Budgeting for your college experience
Manage your spending by creating and sticking to a realistic budget
It’s a good idea is to work out a budget for your weekly or monthly spend. Photograph: iStock
If you find yourself under financial pressure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Photograph: iStock
If you’re planning a big night out – and there are bound to be many – keep an eye out for those all-important student discounts. Photograph: iStock
For most people, starting college marks the start of independent living, which, for you, roughly translates to cobbling as much cash as you can together to have as much craic as you possibly can.
That can be a daunting prospect for many, particularly those who are upping sticks and leaving home. One of the most important aspects of this new phase is making sure you can keep your head above water financially.
Here, we will seek to help with a rundown of tips to manage your finances in an effective way so you can get the most out of the year to come.
The first step should be to investigate whether you are eligible for a student grant. Applications for these are administered through the Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi).
Eligibility is determined by a means test based on three criteria: the income of your household, the number of dependent children in your household and the distance your household is from your college.
All applications are made online and the payments are made by electronic ransfer. You can check your eligibility at studentfinance.ie and you can set up a Susi account at grantsonline.ie, where you can also submit an application.
If you’re eligible to have the student contribution charge paid for, Susi will pay the college directly. If you’re eligible for a maintenance payment, which is designed to help you support yourself, you will receive payment into your bank account.
There’s also the student assistance fund for those experiencing financial difficulties while attending college. It covers expenses you have at college you wouldn’t otherwise have, such as rent and childcare. You can apply for this through your college.
Once that’s sorted, you can go about looking for a roof to put over your head. Accommodation is one of those things that you simply cannot do without, and, as you’re no doubt aware, rents have been skyrocketing and nowhere more so than in Dublin.
Before you get stuck into this, you should consult the accommodation and finance guide which is published each year by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in conjunction with the Residential Tenancies Board.
USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick says the guide “outlines different things around your rights and responsibilities” and also has a “budget tracker”, as well as tips to save money.
“One of the biggest things to keep an eye on in terms of accommodation is the scams that happen every year around deposits,” she says.
“Make sure you view the property and, if you’re paying a deposit, that you transfer it to a bank account rather than just handing over cash, as there are people advertising properties that are not theirs to let.
“On the same topic, make sure to take care of the property so you’ll get your deposit back at the end of the year. Take pictures and send them to your landlord of any damage at the beginning so you can prove it wasn’t caused by you.”
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) suggests that if you’re sharing accommodation, have the chat about money with your housemates early on. How will you divide the bills? What are you sharing, and who’s responsible for paying what?
You could also form a household kitty for shared items like food, heat, light, bins, television licence etc. You can keep your electricity costs down with careful use of the tumble dryer, the all-important immersion, and the boost function on electric heaters.
Read the terms and conditions of your electricity contract. Know the penalties that will apply if you exit it early and check that the term of the contract does not extend beyond the lease on your accommodation.
Furthermore, try to pay the rent on time, as catching up with missed payments can be very difficult.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option, and don’t mind sharing with a family, many homeowners will often rent a room to students to help with the mortgage. The cost of utilities and, in some cases, meals will be included.
Once the time comes to actually start college life, a good idea is to work out a budget for your weekly or monthly spend. In simple terms, all this amounts to is listing your various items of expenditure and sources of income.
It might take a week or two to nail everything down as there is always going to be unforeseen costs. Many students use a combination of grants, family support, savings and income from part-time jobs to fund their lifestyle and associated costs.
If it looks like you you’ll need to borrow, try to do so at a low interest rate. Check out student loans, but only ever borrow what you need and try to clear repayments as soon as possible. Don’t mess up your credit rating as that can follow you around for years.
In terms of the day-to-day, it can be expensive to eat out all the time. Most college restaurants have cheap options for students, but you might consider cooking at home at least a few days a week. Groups of friends could take turns cooking for each other.
When shopping, make sure to buy supermarket brands of food, which are cheaper, and as Fitzpatrick points out: “Never go when you’re hungry because your eyes are always bigger than your belly when you’re starving and you’ll buy unnecessary things.
“If you can cook in bulk and freeze some of it, then you can bring it to college for lunch.” Fitzpatrick also suggests flashing your student card if you’re shopping or having food somewhere “as a lot of places have discounts”.
Next up is the all-important broadband. Nearly all providers want to lock you into a 12 or 18-month contract, which can be problematic if you only plan on staying in your accommodation for the academic months of the year.
Virgin Media offers what it calls “freedom” broadband – an unlimited 240Mb connection, on a 30-day rolling contract. That means you can cancel anytime without the fear of contract breakage fees.
When it comes to getting around, the Student Leap Card is a must. It can save you a fortune not only on your travel costs but also gives you a range of discounts on everything from fashion to entertainment.
One of the biggest expenditures, particularly for some courses, is on books. Don’t be afraid to go bargain hunting for second-hand options. “Not only will you save money but it’s also very good for the environment in terms of sustainability,” says Fitzpatrick.
Also, make sure you use the library. It’s an invaluable resource, not just for books, but a whole range of multimedia options.
During freshers’ week, you are likely to be bombarded with dozens of college societies, brands, banks and various other companies all crying out for your attention and trying to draw you in with tempting discounts and free products.
For one thing, you are now eligible to open a student bank account, so prepare yourself for the circling vultures. A spokeswoman for bonkers.ie, a price comparison and switching site, points out that you need to make sure you’re getting real value.
“As wonderful as free stuff is, it can sometimes be hard to work out where the real value is,” she says. “Who’s offering you genuine value and who’s just dangling something shiny in front of your face just to get you to sign up?
“The reason why lots of businesses love freshers, and are happy to give out freebies galore, is because they know that if they get students interested now, they could keep them as customers well after they finish college.
“This is especially true when it comes to banks because they know that most students they sign up now will become customers for life.
“This is no understatement. Despite the fact that the switching process is relatively straightforward in the banking sector, the percentage of customers who switch current accounts remains incredibly low at just 0.06 per cent.
“Consequently, the banks send hordes of reps with clipboards to the gates of campuses across the country during freshers’ week with the mission to sign up as many students as possible.”
Most banks offer fee-free banking to students, meaning the difference between them is quite small regardless of which you choose.
“Just be mindful that when you finish college, fees will more than likely be introduced and you should definitely reconsider your options when that day comes, to make sure you’re still getting the best deal,” says the bonkers.ie spokeswoman.
At the end of the academic year, or once tuition fees are paid (including the student contribution), check if you, or the person who paid fees on your behalf, is eligible for tax relief on fees paid.
This will be particularly relevant to students who pay full tuition fees or where there are two or more siblings in third-level education.
“If you work and pay tax, have a look at tax refunds and doing tax returns,” says Fitzpatrick. “It sounds very scary but that can be a way of getting some cash back.”
But what about the most important thing of all? If you’re planning a big night out – and there are bound to be many – keep an eye out for those all-important student discounts. “You’ll soon learn what the most student-friendly places are,” says Fitzpatrick.
Finally, despite all the advice, stuff can get out of hand. If you find yourself under pressure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Contact Mabs or your student union welfare officer, tell them what’s happened, and together you can dig your way out of the hole.
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