Student Life

A broke girl’s survival guide to Geneva

This detailed list is a result of me trying to lead a comfortable and fulfilling life in Geneva on a budget (not an easy task).

By Valeria Nechaeva

This detailed list is a result of me trying to lead a comfortable and fulfilling life in Geneva on a budget (not an easy task). While I carefully watch over my spending now, it has not always been this way. In fact, I never counted money before and could easily spend everything I had in my wallet on a whim. On top of that, I have severe food restrictions, which make the task of saving even harder than it already is.

Therefore, re-evaluating my spending habits in Geneva has been a painful (but overall a very successful) process, which is why I have decided to share its main takeaways. Hopefully, they will save you some money as well as stress. The list is by no means exhaustive, and if you know other tips, please comment and share them with the community.

Disclaimer: Sadly, I am not being paid to write this article. I understand the internal biases and privileges of my identity as a white female who speaks fluent French.  I have avoided overly obvious or ethically ambiguous suggestions to the best of my ability. I take no responsibility for the use or misuse of the advice provided.

Part 1. Grocery shopping

Grocery shopping is, in a way, a compromise between the time and the money you have. Someone with lots of time and little money may be willing to spend hours researching coupons and promotions and going to five different chains to buy select items in each, and for someone in a different position, the small savings gained this way may not be worth the time. However, there can be a middle ground. By initially investing time to establish your grocery shopping routine, you will benefit from it without significant time commitments later on. Here are my tips for creating your system:

  • Sign up for loyalty programmes

It usually costs nothing to sign up for a store bonus card and download their app. This allows you to see all their promotions without physically needing to go anywhere, thus saving your time and making your grocery shopping easier. Most importantly, loyalty programmes award you bonus points, and with those you may be able to get more than 10% of what you spend back. And if you manage to combine the two (buy on promotion and get a part of that money back), you very well may be spending less than you would in a cheaper store with no bonus programmes (or in France).

Pro-tip: some chains run their weekly promotions from Tuesday to Saturday, while Mondays are reserved for preparing and arranging the items. Thus, your discount options on Monday may be limited.

  • Weigh in the costs of shopping in France

I go to France to shop for many staple items like oil and flour. Shockingly, not everything is always cheaper in France; it is also important to weigh in the time, effort, transportation costs, exchange rates, etc. against the potential gain. If you decide to go, remember that it takes time (multiple trips) to familiarise yourself with a new supermarket and its brands, so be patient. If you are taking public transport, make sure to check all the schedules in advance, as your cellular data may not work across the border. Give yourself plenty of time, shoving the first items you see into your bags because you are late for a bus will not do your budget any good.

  • Invest in a shopping cart

Skip this one if you own a vehicle or are strong enough to carry all the groceries on your back. As for me, I find that losing out on the saving from larger purchases would cost me a lot more than a cart over the course of more than two years (I bought mine for €20). There are often discounts on getting multiple items, and buying in bulk tends to be cheaper in general.

Pro-tip: use a portable scanner available at the entry of many grocery stores. This allows you to scan your items and put them directly into your shopping cart as you go, thus avoiding baskets and the hurried cumbersome packing of everything at the end. Plus, you see the exact sum of your purchases at all times (which is a good enough reason to take a scanner whether you own a cart or not).

  • Try small family-owned businesses

There is a small family-owned food store in the centre of Geneva where I feel at home. The owner and the employees know me now and we chat a lot. On multiple occasions I have received items for free, for instance, in the form of holiday gifts, or sometimes I am offered recently expired items that can no longer be legally sold. Going there on Saturday mornings can be particularly advantageous, since everything expiring that weekend is on sale. While the expiration date part is true for most grocery stores before shutdown on Sunday, I wouldn’t recommend doing all of your groceries on Saturday, as stores are crowded and some items may be sold out.

Pro-tip (applies to big and small stores alike): if you really like an expensive item and are willing to wait, check the expiration date and come back then. If that batch is still available, enjoy the discount!

  • Look into waste-free, ugly produce and other initiatives

I buy most of my vegetables at a small storage house/market that sells produce rejected by supermarkets at very affordable prices. Plus, you might find grocery stores and restaurants that engage in social initiatives and give food away for free or at a discount instead of throwing it out at the end of the day.


