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Learning how to live on a student budget

Three flower pots growing £10 notes

It can be hard to plan a budget for your first few weeks in a new country – there will be many one-off expenses, social events, activities and societies to join, and things you'll want to buy for your new home.

Many people will tell you to watch out and avoid ‘splurging’ (spending too much) at the beginning of term. The important thing is to be sensible and make savings where you can. Fortunately, there are many student discount schemes, second-hand stores and even free goodies on campus!

These guidelines will help – plus, if you're starting your studies in September or October (the start of the academic year in the UK), you'll find many special deals, sales in shops and 'freebies' to look out for...

Some general tips to follow:

  • Weigh up how much money you have vs. what you need to buy. Make a list and decide which items you need straight away – and which are not essential. You can buy these items later in the year if you still need them. The International Student Calculator is a handy tool to help work out your budget.
  • Decide on a weekly limit for overall expenses, especially on spending like entertainment, eating out and takeaway food. Put money aside for bills you know will be coming up during the term (rent, electricity, heating, gas, etc.)
  • Find the best deals! If your college or university has a students' union building, hang out there and read the noticeboard and flyers. Students often advertise things they want to sell (like course textbooks) there.
  • Always allow a little bit of a ‘safety net’ in your budget in case things end up costing more than you expected.
  • When you’re going out for the day or evening, bring only the amount of cash you want to spend.
  • If you can, pay for things in cash. Studies have shown people are likely to spend less if they pay using cash rather than credit or debit cards (it’s not nice to see all that money leaving your pockets)…

Read more:

   •  The essential guide to scholarships and financial support
   •  20 things every new student needs
   •  Save even more money! A guide to second-hand shopping in the UK

It’s likely you will have a bit of quiet time in between events, when you might be tempted to head straight to the shops and get all those things you need, but first:

Think about what you really need


Lists make shopping quick and easy ©Bruce Turner

  • Always make a shopping list: it helps you focus instead of buying impulsively.
  • Organise group shopping trips: It’s nice to have your own cooking utensils but the fact is, if you buy things with people you live with, you can share the costs and make sure you don’t end up with three toasters and five saucepans but no forks!
  • Your school, college or university will have some computer equipment you can use. You may not need your own printer, for example, but if you think you’ll be using one daily then share it with some other students and split the costs of ink and paper. You can find basic printers that are not too expensive in some large stores.
  • Some people enjoy colour-coding all their lecture notes and take great care with presentation, but fancy stationery can be expensive. Think about what you need to organise your notes effectively (folders, binders, note paper, etc.) before going shopping! Look out for ‘pound stores’, where almost everything costs £1 – these shops are increasingly popular across the UK.

Don’t buy brand new things... if you can find second-hand or free stuff!

  • At the beginning of term, you'll often find people on campus giving out various ‘freebies’ – particularly at the societies fair, if your institution has one. From pens to notepads and mugs, you can stock up on essentials without spending a penny.
  • For larger purchases like a bicycle, kitchenware or furniture, you can save a lot of money by buying from charity shops or vintage markets. You could even get them for free through 'freecycling' websites – find out how in Second-hand shopping in the UK.
  • Other items you could buy second-hand are folders, pencil cases and books (plus, you never know, a previous student might have left some funny notes or doodles). Libraries often clear out books to make space for new arrivals, so keep an eye out at the beginning of the year, and give an old library book a loving new home!


You never know what you might find inside a used library book ©[Duncan]

Keep informed and get organised

  • Spend your time online productively! Email newsletters and Facebook groups are great ways of finding out what the latest offers are – many organisations write free newsletters about student deals, healthy and cheap cooking, fun student events and more.
  • If you plan to get a UK phone, do lots of research online and ask in-store for a deal that fits your budget. Find out more in Choosing a UK mobile phone plan
  • Ask your teachers or lecturers what online resources are available for students, and as often as possible, borrow books from the library instead of buying your own (but be quick – if your course requires you to read certain books, it's likely these will quickly disappear from the library!)
  • Do lots of research before making a big purchase. If you’re looking at ads in a newspaper or online, look through the whole section – people who pay more tend to get the more prominent ads, so scroll all the way to the bottom as you might find some great things for sale that just aren’t being advertised effectively.
  • Some stores and restaurants have loyalty schemes, meaning you can collect points for rewards, such as getting the 10th purchase for free. You should always be careful and read the small print with this type of deal, however, and never sign up for anything you don’t want!
  • There are lots of ways to save money on food shopping, such as shopping at the end of the day (when prices on many items are reduced) and cooking in bulk. Read our article Eating on a budget for more great tips.

Re-use, reduce, recycle

Getting into the ‘recycling’ mindset is good for the environment as well as your wallet!  Buy a metal or good quality plastic water bottle that you can refill instead of buying drinks on campus, and buy plastic food containers to keep leftovers – always think of how you could use leftover food instead of throwing it out.

You could even get creative with old flyers, magazines and craft materials to make greeting cards, wrapping paper or even small gifts for your friends’ birthdays!