Budgeting is a personal matter: we all have different expenses and different needs. For this reason it is near impossible to come up with one rule or advice that will help every student. Nevertheless, if you are worried about your finances and budgeting during your undergraduate degree there are different strategies that might help you live within your means and avoid debt. Change won’t be immediate but the following advice will help you start making the adjustments necessary to stay within your budget.
The money available to you will come from either a Maintenance Loan (giving by Student Finance England), from the bank of mum and dad and/or a salary. This will be the basis of your budget. Every student is different, will have a different budget and different priorities. I will talk about the strategies that have worked for me and what I have learned during my 10 years as a student.
1-Use a budget
Your budget might be very specific: it might detail how much you should spend on rent, food, shopping, books, transport, etc., which is perfectly fine. However my budget was a little more flexible: even if I didn’t have an exact amount for each category, I knew how much money I was spending. Every month I had recurrent fixed expenditures (e.g. rent, bills) that I could not change and which I planned for. For all other expenditures I had a budget which allowed me to adapt to different events during the month. For example, if one month I had to buy a birthday present or had to travel to visit my sister, I knew that I had less money for my food shopping, dinner out or drinks at the pub and therefore I needed to adapt.
I don’t think one way is better than the other. It is important that you decide which one best suits you. However flexible your budget is, I would always encourage you to have one and compare it to your actual spending.
2-Track your spending
It is difficult to do a budget without knowing how much you spend on things. If, like 18-year old me, you don’t know how much you’re spending on food, clothes, bills, etc., I’d recommend that you document all your expenditures and classify them into categories (e.g. supermarket shopping, drinks/dinner out, phone bill, electricity, etc). By doing this, I was able to draw a budget that reflected my actual spending and allowed me to reduce/cut some of the more unnecessary expenditures. There are numerous apps that will allow you to do this very easily but you can also create an excel/word document.
Once you have a budget (either strict or flexible), you can/should keep track of your expenditures and make sure that you are under budget.
When planning your budget, it might be a good idea to separate your expenditures into three lists: Essentials, Want (but not essential) and Unnecessary (could do without). Your Essentials list should include your rent, food and bills. However, it can also include transport (if you need to take the bus to university for example) and course costs (e.g. books, printing). Your Want list might include take-aways, dinner/drinks out, hobbies (e.g. sports, movies, societies), gym, insurance, savings, money for presents, emergency cash and shopping (e.g. clothes, games, DVDs, shoes). Bear in mind that you might have other expenditures and that some of these items would be in the Unnecessary list, depending on your priorities.
Once you have your three lists, you should always ensure that you have enough money to pay for ALL of the Essentials. If you have money left over, then you can spend it on your Wants and if you still have money in the budget, you can purchase things from the Unnecessary (or save the money).
I had a strict budget for my essentials because they were usually fixed amount so it was easy to plan for them. The money I had left over was my budget for my ‘Want’ items.
You can save a lot of money by planning ahead. If you know you’re going to be living close to the university, you can plan to either walk to uni every day (having to leave a little bit earlier than if you were taking the bus) or to bring/buy a bike to get around (in the long term you will save money by cycling and not taking the bus). By bringing a packed lunch and a flask with your tea/coffee/hot chocolate (or just a water bottle) you can avoid having to buy your lunch and drinks at the university.
When you go to the supermarket, don’t do what I tend to do (even now!): going without a list of things you need. I often would just go to the supermarket on my way back from university which meant that I didn’t always know what I needed and what I already had, which sometimes resulted in me buying the wrong things. Worse, without a list I usually filled the basket with impulse buys and as a result, I spent more money.
Make sure that you always have your student ID or the NUS extra card to take advantage of the many student discounts. I always asked at shops/restaurants if they did student discount because worst case scenario, they say no.
To help earn extra cash, you can also get a part-time job. If you know you would like a part-time job at university you can start researching the opportunities before coming to university. If you are already working in a retail store or a restaurant chain, you can see if they can transfer you to one that is close to your university.
If you are having financial troubles or if you just need advice, seek help from the university or from independent financial adviser (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau). If you want more advice on Student finance, budgeting and stretching your student loan, go to moneysavingexpert.com where they have detail advice.
For even more tips (including student bank accounts, TV license, broadband, council tax and more), you can visit http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/students/student-guide