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USA Real Estate Blog

Study Abroad Finances 101 – talbertm

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Currently, I am studying abroad in Madrid, Spain and let me tell you… the importance of budgeting, managing multiple bank accounts, understanding good vs. bad debt, and applying for credit is more obvious here than you would believe. So many of my peers came abroad with the wrong credit cards — ones that charge them astronomical currency exchange rates, give no travel rewards, or are simply not accepted ANYWHERE (cough cough, American Express). Having a lot of family members who work in personal finance and having worked an internship at a financial technology company last summer mean that before I came abroad I knew all about the best credit cards to get, how early to apply for them, when to use them, and just how important all of this is!

This post is for all of you who are planning on going abroad and want to be financially responsible and independent for that experience!


  1. Budgeting
  2. Which credit cards to get before you go abroad
  3. Credit vs. Debit Card use cases
  4. Tell your bank you will be abroad!
  5. Using and carrying cash
  6. Reporting lost and stolen cards
Being responsible with your finances means more money for travel!


  • Plan monthly expenses: leave flexibility for emergencies and random cool opportunities.
  • Keep one month of expenses + a bit of emergency money in your checking account, put the rest in savings.
  • Research the currency exchange rate before you get abroad and check it every week or so.
  • Talk with family about plans for a financial emergency while abroad (I recommend making someone you trust a cosigner on your bank account so they can cancel your cards, pay bills, transfer money etc. if you lose internet access).

Getting a credit card to use while abroad:

  • Why? It is good for emergencies, building your credit score, acquiring travel rewards points, and is safer if your card is compromised!
  • AVOID AMERICAN EXPRESS! Nowhere abroad accepts it and it’s really not worth the hassle of annoying every store owner you ask.
  • In my experience, VISA has been great. I also have friends that love Mastercard. Both are good options, and if you can manage to get one of each that could be best.
  • Look into a company like TransferWise if you want a bank account routing number within the country you will be living. This can be super useful for direct deposit if you are able to work in the country you visit, as well as for getting a gym membership or even just blending in as a local when paying at restaurants.

Credit vs. Debit Card use cases:

  • Use a debit card for ALL ATM WITHDRAWALS!!! Credit cards will charge you an incredibly high fee for this ‘cash advance’ while debit cards will only charge you a flat fee and sometimes a small percentage of the amount that you withdraw.
  • Research which banks have the lowest ATM fees and become comfortable walking a little ways to visit those for your cash withdrawals. It’s worth the hassle to save money, I promise.
  • Use a credit card for all online purchases! If your credit card is compromised, you can easily report it and are not responsible for the fraudulent charges. This is much more complicated for a debit card.
  • In my opinion, it is best to use a credit card for all purchases and a debit card only for ATM withdrawals. Pay off your credit card bill in full every month to avoid interest charges and improve your credit score. If you can’t do this, try to limit your spending while you are abroad and without a source of income; your credit score will impact your ability to get credit for years afterwards.
  • Always carry a credit card on weekend trips in case of emergency! Only carry a debit card when you think you will need it (it’s really hard to replace cards while abroad if you lose a debit card)
  • Bring at least one and ideally two debit cards abroad, and at least two credit cards! See my future post on applying for credit for information on how to do this 🙂

Before you go abroad:

  • Call or use online banking to tell your bank how long you will be abroad and which countries you expect to spend in! Do this for all of your accounts and cards.
  • Get a trusted family member or friend to cosign on your account in case of emergency (I put my mom as a cosigner on one of my accounts so that if I lose internet access she can transfer money from my savings to checking account and make sure my credit card bill payments went through)
  • Learn how to report a card as lost or stolen using your online banking platform
  • Set up mobile credit card statements so that you get an email and push notification when your credit card statement is ready and when the bill is due! This will help you stay on top of your budgeting and payments.

Using and carrying cash:

  • Cash is used WAY MORE outside of the US! Arrive abroad with about a week’s expenses in cash so that you can adjust without needing to find an ATM immediately. If you have an account at a brick and mortar bank, such as US Bank, you can request the currency for the countries which you will be traveling in advance and they will have it delivered for you to pickup before your trip.
  • Carry some cash but not a lot. Put in a few different places (some in a wallet which you keep in a front pocket or cross-body purse, some locked in a backpack, some in your home stay, and some in a money belt).
  • Never carry more than you can afford to lose! This makes pick pocketing less devastating and can help you avoid large impulsive purchases.

Reporting lost and stolen cards:

  • Learn how to report lost/stolen cards before it happens! It is super easy on most mobile banking platforms.
  • Only carry one credit card with you at any time. Leave the other(s) at home so you always have a backup in case of theft.
  • Report lost or stolen cards within 2 days! This will ensure that you are not responsible for fraudulent charges on them. If charges are made before you report the card as lost/stolen, you should not be held accountable for more than $50 of it.
  • For credit cards, if you notice charges that are incorrect on your statement, report it to your credit card company ASAP! The sooner you report this the sooner it can be resolved. You must report fraudulent charges within 60 days of getting your statement in order to reverse the charges.
  • For debit cards, if you notice incorrect charges, report this to your bank and deactivate the card immediately. It is much harder to be reimbursed for fraudulent debit card use, so try to use your credit card for all risky spending.
  • If you need a new card while abroad, ask your bank about their policies on sending a card abroad. Another good option is to have the bank mail the card to your home address and have a trusted friend or family member mail you the card via a tracked package (one creative way of doing this is to place the card between bars of chocolate in the package so it is less obvious)

I hope these tips help you successfully manage your finances while abroad! Feel free to comment anything I left out or share your personal tips and preferences!

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