The Switch’s Student Guide to Managing Financial Anxiety and Saving Money at University

Advice, hacks and tips for university students for saving money at university while studying, and how to deal with anxiety about finances.

The broke uni student trope is a classic stereotype – the idea of eating ramen for every meal, living in a run-down shack with way too many friends, working as a barista or in the cafeteria fast-food joint and rocking up to classes in your sweats is a common aesthetic associated with being a student. However, this aesthetic of being ‘broke,’ is glossing over a very real problem and a very harsh truth. 

University in Australia may be subsidised, but is still not as inexpensive as it once was, and paired with higher cost of living, increasing cost of tertiary supplies like textbooks and laptops, difficulty in balancing part-time work with a full course load and most of the jobs on the market for students being unskilled… attending university just isn’t the same kind of luxury freebie it once was. 

Finance Hacks For International Students

For international students, it’s a whole new can of worms. Your fees aren’t subsidised and you have to pay to move to a completely different country. Not all students have family finances and support to fall back on, and have to take matters into their own hands in order to make their way in the world independently. More and more students have to rely on part-time or casual work which doesn’t pay enough by itself to get by. Meaning that students are often overworked and sacrificing their learning just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths. 

With most university students being aged 18-22, they’re getting their first taste of reality and independence at a truly pivotal and developmental time, and students reporting anxieties about their finances are steadily increasing. Some students are skipping meals, taking loans, living in subpar housing all to make ends meet. A survey carried out by the University of Melbourne found that nearly 15% of full-time domestic undergraduate respondents regularly went without food and necessities to cut costs, with 58% reporting to often worrying and stressing about their finances. 34% said their expenses exceeded their estimated income, and this figure rises to 43% for Indigenous students and 49% for international undergraduates. For our young people who should be focusing on their futures, these stats are deeply, deeply troubling. Here, we’ll breakdown some advice on saving money at university, and how to maintain your mental health and manage financial anxiety.

Tips for Stopping Money Worries

Money Saving Hack #1 Get a Part Time Job

If you are able, it’s a great idea to get a part time job. Around 80% of domestic undergraduate students are in paid work, with 31% working 20 hours or more per week. Most employers will have a handful of students as a part of their staff and are well-versed with working around class schedules, so you can seamlessly work a few shifts without it ever interfering with your education.

Hospitality and retail are favoured industries for students to their flexible roster and no degree requirements, and this means that a lot of your co-workers will be in your age group and thus making a part-time job a great way to meet people as well as make some extra income. Only take on what you can cope with, though – you don’t want your unskilled side hustle to be getting in the way of your studies, the whole reason you’re working in the first place. Always feel free to ask for less shifts when you need and make sure to let your bosses know when important dates like midterms or finals are coming up.

Just remember, if you’re an international student, you can only work 40 hours in every 2 week period. 

Money Saving Hack #2 Smart Budgeting

Urgh, budgeting. It sounds like such an adult word. We’re sure you’re picturing pie charts and stuffy accountants and excel spreadsheets. We promise, it’s not as scary as it seems – you just need to sit down for maybe 20 minutes and work out a) how much income you have coming in, b) what the necessary payments you have to make are, like rent or utilities or gas, and c) how much disposable income you have left over for recreational spending. That last number is really what you need to know, because then you can give yourself a daily budget. For example, let’s say you’re making $500 per week, but you know that $220 needs to go towards rent and utilities, and let’s say $80 for food. That gives you a leftover of $200 per week, and a budget of about $28 per day. So that’s your daily spending limit!

Of course, you can break it – you may go out for dinner with friends, you may want to take your girlfriend to the movies, but it just means that in the coming days you’ll need to cut down your spending so you can make up for it. Here’s an easy budget planner to get started here. Trust us, saving money at university really can be this easy.

Four students laughing

Money Saving Hack #3 Pick and Choose Events

When you get to university, it seems like the fun never stops – there’s an event every week by a different society and boatloads of cool, interesting people doing cool, interesting things they’re inviting you to. This would be great, if all those cool, interesting things didn’t cost money.

Usually tickets and extraneous expenses are low, but they can all add up – $10 here, $20 there, and suddenly you’ve spent a whole textbook on booze cruises or your outfit for the decades dance. We would suggest getting yourself a calendar, and making a note of all the events you want to go to – and then being sparing with them. What functions will you absolutely die if you don’t attend, and which ones can you kinda wait until next year for? Which are the ones all your friends are going to, and which are the ones you were really only going to because the theme sounded funny? Kill your darlings, and pick and choose which uni events you really, really want to attend.

