An Amateur’s Guide to Student Budgeting


I’ll be the first to tell you that numbers aren’t exactly my strong suit. After finishing A-Level Biology I thought I wouldn’t have to think too much about data analysis and calculations ever again. Then 1st year came along. From the start, I knew I’d have to look carefully over what’s coming into my bank account and what’s going out, then set myself some targets accordingly, but the reality is never quite so simple as it sounds. Over 1st year I quickly found that my spending estimates and limits were often unrealistic, and the most common setback was expenses I didn’t even see coming. That all changed at the start of this year; I sat down, made a note of every last penny I could expect to go in and out of my account, and then after remembering last year’s spending habits I set myself realistic targets that I’ve so far been able to stick to.

First thing’s first – rent

Since rent is most people’s greatest expense, you need to know how much you’ll be spending on it each term before you can even begin to set yourself targets. Make a note of all the money coming into your account per term, which may include maintenance loan instalments, scholarships, bursaries, wages, or other income sources. Next, subtract your termly rent instalment from your total income for the same term. This figure should be your total income available for living expenses, and aside from this, you may also have other funds already in your account or an overdraft. From here you should decide how much of this you’re willing to spend in each term, a limit which will be different for everyone, so set whatever limit you feel comfortable with. For instance, I set myself a spending limit of no more than 50% of this figure.

Planned expenses – food and transport

The next essential thing to work out is your planned expenses, what you know you’ll be forking out on. The biggest of these is usually food, which isn’t exactly something you can go without, but knowing how much you usually spend on it can help identify corners to be cut. In freshers, I had no idea how much I would spend on food per week, so the most useful thing I did was make a note of every transaction. Tracking my spending helped me see just how much I would realistically spend on food, which was usually between £20 and £30 a week. With this in mind, I set myself a weekly grocery spending limit of £25, which doesn’t include nights out but does include one-off snacks and takeaways. Importantly, the best ways I found to reduce my total food spending was to shop at cheaper stores, buy cheaper brands, and buy things you can get multiple uses out of. For example, one 500g bag of penne and one jar of pasta bake sauce gives you 3-4 servings for the same price (or less) as a ready meal of the same dish.

Your next major expense to plan is transport. This can be wildly different for anyone, some may rely on public transport, some may have jobs to commute to, some may be commuting home, etc. Firstly, if you think you’ll be using trains at all then get a railcard, it’s a lifesaver, then try to estimate the total cost of all your journeys. If you’re going to be regularly using buses (to and from campus, to a job, or something else), go through your calendar for a given term and determine how many days you’ll be planning to take a bus journey, then multiply this by the price of your preferred ticket. If this total is more than the cost of a term-long bus pass, buy the bus pass, if not then a bus pass would only be worth the cost if there’s a high chance you’ll be making some journeys you can’t estimate. And if you drive, try to estimate the fuel costs. Alternatively, you could buy a bicycle.

Once you’ve determined your total transport costs, add them to your total grocery spending limit (your weekly limit multiplied by however many weeks you need it to cover). Next, you need to account for all other expenses you know are coming and how much they’ll cost. This could be anything: streaming service subscriptions, medical costs, textbooks, practically anything.

Unplanned expenses – keep track

The sum of your food, transport, and other planned expenses, is your total planned expenses cost. Go back to your total available income and your chosen spending limit for it. Subtract your total planned expenses from your spending limit and the result should be your total disposable income available for unplanned expenses.

Aside from excessive food spending, unplanned expenses can be where a surprising amount of your money is going towards. Some aren’t things you can just cut down on, while others can easily be avoided. It really depends on you, you’re more than entitled to treat yourself, say for a night out or something, just try not to let it become excessive. The most important thing here is keeping track of what you’re spending on things you didn’t plan for. Keeping a log of these expenses has been invaluable, it allows you to see just how much you’re spending and where you could potentially cut down.

Whatever your total allowance is for unplanned expenses within your limit for a given period, divide it by however many weeks you need it to cover to give you a weekly average. This helps you to tell whether you can afford that Friday night Sultan’s or whether it might be best saved for next week. If you’re over your average, try to bring it down next week, and if you’re below average, then there’s more available to spend in the future.

If you do go past your spending limit, don’t feel bad, it’s trial and error, and you learn from the experience. As long as your limit is less than the amount you’ll have available per term, then you should have funds available if you end up exceeding your limit. Plus, if you stay within your spending limit per period, then that leaves plenty available for other things, say presents or holidays and other big-ticket items, and it could potentially be a lifesaver in the future when the amount coming into your account might not be as much as you need. What matters is setting targets that can realistically work for you and doing your best to meet them.

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