A Cheapskate Abroad

I’m no longer in Denmark, but I’m still doing blog posts of tips and advice for future DIS students and other travelers. Here’s a post I drafted in March, back when ALDI shopping totals were still one of my big weekly stressors:

I keep a “bag of bags” to reuse. I sort my to-read list by which books I have to buy, and which ones I can get free of charge at the library. And I wore the same pair of Converse–which I’d found at a yard sale–throughout all four years of high school, even after the soles started falling out. My family ribs me often for how much I hate spending money, but I’ve embraced the title of cheapskate; I enjoy looking for ways to cut back, or inventively reuse what I have.

Studying out of the United States–especially in Copenhagen, which is notorious for having a high cost of living–has been the greatest challenge to my spendthrift ways. But it hasn’t been impossible. Here are some of the tricks I’ve picked up over the semester, divided by category. And keep in mind that I’m no expert–just a college student, often found making angry squint-faces at receipts, who regularly slips up. (Don’t ask me how many chocolate croissants I ate at Studenterhuset.)

Manage your finances well, and you, too, can feel comfortable when you see this sticker in downtown Copenhagen.

Before You Go

Bring what you can from home in terms of school supplies, and be minimalist. If you don’t need them, don’t worry about buying fancy notebooks with just-right dividers for your five classes. A sheaf of notebook paper in a slim binder will work just fine for handwritten notes, and slides more easily into a suitcase.

Clothes and Laundry

Wait to do laundry until you really need to. One or two shirts does not a full load make.

If you’re comfortable with doing so, and you’re on a short weekend trip or study tour, you can re-wear clean clothes without stains, like jeans. For these trips, pack long undershirt/T-shirt combinations instead of bringing many outfits. Wear both in the day to stay warm, and then wear the T-shirt with a pair of pajama bottoms to sleep.

Instead of paying to dry your clothes, invest in a rack. Or, if you can find clothesline and it’s nice outside, hang them up!

It never got warm enough for me to try this in Denmark, but it worked pretty well in Greece.

Food

I’m not as much of a foodie, so I avoid going out to eat as much as possible–but I know that for many people, this is a large part of the study abroad experience, and the amount I spend on visiting museums is probably what other people do to try dishes they’re interested in. So take stock of your own interest in food, and figure out how to spend from there. My own rule is that I try not to unless I’m in the city for night extra-curriculars or I’m out with friends.

If your friends invite you out for a bite but you don’t feel like spending–or eating–a lot, get an appetizer, side, or kids’ portion.

Jagger, my beloved favorite burger place in Copenhagen.

Don’t get too attached to American brands–avoid chains like Starbucks and McDonalds, and buy store-name-brand items. My favorite vice, potato chips, comes down to 7 kroner for a bag of “Joe’s” vs. 33 kroner for Lays. You might even learn something about everyday Danish life from the alternatives you find.

For cooking at home, look for fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and pasta. These are less expensive than other items, and you can mix and match them to make a variety of meals.

Even if there’s only a little left, don’t throw things away til they’re finished. Use every scrape of peanut butter in the jar.

Carry a reusable water bottle. They’re better for the environment, you won’t buy bottled water, and you’ll feel less tempted to spend extra on a beverage if you’re out for a quick lunch or snack.

If you’re in a kollegium or around other peoples’ apartments, cook group meals together, or have a potluck where everyone chips in a dish.

Download the app Too Good to Go, which allows you to pick up excess food at a discount from Copenhagen restaurants before it becomes waste. I wasn’t able to download this on my American phone, but if you’re using a Danish one, it should work.

Shopping

Use reusable bags at stores like ALDI where you’ll have to pay for plastic ones. (The Flying Tiger locations in Copenhagen sell cute totes.)

Don’t blow too much money on souvenirs, especially cheap and easy-to-find ones! It’s hard on your wallet, local craftspeople, and your weight at the airport. Don’t buy things that are Dannenbrog-covered knockoffs of items you could find in the States, or ones you won’t use as part of your space regularly, or ones you could see yourself throwing away in six months.

