Student Budgets and Finances
managing your cash while abroad
In This Guide
- See also: Financial Aid
1. Your Bank and Credit Card in Russia back to top
Call Your Money! Make sure your bank and credit card companies know that you will be abroad. Your accounts should be "flagged" so that your ATM card and/or credit cards do not get blocked "for security reasons." A card crossing a border is considered "at risk" for having been stolen.
Check on Transaction Fees. You should check with your bank and credit card companies to see what sort of "foreign/international/overseas transaction fee" they charge (most of them do!). You will need to figure these fees into your plans. Ask about ATM withdrawl fees AND debit card purchase fees - these are usually different.
What fee rates can you expect? Here is a great article about these fees with those for several major companies conveniently listed. Most fees range between $2.50-5.00 for each transaction and/or 1-3% of each transaction. Note that the percentage is often not listed as a fee, but rather worked into the exchange rate conversion. So, the exchange rate you get might not be the official rate listed by Central Bank of Russia, National Bank of Ukraine, or National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic, but rather one reduced based on official rates and lowered by a few points.
Accounts without foreign fees:
- Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking (no ATM fees, all ATM usage fees charged by others refunded worldwide; must also open a Schwab investment account; no minimum balance on either)
- Captial One Online Banking (no ATM, debit card purchase, or credit card purchase fees for accounts opened online; accounts opened in Capital One locations are charged fees)
- ING Electric Orange Checking (no ATM charge, but there is a 2% charge on debit card purchases)
- Higher One (this bank available to students of certain universities).
Can you avoid fees? Unless you have a fee-free account, not really. Some students have suggested some work-arounds, but these are all problematic:
- Bring all your money with you in cash. Traveling with large amounts of cash and storing large amounts of cash in a rented place is dangerous. We don't recomend it.
- Make really big withdrawls to avoid repeated fees. Again, storing this money or walking around with it is dangerous. Note as well that your bank probably has limits to how much you can withdraw in a day (usually $300-500). Also, most Russian ATMs have limits of 6000-10000 rubles – or $200-350 – for each transaction (you can make multiple transactions at one ATM, up to the limit provided by your bank, but each withdrawl will count as a transaction with your bank).
- Bring your budget in travelers checks. We do not recommend using traveler's checks, as cashing them in Russia can be difficult and purchasing and/or cashing travelers checks usually involves fees of some sort anyway.
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2. Additional Program Costs back to top
Some expenses oustide of those covered by your tuition (as listed on our program pages) that you may need to consider include:
supplement ($400-800 per month - varies by location; some meals may be included)
(about $700-$1200 for New York to Moscow, Kiev, or St.
Petersburg; $1000-1700 to other SRAS study locations)
3. Day-to-Day Expenses back to top
Many students ask: "How much money should I bring abroad?" The answer, of course, depends on several variables and your habits. Below we list the most commonly reported expenses that students incur. Looking at these, we hope that you can estimate a budget that will work for you. The dollar amounts used here are based on Moscow prices. For all other Russian cities and cities in Ukraine, you may reduce the amount for most expenses by 10-15%. For Bishkek, you can reduce most by 40-50%.
EATING back to top
Feeding yourself can cost anywhere from $70-$300+/week, depending on the type of food you eat, how much you eat, and where you plan on eating (cooking for yourself, getting street food, or going to the stolovaya or restaurants).
Students who mostly cook for themselves report spending about $70/week on groceries. Keep in mind if you plan on doing this, you will also incur some "start-up" expenses for kitchen supplies. At bare minimum (for a plate, fork, knife, spoon, bowl, one storage container, coffee mug, 14 cm stove pot, a fry pan, and a spatula) you can expect to pay at least $25 (for very cheap items). If your kitchen skills and palate are more developed, you may end up spending a lot more for things such as spices, oils, different types of cooking dishes, pots, etc. You might end up spending a bit more time going shopping as some dorms (like most at Moscow State) lack refridgerators.
Students who mostly eat in the university cafeteria (stolovaya) report spending about $110/week for food. For a meal consisting of meat and potatoes, a side salad, a drink and dessert, you can expect to pay about $5-6. Snacks at street food kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including McDonalds) will run about the same and perhaps a bit more depending on your appetite and tastes (a meal with a Big Mac or Big Tasty will be a bit more, for instance).
