Student Life
Degrees

Need help budgeting for university? Here's how

8 min
August 31, 2021

Includes a free, downloadable spending planner

As the excitement of securing a place at university begins to subside, the reality of affording to go can start to dawn on many students. Or, if you’re ahead of the game and looking at how to budget for university before you’ve even applied then this is for you too. We’ve split this post into two main parts: needs and nice-to-have.


Here are some things you need to budget for:

What to do about food?

We reckon about £65 is a good amount to set aside per week for food. It’s your fuel and it should be enjoyable! Don’t skimp on what you like but try to cut unnecessary spending.

It goes without saying that at university, unless you are in catered accommodation, you will need to feed yourself. A typical student meal plan would probably contain one takeaway per week and the other 6 dinners made at home. Let's say 3 lunches per week are bought out and the other 4 are made and that all breakfasts are made at home. You also need to allow some of your food budget for snacks and drinks like tea and coffee.

Assuming the takeaway costs £15 and snacks and drinks come to about £10 per week. 6 dinners can be done for most students for £20, with breakfasts and lunches probably coming to approximately £20 total. This puts the weekly cost at around £65. This might be on the high side of what some would expect but it’s important to eat well at university so you can enjoy yourself and study most effectively. Realistically, you could probably get this total down to the low £50s, maybe even high £40s if you scrimp, but if you set aside at least £60 you’ll have a bit more scope for flexibility or higher quality products as and when you fancy them so that eating doesn’t become a chore.

Paying rent and all the other bits on top...

Another unavoidable cost of living is rent and bills such as electricity, water and wifi. If you’re on campus your bills are likely to be included in your rent but in private rented accommodation they will probably be on top. The total cost varies wildly depending on which region of the country you are attending university in. You should research ahead of time what you can expect to be paying so it won’t be a massive shock. As such it is hard to give examples but you can find out the average rents of many universities here. The average monthly rent for university students in the UK is £633.1

Quick maths!

The minimum maintenance loan on offer (if you are living away from home, outside of London) is £4,422.

12 months at £633 comes to £7,596. 

£7,596 minus £4,422 leaves £3,174.

Although this is the minimum maintenance loan compared with the average rent there is still often a fairly large shortfall that many students will make up with a combination of help from parents and a part time job. 

£3,174 split between 52 weeks comes to £61 per week. Let's say for the sake of argument you work 20 hours a week (a couple of longer shifts at the weekend and some shorter evening ones during the week) at a part time job for £9 per hour, that’s £180 per week to top you up. 

Students will often go for bar work or wait at a restaurant. Both of these are great, especially if you enjoy meeting new people and as such won’t feel like your part time job is taking away from your socialising time. There are usually jobs on campus too so have a chat with the student union at your uni.

Another great alternative is to tutor, online or in person, a subject that you are strong in. This will tend to have better hourly pay and may be more flexible too. 

Whichever route you choose, even if your parents can’t afford to help you at all, you can cover the difference between your maintenance loan and rent with some cash to spare which should cover food and, if you’re frugal, the next two sections too. This way, anything your parents can spare will be additional help on top.

Oh yeah, that degree thing as well; the cost of textbooks and equipment!

When you transition from school/college to university, free textbooks will likely become a thing of the past and you’ll probably be surprised at just how expensive they can be. A solid course textbook can easily be more than £40 and, depending on the subject, sometimes up in the region of £100! Multiply this by 4-6 different modules and suddenly it can become hundreds of pounds. There’s a few tips you can use to soften the blow though.

  1. Check relevant university Facebook pages to see if the previous year’s students are selling their old textbooks cheap.
  2. Sign up for an online academic book resource such as Perlego.
  3. Ask around previous year’s students regarding how necessary it is to actually have a physical copy of the textbook for a given module. Some modules will have physical and online access via the university library or in some cases lecturers will simply print and/or send you the relevant chapters and articles as and when they’re required.

The costs of equipment such as stationery, notepads and printing materials is likely to be fairly low. The main piece of expensive equipment that would be hard to do without is a laptop. However, many companies are aware of this and offer student discounts. You don’t need the latest Macbook to succeed at university, especially if your course doesn’t require graphic design, music production and other activities requiring more expensive software.

Some trips are unavoidable

Some travel is recreational but this section is dedicated to travel costs which can’t be avoided. This includes getting to and from university from home and getting to and from campus from where you are living (assuming you don’t live on campus). If you live on campus you can probably walk everywhere for free. If you live in the city and the campus you attend is too far to walk then it’s important to consider the costs of the bus. 

