The tightrope walk of student finance

Saturday, 15 October 2016
It’s that time of year again – autumn has come, and with it a fresh batch of students heading to university. Given the rising costs of university, due in large part to fresh plans from the Government to keep increasing tuition fees, and the increased necessity for students to take out student loans – and more – because of it, we have gathered some top tips for any student worried they won’t have money left to buy even a tin of beans by the end of term.

A strong start is half the work
Many students may be feeling confident when they first start out being responsible for their own finances, but this confidence can come at a cost. To pre-empt financial woes, it’s always best to start planning as soon as possible.

Do you have a budget? After finding out how much your loan payments will cover per month, and factoring in any extra funds from a part-time job (or from volunteering for psychology or economic experiments, for example), you will have a rough idea of how much you will have to spend. Then it’s a matter of figuring out how much your expenses (rent, utility bills, food, contracts etc.) rack up and hope they even out.

As with anything, it takes some effort to find the best deals. If you find your expenses are totalling more than your income, look for ways to save on the basics, such as by taking advantage of student transport deals (such as rail cards or bus passes), getting a cheaper mobile phone contract or even taking advantage of the extra benefits that come with some dedicated student bank accounts.

Don’t forget to cover your belongings, either. Insurance may be the first expense you would consider scrapping, but given the large amount of rather expensive possessions students tend to take with them, contents insurance is hardly a luxury. Just think how devastated you’d be if you lost your laptop – an essential tool for any student these days – and had to pay for a new one all by yourself. If you can get covered for this under your parents’ home insurance policy, all the better, just make sure it will be enough.

Learn to hunt
Student discounts are a big benefit of student life, and one of the main things people may miss once they’ve graduated – this writer certainly still does. One of the first experiences you are likely to have with the gloriousness of student discounts will be at the Freshers’ Fare. This is not just a great place to get a year’s supply of free pens, but you can often find amazing offers from big-named brands. If you’ve missed your Freshers’ Fare, don’t worry, many universities hold a Re-Freshers’ Fare in January so you can stock up on your supply of free pens and discount deals then.

While some shops will proudly display their student discount at the till, it is always up to you to ask, wherever you go. You’d be surprised what companies will give you a student discount if you ask, including some popular food chains. And flashing your student card isn’t the only plastic that can get you great offers.

NUS cards may require an initial payment, but will give you discounts at many more places than your regular student card would. It now even includes the ISIC, which will allow you to take advantage of your student status in over 130 countries. If you don’t want to pay a fee, there’s also the option to join UNiDAYS and benefit from online as well as offline discounts (in certain stores). And if you’re a regular shopper at one of the big chains, consider getting a loyalty card to bag some extra points for your essentials.

Timing is everything
It’s always hard to get out of bed on the first day of term, but it can pay off! By finding out as soon as possible which (often rather expensive) books you’ll need for your courses, you can make sure you’re the first to borrow them from the university library. You should then be able to take advantage of student discounts on printing costs to copy the relevant chapters, which can often end up cheaper than buying the whole thing, and means that you can make all the highlights and notes that you may want. If you do have to buy the book, make sure you keep it in good condition so you can sell it on to the next batch of students, or ask a student from the year above you to sell you theirs.

Timing is also important when it comes to your shopping. Most people know that supermarkets will discount the food that’s expiring after a certain time, so going grocery shopping near closing time can pay off. But that’s not all.

Some high street stores and online retailers can offer special deals to students around the first weeks of term, over and above the standard discount they may offer all year round. And if you want them to remind you when they have deals on for students, all you have to do is sign up to your favourite retailer’s mailing list.

If all else fails…
There’s no guarantee that all of these tips will be enough to keep you out of debt. Everyone makes mistakes when they first start out, and sometimes these can have financial consequences. Even when you avoid making financial mistakes, there’s always plain bad luck that can set you back. Figures from the NUS state that half of students have difficulties in paying their rent, so you definitely wouldn’t be the only one.

If you do come up short, there are certain things you can do to help keep you afloat, while other options should be avoided at all costs. Charging some of the highest rates of interest, making them highly disadvantageous and likely to drag you into a spiral of debt, are payday loans. These are heavily marketed to students as a last-minute saviour before the next student loan deposit arrives, but in reality there are better and cheaper alternatives to consider before going down this route.

Most student accounts will have an advantageous overdraft facility, which means that if you apply for an authorised overdraft to cover your expenses until your loan comes in, you will often only need to pay a fee or low interest rates – some student accounts don’t even charge anything at all, up to a certain amount.

If this is not enough to cover your outstanding debt, contact a student advisor – the university will often have financial assistance on offer in the form of loans or bursaries that you can apply for. If that’s still not enough, consider a credit card with a long introductory 0% interest term to give you time to pay off your debts. Just make sure you have a decent credit score before you apply so you have an idea of how likely it is your application will be accepted. Rejected applications will have a negative impact on your credit score and only make things worse.

Don’t forget to get up again
University is a learning experience in so many ways. Maybe the most important lesson to take away from it is that whenever you fall, you have to, and will find you are indeed able to, get up again. The same goes for student finances; you may stumble, but don’t let that drag you further down. Just dust yourself off, take inventory of what you have and what you need to do, and keep moving forward. You will end up being a lot wiser than someone who’s never (yet) fallen, and that’s worth more than money in the long run.