Tips on budgeting from a spender. Yes, it can be done people.
When I was wrestling with the “to study abroad or not to study abroad” idea, what it really came down to was money and financing a semester abroad. My school, like many others I’m guessing, broadcasted that study abroad is affordable and very comparable to what students are already paying for a semester. This is true, but only if you’re already paying for dorming and have a meal plan. I can’t speak for any other state, but here in Hawaii where the cost of living is RIDICULOUS and you can basically buy a 3 bedroom house complete with pool for the price of a 2 bedroom apartment, many in-state students opt to live at home and commute. I fall into that category.
To pay for college I work 3 jobs and take out student loans. I don’t know where the Study Abroad office got their numbers but $17,991 for a semester is not what I call affordable by any means. After financial aid and scholarships kicked in, what I had to pay was around $10,000. Still not affordable. I worked a whole lot to come up with money for my semester and was lucky with a family who pitched in and helped me come up with the rest of what I needed. By the time it came down to it, I had a little over $3,000 as spending money for my entire semester. Considering what many of the other students had as spending money, this was definitely not much. But it was what I had to work with and any money is better than no money.
Honestly, I thought $3,000 was surely not going to be much to work with when I got to Florence. But I soon figured out what was important to me and budgeted accordingly. I had the time of my life and have absolutely no regrets with the things I got to do. $3,000 is ABSOLUTELY enough to have a life-changing semester abroad and as a self-proclaimed spender, I feel like I won some kind of contest. If you feel like you may need some help in the budgeting department, here are some of my tips to stretching a budget and how to get the most out of what you do throw down for.
1. Make a list of things you definitely want to come home with. Once you have this list in mind, go around early on in your semester and price out whatever it is you want and compare the options and quality of the products. Set aside a sum of money for whatever it is at the highest price (but still reasonable and realistic, I’m serious) for that item. With the money already aside, you don’t have to worry about not having enough money at the end of your trip and you can focus on budgeting for other things. A good example is Florentine leather goods. Florence is known for its leather goods so things like bags and wallets will probably be on your list. Show me a person who wouldn’t want a leather bag from Italy and I’ll show them the next flight home. But because the shops and sellers know that people will be shopping for these particular products, you will see a lot of stalls selling the same products. Take advantage of this and compare. Take your time on finding the right bag for you which you’ll love for years to come. Don’t settle.
2. It’s all about the CASH MONEY. Cash is still King here in Europe and that is great news for those trying to stay on a strict budget. Swiping that card can become dangerous, especially when you think it’s just for small purchases here and there. Those small purchases are what add up in the end and knock you on your ass the next time you check your balance. I took out money from an ATM about every 2 weeks, sometimes 3 if I budgeted extremely well. Each time I took out €200-250. Anything less than that seemed pointless because if I had to visit the ATM more often I would be charged the fees for currency conversion and the standard ATM fee. I kept a second wallet in my room and split up a weeks worth into that for safekeeping. As the week went on I could visually keep track of how much money I had and what I was spending it on.
*Tip: If you are a member of Bank of America rejoice and take out your money ATM fee-free from BNL d'Italia. There are many locations of BNL branches near the busiest parts of Florence so there is always conveniently near you. I frequented the one right off of Piazza della Repubblica which is hard not to miss in back of the big carrousel and before the Hard Rock Cafe. Plus their ATMS are indoors so you feel a little more secure withdrawing money without the hustle and bustle of people on the streets.
3. Don’t underestimate the power and value of coins! As Americans, we aren’t used to our coin change amounting to anything but food for parking meters and vending machines. Forget that mentality when you go to any Euro-using country. They love coins and have exactly 8 them waiting to weigh you down and make you think you have less money than you do. Two of them are worth €1 and €2 which add up to slices of pizza, glasses of vino, and delicious panini (by the way, singular is panino and plural is panini. The sooner you remember this the sooner Italians stop snickering at you when you order). Keep a coin purse in your bag or in your pocket and consistently check to see how much euro you actually have in coin form. I once paid for an entire meal at a restaurant in €1 and €2 coins and then my drinks at a bar later that night. #WINNING. Also, take advantage of self-checkout stations at grocery stores like the Coop where you can get rid of smaller coins so you maximize all your money. If not, save a few to throw in the Trevi when you go to Rome and save some for wells you find in smaller towns.
4. Take advantage of student discounts. Many shops and restaurants will have student discounts as you are their biggest customer! If you don’t see them advertising it, ask. Don’t feel bad for asking either. If you aren’t taking advantage of it, you’re the only one losing money. Here are some of my favorite student discounts:
- Il Gatto e La Volpe, Via Ghibellina - This restaurant is popular with the students because they speak English and give a student discount on the menu. Food is good with delicious house-made flatbread and the house Chianti is a favorite of my roommate and mine.
- Antica Sosta degli Aldobrandini, corner of Via Faenza near Basilica di San Lorenzo - Popular with students because it is so near to the buildings and classes of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Subway style build your own panino with up to 5 ingredients runs at €3,50 instead of €5. They also let you ask for it to-go if you’re in a rush to your next class.
- Trattoria Pizzeria Dante, Piazza Nazario Sauro 12r - Located across the Arno, you’ll hear people talk about Dante’s. The food is good and you can get free wine with a student ID from your school in Florence but that’s about it. Dante’s is notoriously slow and the service is not great. It is also mad busy so if you do want to brave it, call ahead and make a reservation. Best of luck.
- Scuola del Cuoio, Via S. Giuseppe 5r - If your school provides an opportunity to go and take a visit and tour to this famed Leather School in the back of Santa Croce, DO IT. Not only will you be able to see students and masters work and create leather masterpieces, you will be able to shop with a student discount.
- Florence Irish Pub, Via del Melarancio 18r, attached to restaurant Lorenzo de’ Medici - Ladies Thursday nights are nights dedicated to you in the form of free shots and champagne with a €4 drink. Not to mention a bartender who is super friendly and a fun atmosphere. There are bonuses for the guys too, with a foosball table and darts in the back room.
5. Take advantage of free activities held by your school. Seems pretty self-explanatory but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t take advantage of it. Every week my school put out a list of new and FREE activities we could sign up for. My roommate Catie and I attended every free cooking lesson made available with the cooking teacher for our school, Milva, who before teaching cooked at amazing restaurants all over Italy. We also did wine and cheese tastings, tours of a leather school, a visit to the Museo di Calcio, or Soccer Museum, and much more. There were hiking excursions, free entry days to the Ferragamo Museum, and so much more.
There are definitely so many more tips and tricks to saving money abroad but in the end you want realistic tips that you can live by. I know personally I suck with money because I’m a spender, but these things I could handle and work into my daily routine. Keeping receipts and logging is another way to keep track of what you are spending but I get too lazy with it. But hey, if it works for you at home it’ll work for you abroad. Just don’t forget to treat yourself once in a while. Take a night out with your friends and splurge that one time on bistecca or take that weekend trip to Rome. But if you can’t afford a crazy night on the town every other night, speak up to your friends because most likely they’re on a budget too and will be happy to just chill on the steps of Santa Croce and wait around for some €1 Secret Bakery. Oh, what’s Secret Bakery? All in good time my friends, all in good time.