Starting uni in September? Congratulations – and here’s what you need to know about managing your money.
If you’re leaving home for the first time, there’s a lot to learn!
I still have vivid memories of surviving on a student budget, even though I graduated a while (*cough*) ago.
After switching subjects and extending my degree course, I had to pay my own fees as well as living costs for a year. So perhaps unusually for my generation, I had to load up on student loans and scrabble around to borrow extra cash.
Recently, a couple of soon-to-be students asked for advice, so here are my top 11 tips on managing your money at uni.
Short version? You’re going to graduate with massive tuition and maintenance loans. The challenge is to reach graduation without drowning in extra, even more expensive, debt.
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Table of Contents
Assume you can’t afford anything
Basic money mindset while at uni: assume you have no money. Nothing. Nada.
This may seem strange when four figures hit your brand new student bank account, and suddenly you feel like the Wolf of Wall Street. Riches!
Trouble is, that chunk of cash has to stretch for an entire term, so don’t blow it all in Freshers’ Week.
Before you even hit campus, work out:
- your big bills going out
- the money coming in
- what’s left
Spoiler alert: probably not much
As a student, unless you are lucky enough to have parents willing to hose you with cash, your focus is survival.
Think less ‘oooh cute scatter cushions and cacti, mega beers and Sky TV’, more ‘how can I afford to eat?’.
Work out your biggest bills
Your biggest cash guzzlers will be accommodation and utility bills, if you’re living away from home.
If you’re staying in halls of residence, your accommodation costs usually include glamorous stuff like gas, electricity, water and broadband costs. But if you’re renting from a private landlord, you’ll probably have to budget for all that on top of your rent. In both cases, check your contract to see what’s included and expect to stump up a booking fee and deposit before moving in.
The good news is that full time students, living with other students, don’t normally have to pay Council Tax (apply for an exemption here).
Remember, these aren’t your only costs – they’re just your biggest ones.
Work out the money coming in
Totting up your income as a student can be tricky, if it’s stitched together from maintenance loans, parents, scholarships/bursaries/grants, jobs and savings.
Your maintenance loan will depend on where you live, where you study, and your parents’ income. (More in my post about the terrifying truth parents need to know about student loans).
So for example if you’re living away from home, outside London, it could be anywhere between £4,168 and £8,944 a year for 2019/20, doled out in three chunks at the start of each term.
You don’t need to be studying maths to realise that isn’t much. (Scare yourself/your parents with an estimate from the student finance calculator).
If you’re lucky, your parents will also bung you some cash. Arm yourself with figures for your rent versus your maintenance loan, for a concrete discussion on how much they can contribute. If your parents are willing to set up a standing order, so you know exactly what’s coming in when, so much the better.
Then check out your chances of free money. The joy of scholarships, bursaries and grants is that you don’t have to pay them back. It’s well worth searching sources like The Scholarship Hub and Turn To Us to see if you can qualify for any weird and wonderful sources of cash.
While at uni, you may also be able to tap into hardship funds if you’re really struggling, but you can’t bank on that beforehand.
Jobs and savings vary so much, I’ll cover them later.
Crunch time: what’s left?
Now take away your biggest bills for the term from your biggest chunks of income. What’s left?
Divide the remainder by the number of weeks in the term, and you’ve got a weekly budget. This is way easier to manage than grappling with larger sums over a longer time.
Say for example your halls cost £1,500 for a term, and you get nearly £3,000 per term as a max maintenance loan. You’re left with £1,500 to live on. For a 10 week term, that’s £150 a week, assuming you live on fresh air during the holidays.
(Also note the nasty reality that if you’re only getting the minimum maintenance loan, it probably won’t even cover your rent).
Anything left after your big bills has to cover everything else, such as:
- Course materials
- Eating out
- Anything else
I refer you back to point 1: Assume you can’t afford anything.
Next step is to spend less, earn more, or ideally both.
Spend less on essentials
When you have limited funds, focus on the essentials, and even then try to cut costs:
- Food: learn to cook. Takeaways, eating out, even supermarket meal deals all cost a bomb compared to cooking from scratch. If your parents offer to take you shopping at the start of term, bite their hands off (extra protein). Best not survive solely on ramen noodles though, or you might end up with scurvy.
- Transport: think walking, bike or bus, unless generous parents are willing to fund car tax, insurance, petrol, parking, repairs, MOT, servicing etc etc. Uni is not the time to develop an expensive Uber habit either.
- Mobile: less the latest iPhone, more searching for a cheap SIM only deal on your existing handset.
- Medicines: as a student, you may be able to keep getting free prescription medicines with an HC2 certificate (more here)
- Course materials: scour adverts for second hand book sales, for any text books you really need. Then make money by flogging your own text books when you’ve finished with them.
