Student budgeting planner
Tools and tips to get your budget in order
There's lots to think about when you get accepted to uni – where you're going to live, what modules to pick, are you happy with remote learning – but sorting your budget should be your top priority. Knowing what you have to spend each week will help ensure you don't get into unnecessary and unmanageable debt and ultimately mean you're likely to have a better time, as you won't constantly be worrying about money.
How to work out your REALISTIC weekly budget for university
It sounds really boring, but sorting out your budget needs to be the first thing you do. Having enough money will make or break your time at uni.
Your student loan is paid into your bank account in three instalments at the start of each term, so it might seem like you've loads of cash to splash in freshers' week – but you haven't. That money needs to last the whole term, so you need to work out a budget so you spend the money wisely.
Yet one of the major stumbling blocks is working out exactly how much money you'll have throughout your time at university in the first place. It's easy to say that working people shouldn't spend more than they earn, for example £30,000/year, as a salary is a definite figure. But it's not quite as simple for students, as for many your disposable income will likely come from a variety of sources, rather than from a salary.
So if you're wondering where to start after being told by your parent or guardian to make sure you budget at university, look no further than the method below.
Working people shouldn't spend more than they earn, students shouldn't spend more than...? Lots of parents tell their student offspring to budget, but unless you know your incomings that's irrelevant.
There are three stages to working out your budget:
1. Look at how much cash you'll have coming in at the start of, and during, the term (we've got more on what your incomings do and don't include below).
2. Realistically work out how much money you'll have going out during the term (again, we've got information on what outgoings should include below).
3. Then subtract your outgoings from your income and divide it by the number of weeks there are during a term. Once you've done this, you'll have an idea of how much you'll have to live off week by week.
Crucially, DON'T spend more than this.
When making a budget it's easy to forget some of the things you could end up spending your money on each week and each term. To help you out, we've thought of possible incomings and outgoings to get you started:
Money coming in should be easy to work out and realistically will be a much shorter list than that going out. The sort of money you might have coming in is:
- Student loan
- Any grants, bursaries, sponsorships or scholarships you're eligible for
- Any cash from parents – if you can, agree in advance with them how much they're offering to give a week/month/term. See Martin's blog for how much the Government expects you to give your children for university to give you a starting point.
- Any income from part-time jobs
- Any savings you're planning to use at uni
The money you could have going out is more complicated and will be different based on, for example, whether you're in university accommodation in your first year, or have a car with you at university – so you'll have to think about things like petrol costs.
One of the main problems when it comes to working out what your outgoings are stems from just looking at a one-week snapshot of your spending. Remember that some of your outgoings will be less frequent than weekly – maybe they're even just once a year.
Don't just concentrate on a specific month either. This risks you massively underestimating your real spend, as there's the potential to miss huge costs such as Christmas, summer holidays, new sofas or getting a new car (if you're lucky enough). Broad categories like "motoring" make it too easy to forget the small expenditures that add up. Instead, "motoring" should cover MOTs, new tyres, petrol, insurance, breakdown cover and more.
Either way, you need to include ALL outgoings, not just the regular ones, in your overall list of spending. We've divided the next bit into categories to include all likely outgoings.
- Tuition fees
- Accommodation costs
- Course supplies (textbooks, stationery)
- Contents insurance (you could be covered on your parents' home insurance – check with them)
- Gas/electricity/water (see if you can save on bills by switching – especially important right now with energy prices rocketing)
- Broadband, mobile phone
- TV licence (some people don't actually have to pay for a licence)
- Food shopping
- Council tax (although most students will be exempt from paying this)
- Car costs including insurance (make sure to check if you can slash insurance costs)
- Drinking and eating out
- Hobbies and entertainment (including cinemas/clubs)
- Clothes, haircuts
- Books and magazines
- Subscriptions (gym/fitness, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify)
- Large one-off purchases, for example, bike, laptop, car
- Christmas and birthday gifts
Limit any spending splurges to the day BEFORE the student loan hits your bank account
Once you've worked out exactly what you've got coming in and going out over the course of the university year, you'll be able to do the maths to see what your rough weekly budget is.
