When it comes to student finances, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by tuition fees, maintenance loans, accommodation costs and budgeting, but managing your money is crucial to ensuring you can get the most out of your experience at university.
In this article, we list our top 10 money-saving tips for university students, covering everything from choosing the right bank account to why you should do your grocery shopping at night for the cheapest deals.
1. Work out your budget
It’s difficult to estimate how much money you’ll spend each month before you start university, but even working out a broad outline of typical expenses can give you a better idea of how much you’ll have to spend on bills, and how much you’ll have leftover to spend on yourself - whether that be for going out with friends, shopping for new clothes, or buying decorations for your dorm room.
The first step in working out your budget is to collate all your monthly income - this includes all the money going into your bank account on a regular basis, such as from maintenance loans, work, or support from your parents. Add up all of your monthly income to find out exactly how much money you have at your disposal every month.
You can find out more about what loan plan you are on, and how much maintenance you may be entitled to, in our article “Student debt: What you need to know about repaying your student loans”.
From there, start to list off all your typical bills and expenses - such as rent for your accommodation, travel costs, and phone bills - and subtract all the payments you would expect to come out of your bank account over the course of a month. Get your family to pitch in with an estimation of food shopping costs, and find out how much your campus charges for laundry services if you’re staying on campus.
Like most students, you can expect these kinds of bills and necessary expenses to take up the majority of your monthly income.
Once you’ve accounted for all of your regular outgoings, and subtracted them from your total income for the month, you should have a fairly accurate idea of how much money you’ll have leftover to spend on luxuries. Now, try your best to stick to your budget so you don’t end up slipping into debt.
2. Apply for a bursary
If you’re concerned that even a strict budget won’t keep you from spending over your limit, most universities offer bursary or compensation schemes to students in financially vulnerable positions, and these can potentially supply you with thousands of pounds each academic year.
Usually, the eligibility criteria for financial support is very strict, but there’s no harm in contacting your student support team to find out if you qualify and how much you could be entitled to. Even a few hundred pounds over the course of the year could make a huge difference to your situation, and could help cover the costs of necessities such as groceries or travel.
The process of applying for a bursary or financial aid differs from institution to institution, but you should be able to contact your advisor or your university’s student support service to point you in the right direction. Applications typically involve supplying multiple forms of ID and evidence of your parents’ average annual income.
Even if you’re not struggling financially, it’s worth checking your eligibility for the various scholarship or award schemes available to students, as these can give you access to extra cash that you could end up needing at a later date.
3. Get the right bank account
Most students end up sticking with the same bank as their parents when it comes to opening a student account, but the terms and perks vary widely at different companies, and you could end up on a much better deal by shopping around and finding a student account that suits your unique needs.
For example, the amount of overdraft you could get - and how much interest you have to pay on it - is different depending on which account you pick. Some popular high street banks offer up to £2,000 interest-free from the first year, but others have a caveat that students can only access £500 of this during the first academic term, which is when most expensive events and nights-out are held and you’ll find you need it most.
This is where you need to do your research. Luckily, we’ve rounded up the best student bank accounts in the UK for you, listing everything from overdraft limits to cash incentives to cashback and free railcards. Try not to get swept up in offers and discounts, however, as it’s ultimately the overdraft capacity that will make the most difference to your finances at university.
4. Don’t abuse your overdraft
As tempting as it may be, you must not think of your overdraft as a fee-free extension of your student bank account. Though most banks don’t charge interest on student overdrafts, it’s still money which is being lent to you on a temporary basis, and it has to be paid back eventually.
It can be easy to just keep tapping your card away even when you know you’re in your overdraft already, but it’s crucial not to let this get out of hand - particularly as you approach the end of your studies. By the time you’re in your final year, you’ll likely be receiving the last instalments of any maintenance loan or bursaries you’re entitled to, and unless you have a job lined up as soon as you graduate, you’ll need that money to support you through the first few months after you leave.
This is the point where many students end up stuck in their overdraft, having not factored in the long summer break after graduation and the time it can take to secure a job, and any money that does trickle in ends up going straight to repaying the outstanding debt. It’s a vicious cycle, and the only real remedy is to plan ahead.
Bear in mind that many student bank accounts automatically switch to a graduate account once your studies are complete, and sometimes the overdraft facilities and fees can change. You want to avoid being in a situation where you’re a couple of thousand pounds into your overdraft when, suddenly, there’s a hefty interest charge to worry about too.
You can read more about the steps you can take to help you get out of debt in our article “How to clear your overdraft”.
5. Get a part-time/freelance job
It’s easier said than done, but finding yourself a part-time or freelance job while you’re at university can keep a regular income flowing in, not to mention that having a job on your CV before you’ve even graduated will give your employability a serious boost.
