One of the biggest challenges of university, alongside keeping up with your academic work and figuring what you’re going to do once you graduate, is managing your money.
You’ll have your maintenance loan, maybe some savings from a holiday job, or maybe you’ll pick up a part-time job around your studies. Regardless of how you get your money, you’re likely to be doing grown up things like paying rent, bills and buying groceries for the first time in your life.
Scary right? University is supposed to be fun, not a time for poring over bank statements and fretting about having splashed out on an extra round of drinks the night before.
Well, as a former student who stared down their nearly-maxed out overdraft and said ‘not today!’, who graduated while escaping financial ruin by the skin of their teeth, here is everything I wish I’d known about money at university.
Overdrafts are fun, but so is not leaving uni completely broke
After steamrolling through my hard-earned savings within the first couple of months at university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I strolled down to the on-campus high street bank. They had a big sign in their window saying they could give me a £1500 free overdraft, how wonderful! It had been whispering sweet-nothings in my ears every time I walked past it: “All you have to do is come inside,” it said. “Here’s a bunch of money that you don’t have to pay back for ages, have it!”
I couldn’t resist. Fast forward three years, it was two weeks until I was due to leave my uni house and my account was showing a big, scary -£1450. Not exactly the eventual send off I’d envisaged on my first day.
Nine months into my first job and I’d finally managed to pay it all off. Back to zero. Was it worth it? I’d rather not say. Instead, if I’d used something like Monzo’s money pots I could have set aside money specifically for nights out, rather than plunging ever deeper into the minus on my overdraft, which after a while just becomes a meaningless number.
Overdrafts should be used sparingly, Monzo offers one of up to £1,000 and after £20 of it you get charged 50p a day. That means if you need it, it’s there, but you’re incentivised to stay on top of your finances. It may sound boring, but a budget is essential to enjoying university life.
Yeah there are probably more fun things to do, but working part-time and securing a regular income, can do a lot to make financial worries go away. The merry-go-round of students coming in and out means there are always places offering part-time work.
Restaurants and bars are the most obvious places, as well as university shops and services. Only in my third year did I start working as a bike food courier and I wish I’d started sooner. A few days a week I would work three hours in the early evening, and if I was heading out that night I would be able to buy a couple of drinks knowing I’d just earned that money and so it was fine.
It gave my spending balance and meant I could save any stressing for my academic work and career prospects. Fun!
When making a purchase, always check your uni’s buy and sell page on Facebook
If you need something for your house, or maybe have a social coming up with a fancy dress theme, chances are someone else at your uni has had to make that purchase before.
A great place to find cheap and often hardly used items is your university’s buy and sell Facebook page. Top tip: the best bargains are to be found around June when all the third years are moving out and desperately trying to reduce the amount of stuff to take back to their family home - in second year we bought a hot tub for a garden for a fraction of the price you’d spend in a shop. Not a necessary purchase, sure, but we thought we were the bees knees, even if our house of seven boys didn’t have the bods to match.
Be wary of signing up to things at freshers’ fair where you have to pay on the spot
Going to your first freshers’ fair is one of the best moments of uni - you have the chance to get involved in a vast array of activities you’d never thought of doing.
Do I want to abseil down a rock face in the Peak District while practicing my newly-learned Spanish by exchanging a mojito recipe learned at a cocktail-making society? Maybe, but not definitely.
It’s easy to get over-zealous and sign your name up to a whole bunch of societies that you’ll never have the time to fully commit to. Sure, being on their mailing list for three years is annoying but at least it doesn’t cost you anything. Definitely do not stump up a deposit for a club with a ‘limited number of memberships’ either - make sure you really want to do it before parting with your cash.
Finally, don’t be swayed into signing up to a lengthy magazine subscription because you’ll get a free pair of earphones. Maybe see how many consecutive weeks you actually go to a newsagents and buy the new issue before committing to having a whole bunch of cellophane-wrapped mags lying by your front door for the rest of the year.
Don’t spend your first term shopping at the on-campus shop
Breaking news: on-campus supermarkets are the biggest scam since they increased the price of Freddos from 10p. Yeah, at first you’re not quite sure of your surroundings and there is safety in numbers in your first days when you trudge up with a big group of your flatmates to buy yet another frozen pizza from the store in the middle of campus, but financially it’s the wrong decision.
You can get basically all the same ingredients and foodstuffs at Aldi and Lidl for a fraction of the price, and often it’s much better quality (honestly Lidl’s bakery section is the stuff of dreams). By cooking meals from scratch you’ll also save a bunch of money, and impress your new flatmates while you’re at it. Who knew that actually attempting to cook will trick them into thinking you’re a real-life human being who has their stuff together?
Whatever you do, don't buy course books
If the library doesn’t stock the book you're after, and you absolutely need it, team up with a bunch of your course mates and all chip in for it - you’ll easily find enough people who also need the book on your course’s WhatsApp chat or Facebook group.
Then, you can all photocopy the relevant pages as and when you need. Also, check the aforementioned buy and sell Facebook pages for someone who actually bought a copy and is now desperate trying to flog it for cheap before they graduate.