Try your best to stick to this budget. Of course, there will come times when you'll be tempted to overspend and splurge. Our advice is to leave any splurges until the end of your budgeting period – that way you know exactly how much money you've got left over from the current budget before the next period of budgeting kicks in.
Try not to splurge on the day a new budget starts, as this can impact on the fun you can have later in the week or term, or, more seriously, your ability to buy essentials.
Need extra help to take control of your spending? Try the piggybanking technique
Doing a budget on paper is easy, the difficult bit is sticking to it. That takes either strong discipline or a decent technique. While we can't help you with the first, there IS a simple yet powerful method to help you take control of your spending. It's called piggybanking.
The piggybanking technique helps you automate your spending so you always know how much money you can truly spend. For all the information on how it works, see Martin's piggybanking explanation, but in brief...
- Step 1. Select your main categories of spending. The aim is to have your books balancing – so you're not spending more than you earn. To do that, you need to work out how much you can spend on different areas of your life. Once that's done, you need to scan through to see what the major categories are. This could be holidays, Christmas, clothes, birthdays, hobbies or whatever you spend on...
- Step 2. Set up several 'bills' accounts. Now you know how much money you want to spend on different items, the aim is to make it as simple as possible to know how much cash you have available.
To do this, set up a number of different bank accounts, each with money in it for a different purpose, so the money's effectively in little pots (almost as if you're putting them in different piggybanks). You should always have a main bank account and a separate bills account. Then pick the biggest three or four of your main spending categories above for the others.
- Step 3. Use a standing order to feed the piggies. Now feed each of the piggybanks – including the bills account, which you should always overestimate slightly – from your main account. Set up standing orders to shift the right amount of cash each month.
Now when you look in your main account, you know it really shows how much you have to spend, as all the money for bills and other key areas has been shifted out.
If you open a student bank account (which you'll need to do), you'll also have an overdraft as a buffer, where the bank lets you spend more than you've got (at no extra cost) up to a set amount. The priority is to get the biggest and longest 0% overdraft you can.
However, you should actually try your best to avoid going into your overdraft in the first place, even if yours has a 0% buffer. The overdraft is there if you need to use it in an emergency, but don't get into the mindset of treating it as part of your regular disposable income. The same approach applies if you have a 0% credit card.
Remember, the bank is just lending you this money. The overdraft will need to be paid back eventually as it's debt, just like a 0% credit card, loan or buy now, payer later, so don't get too comfortable. Always keep in mind that the overdraft is not actually yours, it's the bank's.
For full information on the best student bank accounts and overdrafts currently available, see our Student bank accounts guide.
Struggling to get out of your overdraft? See Martin's Top tips for overdraft prisoners blog, which includes some general rules for best overdraft practice, such as shifting direct debits and setting repayment amounts. Also see our Cut overdraft charges guide.
Ways of budgeting
Calculating your incomings and outgoings is just one step on your budgeting journey. You also need to think about how you're going to initially record and then continue to track your budget throughout your time at uni.
How you decide to work out your weekly budget and stick to it will depend on what sort of person you are. Do you prefer an Excel spreadsheet, using an app on the go, or just good old-fashioned paper and pen?
You may need to try a few different ways of budgeting before you find the best one for you, but when you do find it, make sure you stick to it.
If you're glued to your smartphone and find this an easy way of keeping track of things in other areas of your life (for instance, using your phone as a diary), an app for your budget might be the right option for you.
There are lots of budgeting apps out there. The biggest thing to keep in mind is making sure it's a reputable app, as you'll be divulging financial information. It's also probably best not to fork out too much money for the app (free is best!), just in case you don't get on with it.
Free student budgeting mobile apps worth downloading include:
- Money Lover. Allows you to track your finances and manage your overall spending, and works across all your devices. It notifies you of recurring transactions (like rent, bills and so on) before they leave your account.