Restaurants can put a hole in your budget very quickly anywhere and this is especially true in Moscow. A "sit down" dinner without alcohol can very easily cost $20-50, depending on the restaurant. Most of our budget-conscious students report going to restaurants only once or twice a week. SRAS has launched a new student-run site that encourages students to write reviews with sample budgets for affordable restaurants in their host cities. If you are interested in contributing (and are an SRAS student), let us know!
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TRANSPORTATION AND TRAVEL back to top
This will depend on how frequently you need public transportation. If you live in a dorm and your classes are in walking-distance, you'll likely incur this expense only a few times a week. If you live some distance away from where you study or are serving an internship, or if you find work as a freelance English teacher (for instance), you will likely frequently use the service. In Moscow, a one-way ride on a bus or the metro within city limits costs about $1. Students who frequently use the metro may opt to buy monthly metro passes for about $30. For the most up-to-date info on Moscow Metro prices, click here.
If you plan to travel while on an SRAS program, you should let SRAS know your plans immediately. You can find more information about domestic air travel in Russia or domestic train travel in Russia from our site. Also know that if you require more transfers (rides to the airport/train station) than the allotted two that come with most SRAS study abroad programs, these can be arranged via SRAS for about $40-60, one way.
INTERNET back to top
This is an oft-overlooked expense: many people don't realize how much time they actually spend on the Internet, taking their constant connections for granted. Also, the Internet is usually the easiest way to stay connected to family and friends while abroad, so you may end up online more than you might think.
Dorm Internet: In some cases, you may be able to get a connection where you are living (in the dorms at Moscow State University, this costs $30/month with a small start-up fee of about $5).
Mobile Internet: If you bring your own computer, you might consider investing in a 3G or 4G modem. Most cell phone providers now offer these for purchase from most cell phone shops. Popular providers for data connections are SkyLink and Yota although the other major carriers (MTS, Beeline, and Megafon; only MTS has a site with most information in English) also offer mobile Internet. In most cases, you will spend between about $15-120 for the modem, and about $10-50 per month depending on your plan and usage. Keep in mind when choosing your plans that most of these companies offer what are called "безлимитный" (unlimited) plans that are actually capped at 3-5 GB per month after which you are expected to pay more or operate at a very low speed. They usually have other "безлимитный" plans with higher caps available.
Free WiFi: Some businesses, such as Starbucks and McDonalds in Russia and Ukraine, offer free WiFi. For those who will use the Internet only rarely and have their own computer, this is a plausible alternative (and the employees rarely actually care if you buy anything or not before logging on). Our city guides usually have information about where you can find free hotspots in cities that host SRAS programs.
The Computer-less: If you come without a computer, you will probably need to rely on Internet cafes. These cost around $3-4/hour and are becoming rarer in Russian cities as more Russians can afford their own computers and permanent connections. The closest Internet cafe to MGU, for instance, is three metro stops away. Again, our city guides usually have information on this.
TELEPHONE back to top
Students on SRAS study abroad programs in select locations (as listed on individual program pages) will be given phones to use as part of their program. Otherwise, a cheap phone can be purchased for about $40-70 (or less) in most stores and Russia's international airports now have cell phone kiosks where you can buy a cheap phone and local number very cheaply as you enter the country. If you are really looking to save money, ask around about used phones. These can often be found (though without warranty, etc.) for as little as about $20-25 some kiosks and even some major stores offer used phones.
Most cellular phones in Russia are pay-as-you-go, and you can add money at the numerous electronic kiosks that dot nearly all cities in Russia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan. Most of them are blue and run by the electronic payment giant Qiwi. However, note that, whatever the color or brand, the vast majority of these have no English available - you will need to learn to navigate them in Russian. Students who don't use their telephones very often (a few short calls and text messages per week) report spending about $10-25/month. Students who frequently use their mobile phones (for example, as a way to use calling cards to call friends and family back home and talk at length) report spending as much as $100-130/month.
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LAUNDRY back to top
If you opt to hand-wash your laundry (this sounds manageable in theory but it can be very tedious and time-consuming), you will have the start-up expenses of purchasing two buckets, a scrub brush, laundry detergent, and a sushilka (a collapsible contraption to hang your clothes to dry on). For this, you can expect to pay at least $15-20. Students who use the laundromat at Moscow State University report spending from $12-$25/month there.
ENTERTAINMENT back to top
This is the most difficult expense to estimate. Not only does everyone entertain themselves differently, but we've found that people tend to pay the least attention on how much they spend for pleasure. When asked about spending on entertainment, students typically give very tentative estimates ranging from $200-$500/month – and no one ever seems certain.
