By David Vine
Now that I’ve planted the travel bug in your brain, I’m sure that’s all you’ve been thinking about since you read my last entry. If it’s not, your time will come I can promise you. The worst part—maybe even the only bad part—about traveling is that it can quickly and very effectively wipe away all of your money for the semester. Since I’m assuming you won’t be working during your short tenure at Surrey (this requires a special visa that ends up costing you a lot of money up front), this can put you in a pretty difficult spot: calling home every two or three days in May to beg your parents for a few bucks after they already promised you you’re on your own… pretty much where I am right now. Check out some advice you may wish to heed in order to avoid sticky situations later on:
First of all, since we’ve already dispelled the notion that you will have any source of income while you’re over here, give yourself a good assessment of how much money you’ll be starting with. Whether this is cash (pounds sterling, aka GBP), money in a checking account, or a stockpile that you’ve smartly accumulated through savings, it’s important to know where you’re starting from. If you will have some sort of income, either as some sort of “allowance” from your parents or otherwise, make sure you factor that in too. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me you’re bound to forget something I’m describing here sooner or later.
Second, realize you are going to have significant “start up costs.” You probably don’t realize how much of a material life you’ve accrued over your college career: kitchen utensils, laundry detergent, spices and seasonings, shampoo and conditioner, a well-stocked medicine cabinet, etc. Now you might think you’ll just bring most/all of these things with you when you come over here, but once you start packing and you see how high the fees can be for overweight baggage you’ll realize how valuable that space in your suitcase really is. You also won’t be able to account for all these items on your first trip to Tesco, your friendly, neighborhood grocery store. The point is, set aside some money at first for these initial purchases. If you want an estimate amount, just try to make a (minimal) list of things you’ll need once you get over here, google their prices, and be honest with yourself about things you’ll really need vs. things you could most likely do without.
This might be another obvious remark, but you won’t be spending American dollars when you’re here. The Brits have their own currency: the British pound that I alluded to earlier, and it’s worth more than an American dollar. As of right now, one GBP is worth a little more than $1.25. What does this all mean? It means that everything is more expense over here—every time you buy something for 4 pounds you’re actually spending over 5 dollars. I know this doesn’t really sound like a lot, but trust me this conversion can be a silent killer during your time here. The more quickly you can retrain your eyes to the idea that all prices are a little more expensive, the less money you’ll be throwing away.
While we’re talking about currency, it’s a smart idea to buy your British pounds when you’re still in the US. You can most likely just go to your bank at home (make your parents go with you if you’re not quite sure what to do) and trade in your American dollars for British pounds there. This usually yields a more favorable exchange rate and saves you foreign transaction fees than if you were to wait until you’re over here to do the same thing. This can sometimes take a few weeks as the banks have to order the foreign currency for you, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time before you look into this. Speaking of transaction fees, now is a perfect time to look into getting a credit card if you don’t already have one. If you and your parents trust that you won’t go crazy into credit card debt in the few months you’re over here, it’s an opportunity to start building credit to your name. Look around for cards that waive foreign transaction fees. If you just use your regular debit card while you’re here, you’ll probably be charged a few bucks every time you swipe which can add up to a lot of money quickly.
Finally, you’re obviously going to want to set aside some funds for the most important part of your trip: traveling! This is another reason why looking into where you want to go early can really help you out: it gives you an idea of how much things will cost. I would suggest doing a little searching early on to give yourself an idea of how much you’ll need to allocate for travel, and then set aside even more than you think you’ll need for random weekend trips and unseen expenses.
After all of this planning, you’re finally ready to take the lump sum you have left, set aside a last little bit for emergencies and establish a budget for yourself. Basically just take your total amount remaining, divide it by how many weeks you’ll be there (not including travel time) and that’s how much money you’ll be “allowed” to spend each week. It might take you a few weeks to get those “start up costs” out of the way and to familiarize yourself with how much things cost/what you’ll need to buy each week, but after some time you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your routine will be. Of course you’ll have some other things to account for as well (your tuition at home, your housing fees, etc.), but having even a loose plan will prepare you better than no plan at all. Be sure to talk to the other students—local and exchange—about where the best deals are because it’s almost guaranteed that someone will be able to find whatever you’re looking for cheaper than you can. It might sound daunting, but even just a vague idea of what you’re coming in with and what you need to put out each week will save you a bunch of headaches in the long run.