My son’s in his third year of college. He’s graduating a year early because he earned a full year of credit by taking and passing AP and community college classes in high school.
We’re working together as a family to help him graduate debt-free. We used 529 plans to save money and by working part-time jobs he’s contributed to college savings since he was 15. By finishing his undergraduate degree a year early, we’ll save over $20,000.
While some people don’t seem to be too concerned about the cost of college or taking out student loans, we are very debt-averse.
We’ve taught our teens about big loans and interest rates. They looked at budgets and understood how challenging it would be to spend years paying back loans early in their careers.
When my son announced he was looking into studying abroad in Milan (Italy) this year, my enthusiasm faded when I started thinking about the expense. While we wanted him to be able to have this experience, we had no idea what it would cost or how his financial aid package might be affected.
Even though we’re saving money by him graduating early, we plan to use the savings to help him pay for the Master’s Degree program he’s already been accepted in.
While we want him to be able to have anything, we also know we can’t afford to give him everything.
The Cost of Studying Abroad
Our son researched all of his study abroad options and attended informational meetings offered by the Office of International Education. His university offers a number of different programs and hundreds of students study abroad each year.
He learned that he could meet all of his major requirements by participating in the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP).
We were happy to learn the tuition would be less than we pay at his university, while room and board would be the same. But his university grants and scholarships would be reduced slightly because of a reduction in tuition costs.
So the overall cost to attend college in a different country wouldn’t be that different.
Except we also knew that it would be! There are plenty of expenses they don’t include in those international study planning sheets.
Extra Expenses To Plan For
We didn’t keep track of every single expense but figured his semester away would likely cost 30-40% more than the “estimates” suggested by the university.
While they included “travel” to and from the foreign country as part of your travel expense planning, there’s a lot more to travel than those plane tickets (think luggage, airport transfers, and more.)
They also didn’t include the cost to travel to get a VISA in the expense planning. My son had to drive to New York City and stay overnight to be ready for his appointment at the Italian consulate. That was another $400 we hadn’t anticipated.
Many students also travel extensively while studying abroad because of easy train access, cheap flights, and hostel availability. And we assumed he would too. While we knew he’d do it frugally, we also wanted him to see as much of Europe as possible while he was there.
Yes, meals and some grocery shopping were part of the “board” figure – but the university was also 20 minutes from the apartment he’d live in. I didn’t see him taking the train – another expense – to go get meals on campus if he didn’t have class. We definitely needed to plan extra money for food for my 20-year old son.
And I’ll give you two more examples that sum up why you need to plan to spend more than you think!
To save space in his luggage, my son decided he’d pick up a shower towel when he got to Italy. How hard could it be to find a towel? A week later – after searching all over the city – he paid almost 40 euros for the only one he could find!
Then, on his return trip this weekend, the train to the airport was canceled at the last minute. He ended up sharing a cab and it cost him 55 euros instead of being included in his train pass…
Was It Worth the Cost To Send Him To Study Abroad?
Absolutely. Even though we spent a couple of thousand dollars more than a normal semester would have cost, the life experiences and lessons were worth every penny.
From our perspective, here are some of the takeaways from his study abroad experience.
- He had to do the work (and it is quite a process) to set up the study abroad semester. This involved meetings with advisors and financial aid, plenty of paperwork to read, applications, and traveling on his own to New York City to get a VISA. It was a lot like applying and interviewing for a “real” job.
- He got to see how important it is to extend your budget and plan for expenses to be much higher than you might anticipate.
- Luckily, he didn’t have much trouble when he traveled – until the last day. But this also showed him the need for flexibility when you travel. And the need to plan ahead (which he did), and be prepared for almost anything – including paying more than you originally expect.
- One of the requirements of the M.S. program he wants to attend is an international experience. He hopes his semester abroad will boost his resume and help him land a graduate or teaching assistantship at his new university (saving him tens of thousands of dollars).
- He’s learned to travel in foreign countries alone without knowing the language while making friends with people from all over the world.
- The experience of living in a different culture and seeing how other people live and treat others is something you can’t put a price tag on – especially when you live in a place where little cultural diversity exists.
My husband and I also got to experience traveling to Europe for the first time. We’ve been saving airline miles for years and going to see my son in Italy was the perfect reason to use some of them! It was exciting to have our son be the tour guide in a foreign country. I was impressed with how well he adapted to and learned about his new city.
While it’s important to be money conscious, my son did the work to show us that he was ready for an international experience. I’ll admit I didn’t sleep well until I knew he was settled in his apartment in Italy, but after that – I always looked forward to hearing about his latest adventure!