In Moscow it is easy to spend $50-100 in one night at an upper-end club ($10-20 cover charges are common, and clubs often charge $7-15 for beers and cocktails). Those students who follow the Russian tradition of buying beer from a kiosk and strolling with it through one of Russia's widespread parks, will find that the cost of mixing drinking and socializing will run them only a dollar or two per domestic beer (the same can be said of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan).
A ticket to a movie will run you about $10-20. Rock concerts can run from $20-infinity. Theatre tickets can run about $3-200. (For more on tickets, see kontramarka.ru or parter.ru - which sell mid-range and higher-end tickets at a small premium.) Traveling outside of Moscow can vary greatly in cost as well – a day trip on a bus or elektrichka with a packed lunch to a nearby city to visit state museums or stroll through parks or villages can cost as little as $25-50. Taking a multiple-day trip to a location requiring a train ride, air tickets, and/or hotel or hostel can run $200-500 or more.
INCIDENTALS back to top
More than likely, you will spend more than what you plan! Most students who plan out a spartan existence before they arrive will (rightly in our opinion) decide that there are too many great experiences that shouldn't be passed up just to stay within a very constricted budget. These students often find money from elsewhere to take advantage of their time abroad.
Also, note that frequently there will be incidentals that you perhaps didn't write into your carefully-constructed budget: a new umbrella (it rains a lot in Moscow and St. Pete), band-aids, hand soap, toilet paper, postcards, souvenirs, a snack on the street, a new lens for your glasses, a private taxi ride home at 3 am because you stayed out after public transportation closed... you get the idea. Shoes and clothing can also be an especial issue as they tend to wear out more quickly when you walk more (and you will while abroad) and you'll find that clothing can be more expensive – up to 25% more than back home, especially in Russia. Keep in mind as well that electronics are also about 25% more in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in comparison with the US. Don't plan to buy them abroad. Lastly, make sure you didn't skip the material on transaction fees in the banking section above! Those can really add up!
4. Tips for Students Worried about Budgets back to top
Actually keep track of how much you spend. This can be difficult to see through (as it requires daily accounting), but it can show you what you can cut out of your budget – and keep how much you are spending fresh in your mind.
Many students report that they tend to spend a lot their first few days or weeks because they feel like they are playing with "monopoly money" (i.e. rubles don't look or feel like dollars, so it's easier to just throw them around). Try to get over this quickly by keeping up-to-date on the current exchange rate (see above) and forcing yourself to do a rough calculation each time you buy something.
Try not to carry around too much money at once. Feeling rich can make you act like you're rich…
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5. Forms of Currency back to top
Dollars should be clean, crisp, and unmarked. Yes, US bank employees look at you funny when you request this, but even the smallest mark or tear will mean that you will have problems exchanging the currency abroad. The ATMs in Russia and Ukraine that distribute dollars, distribute brand-new or barely-used bills (you may have difficulty finding an ATM in Kyrgyzstan that distributes USD) and thus any US currency in circulation abroad will be crisp and clean.
Checks should not be used. They will likely be looked at strangely and handed back, perhaps with some choice words. Many people in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have never heard of the personal check and they never will as their banking systems have simply jumped to debit cards in the post-Soviet reform.
Traveler's Checks can be cashed in some locations (such as major hotels and some banks), but problems are likely and fees are assured.
Credit Cards are now fairly widely accepted, especially in major cities but never assume you can pay with a credit card - always carry cash. Even places that advertize that they accept cards will often have difficulties with their systems.
6. Financial Institutions back to top
Exchanges and Banks can exchange cash at locations throughout most cities. Use those exchange services in banks, (rather than the little kiosks on the street), as they tend to be more reliable and honest. Always make sure you know how much you should receive in return before you hand money across the counter and never leave the counter if you believe a mistake has been made. Once you leave, no argument can be made. Don’t be embarrassed to count the money in front of the employee who has just completed the transaction for you – it’s completely expected. As should be obvious, don't trust someone waiting outside the exchange who offers "a better deal."
ATMs are now common in most cities in Russia and Eurasia. These are now as safe to use as ATMs in America, but make sure you tell your bank that you will be withdrawing money abroad and the dates of your stay (see the section on banks and credit cards above).
Western Union has outposts in most banks and has a fast, secure wiring service - but it’s not cheap. If you can wait, it is easiest and cheapest to have someone deposit money to your account (or mail your bank a check with your account information and instructions) and then withdraw the money from an ATM.
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