At the thought of studying abroad in Germany, one’s mind conjures up nightly strolls along the Rhine, eating soft pretzels with sharp mustard, and exploring castles at sunset amongst the darkening German forest with new friends. But one of the biggest impediments to going overseas? The thought of how much you’ll have to open your wallet in order to broaden your horizons. In all study abroad opportunities, figuring out your financials and getting a smart budget into place beforehand is a no brainer.
I’ve been there. Coming from a middle-class family with German ancestry, my parents wanted me to have the opportunity to go overseas, make connections, and learn the language but were wary of spending my college savings on time abroad -- moonlight hikes in the Black Forest are a lot less romantic when you’re so stressed about money that you can’t take in the scenery.
Luckily, Germany is actually one of the more affordable western European countries to study abroad in (and is chock-full of scholarship opportunities). I spent a semester there with next-to-no money and watched my budget savvy blossom. Following my tips below, you can have a very budget-friendly German study abroad experience that’s very rich (even if you’re not).
Want to Study Abroad on a Budget? Start a Budget!
I know -- how novel! But you’d be surprised by how many people don’t create a budget for study abroad. And how many people don’t track their spending once in-country. Here's how to get started:
- Get thee to an Excel spreadsheet, or a Google Sheet (free!).
- Before you go on your trip, make a list of all your anticipated costs.
- Don’t forget to build some room in there for ‘play money,’ as I call it. You know you’re going to spend it, so might as well build it in. Beer budget? You bet. Write it all down.
- Once you’re in Germany, keep all your receipts. If you don’t get a receipt from a transaction, write it down in your phone until you can get home and enter it in your spreadsheet.
It’s nerdy, but it will help you discover your spending habits, which can help you save lots as you realize what you want to prioritize (ex: train travel to visit other German cities) and what you can cut out (ex: regular late night fast food binges with friends).
Ask Locals Where to Find Deals
Don’t be the lone ranger -- the locals have lived there longer than you, I guarantee you they know where the best deals are!
Ask your German student friends to hook you up with the local discounts, for everything from food to clothing to SIM cards. Are you shopping at an artisanal ‘international ‘foods store so you can get peanut butter (surprisingly hard to find in Germany) at a huge markup, when you could be shopping at discount supermarket chains like Aldi, Kaufland, or Netto? Students always know where the best deals are.
Explore German Grocery Stores & Markets -- Then Learn to Cook
When you’re studying abroad that you’re not ‘on vacation.’ It can feel like that, especially if you’ve never lived away from home before, but remember you’re essentially living like a local, so be prepared to shop, pay bills, and not splurge on expensive items or experiences, like you might when you’re on vacation. At least, not all the time (that’s what the ‘play money’ fund is for!).
One of the biggest holes that money disappears into while traveling is food. If you really want to stretch your budget, you should learn how to cook for yourself. German grocery stores are lovely. And in my experience in Hamburg, it’s a place where people genuinely like to shop for dinner. There were lovely markets in Hamburg, a nearby ‘Supermarkt’ where you could get just about anything, and many bakeries with fresh bread you could stop into. My host mother would go shopping for fresh groceries every day or every other day. It might be a different style of shopping than the once-a-week Costco haul you may be familiar with from your U.S. suburb.
If you’re staying with a host family or have German friends, a great (and affordable) bonding experience can be asking them to teach you how to cook their favorite German dish. Even better, ask all your best buds over for an awesome potluck. You’ll discover lots of great foods, see what they like, and as with all good potlucks -- there’s always leftovers.
And if cooking isn’t your style, then maybe you should consider…
Do a Homestay with a German Family
When I studied abroad in Hamburg for a semester, I stayed with a lovely family who would usually cook breakfast and dinner every night. Not only is this a huge benefit to you, covering two meals a day, but they often have other little things (ex: bandages, nail clippers, extra towels, etc.) that you might need in the course of your travels, but would be expensive to have to buy all outright if you were living by yourself.
Staying with a family is also great because it’s a great way to learn and practice your German while studying abroad. Living to my host family I learned all sorts of turns of phrase and slang I never would have in the classroom, and still to this day I can pull German out in a pinch even though I haven’t lived there in a long time, so ingrained it becomes in you when you live it every day.
Find an Affordable Study Abroad Program
When it comes to studying abroad, there are real solutions for every budget. From the more bare-bones direct exchanges to scholarship programs, to the white-glove all-inclusive offerings. They’re all great, but if you’re on a budget, here are some of the traditionally more affordable study abroad options to consider.
Look at Your School's Parter Programs
Are there any existing relationships with German institutions? If there are, not only are they usually relatively affordable, but previous attendees of the programs can likely give you the scoop on how to save money, and what their experience was like.
Search for Available Scholarships
This was actually how I ended up being able to go to Germany. Nacel International gave me a scholarship that covered almost all my costs because I was the right age and from the right area where they were looking to take more students from. I totally lucked out -- my Mom spotted the ad in the paper and showed it to me. I didn’t even think twice, just glanced at it and said, “Yup, I’m applying for that.” The Go Overseas guide to studying in Germany lists some scholarships to study abroad in Germany.
