Second steps in Switzerland: Living Expenses, Establishing Routines

Living Expenses

Spend time shopping around for necessities: groceries, toiletries, etc can vary wildly in price from different shops. The quality spectrum seems much broader than in Canada, with organic (“Bio”), import, and many other options. Fortunately, I’ve found that most budget brands still tend to be high quality, often times better than the Canadian equivalent. Local dairy products and in-season produce are all excellent.

If you haven’t developed the habit yet, it’d be a good time to track your expenses and learn where your money goes every month. It’s tough to incorporate into daily routines as a stressed student, but ETH courses seem to happen in 2-3 hour blocks, minimizing time spent commuting to multiple hour-long sessions a week. Set up your own spreadsheet or use software like Mint or YNAB. You’ll be shocked at how quickly those frappes and/or gipfelis add up. I never budgeted during my first degree and by the end of first year I discovered $500 evaporated into bubble tea…

A good metric is to imagine the cost of a trip or experience you really enjoy, whether that’s travel, gastronomy, etc. Travel is absurdly affordable here, so it’s easier to put time into making coffee every morning when you’re saving 0.5 “Transit to Italy” every week.

ETH recommends setting aside 1750 CHF per month as typical cost of living, including rent, bills, etc. If you secure WOKO housing, this figure may be quite high. Here are a few ranges I saw during my exchange for monthly expenses:

    • 450 – 600 CHF rent
    • 65 – 100 CHF Swiss healthcare
    • 70 – 90 CHF monthly transit pass
    • 10 – 40 CHF phone plan
    • 150 – 400 CHF food (yikes)
    • 100 – 500 CHF leisure
    • 100 – 300 CHF irregular expenses (new clothes, one-time fees, whatever)

If you figure out batch-cooking at home, cycle or walk most places to save the monthly transit pass, and plan your weekend trips in advance (Check out SBB Supersaver tickets) you can get away with 1000 to 1200 CHF per month in total expenses. Most students seemed to be in the range of 1200 to 1500.

Fun fact: the last survey indicated a median monthly salary of 7500 CHF per month for technical positions in Switzerland.

With regards to leisure and travel, that 100-500 range depends a lot on transportation options. Switzerland’s domestic train system offers a bunch of Student perks to cut their relatively-high ticket prices. I took advantage of two key discounts during local travel while other students added a third:

  1. Halbtax (Half-fare) Subscription
  2. Supersaver tickets
  3. Gleissieben (Gate Seven) Subscription

1 and 3 are both upfront payments for 12 months (with a possible 6 month refund point to get some money back I believe). The halbtax offers half price 2nd-class fares on almost every train any time of the day. Gleisseiben provides free travel to students (<25 years old) between 19:00 and 5:00. Almost everyone bought the halbtax, but do the math to see if Gleissieben would be worth it. I found most students traveled in groups and if only a few people had gleissieben they were usually outvoted regarding travel times.

Supersaver tickets are discounts for specific trains at specific times that you can find listed on the sbb website when you’re browsing potential trips. While normal train tickets allow travel on any line heading in your direction within a specific period of time, the Supersaver tickets limit you to one particular departure. These are nonrefundable so make sure you’re not late if you take advantage of this. Supersaver can be stacked with Halbtax which can be super useful, especially as they tend to be off-hour departure times which students can usually take advantage of.

I know it sounds complicated at first. It stays complicated once you get used to it.

Establishing Routines

After sorting out your favourite spots, it’s important to find a groove early-on. Jet lag, new people, weird class schedules, and the plethora of student activities/events will be super distracting. It was March by the time I had cracked open my course PDFs and printed them like all the local students had already done (P.S. your ETH card comes preloaded with more than enough print credit for you to print these all out on campus!). This groove can (and should) include adventuring time. Wander the dense city streets or hundreds of nature trails. Take the train to an unfamiliar place. It’s easy to get lost in Switzerland, but you’re always close to a railway, bus, or restaurant and they’ve never even heard of ghettos.

While it might feel like ETH classes provide a lot more free time than anticipated, fit some studying/reading of the lecture material in every week. It’s tough to do if you have classes with no weekly assignments and new travel propositions every weekend. Find an hour or two every day if possible, as the material stacks up very quickly. For example, my Finite Element class covered a month of material by North American standards within the first two lectures. Oral exam preparation is a different beast to written tests; more on this in later posts.

Set up calendar reminders or e-banking payments for monthly expenses. Many students forget about rent, phone bills, etc as they get used to their new bank accounts. New habits might include transferring funds from Canada to Switzerland, or converting Euros before trips abroad. You may have to make payments in person at the local post office so account for processing times. Late fees aren’t cheap here.

More about courses and examinations in the next post!

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