6 tricks to spend wisely during a semester abroad

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6 tricks to spend wisely during a semester abroad

University of Oxford
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Managing your money during a semester abroad is no easy feat.

After a summer internship at CNBC writing about personal finance, I left for a semester abroad armed with plenty of information to better manage my money. But now that I've been in Spain for a few months, I've found there's a lot I didn't know.

Here are six key lessons I've learned about how to manage money while studying abroad:

  • 1) Choose your cards wisely

    Make sure you know what international fees you'll be dealing with for each credit or debit card you bring. According to a CreditCards.com report, 56 percent of cards charge a foreign transaction fee — typically adding 3 percent to each foreign charge.

    It can be worth opening a new card that doesn't have such fees but offers other travel perks. Visa and MasterCard cards are great options because they offer low exchange rates and are widely accepted internationally, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive and founder of comparison site WalletHub.com.

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  • 2) Alert your bank

    Tell your bank and credit card issuers that you'll be traveling abroad. If you forget to add a travel notice, the bank might flag your purchases as fraudulent and freeze the card or account.

    Depending on your bank, creating a travel notification can easily be done with a phone call or via the app.

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  • 3) Understand exchange rates

    Keep an eye on exchange rates before going abroad to decide when to exchange your U.S. dollars for the currency of your destination. You will definitely want to show up with some of that country's currency in hand for immediate needs (like taking a cab from the airport or buying a subway pass, for example).

    Where you exchange money can make a big difference in how far your dollar goes. Using a credit card will save you almost 9 percent from an airport Travelex kiosk, and almost 7 percent compared from currency exchange services offered by local banks, according to a 2017 WalletHub study.

    Always make purchases in the local currency using your credit card, said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com.

    "Oftentimes, merchants will ask you if you'd like to do the purchase in U.S. dollars," Schulz said. "While that might sound like a good idea, it can really cost you. That's because that merchant won't be able to match the currency exchange rates that your card issuer can get — and they might even slip in an extra fee or two in the process."

    A worker holds a sign listing exchange rates in Hong Kong, China on March 16, 2017.
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  • 4) Avoid ATM fee buildups

    Withdrawing money from an ATM can trigger two fees: from that bank and from your bank back home. So it pays to think about your withdrawal strategy.

    Ask your bank if it has locations in your destination country, or if it has international bank partners that waive or reduce ATM fees. If you're stuck with a fee, consider taking out larger sums so you can make fewer withdrawals. (Just make sure to secure that money rather than carry it around with you.)

    A customer exits a Citigroup Inc. Banamex bank branch in Mexico City, Mexico.
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  • 5) Know when to use debit vs. credit

    There are right times to use debit, and right times to use credit.

    When making a purchase, use a credit card, said Papadimitriou. They have more stringent fraud protections and let you earn rewards.

    When withdrawing money from an ATM, on the other hand, stick to a debit card. If you use a credit card at an ATM, you are taking out a "cash advance," which means you'll have to pay a fee, and interest will immediately begin to accrue, warned Papadimitriou.

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  • 6) Download a banking app

    Monitoring your accounts is a smart strategy to spot fraudulent charges. Get in the habit of regularly checking your balance to make sure you're staying in line with your budget and to make sure you never get overcharged by a restaurant or store abroad.

    Mobile banking app showing savings account balance
    Stephan Drescher | E+ | Getty Images