Freshers' week: avoid the big blowout

Even the best budgets can fall apart in the first days of university, Andy Sharman finds out how to stop the rot
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The Independent Online

This freshers’ week, go to a hole in the wall and check your bank balance. You’re likely to be in command of more money than you’ve ever had access to. And there are no parents there to check on how you’re spending it. And you have literally no official commitments until lectures start. The world is your oyster. Which, financially speaking, is the problem.

“There does tend to be a full wallet at the start, and students think it will last for ever,” says Michael Lees, who is co-ordinating activities for the Nottingham Trent (NTU) Welcome Week – the university’s 10-day freshers’ week. “They come down to earth gradually – or with a bump.”

This year, student unions up and down the country will be issuing freshers with a stark warning: spend in haste, repent at leisure. “We try to wean them off the perception that it’s just socialising through nightclubs and drink,” says Lees. “We put things in place and offer them something different to try to lure them away from the abyss of 20 drinks a night, takeaway pizzas and taxis home.”

This “abyss” can often stretch into the next day when students end up hung over, craving greasy food, and too comatose to cook. “The next day it’s so easy to just not bother cooking food – to go out and have a pub lunch, which obviously costs yet more money,” laments Ross Murchison, union president at the Robert Gordon University (RGU).

The money factor often ties in with other issues – particularly health. It’s cheaper not to binge drink; and it’s cheaper to eat healthily. NTU is trying to be creative in making students think about budgeting. A local chef comes in to teach the newcomers about how to cook cheaply, and healthily – while giving them a good feed. A fruit and veg market also comes onto campus to teach similar ethics of healthy and frugal eating. “We’re not trying to preach. We’re just offering some tips about how to live cheaply,” says Lees.

NTU Welcome Week also features so-called money matters talks, where students attend sessions on how to budget, which is okay in theory, says Lees. “But they’re still quite hedonistic and not quite ready for that yet. Those that go to the talks tend to be better informed. But it’s a case of reaching out to those that don’t.” NTU is also setting up a “cashless campus”: a system used at many American univeristies, where parents can top-up student cards with money that can be spent on food and supplies on campus – though not at the student bar.

Gavin Jones, president of the University of Central Lancashire students’ union, knows about having access to potloads of money in first year. “I was lucky,” he says. “I had a gap year to save up for university, so I lived the life of Riley throughout my first year.” But that’s not to say that the key to managing your money during freshers’ week is simply to have bundles of the stuff. “With the greater cost of tuition fees there is a lot more awareness of student finance. But it’s still a real issue because, during freshers’ week, you can get carried away,” says Jones.

As part of “Intro Fortnight”, freshers at UCLan will have the benefit of a Student Life Fair, which covers all aspects of life at university – including staying safe in the town, and keeping a handle on your finances. “From my perspective, it’s important to make the new students aware,” says Jones. “Think about what you’re spending your money on – are you really going to get the most out of that society you’re about to join? Do you really need a TV?”

Jones also says that, while you need to get out there and network, meet people and take advantage of all that’s going on in the first week, you should also try to moderate yourself. “Take it easy,” he says. “You don’t need to go out every night. Yes, we promote our nights at the union, but we don’t put stuff on every night.”

The RGU union also seeks to put on as many cheap or free events as possible, such as days at the beach. “It’s not expensive at all but it’s something to do during the day,” says Murchison. For instance, there are free football and basketball tournaments for the students. “They just have to turn up and get to know people.”

The good thing for students is that so many of their union chiefs have had their fingers burnt first time round – and so are desperate for future freshers to avoid their mistakes. “I know from my own experience how much money can really disappear during fresher's week,” says Ben Hallett, president of the Aberystwyth Guild of Students.

The Welsh university produces a freshers’ week handbook full of useful tips. “Telling students what to do rarely works,” says Hallett. “So we try to package our advice in a fun and entertaining manner.”

It’s true: it can be difficult to get the moderation message through to students during freshers’ week, when there are so many other things to worry about. And as much as the unions can help by offering cheap activities in the day, the night time is a different matter.

“I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it – there’s so much pressure to go out,” says Murchison. He says that simple tips can make the difference. “What you can do is have a set amount that you take out with you. If you take out £40, then you’ll end up buying drinks for all your friends. Just take out what you need, which will also stop you getting so drunk that you can’t look after yourself.”