The first thing I should say when talking about student finance is this: each person’s experience is unique. Everyone has different financial situations at home and has different relationships with money so no one story is a blueprint on how to deal with this system. This is not really an advice piece, more an account of what I did with student finance over my time at York, and how that’s affected me, how it will affect me in the future, and some lessons I’ve learned along the way that will hopefully help you (if you’re strapped for time, I’ve put some key bullet points at the end – you’re welcome).
So, let’s start way back in 2013 when I first came to the uni; I was studying Economics, moved into some of the standard bracket accommodation in Vanbrugh college, which costs £145 a week. Now at this stage, I’d had a quite sheltered lifestyle, parents looked after the money, I was given an allowance, I didn’t really think about it. And then suddenly, BAM there’s a lot of money in my account, and my 18-year-old subconscious clearly said to itself “well this is mine now, and I guess I can buy just about anything”. And wouldn’t you know it, I was soon in my overdraft and had no clue what that meant (some part of me clearly went “FREE money? No immediate consequences? Count me in!”). All the time I was studying a course which was growing the roots of depression which had started in sixth form, and was manifesting into some serious eating problems, enabled by my new found monetary freedom.
Don’t be pressured into housing decisions
In early Feb of 2014, all my flatmates and course friends had arranged places together without me, so I went to a meet and greet/networking event that Vanbrugh had organised to help those without housing find spare rooms and vacant spots in houses that needed filling. This is where I learned a key lesson about housing: external landlords and estate agents can pressure you into making snap decisions on housing by preying on your fear of not having somewhere. Before this event I had been looking at one-bed places for double the rent, and off-campus student housing, and everything was higher and higher prices which would have been extremely bad for me at this stage. This however showed me that not only were rooms plentiful, they were cheaper that I could have thought – I managed to find a lovely room in a house not far from campus for £80.50 a week, £20 less than any of my previous flatmates were paying. Now as it transpires, I was in fact not going to like the room for many reasons; I didn’t get on with my housemates after a while, my depression meant I didn’t clean as much as I should have, the landlord passed on his duties to his son who was less helpful, and it was further than I had first thought, but the lesson still stands; don’t let a fear of missing out on housing mean you get pressured into quick decisions. You’ll find somewhere, just be ahead of the game.
Make sure your landlord is doing their part
I spent a year in the house paying £80.50 a week, and it was ok, but it required painting on the day I moved in, and the previous tenant hadn’t cleaned, so I demanded that the landlord have it professionally cleaned since that was stipulated in their contract and they hadn’t fulfilled it. That’s another lesson: make sure your landlord is doing their part – anything breaks, anything isn’t working, call or email them because it’s their job, and if you don’t it can backfire (more on that later). During this time my spending habits with my student loan got to a point where I was almost at the bottom of my overdraft and needed an out, so I got a job to supplement the loan. When it comes to jobs, I think it truly depends on the individual in question; if you think you can balance uni and a job great, but make sure it’s the right job, not just A job, as some will be less concerned with your time at uni and won’t accommodate it as I found. Smaller, local companies are often better, and make sure they’re aware of your other commitments way, WAY in advance, otherwise it’ll get messier closer to the time when it turns out you’re timetabled to work during the big event your favourite society is running.
A new direction
At this point my depression was pretty severe and I came to a crossroads the end of my second year of Economics, as to whether I continued doing something I despised and, I had realised, that I couldn’t stand doing for the rest of my life, or did I start again, adding more and more to my student finance debt. So, having thoroughly talked it over with my supervisor, my parents and myself, I decided that my best solution was to start again on a new course, Music Technology, and beg Student Finance England for an extra year of student finance (which they gave me) and simply live with the extra two years of debt.
After that year, I moved into a 7-bed place with some friends from societies and my previous flatmates, and that was around £86 a week for a LOT more space, and a much better quality of life. More light in each room, more space, better housemates, a better course; a real improvement from my previous year. The next two years played out fairly simply, with me pulling myself up and tightening my belt on spending so that, by the end of it I was out of my overdraft, and I was also in a very good place mentally.
For this final year, myself and one of the friends from that second year in the 7-bed found a place that is serving us very well; it’s on the edge of campus, a 5-minute walk from my department, with a lovely view of fields, and while, yes, it costs a bit more (£136 a week compared to £86), we think it’s worth it. Also, having got out of my overdraft with some changes in my behaviour and attitude to money, and some help from my parents, I can now afford this place, so long as I’m still sensible with my spending. I’m also working 3 jobs currently, but for two of them I am self-employed, so I dictate my own hours and work around university work. This allows for steady income, whilst also giving me something on a CV.
So, hopefully, that’s helped and here’s some bullet points of the key lessons:
- Student finance money isn’t bottomless, and it certainly isn’t yours; be sensible, don’t go wild, or you may regret it later. Food, drink, some nights out, maybe a couple treats or a hobby.
- Your overdraft is not free money, it is a lifebelt. Try and avoid it if you can
- When it comes to housing, get organised early, in a few ways;
- Get a group together or you may get left behind
- Start looking early to get the best places, but don’t let yourself be rushed
- Plan your finances for the year according to your student finance income, and your rent per week/month
- Don’t let landlords or estate agents put the fear of missing out in you; you’ll find somewhere, just prepare and look extensively
- Keep on your landlord when you have one – it’s their job to fix things in your house, not yours. If you don’t they can treat it as a surprise and hold it against you when it comes to getting a deposit back
- If you’re going to have a job, get one that realises you are a student, with student things to do.
Student Support can offer information, advice and guidance on the issues raised in the blog.
- work 1:1 with students to produce bespoke budget plans
- advise and support applications to the Hardship fund
- deliver housing talks in term 1 of each year outlining accommodation choices and check tenancy agreements before students sign up
- provide on-going support for housing problems such as disrepair and getting your deposit back
- advise on changing your course (and other changes of plan) and the financial consequences
- signpost and refer to health and well-being resources and support