The hardest lesson I’ve learned at uni is how to handle money

Analysing chemical reactions was less of a challenge than learning to budget when I started as a student

When I started university in September, I found it very overwhelming. Not just because I was settling into a new city during a pandemic while trying to meet the demands of my degree (medicine is very hard), but I was also juggling a relatively new experience: financial independence.

Once you start university, it’s a matter of constant budgeting, keeping an eye on regular payments (such as rent and memberships) and, if you are working, too, thinking about taxes.

For me, there was one big problem: I wasn’t taught any of this during secondary school or sixth form. I can only think of two sessions held by an external speaker: one on cooking within a budget, the other on how to log on to Student Finance England.

My memories of both were dim. Ask me to write an essay in French, or analyse certain chemical reactions, and I’m fine. But to keep up with my expenses? I found that very confusing.

This led to a struggle to budget for my day-to-day costs. I’d often find myself overspending when it came to food shops, travel and more, and had no idea how to organise any of it. Some of my friends would talk about “creating a spreadsheet”, which they’d seen recommended online, but, after a few tries, I gave up. A few lessons outlining the basics would’ve made my life a lot easier.

Luckily, this lack of knowledge hasn’t translated into serious financial difficulty for me. But that hasn’t been the case for other university students.

In Save the Student’s 2020 money survey, 71% of respondents said they wished they had had a better financial education. One in four weren’t aware of the numerous scholarships, grants and bursaries available for funding their education, meaning they were potentially missing out.

Financial education was only introduced to the national curriculum in 2014, and, in 2015, only 29% of students were getting lessons. The subject often features on the PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) and citizenship curriculum, which only became compulsory in September 2020.

Lessons are meant to cover the basics of budgeting, student loans and personal finances, but vary from school to school, with some putting more emphasis on it than others.

Domino’s Pizza in a delivery box
It’s worth learning how to budget for food – whether its groceries or takeaways. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Zahara Chowdhury from Schools Should Be believes that there needs to be a different approach. “It needs to be centralised across the curriculum with dedicated financial literacy lessons – especially as we come out of the pandemic,” she says.

For her, teaching financial literacy through ad-hoc sessions “presents a challenge” for students of different backgrounds. “Some have money ‘taken care of’ so really don’t have much of an understanding, and others may have parents who have been through a system of poor financial literacy themselves,” she says. “Schools really need to centralise a modern-day, realistic, approach to financial literacy and education.”

The survey by Save the Student found that two in five respondents didn’t understand their finance agreement and 68% didn’t know the interest rate on their loans.

According to Tom Allingham from Save the Student, university students “without a robust financial education” find it “even tougher” to get by than those who have been taught about money.

“Despite the recent addition of financial literacy to the curriculum, those who have seen it first-hand believe it’s far from enough,” he says. “Today’s students still head to university woefully underprepared for the task of managing their own money.”

Halimah Begum, an 18 year-old currently studying at Aston University in Birmingham, feels that she “wasn’t taught anything” about personal finance at school.

Within a few weeks of her first semester, she had spent all of her maintenance loan because she didn’t know how often the payments would come through.

“No one explained how my fees would be paid, how student finance works, and how I would be paying them back when I’m older,” she says. Like many in her generation, she turned to social media to help with her financial learning. “As silly as it sounds, I’d say most of the financial learning I have done is down to TikTok videos explaining ways to manage finances and what all of the different terminology is.”

Allingham says that financial illiteracy can lead to students not contacting their university’s money advice team until it’s too late. “Often, they won’t contact them until the damage has been done,” he says. But, he adds, “no amount of advice will bridge the shortfall between the maintenance loan and the cost of living at university”.

Statements from the Student Loans Company
There is often a shortfall between the maintenance loan and the cost of living at university. Photograph: Johnny Green/PA

The rise of the gig economy means that understanding tax, especially self-assessment, has never been more important – yet many young people, including me have never been taught how any of it works.

Websites such as Save the Student and MoneySavingExpert have guides on a range of topics, from applying for finance to taxes. Ucas also has specific information related to finance and support available in further education.

Most universities also have a dedicated team on campus to deal with financial queries, and signpost specific resources.

But, after a year of trying to get my head around budgeting, I think we need more. We need to place financial education alongside history, chemistry and other subjects. Ignoring this problem means that every year a new group of young people face a struggle to learn the basics, while adjusting to university life, something we students cannot afford.

Case study: ‘I wish I’d been taught more’

For Jamie, a 22-year-old currently studying at Oxford Brookes University, a one-hour exercise at the end of secondary school was the extent of budgeting and finance lessons.

“I couldn’t understand how to coordinate the bizarre way Student Finance England worked with my payments to student halls, along with everything else,” says Jamie, who uses the pronoun they. “I’m disabled and therefore my cost of living is much higher, especially in Oxford, and because I grew up abroad I’m entitled to no benefits.”

Jamie feels that if they had been taught the basics of financial education in school, it would have helped when it came to dealing with financial crises. “[Facing] loans and trying to budget rent and utilities for the first time against inconsistent student finance will get anyone into a hole, never mind me,” they say. “If I had been taught more about financial education back at school then I think I would’ve been more prepared for situations you get into in university.”

person on the Asos website
UniDAYS offers discounts on sites such as Asos. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

Zesha’s tips

1. Stick to your shopping list

Spending money on food at university is easier than you think. To prevent reaching for Deliveroo every day, plan your meals for a week and build your shopping list around it — and never shop on an empty stomach. Cooking big meals from scratch then freezing the leftovers is much cheaper than a daily takeaway - just make sure you defrost and reheat thoroughly when it’s time to eat.

2. Move your money around

If all your money is sitting in one account, it’s very tempting to spend it. Create separate bank accounts — I keep my savings and daily spending money in different accounts. If you’re prone to overspending then you might want to set up a direct debit that transfers your weekly budget into the account you use on a daily basis.

3. Create a budget!

If you’re not sure where to start then try to build a budget around your income and outgoings, such as your rent, groceries and gym membership. Include any special costs too. You can keep it monthly or even weekly. Websites such as Save the Student have guides to help you. Once you’ve made your budget it’s just a matter of sticking to it! Apps such as Yolt can help to plan, track and save your money or you can go old-school and stick to a classic spreadsheet.

4. Shop smart with student discounts

Websites such as Studentbeans and UniDAYS offer discounts on all sorts of brands- from Apple to Asos. Registering for an account is very simple as long as you have your student email or ID on hand.


Zesha Saleem

The GuardianTramp

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