STUDENT FINANCE: Beware the man who asks about your undies

Decca Aitkenhead recalls how a life of academic poverty drove her in desperation to the pub

The bank manager studied my cheque book, narrowed his eyes, and roared. "Miss Aitkenhead, is that really a sensible sum to be spending on underwear?"

This was not the banking relationship I had anticipated. Only a month ago, the delightful man drooling over my assets promised heaven and earth. Now, here he was intruding on my most intimate outgoings, and I had learnt my first lesson of student finance. The Prince Charming of Freshers' Week who courts your grant cheque is the Prince of Darkness by week five.

His attitude can also, I learned, mean the difference between three years of poverty-ridden angst and the Best Days Of Your Life. I sought advice from an older, wiser, poorer student, and got myself a new one.

Several large lies and blonde smiles later, I found myself a genial old fellow happy to indulge my shocking profligacy. Studenthood was suddenly looking up.

Serious financial crisis struck when I began renting a house with six friends. On rent day one of us would be stationed in the hall cupboard, on look-out duty in case the landlord appeared. Monitoring each other's electricity consumption soon descended into high farce and we would regularly stumble upon a faction huddled in the airing cupboard, bitching about somebody's telephone usage. UN conflict resolution had nothing on our household bill negotiations. How any of us managed to stay friends remains a mystery.

My second flat seemed marvellously cheap, until winter arrived and the heating came on. With it came a truly monstrous stench, and we learned that half the flat had once served as the gents for the curry house downstairs. It was a long and trying winter.

In moments of financial distress, we would devise clever economy schemes. The most obvious was to give up buying food, and steal it from your housemates. This worked very well until poverty struck equally; it then broke down, there being nothing left to steal. It also required a degree of thick skin, for the strategy provoked a certain frostiness, which could get quite uncomfortable.

My least successful economy drive came in the depths of the third year. Quite simply, I stopped going to the laundrette. It was a brief and disastrous experiment, which I recommend to no-one.

Penury inspired an interesting morality in us all: a shortage of funds enabled us to dispense with all conventional notions of right and wrong. I would cheerfully assure the bank of the imminent arrival of large and entirely fictitious cheques. I lied to the landlord as a point of honour. Friends went further, and engaged with enthusiasm in drug dealing and petty fraud. Tales of student prostitution were legendary. I was fortunate to profit from the latter, as the local paper paid me to write about it.

Eventually I got myself a job. The supreme martyrdom with which I submitted to a few hours gentle bartending each week still makes me blush; quite why it seemed such noble hardship I have no idea. But it pleased my bank manager enormously - he thereon addressed me as his "little ray of sunshine". He also became ludicrously slack about my overdraft, which pleased me enormously.

There is no doubt some students get a gratuitous kick out of poverty. For me poverty sucked, and blissful as my university memories are, the scent of disused curry house toilet will always linger.

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