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The Fresher Finance Guide

Lucy Miller 1st Sep 2020 One Comment

Reading Time: 8 minutes

If you’re about to start university, your upcoming experience might not be exactly as you’d originally planned. A socially distant (or even virtual) freshers’ week is hardly what we signed up for, is it? 

Some things never change when it comes to student life, though. One of those things is money: needing it, spending it, ensuring that we’re making the most of it. With most students away from home for the first time, getting your head around fresher finance is often more than a little bit confusing. 

It doesn’t need to be, though. In fact, once you’ve understood a few basic things your money worries will suddenly seem a lot easier to deal with. Here, we’ll break down some of the basics.

Fresher finance: Budget, budget, budget

Fresher finance is all about managing your budget

The most obvious one of all! But you’d be surprised at the number of students who set off for halls without any idea of the amount of money they have to spend on any given week. 

Only you will know about costs such as travel. If your lectures are online this year, maybe your travel costs will be less. On campus, where you’re able to walk to your lectures, seminars or labs, this is likely to be the case too. If you do need to factor in travel costs, work out how much a student train ticket or bus pass will be for the term, and budget it in. Consider buying a second-hand bicycle if you’re fit enough to cycle to and from lectures, too.

When it comes to food, work out a few basic recipes that you can make every week. That way, you’ll know roughly how much you’ll need to budget for your weekly shop. Avoid the temptation of fast food and unhealthy snacks – the toll adds up fast both on your bank account and waistline!

You’ll of course also have your rent to pay, and this could also be termly or monthly. Don’t forget to factor in things like printing, books, stationery and (most importantly) fun, too. It all adds up!

Everyone’s circumstances are different, so it’s up to you to work out what you can stretch to and what you can’t. Your budget only needs to be rough, but you do need to have a ballpark for what you’re going to be spending. 

Discounts Galore

The great thing about being a student is getting student discounts everywhere! Even if somewhere isn’t advertising a discount, always ask before you buy as you could get 10% off just by asking nicely.

Look for student versions of things, too. Software comes with special discounts if you buy it via your university email address, for example. You could even save money on tech like laptops by buying through the Apple Student Store. Amazon Prime offers half price Prime for students – and websites like Student Beans and UniDays get you exclusive discounts across loads of online shops, too. Check TasteCard or similar deals too, for extra discounts when you’re out and about.

The Totum Card (which used to be called the NUS card) is the de facto student discount card. There’s a membership fee – but this easily pays for itself within a few purchases!


Before you start term, look into whether there are any academic scholarships that are available via your university. A decade ago (eek), when this writer was a student, our alma mater was offering £1000 per year to anyone who joined with three As at A-level (this was before the days of A*, FYI). If you’ve gone through clearing or adjustment, you might not know about schemes like these. Make sure you look into it. You never know what you might find! 

Scholarships are sometimes just for the first, second, or third year of study. So, even if you don’t get one this year – make sure you check what’s available in upcoming years as you could get more money later on!

Student bank accounts

Get a student bank account as your first step to managing fresher finance

The majority of high street banks offer student bank accounts, which are especially designed to help you out with your fresher finance. Student bank accounts often have favourable terms, as well as a number of perks, such as:

  • Interest-free overdrafts of up to £2000
  • A freeze on your debit card if you’re finding yourself overspending 
  • The ability to set limits and categorise your spending, showing exactly where your money is going 
  • Free subscription to Perlego, the online lending library, that could prove an invaluable resource for your studies 
  • Conversion to a graduate account after university has ended, helping you keep track of your money in the longer term as you move into the world of work.

Best Student Bank Accounts

The top accounts to look for this year are from the usual suspects, too. Natwest offers the options of either a 4-year Tastecard, National Express coach card, or a year’s Prime membership. You’ll also get an interest-free £500 overdraft in your first term, which you can apply to be extended to £2,000 after that.

Santander offer the 123 Student account with the perks of a 4-year railcard and in-credit interest if you manage to stay out of your overdraft. If you need an overdraft, you’ve got up to £1,500 for the first three years (£1,800 year four, £2,000 year five – if you’re still in study). After graduating, you’re switched to a fee-free overdraft Graduate account up to £2,000 to help you pay back debt.

Finally, Nationwide FlexStudent is a stalwart of student accounts. Your overdraft budget starts at £1,000 then increases to £3,000 by the third year (if you request the increase). There aren’t any other tantilising perks like railcards, but the interest-free overdraft is one of the most generous guaranteed overdrafts for students – others are ‘up to’ rates, meaning you might not be approved for the full amount.