Some grants and scholarships might require a longer application process. They can be time-consuming to apply for but think of the potential payoff. Make sure to double check with your school, any local groups that you’re involved in, and local government to see if you could qualify based on your demographic, area of study or anything, really. Apply to as many as you can, use resources like this article: 46 Study Abroad Scholarships & Grants to Apply for in 2019.
It’s kind of like fishing -- you never know when you’ll get a bite.
Figure Out Fun, Free Activities in Germany
While Europe might be famous for its affordable country-to-country flights relative to North America, it’s still a good idea to plan to stay close to your home base the majority of the time you’re in Germany to save money. It might seem so close, “I could go to Amsterdam one night, Paris the next, then London!” the truth is it will drain your bank account faster than you can say, “Help me, Mom!”
Maybe promise yourself that if you manage to have a certain amount of money still saved up by the time your study abroad period is at its end, that you can make a trip out of it. But I especially don’t recommend doing this at the beginning of your time overseas, when you’ll have less of an idea of how much money you’ll really need. Surprise expenses always pop up! Have an emergency fund set aside too, in case you do need to travel for something urgent.
Trust me, Germany is exciting and diverse enough -- from the nightclubs of Saint Pauli to the mountain cloisters of Bavaria. That you could explore the country for years and still find things to do.
Joining an interest group is usually affordable (the orchestra was free!) and can lead to some amazing and affordable travel opportunities in-country. It’s also good to research beforehand where you’re going and see if any of the attractions offer free or discounted ticket days.
I also heartily recommend staying at youth hostels if traveling throughout Germany on a budget. Some of the first (and nicest) youth hostels I ever stayed at were in Germany. In German, they’re called ‘Jugendherberge.’
Find Friends Living on a Similar Budget
It may sound weird or lame, but find buddies to hang out with who are also budget-minded. There’s no denying it -- we all have different capacities and stories when it comes to money. If you’re hanging out with someone who has the cash to burn, credit cards for days, and is always wanting to eat at trendy restaurants and go shopping for fun, while you’d prefer hanging out around a budget-friendly home-cooked meal and a stroll in the park -- things can get awkward.
It’s better to be upfront about what you will and won’t pay for. You’re responsible for you, no one else. Don’t feel pressured to spend money. You don’t have to. Always ask to see a restaurants menu and prices before you sit down if you’re eating out. Sticking to your budget is nothing to be ashamed about, so get comfortable discussing money up front, lest you end up having to pay for a painful night out that you then have to recoup by eating hot dogs for a week.
Figure Out Your Banking Before You Arrive
If you’re planning to go overseas to Germany, set up a meeting with your bank to discuss your best options for using money while in the country. Will there be fees? If so, how much? Is it more affordable to take out cash using debit, or to pay for things on credit and then pay your card off each month?
Before I left for Germany I got a new checking account a separate bank because at the time they had a very low transaction fee for cash withdrawals in Germany.
Especially if you’re staying for a long time, all those $5 or $10 charges add up, quickly. Also the exchange rate you might be charged when withdrawing cash can be different than what you get when using a credit card. In my experience, with a travel rewards credit card the exchange rate itself is usually the best, with the foreign transaction fees being nil.
Talk to your bank to figure all this out ahead of time, then built any fees into your budget. For example, I gave myself an ‘allowance’ and withdrew cash every two weeks via an ATM. Having this two-week ‘cycle’ helped me budget -- kind of like having a paycheck. Dealing in all cash was also useful for me because I could physically see it dwindling. When it got down to those last few bills, I knew it was time to slow down spending until the next withdrawal.
Get a Bike -- It’s Affordable & Cool
Not kidding! Many more Germans use bikes to commute to school and work than we do in North America. Many German cities are physically small, without as much sprawl as American suburbs. When I lived in Hamburg, my host family was in a neighborhood near the Farmsen-Berne U-Bahn station. While it was considered the suburbs, it only took me about 40 minutes to bicycle to the city’s downtown. By U-Bahn (the subway), it was about the same time. I was also able to get a second-hand bike for free from my host family to use.
You can always ask other students if they know of a bike stash, or if there’s a good place around town to buy bikes second-hand. Local Facebook groups are a good place to search, as well. When I was on exchange in Japan, years after my Germany experience, there was this ‘pod’ of communal bikes that all exchange students could claim a steed from during their exchange period.
The German public transportation system is excellent, punctual, and relatively affordable, but bikes are free to use. So if you’re on a budget -- use a bike!
Save on International Phone Charges
Once you experience European cell phone data plans, you’ll never want to go back to North American ones. German cell phone plans are pretty affordable, and with the prevalence of wifi everywhere, and with programs like Skype, it just makes sense to use a local phone and/or SIM card for all your phone needs.
If you’re bringing your cell phone from North America with the intention of putting a German SIM card in it (this is what I’d do, personally), then make sure to check with your current provider if you bought the phone from them to make sure it’s unlocked and able to use SIM card from different countries and providers.
Here you can explore the cost of studying abroad and living in Germany in more detail -- from food to apartments, and more!
Making a budget, following it, and looking for ways to save money are key in having a budget-friendly Germany study abroad experience. Make sure not to be too hard on yourself, try and save as much money and acquire as many scholarships and grants as you can before you go, and have an emergency fund.
And remember -- the best part of your time in Germany won’t be the things you buy, but the people you’re with, the memories you’ll make, and the stories you’ll bring home.