The way the English student loans company works is… Well… Pretty rubbish really. After all, it is run by a government agency so it’s bound to live up to its mediocre expectations. If you’re lucky, you won’t have any issues with it. However, the minute something tiny goes wrong, they can hold money from you, give you the wrong amount or even consider you the same person if you’re an identical twin and only give you one loan (this actually happened a long while ago).
Another thing that doesn’t seem to pass the minds of those organising the student loans system is if you do not live with your parents during holidays, like my boyfriend and I. Even if you have cut all ties to your old home, the student loans company will continue to demand the household income for your old home for 3 years after you’ve moved. This conveniently matches up with the length of most degrees meaning they get to pay out less for those with alternative circumstances. The more I ‘grow up‘ the more I realise how ignorant most companies/agencies can be if you don’t fit the norm (and how cynical I can get about it…).
As a result, I have gone through the many stages of a cheap student life. What I mean is I have gone through periods of work drying up where I gave up meat and had biscuits for meals to save money. Times where I wouldn’t eat dinner because I wanted my alcoholic beverages to have a quicker effect on me so that I didn’t have to spend more money. The lowest point was when I was living off of £5-£10 a week because I was far too scared and embarrassed to ask my dad for financial help. In my head, having a tiny meatless stir fry for pretty much every meal, every day was healthy, right?
It’s not healthy.
So after 3 years of all sorts of ups and downs i’ve picked up a few hints and tips about how to stay on top of your eating habits as a student or anyone living on a budget.
1. Get in a routine of grocery shopping
Whether it’s a big haul once a week at a supermarket on the outskirts or smaller frequent shops after lectures, try and stick to a routine as it will help keep you on track. Also try not to let your food stock get empty as it’s oh so tempting to get take out then.
2. Make a written list
On the subject of ‘keeping on track’, prepare a written list to take in with you. Try and order things on the list in order of the shop stock so it’s easier too. Some studies have found that making a list on your phone is better than nothing but is easier to ignore compared with a written list.
3. Investigate the ‘last chance to buy‘ section
Whilst you should be sticking to your list most of the time, the only exception I make is the last chance section. Here, you may find food that is about to go off or looks a bit messy that you can salvage or freeze for later. I paid 49p for a salad for lunch and 50p for a veggie stir fry for dinner the other day. Amazing!
4. Avoid take out food and drinking out in clubs/bars
The take out option isn’t too hard if you live in the city centre where you can pop to the shop instead. It’s more of an issue for when you’re living in catered accommodation without a proper kitchen or you live far away from the shops. Here, try to keep a stock of frozen goodies like soup, lasagne and frozen pizzas for when you’re ill or hungover to avoid that tempting call of Dominos.
On the subject of drinking, stock up on cheaper spirits/wines to pre-drink with instead of spending all that cash on a night out. £10 on a bottle of vodka will keep you going longer than 2-3 doubles on a night out, believe me. Get drunk before you head out! Some of my best memories at uni have been the times where we just stayed in and got merry instead of resulting to the noisy cool kid hangout that is student clubs. You’ll probably avoid doing something you regret that way too…
5. Switch your supermarket/go brandless
We recently switched to Aldi as we happen to have one nearby and we genuinely save around £30 or more on each shop. We do however still make a small shop at Asda to get branded marmite and ketchup for example because screw anything else but it’s still massively cheaper to buy the essentials at somewhere like Aldi.
6. Choose your snacks wisely
I still struggle with a battle between being healthy and being cheap. This is especially true with snacks as unfortunately carb rich biscuits and crisps are simply cheaper than fresh fruit and veg. It’s frustrating but ultimately up to you. Frozen berrys and yoghurt are great for healthy smoothies and are cheaper than letting fresh fruit rot away. Dried fruit can also work just as well. If the lure of carb snacks are unavoidable, buy more plain snacks without the added sugar and salt. Popcorn is a great substitute!
7. Cheap alternatives
If, like me, you don’t care about meat so much then use less of it! Stock up on potatoes, squash and lentils/pulses to keep the fullness of meat in meals without the crazy prices. If you live in an area with a local market then try buying your meat and veg there as it can be a lot cheaper than supermarkets and fresher. If you realise that you’re not actually going to eat that steak tonight because your parents have nicely taken you out for a surprise meal then stick it in the freezer rather than waiting for it to go off in the fridge and then binned later on.
8. Get a weekly planner
If you’re really struggling to keep to all of these rules then try out a weekly meal planner! You can jot down the essentials and keep on top of what you need to stock up on. I find it useful if you fancy trying out some new recipes as well as you can easily notice ingredients that can be used in different meals if it’s laid out in front of you. I’ve noticed there are more and more of these floating about nowadays. Some even double up as a mousemat! Even more convenient!
At the end of the day it’s ok to mess up with these kind of things when you’re learning. You’re probably having to properly take care of yourself for the first time so a lot of it involves trial and error in your shopping and food/drink routine. If you are really struggling you can also go and talk to your university’s finance department that are usually extremely helpful and willing to offer you more grants if you’re on the edge.
For me, after 3 years, I think I have breakfast and lunch nailed. I’ll typically have porridge for breakfast with fruit and either fructose syrup or nutella and a jacket potato with beans/salad/soup for lunch. That makes it around 45p for breakfast and ~£1 for lunch each day. I just need to knuckle down on dinners now, which is much harder when cooking for myself with the addition of my food-hoover-boyfriend.
Know that it takes time. Eventually it will all fit together and you’ll wonder why you were even worried in the first place.