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How Worrying About Money Affects Your Degree (and How to Stop)

09/04/2015 09:22 BST | Updated 08/06/2015 10:59 BST

Four out of five students in last year's National Student Money Survey said they worry about their finances. Constantly. In fact, money's so tight for some that they go without heating, food or sleep. The cost of a degree now includes anxiety, depression and dropping-out.

Anyone can learn to penny-pinch. It's harder to deal with money worries that take over your life, affect your health and threaten your degree. It's time we uncovered the hidden effects of higher education on mental health - and how to protect yourself.

When Student Finance isn't enough

If you think the biggest controversy about university is paying for it, here's the elephant in the room: student finance on its own isn't enough for many to make it through a degree.

For Zoology student Harry, missing out on means-tested funding because his folks are just over the threshold has been brutal. "Funding doesn't take into account that I have three other siblings who went to or are still at university. As it is, my parents are barely able to give anything."

Another student, Riaz, told us she got full student finance but even so "during my first year I struggled to keep my head above water... my loans barely covered my rent".

Take a long, hard look at your finances and the student funding you're entitled to for living costs before you apply: there's no shame in deferring if the sums don't stack-up for you right now.

It pays to start early, whether it's applying for funding or booking accommodation. Contracts aside, don't think you can't change-up or downgrade later to get a better deal.

If you're already at uni, there's extra or emergency funding you may be eligible for - see our list below.

When you don't get what you're owed

Emily, a second-year student in Wales, told us she didn't get enough student finance because she was wrongly assessed. "I had a four-month battle to get my rightful amount, during which time I received just £11 for each grant instalment. It was a hellish time... I thought I would have to pack my bags and go home!"

Knowing how the system works won't magic any more money into the pot, but if you don't know you're being undersold you can't challenge it. Get clued-up, and don't quit until you get what you're entitled to.

When you can't afford to relax

Work hard, play hard. Right? The students in the survey also revealed they blow just £17 a week on socialising, with some saying financial pressures left them with little time or motivation to blow-off steam away from seminars.

Harry adds, "I always have to leave events early, or not go in the first place, which has given totally the wrong impression of the sort of person I am. I would love to go out and socialise like everyone else but I literally can't afford it."

You don't need us to tell you how to get your giggles for free - but it's important to stay social. The students we talked to all said one thing helped: friends, family or just 'talking about things'.

When having a job stresses you out

The easy advice to cash-strapped students is to get a job. The bite comes when you're not just working to pimp your CV but because you're struggling to make ends meet.

Sarah, a 20-year-old student in Birmingham, got a part-time job but it meant working unsociable hours and missing contact hours due to sleep deprivation. "I'd stay up all night waiting for my wages to go into my bank and then cry my eyes out when I realised it wasn't enough, because the next month I'd have no shifts due to it being a zero-hour contract. I slept through my lectures."

When you're not being expected to work for kudos or 'the experience', typical student jobs can leave much to be desired. Don't jump at the first opportunity, do your research and make sure the job works for you too.

There are other approaches too, such as sourcing freelance work on sites like Elance.com, which allow you to pick your own hours and work for decent rates.

But if your course is really demanding of your time and energy, any kind of extra part-time work can send your stress levels skywards. Time to take a look at our action plan below.

8 ways to relieve money worries

If there's one thing you'll need to get you through your degree, it's backup.

  1. Your university's counselling/listening service should be your go-to for offloading stress. Your GP may also be able to refer you for free NHS counselling. Samaritans is confidential, non-judgemental and there 24/7 for anyone feeling low or overwhelmed. You don't need to give your name.
  2. If you struggle to talk to your friends or folks about deeper issues, be upfront about the little things in the meantime: "I'd love to come out again tonight but I just can't afford it. DVD at mine?"
  3. Only one in three students in our survey said they budgeted. Not knowing whether you'll have enough money for food next week is not fun. Get on top of it and plan it out!
  4. If you need crisis cash talk to your uni's Welfare team. Ask about Access to Learning, hardship or emergency funds.
  5. Explore innovative ways to make some extra money online, such as completing short tasks or surveys. They won't make you rich, but see Save the Student for lots of ideas to give you a quick cash injection when you need tiding over between other sources of income.
  6. If you must borrow, turn to your folks, your bank (interest-free overdraft) or your uni. Don't even consider payday loans.
  7. If you're worried about getting into or out of debt, get professional advice - but beware companies that charge fees or promise to write-off loans. Try debt charity StepChange.
  8. Exhaust all leads for bursaries, scholarships or hardship grants.

We're over the fact that university costs. What remains to be seen is whether funding will get fairer in reality and not just on paper. Parents can't always plug the gaps, and students are increasingly expected to be self-funded and money-savvy. And, sometimes, it's news to them when it's too late.

We'd like to see all students better equipped to cope. In the meantime, we say: know how the system works, know your rights, know how to get help - and use it.