Written by: Sydney Weber
As someone who often takes months (and sometimes years) to consider purchases over $15, learning I had ignorantly signed up to go to the second most expensive country in the world led me to literal sleepless nights. Not only was my experience in Switzerland a testament to the power of pre-application research, it also taught me several important lessons about personal finance. Here are four lessons I learned from living in the second most expensive country in the world.
1. You Will Spend Money. And That is Okay.
The sticker shock of moving to Switzerland was immediate. My first week there, I gawked at half a dozen eggs for $4 and $2.50 for a single ride on the metro. Initially I resisted: I bought very little food and walked everywhere. But by my second week, all I had to show for my extreme cheapness was my hunger and sore legs.
Going abroad, Study Away will give you a budget to estimate your costs of living. Or, if you are like me, your home university might even provide with a living stipend. Be prepared to spend this whole amount. I saw too many friends miss out on opportunities and experiences because they didn’t want to fork over two bucks for a metro ticket. I myself was guilty of this. Once I mentally “loosened up”, I felt more comfortable exploring my city, buying more substantial food, and experiencing Swiss culture. And I was only happier and healthier for it.
2. Follow the (Local) Crowds.
You know how we in the U.S. consider ourselves broke college students? I was somehow surprised to learn that that sentiment is pretty universal. By looking around, I was able to see how my Swiss peers adapted to the extreme prices. At the cafeteria, 70% of people brought their lunch from home. I followed suit. For a snack, students would run to the grocery store for a salad and sit outside for hours. That soon became my go-to social activity and creator of countless memories. Even though a $20 McDonald’s meal was mind boggling to my American brain, I soon came to realize what was “not bad…for Switzerland.”
3. Cook Your Own Meals.
It might be tempting to eat out every night when you’re abroad. Before I left, I was regaled with stories about my peers living it up every night. That ended up being a far-fetched fantasy in Switzerland. But I soon came to realize that, back in Missouri, I hadn’t been eating out every night either. Rather than viewing my entire time in Switzerland as “a treat,” I came to see it as, simply, my regular life. Not only was this perspective incredibly realistic, but it came to help me feel even more immersed in my time abroad.
Sometimes we need to accept the reality that there are things outside of our financial means, even if it means our mental picture of study abroad is disrupted. No big deal! Unlearning my preconceptions about the study away lifestyle, I cooked 95% of my meals. Not only did this save me tons of cash, but I found a new passion that I never would have expected to pick up in a semester abroad. Cooking at home also gave me great opportunities to befriend my roommates. We would have cooking nights where we would sit around prepping, cooking, and eating for hours. Now when people ask me how Swiss food was, I respond “I wouldn’t know… But the food I ate was pretty good!”
4. Choose Your Financial Battles.
One of my biggest goals of studying away was to travel. Yes, my budget would have allowed me to spend the occasional $40 on a mediocre meal out. But I ultimately decided that saving money in one area would allow me to spend it on things I truly valued. I brought my own meals to class so that I could eat like a queen for dirt-cheap in Poland. I declined concert invitations so that I could go kayaking in Croatia. I took a 15 hour long overnight bus so I could… well, that only ended up saving me about $10 compared to flying. But the memories of ditching my bus early to spend a day in Slovenia? Priceless.
The point is, you need to decide your goals for study away and allocate your money accordingly. For me, I valued experiences and memories more than temporary entertainment. Do you want to go dancing every night? Go for it! Want to buy yourself some amazing keepsakes? Yes! Want to splurge on snacks so you can cry in bed after your French professor called your work “lazy and insufficient” in front of the whole class? …guilty. Regardless, make sure your money is going towards things you value.
We study abroad to learn. This might be your first time learning how to budget. Or if you’re like me, you might learn how to confront your price tag anxiety. Regardless if you’re in the cheapest or most expensive country in the world, you are capable of having an amazing time… even if eggs cost $4 for half a dozen.