by Sasha Mills
When you receive your first student loan, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sudden possibilities opening up before you. Having worked part-time over the two years before I started University, I already had some level of control over my finances – but a student loan, which has to last across several months, is entirely different from a monthly wage, and I wasn’t used to assessing how much it actually costs to be self-sufficient.
I divided up my loan in a straightforward manner, just setting aside a portion for each week of my short, two-month term. I hadn’t considered that expenses and one-off larger purchases would throw off my weekly budget, leaving me in a state of financial confusion and spending guilt. My simple weekly budget also didn’t account for the fact that I would be doing the Christmas break with no income, and no money put aside.
When you start University, your main concern is making friends. More often than not, the process of doing so is linked with alcohol, for better or for worse. I would find myself spending £10 on a club ticket for the week, and then considerably more on drinks for pre-drinks, club drinks, and pints at the pub. Especially in a city notorious for its expensive alcohol, Oxford, this soon began to add up. The sense that I could reinvent myself also presented financial challenges. I wanted new clothes and a new look, especially when surrounded by friends whose style I admired – but because my budget didn’t account for these purchases in any way, I would end up overspending on clothing that I couldn’t afford, feeding my growing sense of financial anxiety.
By the end of term, I was in a fairly dire situation. I felt overwhelmed by my need to keep up appearances, and my fear of missing out on new friendships. These are legitimate concerns: those early days of University can be important in forging friendships that you’ll carry through with your time here. That said, I wish I’d considered other routes of doing that besides going out – joining more societies in my first term, suggesting plans with friends that involved staying in. Speaking to people about our first year now, there was a sense held between all of us in those early days that staying in was somehow taboo, but it was something that we all wanted to do and probably would have helped my mental wellbeing overall.
As my time at University progressed, a new challenge presented itself in that the people around you will all have different ideas of what’s affordable. All students receive varying levels of financial support from family and different student loans. Inevitably, some of the people you meet will be able to afford more than you, and so working out what I could afford on my own terms, rather than other people’s, was one of my first steps to securing financial wellbeing. Before I would say yes to endless plans, not considering the impact it would have on my finances and slimming down real necessities like my food shop to make it work. Once you’ve assessed what you can afford to live a student lifestyle that works for you, it becomes much easier to say no to plans if they don’t make sense with your budget.
Another step that has been important in getting a handle on my finances has been dividing up my money into clear sections as soon as I receive my student loan. Students are in a unique position, as we have to make our income work over a much longer period than those on a salary. Writing out how you’ll divide up your loan before it hits your account can be a great way of getting control, as you’re less likely to be blinded by the money that’s suddenly in front of your eyes. I split my accounts across three banks, with accounts for money that’s available for spending, divided into pots with my termly budget and shopping allowance, an account for expenses, and a savings account. Having only information about my current account accessible on my phone helps me create the mindset that this money can be spent, which helps me avoid financial guilt but also overspending.
At the end of the day, you need to be both realistic about what you can afford to do and what you want to do and work out where your priorities lie. While I love buying a takeaway coffee, I try to prioritise coffee dates with friends over getting one to go, as it fits with my current priorities. I am no longer a regular drinker, and so more money goes towards getting food out and buying ingredients to cook with. As you progress through University, your priorities will continue to shift, and it’s important to take stock regularly. University is a time of significant financial shifts, but also personal ones, and the key is working out systems that are flexible but also personalised to what you want out of your time, and what you can afford.
Sasha Mills is a final year student at Oxford University, and a creative and journalist in her spare time. You can learn more about Sasha’s work here.
Find Sasha on Twitter @sashaxmills