What to do when the sums don't add up

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According to the NUS, one in five students drop out of their courses and the main reason given is financial hardship. As debts start to pile up it is really important to keep a tight rein on your budget, particularly in the first few months when you are still a novice at being financially independent.

According to the NUS, one in five students drop out of their courses and the main reason given is financial hardship. As debts start to pile up it is really important to keep a tight rein on your budget, particularly in the first few months when you are still a novice at being financially independent.

Suzanne Allott is the students union welfare officer at Newcastle University and she sees a lot of students with budgeting problems. "The problem is that when students come straight from home to university they are not used to having to live on a budget. Their loan seems like a lot of money but it has to last till Christmas and lots of students splash out in the first few weeks and then have nothing left."

She advises students to write down all their expenditure and all their income on a spreadsheet and work out, down to the last penny, exactly where all their money is going. Like many universities, Newcastle has a students union website which offers lots of advice on setting out a spreadsheet and budgeting. It is not difficult, so try it yourself.

Draw three columns and in column A write down all your fixed expenses over a month like tuition fees, rent, gas and electricity bills, water rates, phone bill, insurance premiums and council tax. In column B write down all your variable expenses including food, takeaways, travel, toiletries, laundry, entertainment, sports and societies. In column C write down all sources of income including student loan, parental contribution, overdraft, part-time or vacation work and savings. Add up A and B and subtract from C. Not much left? If there's nothing left cut down on the takeaways!

There are lots of ways to make your money go further. Top tips for sensible accounting are: choose a bank with the most favourable terms rather than the one with the best freebie; have your loan paid in three instalments; set up direct debits for rent and all major outgoings; arrange for your parents' contribution to be paid monthly into your account; avoid credit cards; and don't go beyond your overdraft limit without the bank manager's permission or you'll end up paying horrendous bank charges.

On the food front: eat in and share meals with your friends. It really is cheaper to split the cost of food and set up a house kitty. Bulk buy all your household goods from one of the cheaper supermarkets; don't be tempted to pop into your corner shop when you run out of washing-up liquid or loo paper, it's always more expensive and the cost soon adds up. Fruit and veg are cheapest in the markets, but avoid cheap meat; better to eat good quality meat occasionally. Eat lots of high energy, low cost carbohydrates like pasta, rice and potatoes and spice them up with different sauces, and if you are eating out check out the cheap nights for students that are offered by many restaurants in the university towns.

Buy your course books from secondhand bookshops or from students in the year above and check out all the student discounts that are available for travel. Best of all, get a bicycle and cycle to see your friends or into college. If you still find yourself sinking into a bottomless pit of debt, don't panic. Go and talk to someone in college or in the students union who deals with student debt.

Kerstin Pereira runs the advice centre for the students union at Hull University and she sees a "wide range of students with a wide range of problems from young 18-year-olds who have no idea how to handle their loans to mature students with families who may already have financial problems." She also sees problems with "debt, rent arrears, credit agencies and multiple debt cases". Many students have a psychological problem with the fact that they are in debt and, as Kerstin says, "debt begins to affect their ability to study because they are suffering stress from their financial situation or taking jobs to supplement their income that take up a lot of their time".

Whatever your problem, it is essential to talk it over with someone who understands and will be sympathetic. For students in dire straits there are hardship loans and access funds. There are no rules for how the access funds are given out, except that you must have already applied for a student loan. To apply for an access fund, ask your university welfare officer for details. Student unions also provide hardship funds and there is also a hardship loan of £250 which your college can provide based on individual needs.

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