In addition, the majority of big banks allow you to manage everything via an app, meaning you no longer have to deal with the fear of ringing the bank or checking your balance at an ATM. We think the categorising of your money so that you can see where you might need to cut back is a great feature!

fresher finance: Managing overdrafts

Lots of student accounts come with arranged overdrafts, the majority of which will increase their limit the longer you have the account. Overdrafts are an invaluable tool for a student, especially if they come interest-free. 

Of course, you should do your best not to live in your overdraft whilst you’re a student. But we know that might be easier said than done. If you do spend a lot of the month (or term) making use of your overdraft, just make sure you’re aware if there are any charges involved. 

NB: an “unarranged overdraft” is when you don’t have an official overdraft facility set up. There is usually a small amount of leeway that the bank will give you once your current account is empty, but it might be as little as £10. It won’t stretch very far! It’s also likely that you’ll be charged for using it, sometimes a certain amount every day. Avoid this by making sure there is an arranged overdraft attached to your account when you set it up. 

Remember, too, that your overdraft goes with you once you graduate. Some of the bank accounts listed above automatically transfer you to a graduate account. These have no or low interest on overdrafts for a while – but could be on less than your student account overdraft. You’ll also have a limited time to pay off your overdraft before the whopping standard 39.9% overdraft fees kick in!

Student loans

Be careful with your student loan

Ah, student loans. A pain to apply for, and a debt that you’ll probably never end up paying off… but a necessary help when you’re paying for accommodation and generally going about your life at university. 

Chances are that if you’re starting university in the next few weeks you’ll already have applied for your loan. But if not, here are the basics. 

Your student loan comes in two forms: your tuition fee loan, which you’ll never see as it goes directly to the university, and your maintenance loan, which you use to live and pay your expenses. Both of these parts of the loan are applied for via the student finance companies for each of the UK nations: Student Finance England, Student Awards Agency Scotland, Student Finance Wales and Student Finance Northern Ireland. 

The money goes directly into your bank account every term, allowing you to pay your rent, buy your food and books, and hopefully have a bit of a social life. If you’re a Scottish student in Scotland, you won’t have to pay fees – but you will still have to apply for your maintenance loan in the same way as students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can find out more about applying for student finance through UCAS.

If your parents were affected by lockdown

Even if you’ve already applied for your loan, things have changed dramatically in recent months. If your household income suffered due to lockdown, such as parents being furloughed or made redundant, reapply to the student loans company. You could be eligible for more cash than before if your parents have less income.

fresher finance: Other available grants

There are also grants available to students in certain circumstances. Grants don’t have to be paid back, unlike student loans or overdrafts. You might get a regular grant payment or a one-off, depending on the source and what you need it for.

First, find out if you’re eligible for the Student Support Grant instead of the Maintenance Grant from the Student Finance company in your region. If you’re on a low income, a single parent, or have a disability, you could qualify. The amount is the same as the Maintenance Grant – however, the SSG won’t reduce how much you can get on the Maintenance Loan (unlike the Maintenance Grant).

Your course may also come with extra bursaries or grants, depending on where you study. NHS students studying to become a nurse, for example, could receive extra funding. Social workers and teachers in training also qualify for some extra funding. Speak to your course provider to find out what you could be eligible to claim.

If you have dependents, are on a low income or have a disability, for example, you might find that you are entitled to money that you don’t have to pay back. Medical, social work and teacher training students are also eligible for grants. You can find out more about this, and work out what you’re eligible for, on Gov.uk.

Check with your university, too. Many offer their own grants for small things, hardship payments, or extra help for those with disabilities. One further place to check for grants is on the Turn2Us grant checker – which lists every charitable grant you can think of!

Make money on the side of your studies

As you’ve probably already realised, getting a job at university will help out with your day-to-day living costs. If your university is online for the coming year, you might find that the need for a job is lessened. In fact, you may have MORE time to work in-between lectures if you’re not having to commute to and from uni and other social events! Bear in mind that sectors traditionally worked in by students (hospitality, retail) are taking on fewer staff than they might previously have been (damn you, ‘rona). 

In this case, you might need to think outside the box to boost your fresher finance coffers. If you’re good with words, is there work that you could do remotely to bring in some extra cash? What about proof-reading or transcribing, for example? 

You could also look within the student union or other parts of the university (on campus retailers or food courts, or the library) for term-time work. It takes a lot of people behind the scenes to make a university run smoothly, and head offices and student unions always look to employ students for casual work before looking elsewhere. Make them your first port of call before you try your luck with the bigger chains! 

Have you got any great tips on managing your money at university? Let us know your very best fresher finance tips over on the forums.

Now read:

We’ve got a bunch of useful student money-saving and money-making ideas! Check these articles out next to stay ahead of your fresher finance worries.

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3 years ago

Lots of useful information.

Jasmine Birtles

Your money-making expert. Financial journalist, TV and radio personality.

Jasmine Birtles

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