Keep tabs on the local thrifting scene, especially at Studenterhuset, if you need clothes. Look for items on designated days at the DIS Sustainable Boutique–so far I’ve scored a backpack pin and a guide to deciphering hieroglyphs, all for free.

Become a window shopping pro. Enjoy walking through shops on Strøget or the stalls at the Glass Market; take them in without acting on the need to purchase anything. Sometimes, these are just enjoyable places to admire, or to observe cultural differences that pique your interest.

Fresh vegetable stalls

If you need particular school supplies, ask your professors or other locals for tips. Name-brand places will try to upsell you. My Danish professor Nan gave me a tip on where to find flashcards at the shop Papirlageret Nørrevold, and they were half as expensive for a deck of the same size at the bookstore/stationary place up the street.

Getting Around

This one should go without saying in Copenhagen, since it’s so bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Walk and cycle instead of taking taxis (or the subway, if you’re not using a commuter pass)–if you’re physically or otherwise able to, of course. If it’s later at night, exercise your best judgment.

Entertainment

For finding places to hang out and have fun–consider actually reading the DIS emails that will cascade into your inbox, which have information about discounts, cafes, and upcoming holidays. (I even got a student ticket for a concert!) Follow Danish and expat news services, like my favorite Local Denmark.

Check out the Facebook group for Hidden Gems Copenhagen for out-of-the-way sights and student discount restaurants. Many are near the DIS offices on Vestergade Street.

Look for extracurricular and other opportunities through DIS. With Film Club, I get into a movie a month free at venues across Copenhagen; Studenterhuset regularly hosts no-cost events like movie viewings, parties, and weekly swing dancing classes.

My ticket for February’s DIS Film Club pick at Vester Vov Vov cinema.

Plenty of museums have free days (like Tuesdays at the Glyptotek) or offer reduced admission to students (like the Design Museum). Do a little research and see what you can find for the spots on your to-do list.

How You Spend

When you arrive, do not withdraw money near the airport! Rates are highest there, and you’ll get way less kroner.

Force yourself to use paper money. I’ve found that I spend less when I see the bills physically disappearing from my wallet.

Keep track of what you spend every week. It’ll help you figure out what your patterns are and what you can cut out, and acts as a way to remember what you did each week, too. Scrolling through my own list in my phone notes, I can pick out the days I was sick or sad (“Haribo gummies”, “cough drops”), exploring (“extra zone pass”, “bike ticket”), or found a cool hangout (“coffee at American Pie“). This doesn’t have to be serious, either–some of my favorite entries are ” ‘dinner’ ” and “THE HOLY GRAIL” (long story).

A back table–the best writing place–at American Pie

Watch your kroner coins carefully–they’re in higher denominations than American coins, so they’ll add up together faster. If I found two of the larger ones under my bed, I could probably cover my grocery bill for a week!

Miscellaneous

Really reflect on what you’re doing for additional travel, and why. Is it somewhere you’ll only get to go this once? Is there something similar in Copenhagen? Is there anything you’ll be missing in Denmark when you go away? The costs of weekend trips around Europe can add up fast.

Look for places to study or hang out where you won’t feel tempted to purchase things. Libraries like the Black Diamond are always a good bet.

Some rare sunshine near the Black Diamond’s patio on the waterfront.

Be open to swapping things with others–books, clothes, household items. Or pay to cover people you trust with the stipulation that they do the same for you later. You’ll pay for their extra train ticket today; they’ll buy you a drink when you ask at the end of the week.

Consider where you can rough it. Since my umbrella broke during the first week, I’ve thought about buying a new one, but I’ve also gotten good at making do with a hat, hoodie, and big, thick, scarf–which is what a lot of Danes seem to do.

Look for bottle returns–several Danish grocery stores have them–where you can get cash back for turning in cans and glass.

And finally: be generous with yourself. Accept that you will splurge, and that things will happen while you are abroad. Your student ID will slip out somewhere on Vestergade Street, and you’ll need a replacement; you will have an emotional day and crave a candy bar (true stories). Relax–with a little planning, things will work out. You’re building a life here, if only for four short months. Take it all in.

(Header image: the kroner that I didn’t convert to USD in time. Guess we know what my first errand is going to be after Virginia gets out of coronavirus lockdown.)

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