A part-time job can be anything from helping to tutor secondary school children to working in the campus cafe on weekends, while a freelance role as a writer or artist could help you to build up experience in a field that you intend to get a job in once you graduate. Most student unions offer a wide range of campus-based roles, but the usual job-searching websites such as Indeed, TotalJobs, and Reed are also great places to look.
Student unions often offer free classes or tutoring sessions on how to draft a CV or practice interviews, which can be a valuable way of prepping for job applications - don’t waste these opportunities, as they are few and far between once you graduate.
6. Get a 16-25 railcard
Many students opt to travel to a university far from their hometown, but in doing so, have to factor in the cost of travelling back and forth between campus and the family home several times a year - not to mention travelling around the town or city they’re now based in.
If a car isn’t at your disposal, trains are usually the next best choice, but fares can be extremely expensive and even more so during the holiday periods when students are likely to need them most.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to cut back on those costs: get a 16-25 railcard. Some student bank accounts, such as Santander’s 1|2|3 Student Current Account, offer a free railcard as an incentive to sign up, but even without this offer, they’re a very reasonable £30 for 1 year or £70 for 3 years, and give you one third off all National Rail train tickets.
You could save an average of £189 per year, and you can apply for one all the way up until your 24th birthday, so even graduates can make use of those discounts for their first few years post-university. 16-25 railcards also offer deals and rewards from a range of retailers, such as a free subscription to the Mindfulness app, or 50% off selected theatre tickets.
To get a 16-25 railcard, you have to apply on the National Rail website. Students with a Santander student bank account eligible for a free 16-25 railcard can access their unique discount code within 5 calendar days of their account being opened, which can be found on their online banking portal.
7. Learn to cook
Though it can be tempting to eat out for dinner or grab a toastie at the local cafe every day, the cost of buying your meals all the time adds up, and could chip away hundreds of pounds from your account every month.
This is where learning to cook is crucial for saving money, as not only is cooking an essential life skill, but buying your own groceries and preparing your meals is much cheaper than paying for one while out and about.
For example, a £3.50 sandwich bought on campus could be recreated in your kitchen for less than 50p. In fact, a report conducted in 2020 by personal finance firm SoFi found that most restaurants and cafes charge a 300% markup on the ingredients they serve, and that it’s on average five times more expensive to order a takeaway from a restaurant than it is to cook at home.
Needless to say, learning to cook doesn’t mean you have to be serving fine dining meals, but being able to prepare dishes such as soups, stews or casseroles - which can be portioned out and frozen to eat at a later date - or simple sandwiches and salads for packed lunches can make a huge difference to how much money you have at your disposal.
For recipe ideas, The Student Food Project offers a wide range of meal inspiration on a student budget, while delicious magazine has a list of 64 easy student recipes for even the most kitchen-phobic cooks.
8. Buy second-hand books
University degrees come hand-in-hand with expensive textbooks, and sometimes students are expected to purchase or rent these out of their own pocket. Educational books can be extremely costly, with some upwards of £100, so finding ways to access this content without paying through the roof could quite literally save you thousands of pounds per year.
You can buy secondhand books on websites such as eBay or Facebook Marketplace, or make use of the many websites which digitise these textbooks for students around the world to use without paying for the physical copies. Studylib is among the best places to easily find textbooks, research papers and journals often behind a hefty paywall.
Also, keep an eye out on social media, as graduating students will often advertise selling on their used textbooks at a large discount - or even for free - as they leave, and you could bag yourself a whole set of books that would have otherwise cost hundreds of pounds at your local bookshop or library.
9. Shop in the evening
An often-overlooked trick, doing your grocery shopping in the evening could save you money on your weekly food bill. After about 6pm, most supermarkets start to reduce the prices on items they need to sell by the end of the day, and you could get staple foods such as bread and fruit that’s still perfectly fine to eat for a much lower cost than earlier in the day.
Though do try to avoid shopping on an empty stomach, as a hungry shopper is far more likely to impulse buy than someone that’s made their shopping list in advance - and sticks to it!
Also, the app Too Good To Go is a great way to get food at a reduced price that would have otherwise been thrown away as leftover stock at the end of the day. You can get low-cost deals from popular eateries such as Pret a Manger, or even your local supermarket, and save yourself money while helping to cut down on food waste.
10. Make use of student discounts
Finally, don’t forget about your student ID, as that little piece of plastic could get you serious discounts up and down the country at everywhere from bars and restaurants to high street shops and plane tickets.
Do your best to remember to bring it with you whenever you go out, as you could find a generous student discount advertised just about anywhere, and knock tens of pounds off receipts each month just by proving you're in full-time (or part-time) education.
Other discount schemes designed for students, such as UNiDAYS, can give you access to deals and offers exclusively for students at a range of retailers, including ASOS, IKEA, Amazon Prime, Samsung, and Google.