A freshers’ guide to money and work
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
It’s no secret that balancing your bank balance during your time as a student is one of the toughest challenges. University fees and student accommodation are increasingly more expensive. Textbooks alone can run into the 100s of pounds, each. And sure, the ‘basic’ range in most supermarkets is cheap, but eating healthily and nutritiously (which should be of importance if you want to do well in your studies) comes at a price. Then there are the myriad clubs, societies and social nights thrust upon you in Fresher’s Week that on first glance don’t seem too expensive, but add them up and suddenly, the wad of money you came with might start dwindling all too quickly.
If this is your first time living away from home, this article will be of particular value to you. It can be a bit of shock to the system having to suddenly juggle a new life and a lack of income to support it, but there are ways to curb your spending without curbing the fun.
Read on for our top tips.
Remember: Stuff costs money
We know you already know this. But when living away from mum and dad, you might be surprised just how much all the little things really cost. You've probably already factored in your big expenses such as rent, tuition fees, and even a weekly food budget and social fund, and satisfied yourself that you can afford all your outgoings. But new students are often caught out by the "incidentals". That's the here-and-there expenses that may not have made it into initial calculations but still need paying for.
Here are some of the things that you should remember to factor into your budgeting, and tips on keeping costs down:
Unless you live on campus, you're going to need to get to and from your student housing to classes most days. Depending on the town or city you live in, bus journeys will cost either a flat fare or a fare calculated based on how far you're going. In either case, it's reasonable to assume an average of £1.50 per journey for most one-way bus journeys; this increases to between £2 and £5 for a one-way train journey. If you intend on visiting anyone further afield – whether it’s your family home or friends in other towns and cities – you can expect to pay upwards of £30 for a return train ticket, and more if you buy nearer the day. You can minimise the costs and help plan for them by doing some or all of the following:
- If you travel by train, consider investing in a 16-25 Railcard. These cost £30 per year but offer a third off all train journeys so pay for themselves very quickly if you to a lot of travelling by rail.
- If you travel by bus most days, find out the cost of a weekly or monthly pass. Again the savings can be substantial. Even a day rover ticket can offer substantial savings if you make multiple bus journeys in a given day.
- If you're travelling longer distances, plan your travel well in advance, compare ticket prices online, and book specific journeys early. You can pay as little as £5-£10 for your long-distance journey, as opposed to the £50+ it will likely cost if you buy your tickets on or near the day of travel.
If you're living in halls, heat, water, electricity and even internet are likely to be covered for you. But if you're living in private rented accommodation, you'll most likely have to pay for all of these. Gas bills can vary widely depending on factors such as whether a property is double-glazed and whether its central heating is powered by a newer, more efficient boiler or an older, less efficient one. Electricity bills should be a bit more predictable and water rates can be metered or a flat rate set by the company. It may be hard to estimate these costs exactly before you move in, but you should pay close attention to the bills your household gets in the first couple of months and budget accordingly (with the expectation that heating bills will rise during the winter months). Most importantly, you and your housemates need to agree a plan for paying bills on time and ensuring that everyone pays an equal share.
This is another one to be aware of if you live in shared private housing. It's not an issue for students living in halls as properties whose inhabitants are all full-time students are automatically exempt from council tax. But if you're moving into a shared house you should make sure that all the other inhabitants are full-time students. If even one of you isn't, the whole household – not just the tenant who is not in full-time education – becomes liable for council tax.
Unless you're in a fully-catered hall you're bound to have given some thought to your weekly grocery shop and how much it's going to cost you. But as with so much else, it's the "incidentals" that can really add up. Plan your shops (with your flatmates if possible) so you won’t be left short on essentials like bread, milk, eggs, toothpaste, soap, and toilet paper. Regularly relying on the corner shop where things are more expensive can really hit you in the wallet.
Set up a pool fund with your housemates. You each contribute the same amount once a month and everyone dips into it for the shared household items. There's no point having five bottles of ketchup and milk, etc. taking up precious fridge space. Buying things this way not only keeps things fair, it also saves overbuying and food going mouldy.
If you are in catered halls, much of the above won't concern you. But you may soon find yourself bored of the same food you're served in your halls. Your "incidentals" spend may rise as time goes on and you crave snacks and treats from the supermarket. Watch out for this – of course it's fine to treat yourself, but set a budget each week or month and stick to it.