FOMO sucks, but skipping meals sucks more. And there’ll always be more – trust us. Even in exam week, there’ll be some pizza party by some obscure society, and it’ll be up to you to make the call if you really need to be paying that $10 entry for something held by the university’s Pirate Club.

Money Hack #4 Take Advantage of the Free Stuff… Everywhere

The other great thing about university events though is the sheer abundance of free stuff. Different societies are always having free barbecues and giveaways around campus that you can accidentally stumble into. We’d go so far to say that if you’re spending the day in class, you probably don’t even need to pack lunch because there’s probably some barbecue you’ll walk past on the way to class. We’d recommend getting out that calendar we told you to buy and making a note of all the daily/weekly/monthly freebies you can count on to pop up around campus that you can take advantage of. And it’s not just the freebies, you might meet your new best friend, partner or mentor there too.

That’s not even counting all the awesome discounts you get as a student. From food chains to clothing stores to technology, you can get a whopping discount just from flashing your student card. Depending on the institution and its resources, it’s very likely as well that there will be plenty of free resources you can use instead of having to dip into your savings. Many universities offer free legal consultations and advice if you ever run into problems with the law, as well as free counselling and mental health services. Do your research on what your uni and student union offers – because who doesn’t love free stuff?

Money Saving Hack #5 Scholarships and Grants

You’ve seen the stats – a lot of students are struggling, and universities understand that and try to help. Most institutions offer a variety of grants, scholarships and loan programs to help their students get by. Depending on your institution, you may qualify for hardship funds, bursaries for extenuating circumstances or a grant. There are also many academic scholarships available for currently enrolled students, especially if you’ve been excelling academically. We definitely recommend finding out what kind of financial assistance your university offers beyond just loans. You never know, you may end up qualifying for some super specific scholarship for Swedish fly fishers studying IT. Or maybe that’s a little far fetched. 

Money in a jar

Money Saving Hack #6 Avoid Unnecessary Fees

Try to avoid unnecessary payments you don’t have to make if you stay organised. For example, a lot of universities may make you retake a subject if you miss an exam, if you have low attendance or just failed the subject altogether. Meaning you have to pay to take the subject again. It would be better to just extend your degree and take less subjects per semester rather than paying to retake subjects you’ve already paid to take. On top of that, use that calendar to stay on top of bill payments you have to make.

Universities can charge late fees for tuition that wasn’t paid on time. So something as easy and quick as checking your fees and cut-off times could save you a couple hundred dollars (yep, those late fees are hefty). This goes for living expenses too. Getting late payment fees from your gas company or landlord because you forgot to pay is just an unnecessary cut to your budget. Consider setting up AutoPay, or BPAY to schedule your payments so you don’t even have to think about it.

Managing Financial Anxiety

Dealing with finance struggles is pretty much the status quo for most students. It’s fair to experience a lot of anxiety in this department. If money is constantly on your mind, or you feel overwhelmed or your everyday spending seems unmanageable, you’re not alone. And moreover, you shouldn’t have to deal with it alone. Talking to your peers and sharing your struggles and money hacks is just one option. You can speak to your parents if you are able, and see if they can offer any extra support until you get back on your feet. If this isn’t a possibility, you can also seek professional advice. Those free services we mentioned earlier? Yep, your university probably also offers financial advising. You can set up an appointment with a student money advisor through the university or student union and may be able to tailor a plan for your specific situation.

Recognising that this is a part of the student experience is very important to your mental health. You’re a student, on your own and likely working an unskilled job. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and walks of life and maybe you’re just not as well set up as some of your peers. And that’s okay. You’re not supposed to have all the answers. One of the best things about university is that you’re surrounded by people who feel the same way as you.

Everyone is struggling, in one way or another, and yet there’s still a reason people say college was the best years of their lives. That camaraderie, the experiences you’ll have and friends you’ll make overtakes any and all stressing about something as silly as money. You can make ends meet with a little work and a little support, banish all embarrassment, and stop comparing yourself to others whose situation you don’t necessarily know. Embrace the broke student stereotype, and remember why you’re here. 

So what happens now?       

We’re thinking the biggest hack seems to be just going out and buying a calendar! Just kidding. Saving money is tough and takes serious organisation and commitment… but you can be comforted in the knowledge that most of your peers are going through the exact same thing. The broke student trope is a thing for a reason. And your uni days aren’t always going to be so glam. But between us, there’s a beauty to living in a run-down share house with all your best friends and living off granola bars. And when you’re super successful and living in a mansion and taking private jets, you’ll miss your uni days. Granola bars and all.   

Want to be more ethical with your banking? Read about sustainable banking, and how you start banking ethically in Australia here.