What I Learned About Money at University
Managing my money has never been my strong point .
(And, with that single statement, I think I’ve probably just made myself a serious contender for the Understatement of the Year Award, 2016. Which is not a Thing, obviously, but which totally should be.)
Seriously, though: I’m one of those people who has her salary spent the second it hits her bank account (I’m quietly convinced that most of my favourite retailers know when I get paid, and make sure the items I’m stalking either go on sale or start coming up as “low stock” around that time every month…), so when Royal Bank of Scotland got in touch lately and asked me to share some of my best money management tips for students, I immediately looked over my shoulder to see if they were talking to someone else.
But no, they were asking me: the girl who once had to go into the university branch of her bank and beg them to let her withdraw the last 50p in her account, so she could pay the bus fare home. And when the cashier explained that there was some kind of rule which meant I had to keep at least SOME money in the account, I promptly burst into tears. What I did NOT do was admit that I needed that 50p because I’d just spent the last cash I had in Topshop, whose shoe section was the main reason I got myself a part-time job when I started university – and also the main reason I lived mostly on Pot Noodle for the duration.
(In fairness, though, I do enjoy a Pot Noodle. And I had some really great shoes.)
So, as you can see, I really wasn’t joking when I said money management isn’t my strong point: which means you’re probably wondering why on earth I’m about to try and give you some advice on it huh? Well, the fact is, when I got to thinking about it, I realised that most of my poor financial habits were ones I picked up as a student, and then never really let go. University is such an important time: it’s where you learn, not just about the great literature of the world (or whatever it is you’re studying), but also where all the best charity shops are, how long you can eke out that bag of pasta you found at the back of the cupboard, and other Very Important Life-Skills.
It’s also when you create some habits that could potentially be with you for the rest of your life, so today I’m here to help you learn from my mistakes, and hopefully NOT end up sobbing in the middle of the bank, while clutching a shiny new Topshop bag. An alternative title for this post could have been “How to Not Be So Damn Stupid“, or “Let’s Not Be Like Amber, Kids!” But I’m just going to stick with “what I learned about money at university”. And here it is…
How to Manage Your Money at University
Do not take out a store card. I repeat: do not take out a store card…
As soon as I arrived at University, I went straight to House of Fraser and took out a store card. I did not pass GO. I most definitely did not collect £200, but if I had done, well, I was already in the House of Fraser,so…. I also did not go DIRECTLY there: I mean, I think it was later that week or something? All I know is that it was indecently early to be getting into a lifetime of debt, so I’m begging you now to NOT BE SO STUPID.
I WAS stupid. I took out store cards (and yes, the plural is deliberate) because when I arrived at university, I abruptly decided that the clothes I’d brought with me just would not do, and that I had to change my image, STAT. (I literally called my mum in the middle of Freshers Week, to complain that I’d brought lace-up boots with me, and I couldn’t possibly be seen in LACE-UP BOOTS , GOD. I needed CHELSEA boots, and I needed them ASAP, or I. Would. Die.)
(Because my parents were either still freaked out by the whole ‘me leaving home’ thing, or just drunk on their newfound freedom, she actually bought me the boots. She still has them, actually: I caught her wearing them just a few weeks ago…)
I obviously couldn’t afford to buy new clothes (I had a weekend job, but I’d burn through that money as soon as I got paid, so it was almost like it didn’t even exist.), so I took out store cards, and it was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my LIFE, seriously.
The thing is, store cards seem like a good idea at the time, don’t they? I was lured into all of mine by retail workers who’d be ringing up a purchase, and would suddenly say, “Did you know you could save 20% on this if you took out our store card today? We could sign you up now!” I was more than willing to convince myself this made good financial sense – I mean, I was SAVING MONEY, PEOPLE. SAVING IT. – so I’d be all, “Why yes, I WILL accept your kind offer to help me save money!”, and then I’d tell myself that I’d obviously pay it off right away, and that would be that.
The thing is, though, you never do pay it off right away, do you? (And by “you”, I mean “me”). Because there’s always another pair of shoes, or another high-end mascara to buy, and you find yourself thinking, “Well, I’ll just put it on that card, and I’ll pay it the second my wage hits my account!” Then, the next thing you know, you’re 32, and you’re still paying for that cheap skirt, which you wore once and then spilt Pot Noodle on. I’ll say it again, people: DON’T DO THIS.
So, what should I have done instead?
Well, the first thing I should’ve done was to stop buying clothes and makeup, obviously: that’s a given. If you really do feel the need for a financial safety net of some kind, though (For books, not for shoes. I repeat: NOT FOR SHOES.), it’s a better idea to apply for an overdraft, rather than a credit card. Royal Bank of Scotland’s student account, for instance, allows you to apply for an overdraft of up to £500 in your first year, and £2,000 after that – and it’s interest free, unlike credit/store cards.
It took me years to pay off the credit cards I acquired as a student, so something like this would’ve been a better option, and while, in an ideal world, you won’t need that safety net at all, if you do need it, it’s good to know you have that option.
Keep strict tabs on your finances
One of my favourite money-management techniques from my student days was a little trick I like to call “Keeping Your Head in the Sand”. This trick was somewhat easier back then, of course, because we didn’t have smartphones (or fire, or the wheel…), so if I wanted to check my bank balance, I had to either go to an ATM, or to the bank itself. I found it super-convenient NOT to do either of those things, and, instead, I just continued to cross my fingers and hope my debit card wouldn’t be declined every time I handed it over.
(Side note: I still do this, even although I know perfectly well that there are funds in the account. Like I said, university teaches you habits which can be impossible to get out of, and feeling sick with nerves every time I use an ATM is one of mine…)
Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is a stupid, stupid thing to do: these days, I like to keep tabs on my account at all times, so I know what’s going in and what’s coming out. The Royal Bank of Scotland student account comes with a mobile app which allows you not only to access your account from anywhere, but which can also be set up to send you alerts once you’re close to a certain limit.
This kind of thing would’ve been absolutely invaluable to me as a student, because it’s SO easy to think you’re just spending a few pounds here and there (Hello, Paperchase stationery habit!), only to get a horrible shock when your bank statement falls through the letterbox at the end of the month. If they can actually GET it through the letterbox, that is…
Set a budget, and withdraw that amount in cash
I know, I know, budgeting is boring, and the kind of thing you just don’t want to have to think about until you’re a REAL adult. Or that’s what I though, anyway. Well, I’m still waiting to feel like a an actual adult, but I have learnt a thing or two about budgeting, and my main tip here is to set either a weekly or monthly spending budget (I find weekly works best), and then withdraw that amount in cash at the start of every week or month. Online shopping, you see, is my arch-nemesis. If I see something I like online, and I have the money in my account, I will find it really hard to resist buying it: and resisting buying things is not one of my strong points either, just in case there was any doubt about that.
Cash, on the other hand, is different. I’m not really sure why this is (Maybe it just feels more “real” to me, or something?), but I find it much harder to justify spending cold, hard cash, so if I really want to reign in my spending, I’ll withdraw a set amount in cash at the start of the month: once it’s out of my account, it’s no longer available to spend online, and once it’s in my wallet, it tends to stay there for longer than it would remain in my bank account. Of course, this means I don’t buy as many ASOS dresses every month, but that’s probably a good thing, right?