How To Make A Budget (And Stick To It) When You're A Student Or Just Broke

From apps to spreadsheets and meal planning, we list the best hacks.

There is a reason the old cliché about students eating beans on toast for dinner has persisted: many have no option but to live on next to nothing when they run out of cash. Also let’s be honest: beans on toast is a nice and easy dinner that requires no culinary skill.

University is expensive, especially if you are struggling on your own without the help of funds from family. Money Supermarket research estimates student loans just don’t cover the cost of living, with students spending £142.83 each term on top of their loan allowance. It has also found that almost half of students rely on an overdraft, and 46% receive money from their parents or family.

To help save you from entering a long-term relationship with baked beans, we’ve asked experts how to make your loan last and avoid slipping into further debt.

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1. Be honest with yourself about where your cash is going

Let’s get another cliché quickly out the way - the idea that young people are perpetually short of cash because they buy so much avocado (yawn). But that aside - budgeting how much to spend each week is a really good way to keep afloat - especially with the weekly food shop.

Money Supermarket estimates students rely heavily on their overdraft for buying food. In a survey of 700 students, 61% used it to buy food and food shopping was found to be the second highest monthly spend for students following accommodation costs.

Nights out, studying materials, and travelling home were the other things students splurged the most cash on followed by clothes, the gym, laundry, and alcohol. Bills were way down the list in 11th spot. A separate survey by Which? shows that students spend for an array of other expenses too, including an average spend on books of around £120 per term, £30 on printing and £484 on a laptop.

2. Get creative in the kitchen

In terms of expenses there’s not much you can do to save on your rent (unless you’re in a penthouse) but you can think creatively about food. Shopping on a full stomach can help, as can cooking instead of splurging on takeaways.

“Get creative with the contents of your fridge and cupboards and search for recipes online based on the ingredients that you already have rather than buying extras. You’ll be amazed at what you can do with tuna, leek and a potato,” Clare Francis, savings and investments director at Barclays says.

You could also check out websites like Supercook, which shows you recipes based on what food you have. Or check out recipes on HuffPost UK if you’re looking for inspiration.

3. Make a budget and stick to it

“A simple spreadsheet listing your monthly outgoings versus your income – in the form of earnings from a job, any parental contributions, your student loan, savings and overdraft – will show you where you stand,” Sophie Phillipson, founder of student and graduate support site HelloGrads says.

Making a spreadsheet, as boring as it sounds, might also help you see where your money is really going and highlight any weak spots you have so you can address overspending. This can be particularly useful as students loans are usually paid in three hefty instalments.

Once you’ve identified the weak spots it’s worth asking yourself if you really need that new pair of trainers/phone upgrade/Dominos pizza after all? If you’re still not sure - you could use Money Saving Expert’s ‘demotivator’ tool here - just type in your unnecessary spending and it’ll try to put you off.

If you don’t want to fiddle around with excel, most banks will show you a pie chart of where the bulk of your money goes within your online account. Or you can download apps that help you to see your outgoings such as Wally and Money Dashboard, which lets you see how you’re spending against your budget.

When you’re making a budget don’t be unrealistic, Phillipson adds: “Be generous with your outgoings, include a decent allowance for food, books, and socialising and always include a ‘buffer’ for all those unforeseen expenses, like birthday presents and travel.”

4. Find a simple way to split the bills with your housemates

If you’re living with other people the chances are you’ll want to make sure everyone is paying their fair share of the bills. First off, if you’re a student you’re exempt from council tax - which is a great thing, saving around £1,600 a year. But there will be other bills to take care of - gas, water, and electric.

It’s important you pay these on time and don’t slip into the red or it could negatively impact the credit rating of the account holder. Splitwise is an app that lets you create different groups.


If you set one up called ‘flatmates’ for example, you can add the names and email addresses of all the cohabitants. If you paid the bill, it works out who owes what and sends them a reminder. They can then pay you directly back via PayPal and the app keeps track. It calls itself a “digital IOU”.

5. Don’t bury your head in the sand when things go wrong

We all go off track from time to time. But if you find yourself off track don’t just keep ploughing in the wrong direction. Most students have an overdraft - and most banks offer pretty good deals where you won’t be charged interest on up to £3,000. If it’s not avoidable, an overdraft can be really useful - but try to use it as a buffer, not as free money because it’s hard to pay it off.

MoneySavingExpert advises students never go over their agreed overdraft limit and avoid going for the “hard sell” from banks about other financial products like credit cards. “Don’t be tempted. Just because you pass the bank’s affordability checks to get one, doesn’t mean you should take it,” it warns.

“If you do find you are struggling financially while at university, don’t bury your head in the sand; speak to your bank. They may give you extended time or an increased limit while you get back on track,” Sophie Phillipson from HelloGrads adds.