I’ve lived all over the world, having been born in Seoul, Korea, moving to Hong Kong at the age of 3, to India for high school at 14, and finally to the U.S. as an adult for college.
Having moved around so often, I’ve had to get used to new money and budgeting rules wherever I’ve lived. The biggest challenge I had money-wise though was definitely university.
My first impression when I reached the U.S. was that food was just so much more expensive. In Hong Kong, despite it being the second-most expensive city in the world, I was able to find a cheap meal if I was much more lenient about the outlet’s hygiene.
In India, meals were outrageously cheap. I remember watching six of my friend’s order a round of food for just Rs. 400 (which is around $6). In the U.S., I was taken aback by the high prices of food and found the cheapest meal to be $6 in a tiny Chinese restaurant.
I never had to tip before I reached the U.S. A very unkind individual told me that I had to tip at least 40% of the total bill to avoid being seen as rude, and I panicked about how much I was going to have to spend on gratuities.
After all, I wanted to set a good example as an international student, and I certainly didn’t want to be seen as cheap. My American friends eventually discovered what I was doing and set me right when they caught me tipping the pizza guy $15.
Possibly my biggest challenge was budgeting my money for the year. As a teenager in Hong Kong, I didn’t pay attention to the cost of things and spent my money on junk food (Mickey D’s is pretty fancy over there, please don’t judge me) and going to theme parks. When I went to school in India however, I was given a very strict amount of pocket money.
It was only Rs. 1,000 a month, which worked out to be about $15 at the time. When a 3 Twix bars and a pancake lunch from a local café could drain half of that monthly budget, I learned to be very careful with that allowance.
When I got to the U.S. though, everything changed. Suddenly I had the cash for my whole year paid to me upfront. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say my yearly allowance was gone before the second semester started. I had too much freedom over my own money, and my parents made sure I learned the hard way that I needed to budget to keep myself afloat.
Living as an international student
The second semester of my freshman year was a struggle. Especially because everyone around me was excited and getting ready for spring break. I obviously couldn’t afford to go to Cancun, let alone drive 3 hours to visit Philadelphia. I quickly started making myself busy, so I didn’t have time to think about my financial problems.
After browsing through my inbox for any emails from my school with campus job openings, I luckily found an available position as a TA for an ESL course. English is my third language so I was ecstatic to find a job that would pay me to help others who are in a similar situation as me.
By my senior year, I was a TA for 2 different classes and had 3 different part-time jobs — one of them was done online with a company located in Korea. They took a chance on me to work for them despite the 13-hour time difference. There were nights when I had to wake up at 2 in the morning (curse your daylight savings!) to respond to an urgent assignment.
Studying abroad has meant that I’ve come across many sticky situations when it comes to my personal finances. When you’re used to living all over the world, it’s easy to lose track of your money and where it’s going.
By the end of my studies though, I’d learned from my mistakes and had become much better at handling my money. I started learning to mentally convert currency and to track my expenditures, which made living within my means easy.
I’m just glad that college students have so many resources when looking for part-time gigs or volunteer opportunities. This helped me keep busy and productive with the added bonus of making money. Moving abroad and learning to budget can feel daunting, but as I graduated 100% debt free, I’m proof that it’s possible.