Take the heartache out of university by balancing your budget in advance

Financial planning is critical to surviving the tough economic environment
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The Independent Online

Winning a university place is only the first hurdle. Surviving university financially is going to be tougher than it has ever been, and you don't need to be an economist to see why.

For the new crop of students starting their course in September, the only element of the financial package that is going up is the fees. The maintenance grant and maintenance loan are staying stubbornly at the same rate as last year (except in Wales). So if 2009-10 was tough-going for students, tighten your belts: things can only get worse. And with the availability of part-time jobs likely to be static, it would seem parents will have to dig deeper into their pockets than ever – if they can afford to do so.

Parents have been a constant source of support for students. The last NatWest student living index survey published in 2009 estimates that 52 per cent of all students received the same or more parental support than in the previous year. That means the "bank of mum and dad" was forking out 61 per cent (£69.51) of their children's weekly term-time income.

But where is a hard-pressed family going to find another £70 a week? For a start, don't succumb to statistical blackmail, nor to the persuasive argument: "My flatmate gets £XXX from his parents." Do what you can.

Every student's family income is assessed on how much the Government thinks it can afford – from zero to a maximum of £1,386 (or up to £1,940 if studying in London) for one child in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The less you earn, the more maintenance grant and maintenance loan your child will be entitled to. A third of all students are estimated to receive a full maintenance grant, and another third a partial grant, so the students whose parents just can't afford to help should in theory be able to survive. But will they? That depends on their money management skills.

So how do parents help out? Most set their own rules. If your child is a spendthrift, socialiser and imbiber, it might be wise to ring-fence the money by paying specific bills. These could include rent, which is an average of £74.18 a week outside London, utilities, which average £21.11 a week, or books, which vary depending on the course but average £9.50 a week, according to the NatWest survey. Others give a lump sum to help out with living costs.

Ordering food online and having it delivered to the student's lodgings seems to be another popular idea. Sara McAlpine, a philosophy student at Aberdeen, says supermarket vans were often seen on campus. "Food that lasts at least two weeks, and freezer food, is best," she says.

I have also heard of parents whose children are inclined not to work giving nothing or very little upfront, but paying off their child's student debt if they get a good degree. And then there are the parents who just wait for the end of term "I've-run-out-of-money" phone call.

Max MacGechan, 20, a digital media student at University College Falmouth, has an interesting arrangement with his parents. "They are paying for it all," he says, "although I am using the fee loan to pay fees for now, and they will pay that back at the end of my three years. "I am also receiving the maintenance loan, but giving that money to my parents and then living off a monthly allowance they send to me. Doing it this way helps me budget better and is more realistic to the world beyond university."

Set out what you can afford to do, and how and when you are going to do it, well before your child leaves for university and then stick to the plan. Make sure your contribution arrives on the date you have promised. It is far better to promise nothing, and then come up with an unexpected surprise, than to let your children down.

Should you pay their fees? Yes, if you can afford it, but not necessarily right now. Undoubtedly, fees are an accumulating debt, but they are no longer a major drain on a student's resources while they are studying – providing, that is, the student takes out a fee loan. So, paying them off right now is not the first priority. Having enough money to get through the course is a student's major concern. The fee loan will look after the fees for the time being, and you can always help your offspring pay them off once they have graduated.

What can students expect to manage on? If you eliminate fees from the student package, most students living away from home are expected to manage on £4,950 a year (£6,928 if living away from home in London, £3,838 if living at home. Figures in Scotland differ). This will be derived from three main sources – a maintenance grant, a maintenance loan and family contribution. How much a student receives from which source depends entirely on family income and where they study. Is it enough? That's unlikely, which is why parents are having to dig deeper than ever before.

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