Student finance: Prepare yourself to really enjoy Uni

Learn to manage your finances before leaving home and you’ll find it much easier to balance your studies and social life

Money is an international preoccupation - and never more so than in the midst of a recession. It usually follows that the people who think the most about the cold hard stuff are those with the least of it. Think students.

"I've known people get into really serious debt," says Hannah Britt, who lives in Sheffield and graduated from the University of East Anglia (UEA) this summer. "A lot of my friends were living right at the bottom of their overdrafts. It's hard. You get swept up in the lifestyle."

That lifestyle is, notoriously, hedonistic. And why shouldn't it be? For most students, starting university is a first taste of independence. Your social life is likely to spin into overdrive. At the same time, you're learning to manage your finances – it's little wonder many students struggle to balance the books at first.

"When I went to university it was the first time I'd looked after my own money," says Ben Alexander, who is studying politics, philosophy and economics at Manchester University. "At first, I was just living off my student loan, so I had to budget carefully. I learnt to live on very little."

Most students quickly pick up money-saving tips. "Shopping for food online is often cheaper, so even if you live really near the supermarket, if they deliver for free, do an internet shop because you get more offers and better deals," explains Alexander. When it comes to socialising, he says: "I tend to go to student nights, because they're cheaper. We drink at home before we go out too, because buying drinks at clubs is so expensive."

Britt took a similar approach. "I'd take out £30 for the weekend and leave my bank card at home. Once I'd spent that money, I'd have to stop in." She also curbed her fashion habit. "I didn't buy many clothes – and when I did, I'd go to places like Tops hop where you get a student discount. They have student nights every couple of months too where you get about 25 per cent off, so we'd stock up then."

According to the National Union of Students (NUS), you can save an average of £500 a year by using an NUS Extra card, so it's a worthwhile investment (£12; nus.org.uk/en/nus-extra). "A lot of restaurants give student discounts," says Britt. As for travel: "I got a student Railcard, which gives you a third off, and I got a yearly bus pass to get me around Norwich too."

It is crucial to carefully plan a budget before arriving on campus. "We advise students to think about their budget as early as possible and make a realistic plan, so they don't get to university and find there's a shortfall," says James Pooley, a welfare officer at the University of Leicester who specialises in finance. "There's lots of information to help them do that." He points to Leicester's website. Additional resources include the Ucas budget calculator, and the student finance calculator from thisismoney.co.uk.

The process of writing that budget will be a useful exercise, Pooley says. "It will help you build a picture of where your money is coming from, and you may become aware that additional support is available, such as a scholarship from the university you're attending. It also helps you organise yourself. For example, setting aside your budget for accommodation will prompt you to get your accommodation in place. It's all about preparing mentally for university life."

Pooley also suggests that new students seek advice from experienced budgeters. "Ask parents or older brothers and sisters for help." A practice run is a good idea. Before you leave home, try living off your weekly socialising budget in the run-up to uni. Offer to do a supermarket shop for your family to get a sense of what things cost and how to get the best deals.

Be realistic with your budget though, and leave some flexibility. If you're planning to work part-time as a student, think about how many hours you can take on without compromising your studies. And when you're drawing up your income and outgoings, leave a little contingency. As Pooley says: "How will you cope if you have to pay for unforeseen repairs to your bike or a forgotten birthday present?

"Generic guides can only take you so far," he adds. "Students have particular interests, dietary needs, travel arrangements, course costs – a budget is very individual, so you need to think carefully about what you will need."

A lot depends on location. London is the most expensive place in the UK to be a student, followed by other major cities. "I got better at budgeting as I got further into my degree," notes Britt. "I was lucky because Norwich is a really cheap place to study." With a sensible approach, she consequently managed to stay in the black. It wasn't plain sailing, however. "Right at the end of my first year, I had to ask my parents to help me out. I was lucky. They were able to lend me some money to tide me over until I came home and got a summer job."

Alexander nearly found himself in strife at exactly the same stage. "I was left with literally £6 at the end of my first year," he remembers. He then reassessed his finances over the summer with his parents. "In my second year, my mum and dad gave me a weekly allowance to make things easier."

Britt feels that, with a clear budget, most students should do just fine. "The Government lends you a lot of money. If you're careful, it should be enough to cover your rent and the things you need to do your course." Lifestyle is an extra, of course – and those that want to party hard will need the means to do so.

When the books simply don't balance, however, help is available. "We can look through students' budgets and finances to find ways they can save money," says Pooley. "That can be simple things, like comparing prices at different supermarkets and encouraging students to buy their fruit and veg at the market, looking at different means of travel, letting them know about nights out that are subsidised for students, telling them where they can buy second hand books – those types of things."

Extra sources of funding could also be available. Every university has the Access to Learning Fund, which offers financial assistance to students in specific circumstances. And in cases of serious hardship, some universities also offer emergency loans.

University services may even be able to act on students' behalf if they are under pressure to meet their financial commitments. "We can offer advice on dealing with debt. We can speak to their landlords too, for example, and support students in negotiating timeframes to pay creditors." Perhaps most crucially, university welfare services can help students put together a plan to navigate themselves out of debt.

Successfully managing a budget is all part of learning to live independently – and it can have surprising benefits. "In my student house we'd share food and products," says Britt. The more students you share with, the cheaper bills work out – especially when you research the best local deals. Share broadband, the TV licence and landline, and remember that full-time students are exempt from council tax. And, if you all have similar tastes and timetables, cooking together is a sociable way to save money. "That was a really good life lesson," Britt concludes. "Learning to be generous with people and knowing that they'll be generous with you in return."

Money Toolkit

A mobile banking and simple budgeting app where you can see your UK bank accounts, group your spending in categories, see what you've spent and set targets for each month.

My Student Budget Planner

Advice from Palgrave Macmillan, the UK's leading study skills publisher, on how to manage your student finances and stay on top of debt.

Uni Fees 2012

The official app from the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance, this app lets you enter your tuition fees and maintenance loan to find out how much you will repay and when your loans will be cleared. It also has information on grants.

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