Photo credit: Paige Fowler

Part 2. Banking and saving

Become friends with your e-banking and mobile banking portals. Transfer what you can to your savings account regularly, even if it is very little (and be careful with withdrawing that money, because you may be charged for doing it too soon or too often). Eliminate hidden payments (for instance, if you are being charged for paper account statements that you do not need, convert them into the electronic format).

  • Bonus points

Some banks award you bonus points based on your turnover. While you may be tempted to treat these points as “gifts” and spend them on items you would not otherwise buy, you could also use them towards grocery shopping, transport passes, and other necessary expenses. They have an expiration date though, which is yet another reason to be on top of your account.

  • Personal accounts

If a place where you frequently spend money sells gift cards or has a personal account programme, it could be a great way to set your spending limit (this also applies to paying with your student card in the cafeteria). In the beginning of a month, deposit a certain amount into your account, and you will begin to understand how much you really spend there. Plus, depositing that money right away will allow you to see how much you have left for your other expenses in a given month more clearly.

Part 3. Activities and cultural life

  • Museums and art galleries

You probably know that the first Sunday of every month is a free museum day in Geneva. However, this does not apply to all museums – some may never be free and some have other open days. Therefore, it is important to check before going. However, art galleries tend to have free entry (since they are selling paintings). I find them to be a great solution for instances of feeling artsy while broke.

  • Free tickets

The University of Geneva’s culture portal has a free ticket page with many options, including films, concerts, theatre and dance performances, night clubs, and more. You can log in with your Graduate Institute account and claim one ticket of your choice per week (they run out fast though, so be quick). In addition to that, once you know the cultural scene, you can subscribe to the pages of specific places that interest you (art centres, concert halls, etc.) and see when they have free events.

  • Film screenings

Going to a movie theatre in Geneva is expensive, but you have a few options if you want to watch something on “the big screen” for free. Universities and student residences regularly organise such events, and there are many free screenings around the city, especially in summer. There are also several annual film festivals, and if you volunteer you can watch the films for free. Lastly, select movie theatres occasionally have free screenings (these are typically old films so, sadly, you will not be able to watch the newly released ones).

  • Sports and exercise

The University of Geneva offers a great variety of activities at a very reasonable cost. You may be able to participate in a sport of your choice for as little as CHF 50 per semester, but the prices vary significantly from one activity to another. Some classes, like swimming, require an additional pass into the facilities purchased separately (i.e. the pool), which adds to the cost. Other activities, like dance, can be tried for free during the first week of the semester. Similarly, many dance/yoga studios in the city will offer you a free trial class and student discounts if you decide to continue.

  • Community centres

There are free activities that take place in so-called “espaces de quartier.” Each part of the city has their own. I have been attending interpretative dance classes for more than a year now, completely for free. Although some of these centres are designed primarily for the elderly, they are open to everyone. I greatly enjoy my weekly expressive art sessions with a small group of body-conscious members of the community.

Part 4. General advice

  • Speak up if you are treated unfairly

I certainly do not advocate making a living off complaining to managers. On the other hand, customer loyalty and satisfaction are taken very seriously here. On several occasions I was offered compensation for unpleasant experiences. One time, when my credit card was not working, the cashier began to talk to me rudely and accused me of trying to steal. I wrote a complaint, after which the top management contacted me, scheduled a meeting and offered me a gift card as compensation.

  • Be open-minded and cooperate with others

This one goes without saying and applies to all aspects of life. I have had a successful language tandem, where my tandem partner and I have greatly enhanced each other’s language learning, for free. If you live in a shared apartment, you may benefit from not needing to buy certain items or buying them collectively. If you live in a student residence, you may find many useful items that are left behind by those who move out. Look into having potluck dinners, which allow you to have an enriching culinary experience with a vast variety of food, while only investing in one dish. Possibilities are endless!

Good luck and happy money-saving!

This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

Header Image: Photo by Riya Sarin

1 comment on “A broke girl’s survival guide to Geneva

  1. Pingback: IHEID: An (Unofficial) Orientation Guide – The Graduate Press

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