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Student Budgets and Finances 
managing your cash while abroad



Student Budgets in RussiaExplore Russia
with SRAS!

Financial Aid to Study Russian in Russia

In This Guide

  1. Why You Can't Avoid Fees
  2. See also: Financial Aid

1. Prepare to be Safe    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 international borders is considered "at risk" for having been stolen.

Find Your Moderation Point. Due to transaction fees, it is generally preferable to make fewer, larger bank withdrawals. However, at the same time, keeping large amounts of cash in your dorm room, on your person, or anywhere outside a bank can be dangerous. So, you'll need to find a moderation point of how much money to carry at once and how much to leave in the bank. We do not recommend bringing large amounts of dollars with you. Bringing 200-400 dollars to keep hidden in safe place can come in handy if you, for instance, lose your debit card. Beyond that, ATMs abroad in SRAS locations are generally plentiful and safe and, if managed well, can be reasonably affordable to use. See below for more detail.   

Create Backup Plans. Make sure you know the PIN numbers for all your cards - debit and credit. Some shops abroad will make you enter a PIN for a credit card. Also, should your debit card be lost or stolen, knowing your PIN for your credit card can be handy to get cash advances in an emergency. It is not a bad idea to have a backup debit card and/or account just in case one account is blocked or one card lost.


2. Fees for Spending Money Abroad   back to top

You will be travelling on a dollar budget in a place where dollars are not directly accepted for the vast majority of your expenses. To pay for things, your money will need to be converted to the local currency. This is true whether you exchange dollars at a bank, pay for something with your credit card, or withdraw local currency from an ATM. In all cases, someone or some organization is exchanging your money for you and they will expect to be paid for that service. Banks, cards, and exchanges all have different ways of making money - although they don't often tell you this outright. A single transaction might be subject to one or more fees.

  Neither of these prices is designed to work in your favor. The more volatile the currency, the wider the gap between the two prices will get.

Central Banks and Minimizing Your Expense. Central Banks usually stipulate the official exchange rate for their country. This is true in all SRAS locations. When companies figure taxes or need to convert the value of some expense or asset, they will usually use Central Bank rates for the current day to do so. Most banks obtain currency from the Central Bank and calculate the base value of foreign currencies at Central Bank rates. To make a profit, banks and card operators will slightly alter the rate given to you. Thus, there is always some expense incurred - it is up to you to figure out how to incur the least expense possible. Official rates are listed on the websites of the Central Bank of Russia, National Bank of Ukraine, or National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the National Bank of Poland.

Visa/Mastercard Fees. Even if you have a bank account that offers no foreign transaction fee, you will still pay Visa and/or Mastercard for the currency conversion. With Visa, you'll be paying the "Visa Negotiated Rate." Thanks to Visa's massive negotiating power, this is usually the best possible rate that one can get at a retail level, only slightly differing from Central Bank rates. Mastercard actually piggy-backs on the "Visa Negotiated Rate" and then applies what it calls an "exchange rate adjustment," usually cutting about 2-3% for themselves out of every transaction.

Bank Fees. Bank fees are charged on top of Visa/Mastercard fees. Bank fees are generally more comon with Visa cards. "Overseas/international/foreign transaction fees" are the most obvious to watch for - and are fairly common. Some banks will charge you fees for using another bank's ATM. As most American banks are not represented in most SRAS locations, this is another possible expense to you. Debit card purchase fees are another to watch out for if you use your debit card in stores. Call your bank and take stock of all the possible fees you may incur. You may want to open a better account before departing.

Which Card/Account is Best? To put this into perspective, here is data taken from two cards used in Moscow ATMs in April, 2015. One set of data comes from a Wells Fargo card, which uses the Visa system and charges a $5 "Non-Wells Fargo ATM Transaction Fee" (there are no Wells Fargo ATMs in Russia). The other is a Chase Platinum Business Mastercard, which boasts no transaction fees. Here's how they stacked up:

Chase (MasterCard)
Date Rubles Withdrawn Dollars Charged Exchange Rate Central Bank Exchange Rate Central Bank Value of Rubles Exchange Cost Total Cost with Fees
7-Apr 7500 138.50 54.15 56.52 132.70 5.80 5.80
9-Apr 10000 190.39 52.52 54.02 185.12 5.27 5.27
17-Apr 10000 207.37 48.22 49.67 201.33 6.04 6.04
Wells Fargo (Visa)
Date Rubles Withdrawn Dollars Charged Exchange Rate Central Bank Exchange Rate Central Bank Value of Rubles Exchange Cost Total Cost with Fees


Chase advertises no fees but the costs of each transaction is very similar to Wells Fargo (which charges a flat $5 fee). This is because MasterCard "adjusts" the exchange rate to make its profit from the Visa rate it shares. As we can see from the Wells Fargo data, the "Visa Negotiated Rate" can actually be better than the Central Bank rate. 

