Monday, 1 August 2011

Other exchange students' money worries

I had an interesting discussion about finances for exchange students.  I am acutely aware that I don't plan in detail, and work very much broad brush, but when planning a budget I ensure I have plenty of funds available because I am risk averse.  I had had several conversations with exchange students from the UK and other countries about the expected costs involved in a year studying abroad and the hidden costs.  But just what is a reasonable budget for a year abroad?  If students knew in advance, would it put off too many people?

I spoke to a student today who had hoped to manage on £9,000 ($13,500) for a year.  He had originally been told that he would be entitled to a £7,500 loan, but on confirmation, this was £5,500.  He had accumulated £2,000 from savings and expected to get a part time job to earn about £2,000. This totals about £9,000.   However, his rent is £100 a week (c50% more than he has paid previously) - about £5,000 for the year, which means his loan is swallowed up immediately.  He has spent  about half his savings on the airfare, and the accommodation bond took most of the rest.  His accommodation is furnished, but not equipped, so he has had to go out to buy duvet covers and sheets, and some cooking utensils (crockery and cutler were supplied, although this is unusual for a let that is "not equipped).  He is jobhunting but despite making 40 applications, has had no joy.  There is usually one recommended book per module and they seem very expensive from a UK perspective - about £90 per book x 4 modules!  He is now getting worried whether he will have to return home after the first seminar, due to lack of funds.

Students from different countries have had varying experiences about how much they were prepared by their own Study Abroad offices.  One student said his culture is very money aware and  his Study Abroad office prepared him well by explaining that expenses in overseas university literature were usually under-estimates. They gave quite accurate expectations on how much it would cost, and also made helpful comments about lots of the expenditure being made early on, which helped cashflow planning.  Other students felt their Study Abroad office had given little support or guidance on how much it would cost.

I had researched, in a fairly broad brush way, the costs I anticipated.  I expected to pay fairly high accommodation costs because I needed a flat for me and Jim, and did not want to share a student house.  So research said £180 per week, so I was expecting to pay £9,000 for the year in rent alone. (in fact I expected it to be more expensive, because for some reason I was reading quotes in Australian $, but interpreted it in £s!).  Even so, my estimate of funds required for the year, were at least double what others expected.  And if I wanted to travel during the 3 month summer break, I would probably triple the £9,000 quoted by my friend. 

The hidden costs that I had not expected were the Incidental Fees x 2, because I'm doing two practical modules.  These were £80 each and cover basic materials for the teaching sessions (but not materials for your final work).  I've not bought the recommended book for History of Art because it is £80, is massively large and heavy, and although recommended as a lifetime resource, is too heavy to take home on the flight allowance.  So I've got mine from the library and just hope I don't have to return it too soon.  But equally, I'm used to be being fairly frugal when needed (lentils are cheap, contain protein and fibre, so how many way can I cook them to be healthy and regular!?). I don't go clubbing or drinking, and Jim and I have discovered the "Good Sammy" charity shop sells very good second hand clothes - eg $5-7 for a sturdy pair of jeans. (£4-5).  If I was hard-up, I'd shop there. 

Other unexpected costs for me have been purchasing the Telstra mobile wifi one year package (c£100) and an up-to-date MS office package (c£120).  I could have used the university computers but there are too few computers, and the atmosphere is so hot and stuffy, I keep having a hot flush every time I go in. We also bought a printer and spare ink (c£70).  We already had the laptop (me) and Ipad (Jim).  In case people wonder why I did not just buy a new laptop, it is because of my environmental concerns in the throw-away age. 
However, I do wish I'd been told to find out comparative costs, and to price the cost of taking an extra suitcase on the flight, against the cost of buying clothes, shoes and maybe some kitchen utensils out here. Particularly for people who enjoy the social scene, the cost of clothes/shoes for partying would be considerable. I was very bothered about having to carry my gear, but if I had bought another suitcase with wheels it would have meant I would have spent less time in the first few days, seeking cheap utensils.  But how much do I expect Study Abroad to spoon-feed me with information that with some sensible analysis I should have been able to ask myself?  I keep telling myself that the UK university style is that of self-directed learning.  So why do I keep expecting the Study Abroad office to tell me what I should go to find out myself?  Possibly because I am intellectually lazy?  Now there's  a reason to keep my moaning to myself!  What an unpalatable conclusion!!

And I think I've worked out why the price of tea bothers me.  Jim said yesterday that he pays c£10 for tea and buns for two in the UK, so why am I moaning about the same price here.  I think it is because I know the climate here is going to get really hot, and I need to practice drinking more fluids than I do in the UK.  But here, the portion size of drinks in cafes, is tiny - a cup of tea is a tiny thimbleful.  So I know I need to drink, but it's not enough volume for the price.  I caught sight of myself in the library and I had bags under my eyes (typical symptom of dehydration) so took myself off for an expensive drink.  And as Jim has come from the USA recently, their culture is to give a large (huge) tumbler of iced water, free, to customers on arrival at a cafe, while they take your order, and they also give free refills.  So, succinctly, I am puzzled why drink portions are so small in a hot country where dehydration needs to managed.

And I know the purpose of me coming abroad was to identify and experiences the differences between countries and cultures! 

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