- Clothes: use what you have for as long as you can, then top up by borrowing, swapping and charity shopping. This is vital when a fancy pair of trainers could blow your entire weekly budget.
Strip out non essentials
What counts as essential when you’re a student may be different from stuff you simply couldn’t live without at home. To avoid extra debt, you may need to cut right back on some areas, so you still have something (anything!) left for fun stuff.
For example, search for any direct debits you can ditch, such as gym membership, TV subscriptions, Apple Music, Spotify Premium and Amazon Prime, even at the student rate. You may also be able to do without a TV licence, if you don’t watch TV, record programmes or use iPlayer (more here).
Elsewhere, look out for student versions (read: cheap) for anything else. Keep a spending diary, and you’ve got even more chance of avoiding disastrous debts.
Be wary of student discounts
I tend to be wary of discounts that encourage people to spend money they don’t have. Sure, use them on essential spending you’d do anyway. But 10% off at, say, ASOS or Urban Outfitters, still means forking out the other 90%.
However, one discount card that’s well worth it is the 16-25 Railcard*, for a third off train fares. It normally costs £30 for one year or £70 for three. However, you can nab one with 12% off via the free Student Beans app, or get a free four-year railcard by signing up for a Santander 123 student bank account.
If you’re likely to use the 10% discount at the Co-op and Superdrug, it might be worth paying the £12 for a TOTUM card, the new name for an NUS Extra card. You can also add an ISIC card to TOTUM for free, bringing discounts abroad, including 5% cash back at STA Travel.
Make your own money choices
At uni, there will always be some students with way more money than you (or way bigger debts).
There will always be someone suggesting a big night out, coffee stop or pizza delivery, or splashing cash on the latest clothes / games / tech. Sure, you don’t want to say no all the time and miss out on everything. But don’t be afraid to ‘fess up if you can’t afford it. You may be surprised how many others will pile in if you suggest cheaper alternatives – cooking at home, sticking to a cheaper student bar or swerving the shopping trip.
Stick to your own budget as far as possible. Don’t let peer pressure drive up a mountain of debt.
Want to afford anything more? It’s up to you. If you’re juggling big bills against limited income, how can you earn extra cash?
After I left school, I earned money from babysitting, bar work, as an au pair, giving language lessons and paid internships. What skills do you have that could make money – tutoring younger kids in your A level subjects? Sports coaching? Pet walking? Social media management?
Ideally, start earning before you even start your course, so you can ramp up some savings.
While at uni, weigh up if you can squeeze in part time work during term, then make the most of holidays to earn more. For example, if you ever had a Saturday job, check if they’ll hire you back in the holidays.
The good news is that you can earn up to £12,500 a year without paying a penny in tax. If your employer deducts income tax while you’re working but you don’t end up earning over £12,500 from one April to the next, you can claim a tax refund.
As an added bonus, you’ll rack up stuff to add to your CV. I’ll always wonder if working as student bar manager in my third year affected my degree result, but the work experience definitely helped nail my first graduate job.
Handle credit cards with care
Borrowing money may seem an easier option than earning it.
Sadly, the limit on any credit or store cards isn’t actually free money. That £500 limit still has to be paid back. Borrowing on a credit card is likely to be A Bad Plan because if you can’t pay your bill at the end of the month, you’ll face a ton of interest.
If you have the will power to use a credit card for small purchases and pay it off in full and on time every month, it can be a good way to establish a credit record. The flipside is that it’s also a good way to establish a bad credit record, if you mess it up. If you can’t afford to buy something in cash now, you’re unlikely to be able to afford it when your credit card bill shows up either.
Only you know if taking out a credit card could be a temptation too far, an expensive mistake that’s best avoided entirely.
Nab an interest-free overdraft
If you are forced to borrow extra money, take advantage of interest-free overdrafts on student current accounts.
Many banks offer special student accounts, hoping to hang on to customers in later life. Look beyond any freebies or cashback at the start. A chunky interest-free overdraft limit could potentially save you way more in interest and charges during your degree.
Check out details of the best student accounts on offer over at Moneyfacts.
As mentioned above, Santander offer a decent freebie in the form of a four-year 16 to 25 Railcard. That could potentially save you up to £120, compared to buying a new railcard each year. Happy days.
But with Santander you can only borrow max £1,500 as an interest-free overdraft in years one to three. Santander doesn’t offer students bigger overdrafts, so if you go over your limit you’ll face bank charges of £5 a day, capped at £50 a month.
Yet with Barclays, HSBC and Nationwide, you could potentially borrow up to £3,000 in your third year without paying a penny.
The sting in the tail is that student overdrafts don’t stay interest-free forever. Typically, you get a year after leaving uni to pay it back, before the banks start whacking on interest.
Now – over to you. Anything else you want to find out about student finance? Any top tips for new students? Do share in the comments, I’d love to hear!