If you can’t cycle there then a bus is likely to be your best bet. Again, many university bus services will be subsidised so they are less expensive for students but it is still an important factor to find out about as early as you can to factor into your budget. A rough estimate of £2.50 per day on the bus multiplied by 5 comes to £12.50 per week which can really add up and catch you out if it’s not part of your ongoing budget.

Wouldn’t it be nice...

Recreational travel

Some travel will be recreational, for example, weekend trips away with mates, taxis/Ubers back from nights out, trains to neighbouring cities etc. It’s nice to be able to occasionally splash out on some travel like this but it is key to make sure that it’s within your spending plan and that you reduce the costs of it where possible. You don’t want to find yourself scrapping around to pay your next rent payment wondering whether it was really necessary to take 5 Ubers last week. It’s difficult to prescribe any hard numbers to this section as it will vary for every person but a typical student might catch a longer train once every couple of months (£40-£60) and an uber once a week (£10-£25) for example.

This applies to a few sections but it’s worth pointing out to be careful of falling into the trap of splashing out immediately after your maintenance loan instalments arrive. As best you can, try to spend consistently rather than loads at once and then hardly anything until your next payment.


Socialising

Socialising could almost go in the needs section with how important it is to meet new people and try new things when going to university. Pretty much everyone will want to allocate some of their budget to socialising in its different forms whether that be pubs and clubs, group activities, curry clubs, book swaps or medieval reenactment; whatever floats your boat you’ll want to be able to afford to attend and not miss out due to your finances.

It’s totally up to you how much emphasis you place on socialising and nights out when at university but it’s important to be aware that the costs can quickly add up. It’s hard to estimate the right amount to set aside for socialising as everyone is different in that regard and seeing friends once a week is enough for some while others meet up most days; some people like to travel to another city, go to the cinema and eat out at a restaurant while for others a kick about in the park is their preferred way to catch up.

Whatever form your socialising takes, just make sure you keep track of how much you’re spending and adjust if you need to.

Gym, football, ballroom dancing, board games and yoga; budgeting for societies and memberships

When at university you’ll probably want to sign up for societies or join the gym. Whether it’s the tea society, board games club or a more traditional sports team there will be membership fees associated with joining. Usually these are around £20-£40 and will be a one off payment to cover the whole year. But, if you’re keen to try a few new things then it can add up so just remember to factor it in. Gym membership will be more expensive, probably £25-£35 per month.

Future you will thank you for this...

Whilst university can feel like a bubble when you’re there it’s a really good idea to think about how you can use your time there to set you up for the future. Meeting new friends, trying new activities and of course getting a degree are all important, but taking steps to help your future finances is such a great move if you can.

Making sure you have, at all times, a couple of hundred pounds spare for emergencies is great for your peace of mind and is a good habit for when you leave uni and are trying to live completely independently of parental support. This money should only be touched when absolutely necessary such as replacing/repairing your laptop, getting a taxi if you got stranded somewhere having missed the last train or any other random situation that could crop up unexpectedly. Really fancying a pizza does not count as an emergency :)

Any money you can afford to spare after deducting all the costs above and being frugal where you can should be saved and invested. This is hard and requires a lot of discipline but your future self will thank you if you can leave university with even a few hundred or low thousands stashed away in secure investments that will grow slowly but consistently. The golden ticket for investing is to start as early as you can so we recommend moving a small but significant amount of your income (be it maintenance loan, part time job or parents) per month into a secure long term investment like a stocks and shares ISA or mutual funds. More on ways to do this below.

Let these tools do the heavy lifting

Here’s a few useful tools and apps to help with university student’s spending:

  • Yolt. This is a free app that you can connect to your bank account that can segment and track your spending habits automatically so you can review and make sure you aren’t overspending.
  • 16-25 student railcard. An absolute must for anyone that will be taking the train with any regularity. This gets you a third off all rail travel and some banks will even give you one for opening a student account with them.
  • Unidays. This is a free app that is the hub of any and all student discounts from clothes to restaurants.
  • Overdraft. This is less of a specific tool and more something that you should make sure your student bank account has when you open one. Just make sure it’s got no fees!
  • Moneybox. This is a simple investing app that can help complete beginners get started taking an interest in managing their money for the long term. Plus, the handy round up feature allows you to invest without even thinking about it.

Not sure where to start? Try this

Below we’ve made a free, student budget template that can provide some guidance for your spending at university.

https://1drv.ms/b/s!AusbMCfh7pnPgi1ERwOSU4Laj347?e=sXg82v
[1] https://www.savethestudent.org/accommodation/universities-students-pay-the-most-rent.html

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