An essential guide to student finance

A lecture hall full of attractive young students put their hands up
"Hands up if you've spuffed your loan already!"
"There are three golden rules to student financial survival: maximise your income, minimise your outgoings, and budget carefully to make sure the right one stays bigger.” Johnny Rich
  • | by Maxine Frances

This month sees thousands of freshers begin their first term at university. Whether you can’t wait to unpack those shot glasses and DVDs and dive in or you’re more apprehensive, the one thing you - literally - can’t afford to ignore is getting wise to your finances.

Money management can soon start to look daunting to freshers. Unless you’re the offspring of a millionaire, or a mature student who’s used to working full-time, you’ll probably have more cash in the bank at the start of term than you’ve ever seen before.

Equally, though, that cash will need to be spread more thinly than you have ever known, and you may find that lovely number on your balance inquiry screen shrinking in the face of expenses you’ve never even thought about before. So how do you look after your money at university as well as your time, your friends and your liver?

"There are three golden rules to student financial survival: maximise your income, minimise your outgoings, and budget carefully to make sure the right one stays bigger,” says Johnny Rich, founder of the Push Guide To UK Universities. “In other words, if there's any source of money you can turn to – grants, loans, a job, your parents, bursaries, scholarships, anything – make sure you get what's yours. Have a realistic plan about what money you'll need and when and always try to be on top of where that money's coming from and whether you're financially on track.”

Your living costs will vary depending on whereabouts in the UK you’re at university, the length of your course and your living arrangements, such as whether your halls are catered or self-catering. A handful of Collegiate universities such as Oxbridge and Durham allow undergraduates to live, very cheaply, in catered halls for two or even three years. But wherever you study, you can save money with simple measures such as economy shopping, taking advantage of discount schemes offered by chain stores, and always using free cash machines, not those which charge for withdrawal.

When it comes to your course, stick to essential textbooks, and buy second-hand. Unless you’re studying a subject where information dates quickly (like law or computing), second hand books are the way to go. Your department will probably send you a reading list the length of the Old Testament. Take time to work out which are the core texts and only buy those.

Watch out for clubs and societies too. They’re great fun, but most of them cost to join, and getting stuck into everything from Scrabble to Merengue will be expensive. Limit yourself to one or two main interests. Above all, think of your future: graduate employment statistics aren’t a pleasant read. Whatever you study, once you graduate you’re increasingly likely to be self-employed or working on unsteady short-term contracts. Being frugal and financially savvy now will set you up well for later.

But don’t despair if things go wrong. “There's an extra rule too in case you find yourself in difficulty: get help,” concludes Johnny. “Banks, students unions, your uni, all want to see you succeed and can help you do it. So, however bad it gets, the worst thing you can do is hide from money troubles."

Five things worth shelling out for

A sturdy laptop
Cheap deals look appealing now but when your essay’s due and the lappy’s on its way to a warehouse in Chipping Sodbury for an off-warranty hardware repair they may not. Remember that most prices quoted by over-excited adverts are for the base unit, and don’t include common software like Word and Excel…

A Railcard
A 16-25 Railcard gets you a third off all rail journeys. A Network Railcard gets you a third off all off-peak rail journeys within the South East, as far north as Banbury and west as Dorchester. Nat West’s student account actually gives these away to existing customers.

Fairly obviously, a mini-you is the ultimate budget-drainer, and tequila slammers have a canny ability to induce spontaneity. Most academic institutions have some sort of free condom scheme for emergencies, but to be sure you don’t get caught out, buy a modest supply of condoms and stash them somewhere discreet…

A TV Licence
If you’re in halls and bringing your own TV you’ll need your own licence or you could end up with a £1000 fine. Enforcement officers are to student areas what terriers are to rats.

Home comforts
Come December, you’ll be grateful for a good winter coat, boots and quality bed linen.

And five things which aren’t…

A gown/mortar board
When you need these (for matriculation when you arrive, and graduation) your university should have a discount arrangement with a hire company. You don’t need to buy one.

Bedroom tat
It’s easy to spend more than you want to at poster sales. Ask yourself, do you really want a print of George Osborne with photoshopped devil horns staring at you from bed? If you invest in decor, buy some you’ll actually want to keep beyond Christmas.

A mini fridge/freezer
Yes, I know you want to keep your beer and sausages away from the mucky sort down the corridor. Alas, many halls of residence don’t allow them because they sap electricity like the Hollyoaks omnibus saps your faith in human nature.

Someone else’s essay
Universities invest heavily in anti-plagiarism measures, and you’re likely to get caught and expelled.

Next year’s accommodation
Some unscrupulous letting agents will panic freshers into looking for second-year accommodation when you’ve barely unpacked. Even in small towns, you shouldn’t need to start house hunting for next year until your second term.