How I navigate my finances as a broke university student

by Ditte Jensen

Being a university student can be overwhelming – especially financially. For many, it will be the first time living away from home and managing their own finances, which comes with its own learning curve.

Before I begin the main portion of this article, I want to put out a small disclaimer. Obviously, not everyone will find themselves in the same financial position and what works for me may not work for someone in a different position. This also goes for the multiple articles already published around the internet. For me personally, it was never helpful to create a budget in Excel beforehand because my expenses change so much from month to month, and I know this is quite controversial, considering it is nearly always the first tip on everyone’s list. So while I do think it is helpful to read different articles, I think that will benefit you the most is figuring out what works for you.

This article covers some tips I have found to be helpful and things I’ve picked up the way since I moved away from home and began managing my own life.

My first tip is to check your bank account regularly. I would suggest once or twice a week at least. It is easy to fall into the trap of deciding not to check your account because you feel as though you have spent far too much and are not ready to face the reality of your spending. I do hate to break it to you, but simply because you choose not to look at your account does not mean that the money you’ve spent has not gone. By checking your account regularly, you will always have an idea of how much money you have, thus making it easier to decide when and how to spend money without necessarily drawing up a strict step-by-step budget.

Following on from that, my next step would be to plan out your grocery shopping. Lancaster has a great number of shops. For students, the most popular is Sainsbury’s – and do not get me wrong, I love shopping there as much as the next person. That being said, I would strongly suggest doing the majority of your shopping at discount shops such as Aldi or Lidl as their prices are usually quite a bit cheaper in the long run. In the moment, it may not seem as though the difference is substantial but in the long run, you will end up saving quite a bit of money. And you do not have to neglect shopping at Sainsbury’s entirely! You could as easily pick up some stuff, while still focusing the majority of it in cheaper stores.

At the same time, I have found it to be helpful to plan out when to go grocery shopping. By choosing one day each week, I avoid going on multiple spontaneous shops that I don’t need. Depending on your grocery needs, I’d say one to two times a week should be enough. I usually spend one week on pantry essentials that last longer and the second on fresh produce since the fresh produce I picked up during the first shop will usually have gone by the time the second week comes around.

Staying on the topic of food, since this often seems to be a bit of a money drain, try to arrange at least once a week where you cook with your friends! It is not only a lovely bonding experience, but it will also save you money on food and reduce your food waste.

The second biggest expense, in my experience, is a night out. Drinks and entry, almost regardless of the club or pub, always tend to add up extremely quickly. It is almost as if you close your eyes and the next morning you wake up in a different country with only one shoe and no money (despite your immaculate budgeting). Instead of spending all of your money as soon as you walk out the door, arrange a pre-party with friends. Decide whether you are splitting the cost for drinks or each bringing your own, plan your transport to and from town (if it is later than the departure of the last bus, figure out how to divide the cost of a taxi between you to save money) and avoid buying too many drinks when you’re out. You can always just ask for a glass of water – it’s free. That’s 100% off!

When you do feel like shopping, be it for your home, self-care, clothes or something else, go through the local charity shops. While clothes shopping is often a hit or miss, you will nearly always find cool gadgets, cheap textbooks, kitchen utensils and everything in between much cheaper than anywhere else, and e even have one on campus! And if you do find yourself out of luck, do make sure to check TK Maxx, especially for homeware as they tend to have a wide selection of great quality. (But do support your local charity stores as well! They really do have a great variety of vintage and modern items).

A quick side-note – if you are looking for clothing and cannot seem to find any, try online charity shops or clothes-swapping apps. They are not only easier to navigate, but they also have so much to offer in terms of vintage and designer clothing as well as cheap offers on clothes from H&M, Urban Outfitters, Pretty Little Thing and so much more. On top of that, most of it has never been worn, and some are even willing to swap their piece of clothing for one of yours! It is a great way to get rid of your own clothes and add some new pieces to your wardrobe.

As my parting note, I would suggest looking into a part-time job. I know, it has been suggested by all articles ever written about this subject, but it truly is great advice. It doesn’t even have to be a part-time job – plenty of students, myself included, complete odd jobs and take on freelance work as well. If you do not feel like working retail on the weekends, investigate other options that suit you better online! For myself, that is producing content for the university as it allows me to work flexible hours. At the same time, I double as a freelancer, translating documents, books, articles, apps and everything in-between for several different clients to earn some extra money. Working this way allows me to do it on my own time, making it easier for me to juggle my studies alongside my work.

So, there you go! Those are the key elements that help me navigate my finances without having to live on a strict budget to make everything go around. Of course, depending on your situation, some of the advice may not work for you. Perhaps you prefer drawing up a budget in Excel or find the trek to Lidl too far and that is completely fine as well. After all, when it really comes down to it, finding out what works for you is a matter of trial and error!