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Never buy a book you can borrow: students’ best money-saving tips

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Starting university is a time of firsts: it may be the first time you have lived away from home, the first time you have had to manage your finances, or both.

One key question is what to take with you. Do you really need the pack of four colanders? Is it worth buying an ironing board? When money – and space – is tight you don’t want to buy things that you don’t really need but some items will improve your life while you are there.

Another is how to make the most of your money while you are studying. In Save the Student’s 2020 money survey, 71% of respondents said they wished they had had a better financial education before they started university. One in four were not aware of the numerous scholarships, grants and bursaries available for funding their education, meaning they were potentially missing out.

UK student loans: how to apply – and other options to considerRead more

Guardian Money has a guide to student finances, starting with tips from people who have experience of university life. We asked them what piece of financial advice they would give to their former fresher self, and what was the most useful item they bought for university.

Anttoni James Numminen, 22

Fourth year, politics and international relations at the University of Aberdeen

View image in fullscreenAnttoni James Numminen has a culinary tip. Photograph: Anttoni James Numminen

Know how much money you have and keep track of what you are spending. Even if you don’t write down a budget (on your phone’s Notes, for example) try to have a rough estimate of your financial state in your head. Also, cooking at home really saves you money.

As silly as it might sound, a half-decent frying pan will get you far. You can cook most things on a frying pan, from curry to bacon and eggs. It might sting to spend 15 quid on it now but trust me, you’ll thank yourself later.

Summer Goodkind, 21

Graduated in June 2021, English at the University of Nottingham

View image in fullscreenSummer Goodkind has two main pieces of advice for people starting at university. Photograph: Summer Goodkind

If I could give my fresher self some advice I’d do it in two parts: the first being – do everything you want to do (within reason, of course). One of the biggest lessons that Covid gave me was that I should take every opportunity as it comes – you only go to uni once and so if you want to go to that club night that everyone is going to but you also want to save, try to make it work. The best way to go about doing this would be my second piece of advice, though: budget each week or month. Don’t underestimate the value of being organised and working out how much you can spend. It can seem a bit overwhelming in the first few weeks of uni when you see your student loan come through and a huge balance you think you can just spend at once. Divide it up and work out how to spend it the best.

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Oh, and also shop at Aldi.

My best investment has to be board games. With countless lockdowns and isolations, my housemates and I constantly had to find new ways to amuse ourselves. You can only watch TV for so many hours and so once you reach your limit, a board game is the perfect solution.

Matilda Head, 20

Third year, psychological sciences at the University of Cambridge

View image in fullscreenMatilda Head has key advice for freshers. Photograph: Matilda Head

Don’t get too excited by the overdraft or the student loan. Be sensible and put aside a certain amount of money for each week or month. Splashing out once or twice a week on a takeaway or night out is OK, and it wouldn’t be a university experience without it, but overindulgence will leave you scrambling for cash far too quickly – I speak from experience.

After losing my room key on the second freshers night out, my sister gave me the great idea of attaching the fob to a bracelet that I can wear every day. I absolutely could not live without it because then I would be constantly losing my room key. The awkward pyjama-clad, and normally shoeless, walk to pick up the spare key is an embarrassment I’d not want to put up with.

View image in fullscreenAoifke McGuire-France knows how to budget on a night out and keep out any noise when back at the accommodation. Photograph: Aoifke McGuire-France

Aoifke McGuire-France, 20

Third year, English literature at Durham University

Have a separate account where you keep a small amount of cash – maybe £20 – and use it as your “going-out card”. My university town is pretty cheap for a night out, so that’s why the amount is rather small; you spend less on the night but also if you lose your bank card or purse, only £20 will be lost rather than your whole student loan.

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Wireless headphones. I bought some for about £30 and they cover my ears – perfect for cold mornings on the way to lectures as they keep ears warm. When in the library, the design blocks out more sound and is comfier to wear, too. Plus, noisy housemates or neighbours are often unavoidable – if you want to blast some music when cleaning or need to focus when studying with good sound quality, it’s perfect. I use mine every day.

Lauren McGaun, 20

Third year, politics and American studies at the University of Nottingham

View image in fullscreenLauren McGaun regrets not sticking to a budget in the first term. Photograph: Lauren McGaun

Shop smarter. There is so much you don’t account for when starting uni, such as ridiculously expensive textbooks, society membership and unexpected nights out, so really thinking about your priorities is important from the start. Also, as tempting as it is to buy Tesco Finest ready meals, such items can really add up fast and I spent way too much on this in the first year. While budgeting is a pain and something no one wants to do, I wish I had stuck to this in my first term as I had no real idea about what I was spending, which meant I had to cut back in my second term.

Storage boxes: there’s nowhere near enough cupboards in uni rooms – even though buying several storage boxes can be expensive, they are well worth the investment. They have been so helpful for me to store everything from clothes to books and stationery. You can also pile them on top of each other to save on space and just use them when needed.

Mansi Vithlani, 21

Third year, journalism at City, University of London

View image in fullscreenMansi Vithlani has experience of how expensive being a student in London can be. Photograph: Mansi Vithlani

As a student living in London, the lifestyle can be very expensive. Even if you open up a student account, I recommend that you also get another card such as a Monzo – every month I’d set aside money in this account for spending such as travel, small food shops and just extra money for if I was ever low on my current student account. This also helps with budgeting and can ensure that you are never at zero pounds during the term, and can help you avoid going into overdraft.

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One of the best things I have invested in is a snack drawer, which was especially useful during my first year and turned into a snack basket in the second year. Also, it might sound a little cheesy but I can’t live without a home comfort such as my favourite teddy bear (or multiple).

Joel Rosen, 21

Third year, history at the University of Cambridge

View image in fullscreenJoel Rosen. Photograph: Joel Rosen

Never buy a book you can borrow from a library.

Friends are far more important than anything that can be bought on Amazon. In your first few weeks try to find people you click with. Things can go some way to make a room feel homely but it’s the people who’ll drop by unannounced that will make it feel like home.

View image in fullscreenLuke Hinton.

Luke Hinton

Fourth year, journalism, media and communications at Cardiff University

Don’t waste all your money on luxuries once the first loan drops. We’ve all wanted to go and buy the new Fifa, or a new phone, but budgeting is hard and a completely new experience to most, so you’ll want as much money for food, nights out and bills as you can get.

A laptop stand and detachable keyboard and mouse. Makes you much more likely to work at a desk rather than in bed, giving you the crucial distinction between work time and rest time.

View image in fullscreenAnna Suffolk has advice about how to budget more easily. Photograph: Anna Suffolk

Anna Suffolk, 20

Third year, English and film at the University of Birmingham

Set up a separate bank account or card for your loan or spending money. I use Monzo, which I transfer money into weekly. It keeps track of all of your spending into categories, so you can budget more easily.

An umbrella. I can’t count the amount of times I have been caught in the rain with a long walk ahead of me.