How to have fun without ending up bankrupt

Katie Evans guides freshers through the trials and pitfalls of funding your course – as well as your social life

We're all familiar with tales of impoverished university students who, having squandered all their money in the student bar in their first term, are left to survive on a diet of baked beans on toast for the rest of the year.

But the costs can start stacking up before you've even set foot in a lecture theatre – let alone the pub. Once you've found yourself somewhere to live, stocked the kitchen cupboards and amassed your own personal library of textbooks, you can soon find yourself out of pocket.

So how do you avoid getting into this situation? Start by taking stock of your finances. As tempting as it is to throw yourself headfirst into the university social scene, make sure you have enough money to cover your fees, accommodation and food before you venture out to the nearest student bar.

This is where student finance steps in. If you're a full-time student, you will be eligible to receive money from the Government, in the form of loans and grants, to cover your tuition fees and living costs while you're at university.

So before you pack your things and head off to university this autumn, make sure you're money-savvy by following our guide to living costs, tuition fees, grants and loans – leaving you free to make the most of student life.

Living costs

University accommodation does not come cheap and, unless you choose to live at home, it will be one of your biggest expenses. According to a recent survey by the National Union of Students, the average cost of a room at UK universities last year was £99 a week.

A single or shared room in university halls of residence will usually cost £40 to £100 a week. The facilities can be pretty basic, but your rent includes bills, such as electricity, heating and broadband connection. You may be able to choose between en suite and shared bathroom facilities, and you can also save on food costs by opting for catered halls, as meals are often subsidised.

But if it's luxury you're looking for – such as a flat-screen television in your bedroom or an on-site gym – then you'll have to fork out for a room in halls run by private companies, rather than universities, and mostly located in the bigger cities. But remember there's a price tag to match – the most sought-after rooms can cost a whopping £300 a week.

Many students choose to spend their first year in university halls and then move into shared houses or flats for the remainder of their course. Private landlords can charge anything from £50 to £150 for a room, depending on the location and state of the property (although if you're living in London, expect to pay at least £100 a week). And don't forget to budget for household utilities – thankfully, students are exempt from council tax, but you will still need to contribute towards gas, electricity, the internet and phone bills.

Of course, if you live within striking distance of your university, there is always the option to live at home. You may not be able to afford to live elsewhere, or perhaps you simply don't feel ready to fly the nest just yet. And if you're lucky, you'll get home-cooked meals and a free laundry service thrown in too.

Maintenance loans and grants

There are several ways to ease the financial burden of accommodation and living costs. Students are able to apply for a maintenance loan of up to £4,950 a year (it's £6,928 if you are living away from home and studying in London). Everyone is entitled to 72 per cent of the maximum amount – the remaining 28 per cent depends on your income.

If your household income is less than £50,020, you may also be eligible for a maintenance grant – which, unlike a loan, you don't have to pay back. The amount depends on your circumstances, but can range from £50 to a full grant of £2,906 a year.

Alternatively, you may qualify for the special support grant if you receive income support or another means-tested benefit such as housing benefit. It is also available to single-parent students and those with certain disabilities.

If you come from a low-income family, you may also want to consider applying for a hardship fund directly through your university to help cover your living costs. Again, the amount you receive will depend on your personal circumstances.

Tuition fees

Sadly, there is no getting around tuition fees. No matter which subject you are studying, you will have to pay them – although exactly how much depends on which university you attend, your course, and where in the UK you are going to be studying.

Students in England and Northern Ireland will have to pay a maximum of £3,290 for courses starting in September 2010. The same fees also apply for those who will be studying in Wales. However, Scottish students can fare better – but only if they opt to study in their home country.

Unfortunately for Welsh students studying in Wales, a non means-tested grant scheme that allowed them to pay reduced fees of up to £1,200 has been scrapped for the coming academic year. In line with the fees for England and Northern Ireland, they must now pay full tuition fees of up to £3,290.

It's better news if you're a Scottish student studying at a Scottish university as you do not have to pay any fees. Non-Scottish students, however, must pay the full fees for Scotland, although these are still the cheapest in the UK, at around £1,700 a year. Scottish students studying elsewhere must pay the full tuition fees of up to £3,290.

Tuition fee loans

If all these figures have you breaking out in a cold sweat, don't panic. One way to ease the burden is to apply for a tuition fee loan, which is available to everyone regardless of household income. You don't have to start making repayments until you've graduated and are earning more than £15,000 a year. You will then be required to pay back 9 per cent of whatever you earn over this amount – although you can repay more if you want to clear your debts faster.

Overdrafts

An overdraft can be a godsend – but only if you use it wisely. Most student accounts come with interest-free overdrafts, and the amount you can borrow will often increase with each year you remain a student. Some banks may even offer you an interest-free graduate account once you've left.

Try not to be swayed by the freebies on offer, and simply pick the bank that offers you the best deal. But make sure you regularly check your balance. You will face steep bank charges if you unwittingly go over your authorised limit.

Other ways to lessen the load

A little extra money can go a long way. Many students choose to take on a part-time job that fits in with their studies. Jobs offering flexible shift patterns, such as waitressing or bar work, are always popular – so it pays to get your CV in to local employers early. But remember that working too many hours a week could put your studies in jeopardy. If you think that employment might interfere with your academic work, it might be worth getting a summer job to supplement your income before you head off to university.

Another option is to seek private sponsorship. Several large firms, including those in the finance and legal sectors, run schemes offering bursaries to students who work for them during their holidays. Not only will this bring in some extra cash, but it could even help you land your dream graduate job.

Finally, the most important thing you can do is keep on top of your finances. If you're worried that your funds will run out before the end of your first term, then set yourself a weekly limit – and stick to it. Budget for food, clothes and going out. Fingers crossed, there won't be a tin of baked beans in sight.

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