Unfortunately, most students don’t wake up with extra thousands of dollars lying around to spend on purchasing whatever they want. Unless you planted a coin as a kid that later grew into a money tree, you’ll probably need to plan in advance for footing your gap year bill.
Traveling CAN cost you a pretty penny. Many of the world’s most expensive cities lie outside of the United States, yet remain popular gap year destinations among students. Does this mean that there are a bunch of cold, hungry, and broke international students fluttering about the cities of the world? Heck no! Don’t deflate your dreams of travel or cancel your flights juuuust yet. While it can be expensive to take a gap year, there is more to your life abroad than the pleasures and indulgences of touristing. If you are budget savvy and willing to make a few sacrifices every now and then (think: 2 scoops of ice cream instead of 12), your overall expenses will be more than manageable.
While the cost can be a nasty little drawback, don’t feel defeated and default to the college path juuuust yet. Even if your trip abroad will be your most expensive purchase to date, preparing for it should not feel daunting or troubling. With proper planning and with time on your side, you will be able to finance your gap year no sweat (okay, with a reasonable amount of sweat).
Step #1: Estimate
Before you can start saving for your gap year, you probably want to know a ballpark figure of what your end savings goal is. The overall cost will vary dependent on a number of different factors, including destination, whether or not you’ll be working, the overall cost of your program provider, and the relative cost of getting there, around, and back.
Students should begin discussing their gap year goals with their academic advisors, potentially their university advisor, and their parents early on. Even if you have yet to decide exactly where you want to go or what you want to do, these conversations can start giving you an estimation of potential out-of-pocket expenses.
Consider Your Fixed Travel Costs
As you are financially planning for your gap year, be sure to factor in the actual costs of traveling. Your flight from your home country abroad may end up costing you hundreds of dollars. You may need to apply for a visa, or even a passport if you are new the game of travel (WELCOME!). Will you be traveling overland between countries, or staying put for the entire year? While these fees are often paid up front and don’t detract from your day-to-day cost of living, they still detract from your bank account and can be a hefty start-up cost.
Budget For Your Personal Spending Habits
If you’re the kind of person who always needs seconds and thirds, or requires fine dining each weekend, you might need to buffer your budget to plan for your flagrant spending habits. Your gap year might be a good opportunity for practicing minimalism and simple living; after all, you’ll want to stretch your saved dollars as far as possible.
Honestly critique those spending habits. I would bet that if you were to realistically consider the amount of money you spend regularly back home (let’s not discount the frequent Starbucks fixes or what you “pay-at-the-pump”) the cost of living abroad, despite including these extraneous fees, may turn out to be very comparable to (or cheaper than!) your present lifestyle. We know that saving money is no easy feat, and sometimes requires a bit of sacrifice. You might really want to go to that concert with your friends, or think you need the latest iPhone. But delayed gratification IS real and you won’t regret the compromises you made once you’re having a blast abroad.
Aim to Save a Little Extra
Consider the numbers you’ve calculated as an under-estimation (even if, in fact, they are an over-estimation!). Why? Because your gap year might be more expensive than you expect, and nobody wants to travel with financial worry. Save as much money as possible before you take your gap year; in this way, you will be able to relax and truly invest in your new life.
Step #2: Start Saving & Fundraising
Financially planning for a gap year takes work, creativity, and persistence. While you should definitely consider getting a job and putting your savings towards your adventures, you do not need to squeeze a 40 hour work week on top of your school life to make it work. There are plenty of other avenues for raising money. Read on for some tips to save money for your gap year:
Make a Budget & Stick With It
Financial discipline is tough. It takes conscious, daily effort and forces you to make good decisions a habit. But stick it out – it WILL get easier. Set small savings goals for yourself and celebrate those successes. Use apps or online tools to keep track of your expenditures and stay on target.
Leverage Crowd Funding
Make a FundMyTravel campaign or other online fundraising platform. Leverage the power of the internet to get family, friends, and extended networks involved in donating money for your gap year. This is an especially fruitful effort if your gap year will be dedicated to a specific project or cause that you care about.
Work With What You Have
Identify other sources of financial gain, like grandparents. Think outside the box when it comes to raising money. You can get community organizations involved or host your own bake sale/fundraising event. You can ask your religious meeting place to make a donation or offering to put towards your goals. Parents, grandparents, those aunts and uncles you only see but once a year. If you are passionate about your trip, they’ll be able to feel it and will likely support you in your endeavours
Ask for money for birthday/holiday gifts. Use every opportunity you can to accomplish your savings goals.
Just remember: Every. Penny. Counts.
Step #3: Apply For Gap Year Scholarships
Scholarships aren’t JUST for those going to school. Many travel scholarships exist to help youth travelers get out and see the world – to learn not only in the classroom, but experientially, too. Check out these great scholarships for gap years:
Don’t get discouraged if you do not hear from the scholarship organizations as quickly as you’d like. Just keep on trucking: apply for as many scholarships as you can, and look for alternative sources for scholarships, too. Your town or city council, the university you are deferring from, your high school – ask around and keep applying for any opportunity that pops up!
Step #4: Plan to be Budget Savvy While Abroad
Depending on your financial background, the costs outlined above may bring you a sigh of relief or might render you unconscious on the floor. No matter your current health status, here are a few tips to help you stay within budget while on your gap year:
Not to sound like a broken record, but live, study, volunteer, or work outside of major cities. You can still visit the city hubbub on the weekends to experience all that is cosmopolitan and wonderful, but to lessen your overall costs, steer clear of metropolises.
Consider Travel Convenience
If you are interested in exploring many countries on your gap year, factor in the ease of travel. For instance, while I had initially planned on spending a semester of my college life drinking afternoon tea and wearing big hats at horse races in England, after further consideration, I chose instead a program in Germany. It’s central location allowed for better overland travel via the EuroRail; I thought myself a stroke of thrifty genius.
Project the Currency Exchange
There are places in the world where the American dollar can make you feel like a king. There are also places in the world where you look at your sandwich and think, “Wait, did I just drop $15 on this?” When choosing a study abroad program, factor in the costs of local expenses. When the U.S. dollar is stronger, the cost of living will be cheaper, and vice versa.
Get a Student Card
Apply for an ISIC card and never forget to flash your student ID. Many international students will receive a discount at major landmarks, museums, transportation centers and more. It never hurts to ask, right?!
Brown Bag It
Commit to packing your lunch and eating in sketchy* looking restaurants. Many international students are pros at the homemade peanut butter sandwich by the time they head home, and show no fear when eating off-the-beaten path. Generally speaking, what you’re looking for is a restaurant with many happy-looking people speaking in the local language, the lack of an English menu, and a fat chef. *Use your best judgment; food poisoning abroad is as bad as it sounds.
The Choice is Yours…
Students should aim to select a program that fits your budget as well as meets their academic and personal goals. Make the most of this opportunity to take a gap year after high school: research, plan, and collect as much background information as possible to ensure your experience is exactly how you want it to be.
Most importantly, cost is not the only factor to consider when choosing where to travel. Keep in mind that while some programs may be cheaper (such as those in Nepal or Indonesia), if you are a hardcore Spanish or Latin American Studies major, it might not make the most sense to study in Asia.
While we steadfastly argue that the benefits of a gap year not only justify but outweigh the impending costs, we do realize that the financial commitment remains an important factor when students are considering their post-graduation options. It is important to look at your gap year as a financial investment, one with dividends that will pay off for years to come. In fact, many students cite their international experiences as the primary line item on their resumes that ended up landing them the job. Cha-ching!
Photo Credit: Martin Vorel
Article contributed by Megan Lee