Many other cards are similar to these. For example, the Capital One 360 card advertises no fees, but also issues Mastercards, which will apply a significant adjustment.

The best account for international travel is the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account. This charges no fees and gives you a Visa card. To open an account, you must also open a Schwab investment account (but are not required to invest anything). Whenever you log on to your card information, you are presented with the opportunity to invest into online brokerage services from the same interface. Schwab seems to be seeking its profit, then, by assuming that international travelers are likely to be high net worth individuals looking for new places to invest. As a poor student, however, you can still take advantage of this. Schwab not only does not charge a fee, they refund any ATM fees charged by other banks when you use your Schwab card.

 Study Abroad
in Russia!


3. Additional Program-Related Costs     back to top

Some expenses outside of those covered by your tuition (as listed on our program pages) that you may need to consider include:

  • Airport transfers (one way; two included with each standard SRAS program): $10-30
  • Home stay supplement ($400-800 per month - varies by location; some meals may be included)
  • Travel to/from Eurasia (tickets can generally be found for about $500-$1000 from New York to any SRAS study location)


4. Day-to-Day Expenses     back to top

Many students ask: "How much money should I budget to live abroad?" The answer, of course, depends on several variables and your habits. For a short answer, as of January, 2017, students are reporting that $100 is a reasonable weekly budget for Moscow for daily expenses. Bishkek and Irkutsk currently run our students about $50 a week. Other SRAS locations are somewhere between these numbers. For an excellent breakdown of cost of living data for most SRAS locations, see 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.  

    CURRENCY VOLITILITY      back to top

The dollar amounts used here are based on Moscow prices as of January, 2017. It is based, roughly, on an exchange rate of 60 rubles to the dollar. Although it went through a period of high volitility in 2014-2016, the ruble seems to have stabilized at around 60. In 2017, it is predicted to either remain stable or strengthen against the dollar slightly. 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%.

As you will be spending a dollar budget in a non-dollar economy, you should watch prices and exchange rates to know which way things are going. That said, things are currently working in favor of travelers using dollars, which is right now one of the world's strongest currencies. Relative prices in dollar values are down across the board due to the ruble's loss of value. However, the changing economics around you will affect the local population and the international situation. Watching your own day-to-day expenses in both dollars and the local currency should be a learning experience for you. Take advantage of it!  


Find the Cost of Living for Your Destination! 

We recommend using Numbeo to gauge your budget. Note that numbers there are average - for professionals as well as tourists on all sorts of budgets. So, you can assume that you can stay under the average if you are careful.

See Numbeo for:

St. Petersburg

  EATING     back to top

Feeding yourself can cost anywhere from $50-$150+/week, depending on the type of food you eat, how much you eat, and where you plan on eating.

Students who mostly cook for themselves, for instance, report spending about $40/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 about $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 many dorms lack refrigerators.

Students who mostly eat in the university cafeteria (stolovaya) report spending about $70/week for food. For a meal consisting of meat and potatoes, a side salad, a drink and dessert, you can expect to pay about $4. Snacks at street food kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including McDonalds) will run $4-6 and perhaps a bit more depending on your appetite and tastes (i.e. a meal with a Big Mac will be a bit more more).

Restaurants can put a hole in your budget very quickly anywhere. A "sit down" dinner without alcohol in Moscow can very easily cost $10-25, 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!

 Study Abroad
in Russia!

Russian Studies


This will depend on how frequently you need public transportation. If you live in a dorm and your classes are within 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, you will likely frequently use the service. In Moscow, a one-way ride on a bus or the metro within city limits costs about $0.90. Bulk passes can cut that per-ride cost nearly in half, however. Our city guides have more information about specific locations.

