead explore the countries near me like Austria, Hungary, Germany, and the lesser known parts of the Czech Republic. It’s great because I’m still seeing a lot of new places but I’m spending much less money because I can take buses everywhere. Of course, I had to have one splurge trip at least – I’m flying to Greece at the beginning of May – but I definitely tried to contain myself at least a little bit.

Have a 30-day list. It sounds weird but I read about it on Pinterest (aka the website of the gods) and it really helped. The idea behind it is if you see something you like, put it on your list and wait 30 days. If you still like or want it after that, go for it. If you don’t want it then you just saved yourself some money! It’s a great way to curb impulse buying and, if you’re really dedicated, you can even see how much money you saved yourself by adding up the prices of the things on your list that you didn’t buy. It’s definitely helped me in terms of buying objects and clothes. The only downside was that it didn’t really work in terms of food and eating out, at least for me. I always knew that I would want that fast food in 30 days so I could never restrain myself. But I still saved money with this method so I can definitely say it’s useful.

And those are some of my biggest lessons. There are definitely other ones that I’ve learned since I’ve come here but it’s hard to get every single one of them. I’ll definitely update with more once I think of them. But for now, if you’re studying abroad, or even just wondering how to keep your spending down while you’re at college, make use of these tips. They definitely helped me. I’m already more than halfway into April and I’ve already spent significantly less than the months previous. I hope they do the same for you!