If you live in Rome, then you know: It can be expensive. Especially for those converting from another currency. But believe it or not, there are ways to save money while living in Italy.
And so, for expats, students, and others who are here for the long (or long-ish) term, here are ten money-saving tips. Note that some of these tips, like how to save on airfare, are also pretty useful for short-term travelers to Italy!
Have any other tips for how to live in Italy on a budget? Please share in the comments!
1. Take advantage of points schemes for your cell phone, grocery store, and more
Sign up for Vodafone One, for example, and you can earn points and get free minutes. (In the past, I’ve participated in a summer promotion that matched whatever ricarica I added to my phone, and another one where I was allowed to always call one phone number for free). Ask about loyalty cards at your grocery store. Even sign up for a loyalty card at stores like Sephora, if you shop there. It all adds up.
2. Make friends with your local grocer, pizzeria-owner… and everyone else besides
Yes, being a loyal customer can help you save money in the States, especially when it comes to things like airlines. (More on that later!). But it helps you even more in Italy. Why? Because everything here is based on who you know. And because, unlike in the U.S. or England, even (and especially) the smallest family-run establishments tend to, ahem, adjust their prices depending on whether they consider you a friend. Make one local pizzeria, restaurant, fruit and vegetable stand, or shoe cobbler your favorite, and you juuuust might notice that, by the third or fourth time you return, little charges will be knocked off your bill, the total will be rounded down, or you’ll get free items thrown in for free.
3. Sign up for Groupon
When it comes to a lot of things online, Italy’s a bit behind. Not so with Groupon. Groupon.it, the (duh) Italian version of the site, is pretty sweet. There are different deals every day (with usually five to ten daily in Rome), often 50-80 percent off of the normal price. You have 24 hours to grab it before it goes.
What’s available to buy, you ask? Everything from computer hard disks, to weekend breaks in Italy, to haircuts, to medical examinations. There are also lots of dinner deals, great for the expat who wants to try lots of different restaurants in Italy but doesn’t want to burn through all their cash. (Just always cross-check the restaurant with a site like DueSpaghi to make sure it doesn’t suck). The medical stuff (everything from dental cleaning to breast exam to laser surgery) can be a great way to save on necessary procedures.
And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my friends in New York make me particularly jealous when they brag that they can get a great $25 mani and pedi, or a $30 hour-long massage, in the heart of town. In Rome, the prices are twice that—and with a euro symbol, not a dollar sign, in front of them. But with Groupon, I’ve gotten everything from 3 hour-long massages for just €39 total to a manicure, pedicure and facial for €19.
The one hitch is that to sign up for Italian Groupon, you need an Italian address (of course) and a way to pay that’s linked to that Italian address. If your credit card is linked to a U.S. account, though, don’t worry: Just sign up for PayPal and use that when you buy something. Even if PayPal’s got a U.S. address on it, Groupon can use it to pay for your purchases.
4. If you’re eligible, get a student card
Italy is big on youth and student discounts. Often, you need to be an E.U. citizen to take advantage—but not always. The Vatican museums, for example, cost €8 instead of €15 for all students who have an I.D. And you can get a pass for all of Rome’s public transport for €18 per month, not €30, with an I.D. if you’re under 26, as long as you’re a “resident” in Rome. (This means, though, that if you get checked, the checker could ask for your permesso di soggiorno as proof, although no one has asked me for mine yet).
To prove your “youth,” you need an ISIC card. Getting one is so easy, I kicked myself for not having done it earlier: All you need is a passport picture and €10. Obviously, you’re also supposed to be a student (I was taking language classes at the time), and you have to tell ISIC where you’re studying. Not that they seemed to check… or particularly care! You can do this at the CTS at Corso Vittorio Emanuele 297.
5. Know what to buy outside of Italy
Some things are cheaper in Rome than back home (public transport, Italian wine, ubiquitous ruins free for the gazing). Some are more expensive (basic pharmaceuticals like Tylenol, contact lens solution, certain beauty products and moisturizers, peanut butter, cans of Coke). Figure out what you can live without (I haven’t ordered a Diet Coke with a meal since moving to Italy, for example, and as a bonus, I’ve found I’ve completely lost the taste for it), and for what you can’t—like lens solution—consider bringing some from home.