- Cleo. Works through Facebook and takes a read-only (so no one can ever move money in or out of your account) look at your spending to help you keep track of your finances.
- Money Dashboard. Categorises your spending and displays all incoming and outgoing amounts on a dashboard chart, so you can see what you spend in different areas.
- HyperJar*. A free tool for budgeting and payments, and also has a function for group-shared expenses, if you and your housemates split bills.
If you don't have a smartphone, or you do, but want to try something other than an app, the UCAS budget calculator is a good place to start.
Some people work better on their laptop using a spreadsheet that they can sit down and look at. This could be something you create yourself, or alternatively you could fill out one that's already been created. Save the Student has a student budget sheet linked to in point one of its budgeting guide, which could help get you started.
If all else fails, even getting out the trusty paper and pen can work to jot down a rough budget – it's better than nothing at all.
Extra budgeting tips: The 9 top tips
There are always things you can do to improve your budget – take a look at the tips below to see if there are any more ways to save...
Don't overpay tax on any jobs you do
If you work during term-time or over the summer to keep yourself afloat, make sure you're paying the right amount of income tax.
Students are taxed like anyone else. If you earn less than £12,570 a year (as of 6 April 2021), you shouldn't pay any tax, however old you are.
If you're employed (not self-employed) and taxed via Pay As You Earn (PAYE), you'll automatically be charged tax on earnings, so may need to reclaim it. Crucially, even if you only do temporary work, you'll be taxed as if you'd earn that salary all year round.
If you think you have overpaid tax within the previous four tax years (going back to 2017/18), you can request a refund. See the HM Revenue & Customs website for how to apply.
If you're working through the whole year, but still need to reclaim, you need to wait until the end of the tax year and reclaim tax then.
If you know you're only working for a short time – for instance, just the summer – you can fill in a P50 (online or paper form) to claim tax back at that point. You need to wait four weeks after your last day at the job to make the claim.
Check yours. To see what you should be paying if you earn over the threshold, use our Income Tax Calculator. It's also handy for working out what your take-home pay will be after you graduate.
Use the money mantras when making purchases
Not sure whether to fork out for something while at uni? Use the MoneySavingExpert money mantras. Which mantra works for you will depend on whether you're already skint or not.
Skint. Ask yourself: Do I need it? Can I afford it? Is it cheaper elsewhere?
Not skint. Ask yourself: Will I use it? Is it worth it? Is it cheaper elsewhere?
Save money on regular spends
For a fun way to try to save money, you could use our Demotivator tool. You might think you can't survive without your skinny, double shot, extra hot, no foam, extra large latte every day on the way to lectures – but regular spends like that can soon rack up.
Use the tool to see how much your caffeine habit is costing you. For more tips on how to stretch your student loan, see our Student checklist.
Avoid cash machines that charge a fee
Some cash machines charge you for withdrawals, but no doubt there'll be a free one nearby you can use instead to save money. Be especially cautious of this on a night out – often cash machines within bars or nightclubs will charge you for using them. Don't pay to get your hands on your own cash.
Be savvy with your food shop and cooking
Food can be one of the biggest expenditures whether you're at uni or not, but there are ways you can try to cut costs. For example, towards the end of the day, often supermarkets cut the cost of some items dramatically. This could be because the food has a short best-before or use-by date, but you could always just shove it in the freezer and get it out at a later date. Read how one MoneySaver bagged £60 of shopping for £2.55 with yellow-sticker discounts.
Try to plan ahead what meals you're going to have for the week so you don't buy unnecessary food when you get to the supermarket. Buy lunch to prepare at home so you don't end up buying expensive sandwiches when on campus. Also make sure you've got a loaf of bread in so you're not tempted to buy fast food after a night out – you can just come home and have a snack instead.
If your housemates are willing, you can always cook meals together, saving money on ingredients and also making meal times more of a social experience.
When food shopping, try the supermarket Downshift Challenge. This is a quick and easy way to make decent savings on your food shopping, particularly if you're still just buying big brands you're used to at home. Drop just one brand level on everything and the average bill's cut by 30%. On a £20 weekly shop, that's over £300 a year less. See our Supermarket shopping guide for tips.
