University heralds the start of a new chapter in the life of a young Singaporean. No more uniforms, regular school hours or teachers hounding you to hand in assignments. As young adults, you are now expected to take responsibilities for the direction your life goes in and step up to the challenges that lie ahead. The next 3 to 4 years will be an eye-opening experience, especially for those privileged enough to study abroad.
Any way you look at it, studying abroad is expensive, especially in comparison to the cost of studying at local university. If you plan on getting your degree in the United Kingdom or the United States, you need to be ever mindful of exchange rates that are not in your favour - whether you have a full scholarship or not. Money does matter.
First of all, to get the big picture, calculate the total cost of getting your degree. Include tuition, room, board, book and clothing allowances, transportation, incidentals and a personal allowance for the duration of the degree programme. Staggering, isn't it.
For a normal 4-year undergraduate degree programme at a prestigious university in the US, you're looking at a cost of between S$200,000 and S$250,000 (assuming US$1 = S$1.80).
Likewise for a 3-year programme in the UK. That's a quarter of a million dollars. And it can very easily add up to more. If you are on full scholarship, do realize how blessed you are.
Plan a budget
With this mind, it's a good idea for students to come up with a budget at the start of the school year and stick with it, barring unforeseen circumstances. Do this when you first get to the university. Spend a couple of weeks on campus and get a feel for your surroundings to figure out the sort of lifestyle you want to live before planning your budget.
Factors to take into consideration vary from university to university. For example, some schools require all undergraduates to live on-campus in dormitories while others don't. If the former is the case, then you don't have to worry about room or board because it's probably been added to your bill at the start of the semester or quarter. All you really need to worry about is pocket money. If you opt to live off-campus, then you need to budget in rent, utilities and groceries as well as pocket money. For those whose scholarships provide them with a personal allowance, be glad. Be very glad.
Get a job
Of course, it's always useful to have more money.
It comes in very handy for those extras that seem to pop up throughout the school year. For instance, huge telephone bills, cable bills, little side trips here and there - the list is endless. This means finding a part-time job.
In the US, finding a job on campus is easy enough. University student centres usually help out with job placements or you can just ask around the administrative offices. Because foreign students are on F or J visas, work is usually restricted to on-campus positions. Campus jobs can range from washing dishes in the cafeteria to shelving books in the library. The pay on average is about US$7 an hour.
In the UK, students are allowed to get jobs on and off campus. Campus positions pay on average about £ 4.50 an hour, depending on the sort of job you do.
In Australia, foreign student are allowed to work 20 hours a week on-campus. The pay is about A$15 an hour. In all 3 countries, your salary will be taxed. Taxation rates overseas are high.
The best job a financially challenged student needs is a babysitting job. I kid you not. Firstly the job is off the books (no taxes!).Secondly, babysitting, especially for the children of professors, pays a lot more than shelving books - about US$10 an hour.
The way to make any budget work is not to be excessive. For instance, during my 2 years in the US, I only used my credit card 3 times. Debit cards are better as you won't spend money you don't have. These little tricks are vital, especially when life takes a turn you never planned for.
So by necessity, I started cooking a lot because it was cheaper than eating out. My friends and I would have potluck dinners at each others' houses once a week. And since we came from all over the world, it was really a weekly feast. It became so popular that we put together a cookbook of recipes from around the world. We sold close to 200 copies. Profits were given to local homeless shelter.
Budgeting need not be austere and boring. You learn so much more when you have to earn your pocket money.
My years studying abroad were the most expensive years of my life, but they were worth every penny. The greatest thing they've given to me is the ability to take care of myself and the confidence to handle problems on my own. While I knew I could always rely on my family to help out of needed, I became a more independent person because of this. And that's worth so much more than the degree earned.