But that doesn’t mean you should have friends or family send you the cheaper goods by mail. Lots of things have a tendency to get hung up in customs (if they make it at all!), and you’ll have to fill out a bunch of paperwork and then pay a lot of money to claim your package. (One friend of mine had to spend about $50 to retrieve an Easter basket of candy her mother sent her). If you can’t buy it while you’re in the States and bring it over yourself, in general, don’t have anyone send it to you.
6. Be careful with your credit cards in Italy
…and no, I don’t mean in terms of the usual, “always pay them off as you go” advice. First of all, remember that few places in Italy accept credit cards. And that even if a restaurant does, technically, accept them, that means the transaction is fully registered and taxed—so you have a higher chance of getting a “break” on your bill, and of making friends with the owner (see tip #2!), if you pay in cash.
Secondly, know that most credit cards charge you an “international transaction fee” for using your card abroad. One of the only ones I know of that doesn’t is Capital One. So when I have to use a card in Italy, that’s the card I reach for. (Although I’d love if Capital One had some competition in this regard!).
7. Save on all those airfares back and forth from Italy
One of the expenses that stings the most is going back and forth to your home country. First, forget the old method of just using a couple of U.S.-run sites, like Expedia, to do your booking. Sure, look at Expedia—but also look at Vayama and Mobissimo, where I’ve found some of my best luck yet on fares.
Secondly, sign up for any loyalty programs you can. If you’re planning on spending some time in Italy, those fares back and forth will add up.
Third, carefully choose what credit card you buy your airfare with. Thanks to its international transaction fees, I would never, for example, use my Citicard to buy anything from an Italian vendor. But I do use it frequently for online purchases from U.S. companies (like Amazon to buy for books for my Kindle) even when I’m abroad. And right now, through September, Citicard gives me 5% cash back on any travel or airline purchases. So you can guess how I’ll be buying my Christmas plane tickets home.
Fourth, keep watching your fare even after you’ve bought it. Most airlines let you do a flight change if the price drops. Most charge, but it can be worth it: Virgin charges $75, United $150, and Delta and US Airways $250. So if the price drop was more than that, give them a call to get your money back.
8. Tip like an Italian…
Tipping in Italy is always a touchy subject, but let’s be clear on one thing: Italians tip less than Americans. A lot less. We’re talking about rounding up to the nearest euro, not throwing in an extra two or three dollars, for a cab ride. We’re talking about rounding up on the bill at a restaurant and maybe putting another euro or two down, only if servizio wasn’t already charged. We’re talking about not tipping the person who cuts your hair or does your nails.
Yes, it might make you cringe at first, but Italy is a completely different system. Many Italians aren’t even happy about seeing Americans tip a lot, because that changes the local culture, and changing the local culture to be more like what you’re used to “back home” is the definition of invasive tourism. Part of living somewhere is adapting to the local culture. The local culture is not a tipping one. So instead of tipping 20 percent on a restaurant bill, save your money—and use it to return to the restaurant a second time.
9. …shop like an Italian: during the saldi!…
Even if Italy’s prices seem high the rest of the year (jeans for €60? Really, Zara?), that’s just because everyone is waiting for the saldi, that wonderful twice-annual tradition where every store in town slashes their prices. Generally taking place for six weeks, once around New Year’s and once in mid-summer, it’s the perfect time to stock up on clothes. It’s also when you should consider making pricier purchases, like leather boots, handbags, computer items, even a mattress.
10. …and try to eat and, well, live like Italians
At the risk of painting an entire culture with a broad brush, in general, Italians don’t eat dinner out every night, but cook (wonderful, big) meals for their families. They don’t drink, and they definitely don’t make a habit of shelling out for €10 cocktails at bars. So, when in doubt, take a cue from the people living around you. They’ve figured out how to live in Italy without going broke. You can, too. Really truly.