Monday, October 24, 2011

How to save your money (but not the rainforests)

So, you’ve moved country. Found a place to live. Made friends.  Started to settle in. There can’t be much more to worry about, right? Sorry, wrong.

Once the move is over, you have a couple of days to get over the fact that you’ve moved to a new country, and then you have to turn your attention the practicalities of living abroad. This doesn’t just mean locating the nearest place to buy your morning baguette (although this is obviously high on the list of priorities). Living abroad isn’t cheap, so you need to consider the best way of getting around the town, the cheapest way to pay your rent, whether or not you can apply for the CAF (a government-based allowance which students in France can claim towards their monthly rent), what phone contract to have, and so on.

It has to be said, the administrative system in Montpellier is simultaneously very bureaucratic and quite, well, archaic. Every possible transaction, whether it’s at the bank or your university, requires a million pieces of paper to be signed by a million different people. I’m not actually sure any longer what I signed up for at the bank, because I must have written my signature around fifteen times. All the pieces of documentation required wouldn’t be too problematic – if there was anywhere to print them.

In fact when asking where you can find printers in university, you are met with puzzled looks and vague directions to the photocopying room – which is frequently closed. There are a couple of internet cafes which will print and scan near the university, but it’s better to go prepared. In the first week I was asked repeatedly for copies of my passport, health card, letter of student status, letter of Erasmus status, learning agreement and so forth. These are all things that you’ll receive well before you leave the country, and I cannot recommend enough making about five copies of each before you move. You can guarantee that for everything you apply for, you’ll be told there’s at least one more form you need to fill in, so you might as well go with the basics pre-prepared. More often than not, your landlord will have to fill out an attestation de logement and provide you with a copy of their passport and a bill to prove your address – so it’s worth getting several copies of these in one go too.

For the majority of people, a French bank account is indispensable.  If you pay rent to a foreign account by bank transfer, the fees from English accounts can range from £10 - £30. Meanwhile, it costs to make basic withdrawals, so more often than not with an English account to avoid extra outlay it’s necessary to withdraw large amounts in one go – not the most secure process in the world. Furthermore, a French account is essential to claim the CAF.

Whilst opening a bank account can be done in a morning, getting the card can take a long time, and the CAF is an even longer process to sort out (some friends four weeks on are still getting letters demanding more paperwork). There are also as yet unconfirmed ruminations that the CAF is not back-payable, or paid for part-months. So it’s really important that you get on with organising these things as soon as possible to save the maximum amount of money.

A further recommendation in terms of banking is opening an account with someone like Metro Bank, a relatively new bank in England. Whilst online transfers to foreign accounts will still cost upwards of £17, there are no charges on foreign transactions, which means that you don’t pay to put money into your account from another British account, and you don’t pay to withdraw it abroad – and that applies worldwide.

A bank account and the CAF are arguably the most stressful bits of non-uni admin to organise, but another drain on the finances is public transport. Montpellier, for example, is served by a good tram network but it can be expensive. It’s best to investigate TAM (Transport Agglomeration Montpellier), which has monthly student passes for €33 or a yearly one for €240. It’s also possible to rent a bike for the year for €33. Miraculously, getting the tram pass only requires one form to be filled out, a form of I.D., and a passport photo. Of course, there’s always a downside, and in this case it’s the huge queue – it can often be a five-hour wait at peak times, as every student new to Montpellier tries to organise cheap transport for the year. It quietens down at about 5 pm, so that’s the time to go – unless you’re happy to turn up at 7 am.

The last key thing to sort out on arrival is a French phone. This is probably the easiest process – an Erasmus student can always be picked out in a crowd due to the fact that everyone goes into Phone House (yes, the Carphone Warehouse) and gets the same €30 Samsung phone, on the same pay-as-you-go SIM card. It’s the kind of flip-screen phone that everyone got excited about when we were 13 years old and had only ever seen brick-sized Nokias. However, it’s easily sorted out and means that you can be in contact with all your new friends - cheaply. And best of all, there’s no paperwork, which has to be a first.

So it’s all a lot to sort out, and usually takes up your first few lesson-free days, but the sooner it’s organised, the cheaper and easier your time here gets. You may just have to put any environmental ethics aside for a while first.

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