Take out money for the week ahead
If you don't think you can trust yourself when out and about with how easy it is to use your debit card for purchases – especially with contactless payments – and keeping track of your budget, you could go old school and use cash for the week instead.
Once you've worked out your weekly budget, take the money out of a cash machine for the week. You know you've only got that to spend, so hopefully won't be tempted to make any unnecessary purchases. Any money you've left at the end of the week is a bonus and you could even put it into a savings account (or treat yourself if you think you really deserve it!).
Boost your income
If you won't be able – or won't have the time – to get a part-time job while at uni, there are plenty of ways to boost what money you do have. Our full guide on how to Boost your income has a raft of tips, including switching your bank account to bag money, flogging items you no longer use on eBay, reclaiming for flight delays and even getting paid to watch TV.
Grab the best deals
A Totum card (previously NUS Extra) unlocks 200+ student discounts in the UK, in store and online. And it now doubles up as an International Student Identity Card for use abroad. It costs £14.99 for a one-year card, and at the moment, it's just £24.99 for a two-year or three-year card (normally £34.99 for three years). So if you think you'll use it, it's a great way to save money.
Chances are if you don't go to university with your own car, you'll quickly become accustomed to train travel. And if you spend more than £90 a year on train journeys, you should definitely consider getting a 16-25 Railcard, which cuts a third off off-peak train tickets and tube fares.
Cards can be bought from the railcard website for £30 a year, or £70 for three years. So spend over £90 a year, even in just one trip, and you'll save.
For an extra bonus, make sure you renew just before your 26th birthday to grab another year, or before your 24th birthday for a three-year card. For a full list of student deals, check out our Student discounts & deals page.
Don't buy new books – rent, borrow or buy second-hand instead
At the start of a new term, it's likely you'll be given a list of books you'll need over the year. Depending on your course, some textbooks can break the bank and leave you out of pocket.
The uni library is likely to have the texts you need, but in the first few weeks of term there's usually a rush on them, meaning you could be left waiting. So instead of rushing out and buying them new, see if the local library has a copy. At the very least, you can take time assessing how often you'll need it.
Alternatively, scout around campus, department noticeboards and even Amazon and eBay (see our eBay buying tips for help) for people selling books they no longer need. If no new editions have been released since they bought them, you're getting exactly the same book, possibly just with a worn-in look. Charity shops are also good for cheap textbook hunting, especially in your university town or city.
And thanks to the internet, consider year-long book rentals. Sites such as VitalSource will loan you an electronic version of textbooks for up to a year, for up to 80% less than buying the text new.
Students are also often able to get free access to specialist resource websites via their university, although sometimes you'll have to be on campus to sign in. The library will be a good place to start to see which are available to you.
Where to go if you need help
If you've done all the above, you've made a budget and stuck to it, and you still find yourself in dire straits – don't panic. There are places you can turn and ways to find help. Here's a list of some of the options available to you while at uni:
Most universities have hardship funds, opportunity awards and emergency options available if your financial situation changes or becomes desperate.
If you've managed to secure yourself a job while at uni, then this could be a way to get a bit more money. Obviously you're at uni first and foremost to study, but if faced between going on a night out (where you're inevitably going to spend money) and taking an extra shift at work (where obviously you're going to be making money), you know what the sensible option is.
It may not be fun, but it's a better alternative than getting into worse money troubles. You could also chance it and ask for a pay rise – after all, if you don't ask, you don't get.
You might not want to admit to your family you're struggling and need help, but if you've tried all other options and are still struggling, it might be your best option.
If you've run out of money because of overspending, you may have not got your budget quite right. Now might be a good time to sit down with your family and draw up another one – sometimes a few heads can be better than one on this sort of thing.
BEWARE! However bad you think things may have got, NEVER go to a payday lender. Payday lenders provide money to those they know can't pay it back, meaning you'll rack up massive interest.
Clever ways to calculate your finances