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How to afford university

Are you starting university this year? Nearly half a million undergraduate students will begin their studies over the next month and among the excitement of living in a new town, making new friends and learning new things, there’s the small matter of affording it all.

Tom Allingham from the student money website Save The Student is the guest on this week’s Smart Consumer podcast. Here are his top tips for making ends meet.

1. Everything’s better with a budget

No matter how much you might hate them, spreadsheets are your friend. When it comes to a budget, you need to have a good grasp of your income every month – whether that’s from loans, grants, your parents or a job - as well an idea of what you’re going to be spending each month. Spreadsheets are perfect for this, says Tom, and weekly budgets are often the easiest to put together. But if you simply can’t stand them there are plenty of digital banking apps with built-in budget features.

2. Browse the bursaries

There are hundreds of scholarships and bursaries available from different organisations to help with the cost of university, and they’re not all based on household income or academic achievement. In fact, there are funds available for everyone from vegetarians to Welsh-speakers. Your first port of call should be your university, says Tom, which can tell you what’s on offer. It’s worth checking, because there’s approximately £150 million worth of scholarships available each year.

Taking a year out before starting university can be a really good way to save some money.

3. If you want a job, start looking now

Student jobs go quickly, says Tom. If you want something to fit in with your studies it’s best to start applying as soon as you arrive. Similarly, if you want to get yourself a job over Christmas, dust off your CV sooner rather than later. Most universities have career departments which can help you to showcase your skills.

4. Use your skills

If you can’t find a job, or you’re worried about it getting in the way of your studies, consider turning your skills into a side-hustle. Tutoring is a popular choice. Selling unwanted clothes or gadgets on sites like eBay or Depop is another option. If you want something that requires minimal qualifications then think about more unusual jobs, like work as a TV or film extra, says Tom; all they need is your time.

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5. Get cooking

Baked beans and takeaways are synonymous with student life, but you could save a fortune by getting creative in the kitchen, says Tom. Stocking up on staples like rice, pasta and an assortment of spices will help to keep your food costs down. Investing in a good pan and utensils could set you up for life – or at least for university.

6. Eat less meat

Meat is expensive, says Tom. Becoming vegetarian, or simply cutting back on the amount you eat, is not only better for the environment - it's good for your bank balance too. Some meat substitutes can be cheaper than the real thing, plus the frozen versions keep for longer.

So when you're whipping up a spaghetti bolognese in your brand new pan, consider ditching the beef for a veggie alternative.

7. Take care with credit

Credit cards can look like tempting options to tide you over if you’re struggling. The problem is interest rates can be high and you’ll need to pay them off each month.

You need to have a good grasp of your income every month, as well an idea of what you’re going to be spending each month. There are plenty of digital banking apps with built-in budget features.

If you think you might need extra money, Tom recommends getting a student bank account with the biggest overdraft you can find.

“I’m not saying you should use it”, says Tom. But, because student overdrafts are interest free and fee free – which means you won’t be charged for using it – and in most cases you won’t have to pay off the entire amount as soon as you’ve graduated, they’re one of the safer extra sources of money.

8. Switch your contracts

When you move into a new student house you’re often put on a set tariff for things like electricity and gas, which can be expensive. There usually are much cheaper contracts out there, says Tom, so it’s always better to switch. If you’re living in university halls and your bills are all sorted for you, you can still take control of things like your mobile phone contract. Think about switching to a SIM-only deal once your contract’s up; you’ll find you can get the same data and call allowances for a fraction of the price.

9. Go for a gap year

Taking a year out before starting university can be a really good way to save some money, says Tom. If you’re able to get a job, a year’s worth of work experience will look great on your CV and, if the company’s big enough, you might be able to transfer to branch near your university if you want to keep working there. A gap year is also a great opportunity to visit your friends wherever they’re studying and, who knows, they might have some tips for you by then too!

The Smart Consumer podcast is brought to you by the team at You and Yours on Radio 4. You can listen to the whole podcast, featuring more tips from Tom, here on BBC Sounds.

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