Yes, your university has a library. Yes, this is a great place to go when you're writing essays and need access to multiple sources. No, it's not a substitute for owning the core texts on your module syllabus. The last thing you want to be doing is spending the two to three hours before your seminar anxiously checking the shelves to see if one of the three reference-only copies of your core module textbook has been returned so that you can cobble together a presentation. You will need to buy books and – depending on your course – a variety of other materials too. You can get good deals by looking ahead and buying second hand from sites like Amazon and AbeBooks, but there may also be some textbooks you can't buy used, and these can be expensive, sometimes costing upwards of £100! You need to keep in mind that course materials can be a significant expense category, and budget for a minimum of £100 per module.
Let's face it: you need a social budget. Even if you're a bookish type, you're going to spend a good chunk of time paying for meals and drinks out and entry to venues. Especially in the first few weeks this is going to cost a lot of money, regardless of how "cheap" the individual drinks claim to be. It can be a sobering experience (pun intended) to look through your bank statement and see just how much you've spent on alcohol in the last month. But while your immediate response may be to promise yourself you'll cut back a little, you also need to be realistic. Setting a booze budget may seem like a weird thing to do, but it's the surest way to avoid going broke in your first term.
Draw up a budget – and stick to it
Your reaction to this piece of advice may be "well, duh!". But you'd be surprised how many students move away from home with only a minimal idea of how much money they have coming in… and more importantly how much they've got going out! There are plenty of tools to help you manage your money. Budgeting apps like OnTrees help you stay on top of things by directly accessing your accounts and comparing your actual and planned outgoings. Whether you choose something high-tech like an app or something relatively basic like a simple spreadsheet listing your incomings and outgoings, the most important questions to answer are the following:
- What income do I have each month?
- What committed outgoings (rent, bills, debt payments, etc.) do I have coming out of my account each month?
- What expenditure do I have control over? (This covers all variable expenditure that's not committed outgoings, whether it's food, clothing or social funds.)
- What do I think I should be spending each month?
- What am I actually spending each month?
Staying on top of these questions from the start will help you to manage your money effectively. It’ll allow you to examine the difference between what you'd like to be spending each month and what you're actually spending each month. If there is a difference, or if you come out of this calculation in credit, congratulations! You're well on your way to becoming a billionaire. It’ll also help you figure out the spending you can cut in order to stay in budget.
Getting a job: To work or not to work?
This is the question. Many students don't feel they have a choice as to whether or not they work. Despite the amount of debt you'll incur when you're a student, your student loans are unlikely to leave you swimming in money or with a substantial chunk of money in the bank at the end of the month. And without subsidies from home you may well feel that your loans don't provide you with the minimum level of lifestyle you're willing to put up with, especially if you've got additional expenses like running a car to contend with.
Many students do get a job during their studies and manage to balance their work and university commitments perfectly well. But you should carefully consider the demands of your degree programme as well as the kind of work you want to undertake. Think about the following if you're considering getting a job:
How much does it pay?
You may feel your options are limited as a student looking for work, but don't just take the first job that comes along. As your degree is your primary commitment you should think about the amount of money you need to earn every month and the maximum number of hours you're willing to work in order to do so. Your studies are likely to be impacted if you work more than about fifteen hours per week, so you need to assess whether the job you're considering will help you accomplish your goals.
Are the hours predictable?
As a student you'll work best if you can negotiate a predictable set of hours or shifts that don't coincide with your class schedule and still leave you enough free time to avoid suffering from burnout. If possible you should steer clear of "zero-hours" work that means you get called in for irregular, unpredictable shifts and leads to variable earnings each month.
Are the hours sociable?
Bartending is a popular job for students, and it can be appealingly social, especially if you secure a job at the cool local pub that hosts indie bands four times a week. But working in a pub or club can lead to some very late nights. And, as it's probably reasonable to assume that you'll have a few purely social late nights in the average week, it's easy to end up short on sleep and struggling to stay awake in lectures. Office or admin work might be less appealing but could offer you a better sleep schedule.
Is the work good for anything beyond earning extra cash?
This may be the last thing on your mind when you're looking for a job as a student, but you might want to consider whether you can beef up your CV as well as earning extra money. Student jobs that can help advance your post-university career aren't all that common but they do exist. Jobs with the students' union helping to assist and guide fellow students look great on your CV, as do research assistant jobs that might occasionally be advertised in your department. While the latter often go to postgraduates it's still well worth enquiring: you could develop a valuable relationship with a tutor or supervisor, and you're likely to need to work fewer hours for the same money than you would if you were pulling pints.