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How to budget at university

Managing a budget for what may well be the first time isn’t easy. This guide gives you handy budgeting tips and an idea of what to expect, so you can avoid any nasty surprises.

In this article
Top 10 university costs to budget for "Hidden" or unexpected costs
How to budget for these

Top 10 university costs to budget for

Knowing what expenses will crop up at university and budgeting effectively for these priority costs will help you make the most of your student budget.

You're probably already aware of the sizeable bite that accommodation will take out of your budget, but 44% of students said they spend more on this than they thought they would before they came to university.*

And accommodation isn't the only expense you need to consider. Below are 10 more of the most important university costs to factor into your budget.


1. Books


Over half of students (56%) told us they paid out for books for their course, spending an average of £119.

Note, this figure will vary depending on the subject or course you're studying ie you'll probably read more books studying English than you would computer science, for instance. 

Books can be really expensive, especially more academic titles which can’t be found in your local Waterstones. You may be able to track these down second-hand online through sites like Amazon.

While you can wait until your student loan goes in to buy the majority of books for your course, there may be a few which you’ll be told to read beforehand in time for the first week of lectures.

Find out what reading is absolutely essential to buy and what you can find online or rent from the library. 


2. Laptop and printer


You’ll definitely need a working laptop, and even a printer to complete your assignments and print them off – this will save you searching around campus on the morning of a deadline looking for a printer.

While most universities do have computer rooms and libraries, booking these can be a headache and just plain inconvenient.

If your current laptop has seen better days, consider buying a new one rather than wait for misfortune to strike just before a deadline.

Most good laptops have a lifespan of around three years; so a new one now should last you the duration of your undergraduate course.

As a guide, students told us they spent about £484 on a computer for their course (plus £97 on special software, programmes and apps).

Similarly, when it comes to printing, it might be cheaper to have your own (and sharing ink costs with housemates) than rely on university facilities (especially if you're handing something in last minute).

Read more: Best laptops for students


3. Transport


Whether it's a bus to lectures or travelling back home for the holidays, you'll need to factor in travel costs.

To help, there are student travel cards out there to help you reduce the costs of getting around:

  • 16-25 Railcard: just £30 a year to get a third off your rail fares - very useful if you'll be travelling home on the train for holidays and weekends.
  • 18+ Student Oyster Photocard: pay a £25 admin fee for 30% off adult-rate Travelcards and Bus & Tram Pass season tickets in London. You must live at a London address in term-time to be able to apply. 
  • National Express Young Persons Coachcard: roughly £15 for a third off coach fares.

Plan ahead and book tickets in advance if possible, as buying on the day is nearly always more expensive.

Read more: How to find cheap train tickets.

While some students take their car to university, running, insuring and taxing a car can be pricey. If you can afford to pay for the year’s insurance upfront, you can save a little cash. You may also want to look into temporary car insurance for students, to borrow your parents car for short periods eg during the holidays when back home.

Read more: Cheap car insurance for young drivers.


4. Food


It’s a myth that students live off baked beans – it is possible to eat normally and healthily whatever your budget.

Here are a few pointers to get you started:

  • Prevent impulse buys in the supermarket by making a shopping list – and sticking to it.
  • Cook in bulk and freeze. This way nothing gets wasted, it works out a lot cheaper and you always have a back-up plan when the cupboards are bare.
  • Make packed lunches for cheaper meals on-the-go.


5. Entertainment


From freshers' week to club subscriptions, student nights, gigs, fancy dress, sport or a quick coffee (and a slice of cake) with friends – the cost of socialising can soon mount up. 

Allocate yourself a certain amount for entertainment and try not to go over it.

Being sociable doesn't have to be expensive – think nights in with housemates, free events at your union or two-for-one cinema deals.

Take advantage of all the student nights and deals out there. 

Find cheap days/nights out and other discounts on student-specific discount websites like Unidays and Student Beans. This can include theatre trips and theme park tickets.


6. Utilities


If you’re in halls of residence, utilities such as gas, electricity and water are usually included as part of your rent – but that might not be the case if you're heading into private housing.

Along with your rent, you'll need to put aside a certain amount each month to cover utility bills. Setting up regular payments is a good way of managing what's going in and out of your account.

See if you could save by moving to a different energy supplier or tariff. Online deals are usually among the cheapest, plus you'll often get an extra discount if paying by direct debit.

Read more: Find the best energy deal with Which? Switch


7. Internet


This is another cost you'll often have covered in halls of residence, but will need to factor in if you're in private housing (though some landlords may throw this in with the rent).

Don’t forget that there are often a few costs involved beyond the quoted broadband price – the cost of installing a phone line and monthly line rental, for instance.

Shop around for deals online to check you're on a good value package.

Read more: Find the best and cheapest broadband deal with Which? Switch Broadband


8. Insurance


You might be surprised by how much your belongings are actually worth – try totting up the cost of your laptop, smartphone, TV, clothes, specialist course equipment and so on. So it might be worth taking out insurance to cover these.