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.

A day trip on a bus or elektrichka with a packed lunch to a nearby city to visit museums or stroll through parks or villages can cost as little as $15-50. Taking a short weekend trip to a location requiring a train ride, air tickets, and/or hotel or hostel can run $100-300.

    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 (common costs for this are about $10/month with a small start-up fee).

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 Yota and the major mobile carriers MTS, Beeline, and Megafon. In most cases, you will spend between about $13-40 for the modem, and about $6-20 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: You'll find a lot of business in every SRAS location that 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 to 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 $2-4/hour and are becoming rarer in most cities as more locals can afford their own computers and permanent connections. The closest Internet cafe to MGU, for instance, is three metro stops away. Bishkek is about the only city where the cafes remain common. 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. Students who don't use their telephones very often (a few short calls and text messages per week) report spending about $5-20/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. There are good international plans now through T-Mobile and Verizon. Look into activating these before going abroad.

Other students or travelers can obtain a cheap phone for about $10-50 in most stores and international airports now have cell phone kiosks where you can buy a cheap phone and local number 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 $6-20 at kiosks and even some major stores.

Most cellular phones in SRAS locations are pay-as-you-go; you add money at any of the numerous electronic kiosks that dot major cities in Russia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan. Most of them are blue and run by the electronic payment giant Qiwi. If you are looking to save money, though, you should look for Evroset stores or stores branded by the company that provides your phone service. These will be commission-free. Qiwi often charges 10-20%. Also, 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 the local language.

 Study Abroad
in Georgia!


    LAUNDRY     back to top

If you opt to hand-wash your laundry (this is manageable but can be 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 for hanging clothes to dry). For this, you can expect to pay about $10-20. Students who use the laundromat at Moscow State University report spending from $6-$20/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 $50-$350/month – and no one ever seems certain.

In Moscow it can be easy to spend $50-100 in one night at an upper-end club (cover charges are common, and clubs often charge $3-9 for beers and cocktails). Those students who follow the Russian tradition of buying drinks from a kiosk and strolling with them through one of the widespread parks, will find that the cost of socializing will run them only a dollar or two for soda, water, or a domestic beer.

A ticket to a movie will run about $5-12. Rock concerts can run from $8-infinity. Theatre tickets can run about $3-200. (For more on tickets, see or - which sell mid-range and higher-end tickets at a small premium.) 

    INCIDENTALS      back to top

More than likely, you will spend a bit 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 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). 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!


5. Tips for Students Worried about Budgets       back to top

  • Keep track of how much you spend. This can be difficult 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 rubles don't look or feel like "real money," so it's easier to just throw them around. Keep up-to-date on the current exchange rate (see above) and force yourself to do a rough calculation each time you buy something.
  • Find rules of thumb by calculating and memorizing the value of the major bills. For instance, a 100-ruble bill is worth a bit more than a $1.50 right now. A 500-ruble bill is about $8. Knowing what you are taking out of your wallet to pay with can help you to limit expenditures.
  • Try not to carry around too much money at once. Feeling rich can make you act like you're rich…


 Study Abroad
in Russia!

Russian Far East

6. 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. US currency in circulation abroad is not used for daily transactions, but instead for savings and major purchases. Thus, the bills 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, Poland, 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 few locations (such as major banks and some major hotels), but problems are likely and fees are assured.

Credit Cards are now widely accepted. In major cities most larger grocery stores and even fast food chains now take them. However, never assume you can pay with a credit card - always carry at least some cash. Even places that advertise that they accept cards will often have difficulties with their systems. Some places are also not set up to accept dollar-denominated credit cards (although they otherwise accept credit cards), so don't be surprised if you card is sometimes randomly turned down.


7. Financial Institutions     back to top

Exchanges and Banks can exchange cash at locations throughout most cities. Exchange services in banks tend to be more trusted, but will often ask you for a passport as documentation for the transaction. We've found that the little kiosks on the street that specialize in exchange tend to also be reliable and honest and are more convenient as they don't ask for ID. However, 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 generally as safe to use as ATMs in America (with some exception in Bishkek), 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. 

See Also:

 Financial Aid for Study Abroad in Russia
More FAQs About SRAS
More About SRAS Programs


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