21/07/2015 12:12 BST | Updated 20/07/2016 06:59 BST

The Most Affordable UK University Cities

Starting university is stressful. Although it's a fair while since I went through the process, the daunting task isn't lost on me. The thorniest issues then remain constant now; for some it was the application process, for others achieving their grade expectations, and understandably for many of us, it was the cost.

But there was one factor which affected us all pretty equally - the decision of where to actually go. Should you follow your friends, look to the league tables, what about your teacher's advice, or the media, do you need to continue a family tradition, and how accurate are those compatibility quizzes?

I'll be honest, it seems to me that the choice is harder now than ever. At the last count prospective students had 760 different uni's, colleges or institutions to choose from. And once you've made that decision you need to feel content that it's worth £38,500; the current average level of debt this summers graduating class will each be left with.

That all sounds a bit downbeat but for those who choose it, higher education is usually fantastic.

But £38,500 is a lot of money.

How can you feel confident about your decision? In short, until you get there, you can't, but one factor that can help prepare you is to consider the cost, and think about where you personally can get the most bang for your buck.

Think about it this way; what are you looking forward to, or hoping to get out of university?

Once you've firmed up your priorities you have a starting point for narrowing your search. At NatWest we've spoken to 2,500 students to find out just how much time and cash is spent across the UK. Once we found out the average rent and income, we asked students about other key areas: details like how much it costs to nip down to the local or eat out, the price of a gym membership, or learning a new hobby.

We categorised the findings as simply as we could: general expenses, socialising, sports and fitness and hobbies and interests. The results have created this year's Student Living Index, ranking 25 cities across the UK based on their affordability.

Belfast came out trumps, and is ranked as the most economical city for students. It has an ideal mixture of cheaper rent (£46.22/week) and higher than average earnings for those who work. Students also have a culture of spending less on groceries and more on alcohol and eating out.

Back across the Irish Sea, Southampton and Nottingham followed just behind. Students who set up a base in Southampton have the highest earnings, taking home just under £50 each week, though they do work the longest hours, and spend the least going out - only £6.66 each week. Nottingham students have the third highest term-time earnings, and though their rent is just above the average at £87.36 they do benefit from the lowest phone bills and an active social life.

I won't run through all the results here, you can do that in your own time, but the index is worth a look - the results might surprise you. London is the tenth most affordable city, largely down to the increased salary for those who work part-time, even though its no more than 6 hours each week. Students in Cambridge and Oxford spend more time studying although, along with Newcastle, they also invest more heavily in going out and socialising than any of their peers.

The average student spends just over 11 hours each week on hobbies and interests, and if joining up to as many clubs and societies during fresher week is a priority, you should take a look at Newcastle, Portsmouth, and Glasgow. If you chuck Leeds into the mix you also have the 4 cities which spend more than any other on alcohol. In terms of fashion, Birmingham may be worth a look as students spend a third more than the average. While Leeds, Bristol and Dundee look to be the sportiest cities, with more spent on weekly gym and sports memberships than anywhere else.

The information in the index should be a helpful step when starting to plan ahead, but working in a bank means I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't reinforce an important message. You've got to plan your finances. That doesn't necessarily mean complex excel charts but it does mean considering the financial pressures you'll be facing and making sure you can cope.

Attending university is more expensive than ever, it's a huge investment in your future, so when you're considering the choice of where to go and how to manage your finances, the best way to start that process is to take the time do a little research and be confident in your decision.