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Everything you need to know about student finance and how to save money at university

Rebecca Goodman
Written By:
Rebecca Goodman

Going to university is exciting, liberating and rewarding but the cost-of-living crisis has seen students put under increased financial pressure.

Now, more than half of all students are in paid employment and 76% of students have said the crisis has negatively impacted their studies.

While there is help available, through maintenance and tuition loans, the price of just about everything has risen in the last year.

Inflation is still soaring, remaining at 8.7% in May, food price inflation is at 14.6%, and millions are struggling to cope financially.

That’s why if you’re a student, either starting this year or returning, it’s more important than ever to take advantage of all the money-saving discounts, vouchers and freebies available to you. Here we look at everything you need to know about student finance and saving money at university.

Student loans

There are two types of loan students can apply for when they start university and are studying.

Up to £9,250 is available for students to pay for their tuition fees per year if studying in England, Scotland (although there is no fee for Scottish students studying in Scotland) and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland students studying there can apply for up to £4,395). Students studying in Wales can apply for up to £9,000.

Tuition fees are paid directly to the university by the Student Loans Company (SLC). Interest is applied on student loans (tuition and maintenance loans) from when the first payment is made until the whole amount is cleared. This is linked to interest rates and is currently capped at 7.1% until 31 August 2023 for all students (both those learning in person and distance learners).

Maintenance loans are also available and these are means tested. How much you get will depend on your household income, where you study, where you live, and how long the course is for. They are paid directly to students and there is a sliding scale depending on their finances.

For households with an income of £25,000 or less, for example, up to £9,978 is available (£13,022 for those studying in London). While for households with an income of £70,040 or more, up to £4,651 is available (£6,485 for students in London).

When it comes to paying off the loans, the amount you pay back will depend on the type of loan you’re on (the plan), how much you borrowed, and how much you’re earning. If you’re on plan 1, for example, you won’t pay anything back until you’re earning £22,015, while if you’re on plan 4 it’s £27,660. You can find the exact amounts and more information on the Gov.uk website.

Students can apply online for finance through their Student Finance account and this needs to be done for every year of their course. The money then is repaid once they have graduated and are earning a certain amount.

Student bank accounts

When you become a student you’ll be bombarded with offers and this includes from your bank. There are lots of student bank accounts available and these tend to come with benefits such as a bigger overdraft or money-saving discounts. It’s important to look past the freebies though and see how much a bank account will cost you.

Look, for example, at the interest rates applied, overdraft charges, and if there are any monthly fees to pay. Then go for one that will benefit you. If you travel a lot by train, for example, the Santander student account could be your best bet as it also has a free four-year 16-25 railcard attached to it. Or at Barclays, you’ll get a 12-month subscription to the online library Perlego which is worth £12 per month.

Cut travel tickets by a third

You can get a third off train tickets with a 16 – 25 Railcard which costs £30 for a year or £70 for three years. If you’re travelling by coach there’s also a third off ticket prices with the 16 – 26 National Express young Persons Coachcard, which costs £12.50 a year or £30 for three years.

Get paid cashback on your spending

Whatever you buy, if you use a cashback website, such as TopCashback or Quidco, you could earn cashback on the purchase. These websites track what you buy and then pay you cash, into an account on the website which you can withdraw to your bank account.

The amount of money varies on the website and the item you’re buying and you can also use them when signing up to new services such as broadband, TV, or insurance policies.

Grants to help with study costs

Across the country, there are lots of different grants available for students such as travel grants and hardship funds. These often depend on the course you’re studying and your own financial circumstances.

There is a means-tested Maintenance Grant (which doesn’t need to be paid back) available for some students who meet the criteria. These are only available currently for full-time students in Northern Ireland and Wales.

There is also a full list of grants, bursaries and scholarships on the Save The Student website.

Cash in on student freebies

From discounts on food to travel vouchers, there’s a wide-range of offers available for students and it can really help your budget if you use these (for things you would be buying anyway).

There are several specialist websites dedicated to listing student freebies, including Unidays and Student Beans. Other websites, such as Voucher Codes, also list discounts and freebies available across the UK.

Many companies also offer discounted prices to students, including Apple and Amazon Prime.

Get free access to Microsoft

Most students can get free access for Microsoft Office 365 Education and that includes programmes like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Teams and One Note. To see if you’re eligible take a look at the Microsoft website where you’ll need to enter your university email address.

No council tax to pay

Students don’t pay the same council tax as non-students as they are exempt. If you live alone or in a house just with students, there will be no council tax to pay. If you live in a house with non-students, the student still won’t have to pay council tax.

Benefits for disabled students and those on a low income

There are a range of benefits available for students with a low income and those who are disabled.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students can get up to £26,291 a year, for example, through the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This money can be used for things like travel or specialist equipment for studying.

Eligible students can apply for the money through Student Finance England and may have to undergo an assessment first. The money will then be paid to the company providing the service or equipment or to the student directly. You can find details about how to apply on the Gov.uk website.

Students who are struggling financially may be able to apply for Universal Credit or a benefit such as a Childcare Grant, Parents’ Learning Allowance, or an Adult Dependants’ Grant. These are usually just for full-time students. To find out what you could be entitled to, there’s a free student finance calculator on the Gov.uk website.

Buy second hand

Not only does buying second hand or ‘preloved’ items save the planet, it’s also a lot cheaper. Your university may have its own scheme for buying second-hand textbooks (and other items) and the library may also have what you’re looking for.

If not, Amazon, Facebook Marketplace or eBay are good options as well as local charity shops.

Cover your belongings

When you go to university, you’ll want to make sure all of your belongings, from your clothes to your laptop, are protected if something goes wrong. Contents insurance covers everything you own from damage, loss, or theft and you can either take out your own policy, be covered on a parent’s policy, or you may have cover with any financial product, such as a bank account.

It’s well worth checking if you have the cover already as you don’t want to pay for the same thing twice. There are a number of specialist student insurance companies providing this cover but most standard insurers offer it too.

Travel grants if you study abroad

There are grants available to some students who travel abroad or those who take part in work placements during their course. The amount of money available depends on your household income, where you live, and what course you’re on.

If you’re abroad, you can claim up to three return journeys between your home and the overseas institution during a full academic year abroad and also for financial help with essential expenses, medical insurance and travel visas.

Students in England must pay the first £303 of their travel costs and the travel grant will be reduced by £1 for each £8.73 of household income over £39,796.

To apply you will need to fill out a ‘Course Abroad’ form in your student finance account, if you’re eligible you’ll receive the money automatically. There’s more details on the Gov.uk website.

Protect your tenancy deposit

If you’re renting while at university, it’s important to make sure your deposit is properly protected. Landlords legally need to put your deposit into the Deposit Protection Scheme, within 30 days of you paying it.

Then if there are any disputes at the end of the tenancy if the deposit is disputed, there is a free resolution service available.