Discounts, banking and budgeting: managing your finances at uni

Being skint has long been a part of the student experience, but with the cost of living crisis squeezing finances, young people preparing for university are more worried about budgeting than in previous years.

According to the latest research by student discount scheme Unidays, 40% of Gen Z students depend on parental support and loans, with this generation “hit hard” by the current crisis. A survey by Save the Student showed that 76% of undergraduates were worried about making ends meet last year, with the figure expected to rise as prices continue to increase.

Mhairi Underwood at online forum The Student Room said: “With the rise in the cost of living, we’re noticing students’ questions around their financial situation and preparedness to manage it have taken on an additional layer of concern.”

She added: “Many don’t feel equipped with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to keep themselves financially healthy.”

So how should you start getting ready to budget at university?

Bank accounts

Getting the right bank account plays a key part. Many would argue that an important requirement is to find an account with the biggest and longest 0% interest overdraft. You shouldn’t be borrowing to cover daily living costs, but an interest-free overdraft can help with unexpected expenses. Never go above your overdraft limit or you could be hit with hefty charges.

When selecting an account provider, check how long the overdraft remains interest-free after you graduate, and how much you’ll be expected to repay if you haven’t cleared your debt by then.

Many student accounts come with extra freebies, so it’s worth looking at what each bank is offering.

For example, Santander is offering an interest-free arranged overdraft of £1,500 in years one to three, £1,800 in year four, and £2,000 if you stay on to year five, plus a free, four-year 16-25 railcard.

You typically need a university offer before you can open a student bank account, so have a look a bit nearer the time to get an idea of the best deals.

Deals and discounts

Being a student unlocks many discounts, giving you money off at shops, cinemas, theatres and galleries.

Students can buy a Totum card – the renamed NUS extra card – which offers discounts including 10% off at the Co-op and fashion site Boohoo.

It costs £14.99 for a year for the full-blown card, or £24.99 for three years. Check out the discounts before you sign up to ensure there are special offers you will actually use.

Unidays is a free online platform offering students deals and discounts such as (at the time of writing) up to 50% off at Asos, and up to 60% off uni essentials at Debenhams. You can also currently get six months of Amazon Prime Student for free, then pay £3.99 a month afterwards.

Jake Butler, operations director at Save the Student, said: “If you shop somewhere that doesn’t promote a discount, don’t be afraid to ask either, and always remember the golden rule: just because a place offers a student discount doesn’t always mean it will be cheaper than elsewhere.”

Budgeting

Leaving home and managing your own money for the first time can feel daunting, but setting a budget will help you keep on top of your finances.

Butler said: “If you don’t have a handle on where your money is going out or coming in, you can’t make the changes you need to stay afloat financially.”

Your student loan will come in as a lump sum every term, and you’ll need to make sure it covers your essential costs such as rent, food, bills, transport and insurance, as well as going out.

Which? has a student budget calculator that lets you get a monthly breakdown of roughly how much you will need to live on while at university.

Getting a job

Even with all the extra help available, you might find you need to get a job, although your ability to do this depends on the time pressures of your academic course.

Look for work on campus, such as at the union bar or shop, as these jobs may be easier to fit in around your studies. If you currently have part-time work, you might be able to get transferred if the company has an outlet in your university town.

If you’re too busy to commit to a job in term time, search for temporary contracts over the Christmas and summer breaks. Shops need extra staff during the festive period, and the summer holidays are a busy time for bars, restaurants and family attractions.

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and hardship funds

Many universities have bursaries to help students who might otherwise struggle to afford higher education, or scholarships to recognise academic achievements and other talents. These are separate from your student loan and do not have to be paid back.

The amount of money available and the eligibility criteria varies across institutions and courses, and many of them are targeted at students from low-income households.

When you are deciding which universities to apply for, check whether they offer a bursary or scholarship that you may be entitled to.

For example, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) offers up to £4,000 a year for home students from low-income backgrounds, while University of Liverpool students can get a bursary – such as a cash grant or fee waiver – of up to £2,000 a year.

You may also be able to apply for grants to help with your studies. For example, disabled students and those with children are eligible for extra support from the government.

If you do get into financial difficulty at university, contact the welfare team to find out what help is available.

“It’s better to speak out earlier if you’re finding things hard, and the university may have extra support you can access or apply for,” said Grace Etheridge at The Student Room.

“Remember, budgeting is a challenge and it can be difficult to know where to start when money feels tight, so there’s no shame in asking for some advice when you need it.”

Stretching your grant: top tips from students

Wait before buying the recommended reading. Get the previous editions from the library early and work out which books the lecturers refer to. If necessary, look for them second hand.
Laurie Butler, Lancaster University, 2021

A mature student at Aberystwyth University taking a textbook from the shelf of the Law library, UK
Photograph: aberCPC/Alamy

Get on every possible society email distribution list. You can probably eat and pregame for free at least a few times a week. Wine and cheese nights, cocktail nights, anything…
Ella Raff, University of Cambridge, 2015

Before buying anything big, such as electronics, on Amazon, check its warehouse section. I have scored £30-50 off because the box was a bit dented. eBay is also useful for this.
David Sedano, University of Stirling, 2022

As soon as you get your money, set aside bills and rent. Allocate yourself £20-£40 a week to live on. I utilise Monzo’s pots, but you can use paper money and envelopes.
Lydia Cline, University of Southampton, 2019

Woman pouring glass of wine outdoors
Photograph: Cultura Creative Ltd/Alamy

Apps such as Too Good To Go, Karma and Olio are excellent for scraps. While hospitality work often comes with a free meal mid-shift.
George Dilks, University of West England, 2019

Buy a railcard and/or a coach card. It will save you so much money in the long run and usually allows you to get freebies as well.
Tom Stevens, Swansea University student

Work out whenever the nearest branch of your local supermarket puts all its reduced stickers on things – it’s often at the same time every evening.
Iain Walsh, Manchester University, 2006

To save on paying for the TV licence or Netflix, find out if your uni offers access to Learning on Screen. You can watch many shows and stuff on TV for free while a student.
Silja Wiedeking, University of Kent, 2018

Additional reporting by Rachel Hall and Alfie Packham

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