Students overseas share budgeting secrets

Things can quickly go awry when young students have to manage big budgets overseas. Three Singaporeans share how they did it

During his first year of university in Australia, Singaporean Thomas Danny Jeyaseelan, 36, spent A$50,000.

He was in his early 20s then and studying at the University of Queensland.

That year, he rented a spacious apartment that he shared with a housemate. It was located near the Brisbane River, and he had regular access to a pool and sauna.

The bachelor says he "bought quality groceries and didn't shy away from eating in restaurants". He also bought a second-hand car for A$9,000, which later fell apart and cost A$10,000 in maintenance over two years.

Besides footing the bill for such expenses, his parents paid his school fees directly to his university, which cost about A$20,000 annually for his communications degree course.

It was hard-earned money for our education. We are a form of investment to our parents.

FINANCIAL CONSULTANT CLAUDIA TAN LI YI on why she felt responsible to spend wisely during her university days abroad

"I had no good sense of cash flow. I'd let dad know when I was running low and he would top up (my account). It was ATM-style," recalls Mr Jeyaseelan, now a senior communications officer at the Science Centre Singapore and president of the University of Melbourne Alumni Association (Singapore).

Studying overseas for the first time as a young adult can pose challenges when it comes to managing a budget much larger than what one is used to.

Earlier this month, a Malaysian studying chemical engineering in Australia made headlines after she spent A$4.6 million (S$4.6 million) from an unlimited overdraft that a bank gave her by mistake.

Ms Christine Lee Jia Xin, 21, claimed she thought her parents had sent the money to her and allegedly spent most of it on designer handbags, clothes, jewellery and mobile phones.

  • Keep to the budget

    Informed spending is key for both parents and their offspring in managing finances while at university.

    Tips for parents:

    • Check with the university to find out the tuition fees and living and other expenses.

    •Check with other parents on the median range to give your child.

    • Have access to and check bank statements.

    • Provide a debit card to monitor expenditure.

    • Give a supplementary credit card only for standby or emergencies.

    •Put a cap on mobile phone bills and online shopping.

    •Reward and encourage saving - for example, the undergraduates get to keep what they do not spend.

    Tips for young adults studying at an overseas university:

    •Check with current students about the cost of living. Budget according to your means.

    •Cook your meals in bulk and store the food to be consumed later.

    •Buy groceries from less expensive supermarkets.

    •Buy discounted or secondhand books and laptops.

    •Use apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Line and WeChat for free calls and texts.

    •Look out for discounts, such as on Groupon and eBay.

    •Supplement your finances with part-time jobs, student loans, grants or scholarships.

    •Source: Dr Irene S.M. Lee, president, Harvard Club of Singapore, a local club for Harvard alumni in Singapore to network

Hers is an extreme case, but some undergraduates, too, face difficulties budgeting their expenses for the first time away from home.

Ms Katie Jones, international officer for South-east Asian students at Wales' Cardiff University, says that problems arise when some students who are used to a certain standard of living at home replicate it overseas, where living costs can be higher.

She says: "Coming from the supported environment of home, young people may not have had to pay their own bills or buy their own food before. This, coupled with a new and busy social life, means that things can go awry more quickly than they may think."

Mr Jeyaseelan was shocked to discover how much he had spent in a chance conversation about finances with a friend, who reacted with "mild horror".

He reined in his spending, a decision that owed more to peer pressure than to any protestations from his parents. His father was then a director at an aviation services firm and his mother was a teacher.

Mr Jeyaseelan, who has an older brother, says his parents never complained that he overspent. "They wanted me to be comfortable and to find my way in the sense of doing something I liked to study."

He received only a stern telling-off from his dad when he excitedly recounted an all-nighter at the Treasury Casino in Brisbane, where he lost about A$100 at the roulette table. He never gambled there again.

To save money, he started buying more supermarket house brands and food from the canteen.

When he took a postgraduate degree a few years later at the University of Melbourne, he became even thriftier after mixing with flatmates and students from Australia, Japan, China and India.

"They were very focused on their studies and always looking for ways to save money by living simply and cooking their own meals most of the time," he says.

He took up part-time jobs like these friends did, working stints as a waiter and a gardener.

Unlike Mr Jeyaseelan, Mr Gabriel Ho, 23, initially found it "pretty smooth" managing a substantial budget at the University of Washington in the United States.

The third-year undergraduate in an informatics degree course usually got about US$15,000 transferred by his parents into his bank account every quarter to cover his school fees and living expenses.

"It made me more aware of how much life costs, such as paying rent and utilities. I liked that my folks gave me a sum and it was up to me. It was like a challenge. At the back of the mind, you know that they're not going to let you fall," he says.

However, at the end of 2014, his second year in the university, his father, then a director in the financial information industry, was retrenched. "It was a big realisation that money was a luxury," says Mr Ho, an only child.

His parents reassured him that they had already budgeted for his entire university education, but he cut back on expenses, sometimes eating mainly sandwiches for a few days at a time.

He also started doing part-time work, holding two jobs at one point, as an IT assistant and a freelance database consultant. He supported himself partially and asked his parents to transfer about US$3,000 less to his account each quarter.

His mother, Mrs Lynette Ho, 57, a housewife with a part-time administrative job, says studying in the US has helped her son "in terms of independence and maturity".

His father John Ho, 54, got a job as a director at a futures exchange about three months after he was laid off.

Some university students seem more than comfortable with managing a big budget.

Over two years, Ms Claudia Tan Li Yi's parents, dental technicians who run their own dental laboratory, transferred about A$140,000 to her.

During her commerce degree course at the University of Melbourne from 2013 to 2014, she used some of this money to set up a A$15,000 term deposit to earn more interest.

Ms Tan, now a 24-year-old financial consultant in the insurance industry, says: "I like to see money grow."

The second of three children, she used to save up to buy Christmas presents for her family as a child and occasionally felt competitive with her younger brother when it came to saving money.

Although she travelled to Tasmania, Sydney and other parts of Australia on her parents' money as a student, she also controlled her spending.

She kept big-ticket expenditures such as rent and tuition fees in one account that she left alone. By drawing out smaller sums from what her parents gave her, of between A$200 and A$1,000 at a time, from a separate account for day-to-day expenses, she "felt the pinch when it got depleted".

She felt a sense of responsibility to be entrusted with these funds. "It was hard-earned money for our education. We are a form of investment to our parents," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Use money wisely while studying'. Print Edition | Subscribe