As you wave off your parents at the door of your student halls this September, excitement about the new year at university may soon give way to inescapable anxiety about how on earth to pay for everything.
There’s just no funny way to say this – today’s students are so stressed about money that half of them are experiencing mental health issues, as they try to grapple with unfeasibly large debts, living costs… on top of the pressures of studying.
That’s millions of 18 to 22-year olds who are afraid, depressed, anxious, unhappy – and around £221 a month short of what they need to meet basic living costs, according to research from savethestudent.org, which will also send a shiver down the spine of worried parents everywhere.
It’s worse for female students, according to the study, who are more likely to skip meals when money is tight.
And there is a lack of support, with only a third of those who have sought help from their university saying that it was easy to get advice.
The National Student Money Survey – conducted each year by the student money site – finds students are being loaded up with loans, high living costs and big financial decisions without the knowledge and support they need to cope.
Just 1 in 4 students feel they were taught enough about money before starting university, with a worrying 50 per cent saying they’ve since experienced mental health issues because of a lack of cash.
Jenna, a 2nd-year student at Loughborough University, admits she was clueless about money – to the extent that she didn’t even know her bank card would be blocked if she used the wrong pin too many times. She told Save the Student she became anxious about staying on budget:
“I would skip meals so I didn’t have to spend any money. When things then got to my lowest and I lost all motivation to live I began spending excessively to try and make myself feel better. This didn’t work and I ended up having multiple suicide attempts and taking anti-depressants. When I finally started recovering I then had to work 2 jobs to try and make my way out of the debt I had created in that crisis period.”
With the survey pegging student spending at £821 a month (£31 up on 2016 results), the gap between living costs and the Maintenance Loan has widened. This can leave the average student short by around £221 every month*.
Ruby gave up a part-time job in her second year at the University of Lincoln, just before her Student Finance was reduced. She’s one of the 55 per cent of students who say the Maintenance Loan isn’t enough to live on:
“I went from receiving a decent amount of money from the government to the minimum which didn’t even cover my rent as my mother had received a promotion … I spent most of my time on my own in my room. I couldn’t sleep and whenever I did, it was only for a couple of hours at a time. I just felt tired all the time. I would be constantly panicking about money. I started missing a lot of lectures and seminars.”
Although the majority of students (83 per cent) track their spending, budgeting isn’t enough to offset the problems of low income. Sasha, who studied at the University of Derby, says she ran short of money when Student Finance lost her paperwork and her loan was delayed:
“When it came I hadn’t eaten in 3 weeks except for what I could take from the cafe I worked at (with permission). I lost about 3 stone due to worry and lack of food. At one point I thought of going to a food bank but was too ashamed.”
When things go wrong, most students turn to their families: 83 per cent of students say they’d ask their parents for cash in an emergency. But of those who ask their university, only around a third (37 per cent) find it easy to get help. Sasha adds:
“I didn’t really have anyone I could ask for help personally as my mum is on a low wage as it is and was struggling herself. I didn’t want to ask the bank for a loan/overdraft as I didn’t think I would be accepted and didn’t want to get into more debt.”
While most students struggle with hardship at university, the National Student Money Survey finds male and female students report different levels of stress.
Overall, more female students (87 per cent) said they worry about having enough to live on, compared to 77 per cent of males. Women are also more dissatisfied with the financial education they’d received before university, and less likely to consider their course good value for money.
Male students are more optimistic about life after university, with 62 per cent confident of finding a job after graduation (compared to 45 per cent of female students), and expect £3k more from their starting salary (£23,139 vs £20,010).
The majority of students, however, remain confused and concerned about the Student Loan. Despite repayments being linked to salary affordability, 56 per cent worry about paying it back, while only 1 in 4 know the current rate of interest being applied to their loan (which notably jumps as high as 6.1 per cent this September).
How can students worry less about money? The realities are hard to stomach, but setting daily spend limits and using budgeting apps might help.
Some new challenger banks, such as Loot and Starling Bank, enable users to set daily budgets and track spending. Budgeting apps such as Money Dashboard and Cleo can help students work out what they need to set aside for living costs and keep them on track. Cleo sends you friendly instant messages on facebook and the odd motivating gif.
Avoid credit cards and overdrafts at all costs as they take ages to pay off, and if you end up in difficulty, speak to someone at your university or a debt charity such as Step Change. Mind, the mental health charity, is an excellent resource for those struggling.