  • Halls: if you’re living in university accommodation, you should automatically receive basic student room insurance protecting possessions inside your room against theft, fire and flood. Check with the accommodation provider to find out what level of contents insurance cover is included in your rent.
  • Private accommodation: if you’re moving into a privately-owned shared house or flat, you’re likely to need something more comprehensive. Student contents insurance packages start from around £10 per month.

Read more: Student guide to insurance


9. Toiletries


You might not realise until you become a student how much things like toothpaste, shampoo and shower gel cost (especially the nicer stuff).

Make the most of special offers and value brands.

Learn more: Cheapest places to buy toiletries.


10. Clothes


It’s tempting once you get your loan to head straight to the shops, but you'll regret blowing your clothes budget in the first week.

The best thing you can do is simply pack what you'll need for that term, so you don't have to splash out unnecessarily (eg on a suit for an interview, new boots or a raincoat if the weather turns suddenly). 

Always look online or in shops for student discounts too.

And if there's something you're not going to wear again, get some cash back by selling it on eBay or similar second-hand sites.

"Hidden" or unexpected costs

Below are a few last minute expenses or one-off costs which many students don’t plan for.

Moving van and materials

Renting a moving van can be expensive, while things like boxes and bubblewrap can add up. Quotes will vary depending on how much you’re taking and how long you'll need the van for ie how far you're travelling.

Try to work out as early as possible whether you’ll be able to fit everything you’re taking in your/your parents’ car. If you do need to rent a van, try to book this as early as possible.

Also, make sure your parents can actually help you move to uni. Otherwise, see if friends or siblings can help instead. 

Extra furniture and utensils

When choosing your accommodation, read carefully what facilities and utensils will be provided. This way you can take your time shopping for the cheapest deals and even picking these up in sales.

Buying these the week before moving to uni, when you have a long list of items to get and little time to do it in, may well result in you spending a lot more.

Things like kettles and microwaves will be provided, but you’ll need to bring your own cutlery and dishes. Is there anything leftover you can take from when older siblings were at uni?

Freshers’ Week

You’ll get your student loan at some point during freshers' week. Until then you’ll need some extra cash for all the activities taking place during this first week, including tickets to events as well as the usual costs like drinks and taxis.

You don’t want to be sat in a bank trying to arrange an overdraft when you could be out having fun.

Put some extra money aside for this first week until you settle down (and know where the cheaper alternatives are).

Surprise costs

Have a buffer for any surprise costs that might crop up throughout the year – like spontaneous trips home or fixing that smashed phone screen.

The same goes for any one-off fees, such as student halls deposit or membership fees for clubs/societies.

Subject specific costs

Students told us about equipment, clothing and other odds and ends they had to stump up for over the term, for their course.

You won't necessarily have to worry about these for your specific course, nor will you necessarily need these for the start of term, but it’s worthwhile knowing what might crop up.

Equipment that students might fork out for include:

  • Stethoscope
  • Tupperware (to hold insects for taking photos) 
  • Midwifery equipment
  • Dissection kit
  • Camera and camera accessories (tripod, SD cards, spare lenses)
  • Depending on the subject you’re studying, you might also need to buy specialist clothing.
  • Clothing that students might have to budget for include:
  • Lab coats/goggles
  • Nursing uniforms
  • Scrubs
  • Costumes for shows
  • Dancewear/shoes
  • Smart clothes (for work placements)
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Don't forget these extras either, or your graduation cap and gown at the end.
  • Graduation outfit
  • Journal subscription
  • Professional membership
  • Field trips
  • Concert attendance for music students
  • Disclosure and barring service (ie criminal record) check

Ask about these at an open day, including what extra funding might be available to go towards these.

How to budget for these

So you've got your long list of expenses you'll need to cover at university; how do you afford it all?

  • Check what student finance you're entitled to: you should get some form of maintenance support, depending on your household income. It may not be a lot, but it's a start. See our full guide to tuition fees and student finance.
  • Research extra funding available: bursaries and scholarships are awarded for all sorts of reasons (and not just for A students either!). Depending on your circumstances, you might be eligible for some or all of your tuition fees to be taken care of, or extra money to go towards your living costs. But you need to do some digging first.
  • Get a student bank account that works for you: namely one that has the highest interest-free overdraft. This can be a valuable buffer if you need some extra cash until your next student loan or pay from a part-time job. Different banks offer various incentives for students that can help save cash too, including travelcards and discounts on entertainment.
  • Take a year out and work to save up: it can pay off in the long run if you hold off applying to university or deferring a year, and get a job in the meantime. While living at home and seeing your friends head off to uni might sound rubbish, it can take a massive financial pressure off you once you do go. Plus, you can use that time to build up your experience and skills, or even do some travelling before three years of studying.

We've come up with 50 ideas to generate extra cash, particularly if you still have some time until you head to university. 

See how much you'll need to live on at your chosen university with our free student budget calculator.

About our research

* Which? University Student Survey 2018, conducted by YouthSight on behalf of Which?, surveying 5,000 UK undergraduate students between March-April 2018. Costs are rounded to the nearest £.