I originally published this post on 31st March 2013, and then updated it for September 2018. BM
I have just read a odd article in The Independent that suggests 11 things that students should buy.
It provides suggestions such as “Fairtrade produce” and a “toastie press”. I’m assuming that the writer has either never actually been to university or was in the privileged position of their parents paying for everything! Here are my suggestions…
Plastic food containers
As a student you will cook a LOT of pasta. And rice. And cous cous if you can find it cheap enough in large bags. However, you may notice that cooking these things takes up valuable time you could spend studying, drinking or procrastinating on Reddit or Twitter.
Cooking in bulk is a big time-saver, and you can facilitate that by storing food in plastic containers. You can pick up half a dozen of them for less than £5 from places like Wilkinson, or you can even use your old lunchbox from high school.
As the previous point suggested, the most economical foodstuffs you can buy are pasta, rice, noodles and large bags of cous cous. They taste very bland, but you can shake things up with store-brand jars of pasta sauce, salt, pepper or Tabasco.
The best meat you can buy is minced beef, because you can freeze it and use it later for more nutritious bolognaises, with the help of a tin of sliced tomatoes. The cheapest meat is the questionable kind that floats in a tin of curry sauce and can eat with a side of boiled rice.
This is one point where The Independent and I agree. Having access to your own printer means that you do not have to buy your university’s expensive “printer credits”, and you have the security of being able to print out your work at the last minute in emergencies, instead of struggling to find a university machine to use.
I normally recommend cheap HP printers as the toner cartridges are not too expensive, and you can still buy compatible refills over a 3-4 year period. Avoid printers from Epson and Lexmark if you can, because the former can be unreliable, and the latter has expensive toner cartridges and driver issues Apple Macs.
Before replacing a toner cartridge that the printer claims is empty, try taking it out, shaking it and putting it back in again. You can then eek out an extra 10-20 pages.
You are probably not using a desktop PC, but if you are then it is worth noting that you are probably going to be living in a different place each academic year, and then return to your parents’ home over the summer. A laptop is not only lightweight and space-saving, but you can also bring it around a study partner’s house and to lectures to catch up on Facebook …I mean take down notes!
If you are prone to repetitive strain injury, or have more specialist needs, then you can also pick up a wired USB mouse and keyboard kit from Argos for around £10-15. Avoid wireless peripherals unless you are willing to regularly spend money replacing the batteries.
Also, when you’re buying expensive electrical items like this, double-check for student discounts. Sony, Toshiba, Acer and Dell will usually apply a discount when you buy direct from them, so long as you can provide proof you are a student.
Apple also has its own education store, and Macbooks are a popular choice with new students. You should be aware though that your course may require you to use software that does not run on your machine without Windows. Thankfully this is becoming less of an issue, as applications increasingly run on “The Cloud”, but it is still a problem that you might run into.
Your fellow housemates will probably eat anything expensive you store in the communal fridge, drink your milk, and move onto your booze when they get drunk and run out of their own. A mini fridge is your private luxury, to store those special food items you want to consume yourself. It might set you back around £30, but you will thank me later for suggesting this.
Whiteboard or Online calendar
The previous version of this blog post suggested a whiteboard, but everyone has access to an online calendar on multiple devices these days.
Ideally you should have a way of viewing all of your assignment deadlines and exam dates at a glance. Your Google/Outlook/iPhone calendar should have some kind of “agenda” view that performs this function.
If you do decide to opt for the low-tech option of using a whiteboard like I did, then you can pick one up for about £3 from Wilkinson.
In 2013 this was not a guarantee, but in the year 2018 it is safe to assume that you probably own a smartphone of some description. The key benefit is that it saves you buying other things like a digital camera, personal organiser, maps, music player, TV, etc. Also your student accommodation is unlikely to have a landline phone connection, so this is a necessary alternative.
You may wrinkle your nose and gesture a certain finger at me for saying this, but forget any ideas you had about buying Fairtrade or free range food while you are at university, unless you are willing to make some major financial sacrifices, or your parents are paying for everything.
The likes of “Taste the Difference” or “Finest” food are even further removed from student reality. Think “Tesco Everyday Value” and “Sainsbury’s Basics” ranges. If you have not heard of Lidl or Aldi before, then you will have done by the time you leave university!
Store brand products can be a little “hit and miss”. There are handy workarounds for most things though, like mixing baked beans with ketchup to thicken that up. Store-brand curry tastes a lot less like gruel if you add some of that Tabasco you bought earlier. You will find some tricks of your own as you re-adjust your tastes to fit your budget.
Avoid buying microwave “ready meals” if you can, as they consume a lot of your weekly shopping budget. Also, buying booze to “pre-drink” before a night out is a great way to keep control of your spending and save money at expensive bars and nightclubs.
Does this really need an explanation? Some good printer paper, highlighters, a stapler, and a few pens are really helpful. You should only buy more specialist equipment like protractors, calculators, etc if your subject actually requires them. You can use the calculator app on your smartphone for assignment work, but you will need the real deal if you have to take an exam.
Okay, this is not really something you “spend money on”, but your student bank account is going to be your chief source of income, as it provides an interest-free overdraft and a place for your student loan to arrive.
You should use Martin Lewis’s money-saving website to compare the best student current accounts, but make sure you are able to bank online. The main benefit is that it enables you to track your bank balance in real time, and ensure that you keep within your planned budget. Failing that, it can help you avoid being charged for exceeding your overdraft limit before you have the chance to fix the situation with some part-time or seasonal work.
Unfortunately, just because you are a student with very little money does not mean that you get to dodge your financial obligations.
It no longer matters if you are watching Live TV or not. If you watch TV shows on any catch-up TV service, Sky Go or YouTube, then you are legally required to pay for a TV License. Click here for more information.
There is a lot of misinformation about this, but in summary: Inspectors know that students are the most common offenders, and they will send letters and people around to check. If you get caught without a TV License, that can result in a trip to court and a big fine.
Fortunately you have the choice of paying for a year up-front, or by monthly direct debit. If you choose the former option, then you can claim back three months at the end of the academic year to account for the summer that you are not present at the property.
Before investing in this, double-check with your parents that your valuables are not already covered by their home insurance. If they are not, then you should at least consider insuring your valuables. It is very easy to lose things around campus, or in bars on drunken nights out. Thieves also know they can target student accommodation between terms when people are less likely to be around or report the theft in a timely manner.
If you are going to be late paying your rent, then you should tell your landlord as soon as possible. That can sometimes prevent them or your letting agency charging additional interest on the late payment. If Student Loans Company seems to be taking a long time to disburse funds, then make sure you keep contacting them until they pay you the agreed amount.
Similarly, if you damage something, tell your landlord straight away. That ensures you maintain a good relationship with them, and they are less likely to penalise you at the end of the year when you ask for your deposit back. (Also, make sure you actually ask for your deposit back. Letting agencies know students do not always do this, and they are more than happy to pocket the cash!)
Bonus: Things your university accommodation does not provide
If you are living in halls accommodation, then your university should issue a list of things that you do and do not need. For private accommodation, you should ask about this at the viewing stage, or get in touch with your landlord about it.
Also, double-check what is included in the rent. Some private landlords skip broadband, electricity or water. Some pay your TV License for you. It is all in the rental agreement you sign before the start of your tenancy.
Optional things to spend your money on
Here are some things you can spend your money on if you are actually going to use them, but you do not have to:
- NUS Extra card
- Gym membership
- Young Person’s Rail Card
- Student societies
- Additional courses