Balancing the books: The real cost of student money worries

Money – bear with me while I mix my metaphors – is the Schrodinger’s elephant in the room. It’s tricky to discuss, so no one is entirely sure if it’s there, how much there is and who has it.

As a demographic, students are expected to be skint. Back in the days of maintenance grants, there was technically such a thing as a free lunch, provided you were resigned to this lunch comprising mostly of lentils. 

Since the introduction of means-tested loans, money has become a very blurry issue. According to the National Student Money Survey, in 2019 the average monthly maintenance loan was £540, while living costs were £807. So what are the causes and effects of this £267 shortfall? 

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Some say the government is either naïve or deliberately vague about the amount parents are expected to contribute. Means-tested loans don’t take into account the costs of running a household, bringing up other children, or simple variations in parental goodwill. Differences in rent across the country further complicate the issue. Even when parents are generous, this creates a dynamic where students in their early 20s are ashamed of constantly asking for help when they feel they should be independent. 

Others blame a lack of education on financial management. 70% don’t know the interest rate on their loan, while 77% start university without having been shown how to budget. The less charitable among us claim that any sensible person can afford to live off the maintenance loan. But when 67% of us have part-time jobs, even when our grades suffer as a result, is this realistic? 

This is where it gets even blurrier. Where does one draw the line between not being able to afford to live, and not being able to afford the lifestyle that you want? As far as mental health is concerned, money stress is significant regardless of whether poverty is relative or absolute. 

Some resort to more creative or worrying ways to make ends meet. One girl sold “fake nudes (knees in a lacy bra)”, some sneak full bottles of wine into clubs (fairs), while 4% report turning to “adult work” which, while lucrative, can sometimes have safety and wellbeing implications. 

Arguably the insurmountable nature of student loans, as well as the availability of interest-free overdrafts with student bank accounts, have contributed to a “f***it we ball” attitude to students’ spending. There’s always someone living constantly £20 from the bottom of their overdraft while still going out three times a week. This is indicative of a wider trend among millennials; faced with the reality that on average they will be poorer than their parents, they decide that they may as well enjoy life in the short-term. It famously takes many brunches to buy a house. 

If you’re worried about money, see https://www.bath.ac.uk/professional-services/student-money-advice/ for advice on short-term loans and the Hardship Fund.

Cathi Westall

Cathi is a Masters student with the PoLIS department and Deputy Editor (Print) for 2020/1.

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