Student finances - The colour of money

Student finances

If you're going to have any pennies left over by the time your first year (or first term) is over, it's probably a good idea to keep track of your spending. Lizzie Mitchell offers some advice on how to stay solvent

The most fearsome university budgeting I have ever come across was a group of Edinburgh girls who (and this was last year, not back in the hazy mists of 70s yore) worked out that they could do all their food shopping for the year for £10 per week per head. Once a week they would sit down round the kitchen table and plan out the menu for the next seven days, write out a list, and hit Tesco.

It was a strategic operation of the highest calibre. There was no space for deviation, slippage, fairtrade, mid-range alternatives, or avocadoes. By the end of the year at least one of them was a broken woman, swearing never to eat Tesco Value white sliced again, not even if her life depended on it. She currently spends most of her time sheltering in the food hall at Fortnum and Mason.

Unless you have extremely rich and open-handed parents, money is likely to be a limiting factor over your university years. Not everyone needs or chooses to limit their food spending to ten pounds a week. But if needs must, and if you're careful and extremely organised, it is entirely possible to live on a minimal amount of money, It's been done before and it'll be done again.

Firstly, however black or red it happens to be, retaining a tolerable acquaintance with your bank balance is pretty fundamental. If you don't already have an online banking account, set one up now. Make sure you know how much is coming in and when, and however abysmal your maths, work out how much you can afford to spend per week, so that you retain at least an approximate idea of your solvency or otherwise.

Next, work out your vital expenditures. Food, on most reckonings, is one of these. It's also one where a little forethought can result in significant savings. Making your own sandwiches will save you heaps over the course of a year, and it'll almost certainly be a tastier and healthier option than buying a mayonnaise-slathered heart-attack-in-a-baguette five times a week. Unsurprisingly, it's cheaper to buy in bulk, and shopping and cooking together with a group of friends has obvious rewards not just in saved time and increased sociability points but also, usually, from a financial point of view (unless you're a committed slimmer and the other members of your friendship group are of sumo physique). Fruit and veg often costs less if you buy it from a market, and markets and supermarkets alike will cut prices at the end of the day, so if you really can't live without asparagus then try going along at closing time and it might just fit into the fiscal plan.

Other well-worn advice is to buy textbooks second hand and sell them on at the end of the year, use your NUS card, ask for student discounts even if they aren't advertised up front, and (and this is one of those ones that can't be emphasised enough) make sure you always have an up-to-date Young Person's Railcard. You'll be kicking yourself and your bank account for every journey you put off getting one.

In terms of funding, the chances are that one of your main sources of income will be a student loan, and it's pretty likely that you'll be drawing on a bank overdraft as well to see you along the path to wisdom and BA-dom. There's no reason to be scared of leaving university with an overdraft to pay off, but one thing to steer well clear of is the credit card. Most banks offer student rates for overdrafts, but with credit cards you'll find yourself paying interest at the full market rate. If you can possibly avoid it, don't own one - stick to the steady old debit.

A job may be a necessity rather than an option, and is a good place to start if you're after full or part-time employment. If it's pin money rather than a full salary you're in search of then you could also keep an eye on university bulletin boards and student union emails – you can often earn cash on an ad hoc basis by offering up your cerebral and physical crevices to be prodded and poked by psychologists and medical researchers. And in a crowded, dog-eat-dog job marketplace, that third ear could be just the thing you need to stand out from the crowd …

Money's a serious business, but it shouldn't be something to destroy yourself over. There may be points when you live off pancake mix for two weeks on end, but you'll have a rotten time at uni if you never think about anything else. In fact, you should probably take a minute or two to put your hands together and thank your lucky pecuniary stars that you're in Scotland. If you're a Scottish national studying in Scotland then unlike every other student in the UK you'll get your four years of university education absolutely fee-free, and even the non-Scots have something to cheer about: where your counterparts in English universities are paying £3,225 a year for their degree, you probably won't pay more than £1,820. Which might leave you, from time to time, with a few pounds to invest in the cavern of wonders that the world beyond the Lidl bargain bins has to offer.

Keep control of your pounds, and make your own sandwiches, but don't start beating yourself round the head with a calculator until you have to.

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