Like many students, I arrived at university with a smattering of practical skills alongside my A-level results. I could rewire a plug, iron clothes (which I did in return for beer) and change a duvet cover without getting trapped inside it.
But there were definite knowledge gaps. Laundry, for one, was a mystery. Mainly I was hopeless at managing my money and ended the first year with only enough funds for a loaf of bread and a tub of cream cheese to last a fortnight. Good times.
My story isn’t unusual: financial inexperience is common amongst new students. “It’s a steep learning curve with regards to personal finances,” says Anne Chawk, a senior student money adviser at the University of Bedfordshire. Getting a handle on your money might not be the most exciting thing to contemplate, but think of the excitement you’ll miss if you don’t. “Being unprepared means that within a few weeks you may well be that person left in halls by themselves, with no money to go out, living off Pot Noodles.”
While the odd Pot Noodle (or stale cream cheese sandwich) is character building, you can achieve a more balanced diet and bank account with a few useful strategies. Start now, says Chawk. “If you haven’t done so already, apply for your student loan. At busy times it can take between six to eight weeks for your application to be processed, so do it in plenty of time before starting your course.”
You may even be entitled to further support from your university. “Many provide bursaries and scholarships, so make sure you check the eligibility to see if you could apply for one,” adds Chawk.
You’ll also need somewhere to put your money, which means finding a student bank account. “Students can get great deals so it’s definitely worth snooping around to find the best ones,” says Holly Worsley, currently studying at Edge Hill University. Compare accounts using a site such as money savingexpert.com, focusing on things like the interest offered and overdraft facilities before looking at the freebies. (Shopping around is a good general money saving tactic, applicable to everything from insurance to mobile phone and utilities providers.)
The right account can offer big benefits, according to Worsley. “I was able to get an interest-free and fee-free arranged overdraft limit of £1,500 as well as 3 per cent AER interest on my balance. A discounted train travel card gave me plenty of savings in my first year alone.”
Once that’s sorted, help your money stay put by learning to budget. It’s the one bit of knowledge Robert Fowler, student money advice and rights team (SMART) co-ordinator at the University of Derby, would like all freshers to have. “It doesn’t have to be complex, just a simple understanding of income and outgoings,” he says. There are lots of online tools available to help (see useful resources), and don’t forget to take all your accommodation costs into account, including bills.
Scott Groom just graduated from Derby and agrees that budgeting is vital for keeping your finances in check, especially once that huge loan payment goes in. “It’s hard to know what to do with it,” he says. “I wrote down all of the things I knew I’d have to pay for and then looked at how much I had left. You can break it down from there into monthly or weekly allowances so you can budget your food shops and nights out, for example.”
You may have other sources of income, too. Will your family contribute to your living allowance? Now is the time to find out (maybe make them a cup of tea before bringing it up). You could also work over the summer and squirrel some savings away for the first term, or apply in advance for part time work so you have something lined up when you arrive. “Shops and restaurants in student towns are often flexible with providing term time work, and your university may have some jobs you can sign up for,” suggests Chawk.
Another handy thing to do between now and Freshers’ week is mine forums for tips and advice from other students. Universities often post blogs or host twitter chats with this in mind, which is great for finding out how to live cheaply in the local area, so check your institution’s website.
You can also investigate more general sites like The Student Room, which has forums on a range of topics. “When it comes to money, what’s really useful is first-hand advice from people who know what student life is like. In other words, fellow students,” says Nik Taylor, the site’s community editor. “To find out the tricks that landlords use to keep your deposit or the banks that actually treat students well, you’re going to want to talk to other students with experience of those situations.”
Current students do indeed have plenty of advice on managing your money. “Don’t be tempted to buy treats that you can’t afford using a credit card – it can be the start of a slippery slope to debt,” says medical student Kat Telford at St George’s, University of London. Staying out of temptation’s way is also helpful. “Don’t go browsing in clothes shops – it’s an easy way to talk yourself into ‘needing’ something you can’t afford,” counsels fellow student Ruth Varney.
There can be unforeseen costs, too, such as alcohol-induced generosity, so be warned. “Don’t take your card with you on nights out,” says one Exeter university student. “I once woke up fully dressed clutching handfuls of cold chips, having bought my flat a round of McDonalds the night before. With apple pies for dessert.” They recommend using cash instead of card wherever possible. “It makes it easier for you to see how much you’re spending and how much you have left.”
Other small things can make a big difference. Cycling to campus (if possible) instead of running a car or paying for public transport will keep costs down, for example. According to research from Rutland Cycling, pedal power comes in over £1000 a year cheaper than driving – enough for over 400 pints in the union. Lucky the extra exercise will help you stay in shape, then.
Help is usually available from your uni once you arrive, too. “Students can talk to their union or to the relevant financial guidance team at their university,” says Fowler, explaining his team deals with all elements of funding/finance/budgeting support and advice. “Many students struggle with having to budget a large amount of money over an academic term,” he adds. Don’t be afraid to reach out – you’re not the only one finding it tricky.
Plan ahead and take action if things go wonky and you’ll be fine. My own first year fiscal fiasco led to some changes that made things more manageable, including learning to cook and meal share along with my best friend and housemate. I’d recommend it to any student, as even if you don’t cook together every day, you still save a lot of money (and you can prepare and freeze meals in advance). Plus, by writing the list, doing the weekly shop and standing in the kitchen together conducting weird culinary experiments, you’re developing some useful life skills – and, even more valuably, lifelong friendships. It’s one of the great things about going to university. Almost twenty years later my former housemate and I still cook as a team when our families gather, usually every few months. We steer clear of the cream cheese, though.
Case study: Charlotte Cook, 21 Sheffield Hallam University (BA in Marketing)
“Having a savings account and a current account has really helped while being at university. It’s a lot easier when you can separate your money out and if you do online banking it’s so easy! As soon as my loan came in it went straight into my savings account and I’d just transfer money every now and then into my current account to spend on everyday items. By having two accounts I could judge how quickly my money was going down because I was consciously having to dip into the pot.
When I can share meals I will, but on the days I can’t I try to cook enough for two meals and then freeze it. That way you have a quick meal to bung in the microwave on those nights when you don’t get in from uni until late.
My biggest temptation to spend money is local food stores. They are handily close to university and make it easy to top up the fridge, but putting aside an hour to go to a big supermarket once a week can save you a noticeable amount. It also means you eat what you have rather than being tempted to buy what you fancy. One main tip: if you live near an Aldi, utilise the opportunity!”
Friends of the thrifty
Help for Budgeting
Sites like studentcalculator.org will help wrangle the numbers, as will apps including Goodbudget and Toshl Finance (which features cute monsters, for bearable budgeting)
Has a dedicated student section with lots of tips and cash-saving tricks, from mobile contracts to getting refunds on your TV licence during the holidays.
Apps include The Student Cook and All Recipes (which suggests meals based on cupboard contents). BBC Good Food has a student section: make meals that last over a few days.
Bill splitting services
Sharing accommodation? Services such as Glide and Dividabill help you share utilities, rent, Netflix etcetera equally. The fee may be worth it for the reduced hassle.
Music Magpie, Cex and Ziffit all offer money for CDs, DVDs and books. While you won’t make a packet, these can be handy for an end-of-term cash boost.
A grassroots and non-profit movement, this global community helps you to pick up furniture and bric-a-brac for your new place for – you guessed it – free.Reuse content