There is one thing that students all over the world have in common: budget constraints. With a few lucky exceptions, students live on limited, fixed incomes courtesy of hardworking moms and dads, grants, scholarships, and loans. The pressure to pinch pennies is enormous, but so are the temptations and distractions – especially for students who have moved to the big city from small towns. International students also struggle to rein in impulse buys when confronted with so much novelty.
Unfortunately, the only way to live within a budget is to exercise discipline. The good news is that you don’t have to live like a pauper. Australia is, by and large, a student-friendly country, with concessions for students on most things, like public transport.
Here’s how to live (relatively comfortably) on a student budget in Australia
1) Actually create a budget
You can’t live within your means if you don’t know what they are. So, work out a budget. Many university websites have an easy-to-use budget calculator, and most of them also provide an estimate of the cost of living in that particular city. This is great because the costs of living can differ widely across Australia.
Start as you would with any other budget and work out your total income. Count everything, even the $50 you get from your sweet aunt Edna. Then work out your essential expenses. Start with the roof over your head. If you’re living on campus or in a homestay then you should only have one amount to worry about (everything should be included) but if you’re renting accommodation then you’ll have to think of things like rent, utilities, telephone, TV license, internet, household items, toiletries, food, and insurance. Then there is transport, and other expenses, like stationery and printing and photocopying. Don’t forget bank fees. When you subtract your expenses from your income you get your disposable income. That’s what you get to spend on entertainment, clothes, and goofing around.
(When you’re counting your essential expenses, include some ‘in case’ money. As in, in case you get a dent in your car bumper and you don’t want your parents to know, or, in case you spill cherry liqueur on your flatmate’s $150 law textbook and you have to replace it. This could be anything from $20 – $200.)
2) Kiss your vanity goodbye
Realise that for the next four or so years of your life you don’t need branded clothes, so you won’t die if you buy jeans and t-shorts from discount retail outlets. Besides, most other students are in the same boat as you, so your couture (or lack thereof) is the last thing on their minds.
Next, realise that you don’t need hundreds of dollars’ worth of moisturisers, lotions, shampoos, and conditioners from L’Oreal. There are plenty of cheaper good quality products available. They smell nice and they get you clean, what more do you want when you’re young?
3) Buy in bulk
This applies to everything from toiletries to clothes and food. Join forces with other students, not just your flatmates, and get great bulk discounts on tinned food, washing powder, socks, shampoo, and towels. Buy fresh fruit and veg in bulk from a fresh produce market and split it the same way. There is very little that you can’t buy in bulk and, as mentioned, all your friends are in the same boat, so you might as well as pull together in the name of financial sense.
When you do go shopping (even if it’s not in bulk), make sure you have a list and stick to it. Base your list (as much as possible) on the specials and promotions available. It’s a good idea to include the prices on your list and an estimated total, so you know what you’re in for when you get to the till.
In fact, if you’re worried about your discipline, only take enough cash with you to cover the estimated amount (with a little ‘in case’) and leave your cards at home. You’ll have the most focused shopping experience of your life.
4) Embrace the cash-only life
Credit cards and even debit cards are wonderful. We couldn’t do without them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s easier to keep track of cold hard cash than it is to keep track of unseen transactions on a card that slides so easily in and out of your wallet. So, leave your cards at home as often as possible, especially if you’re going out for ‘one’ drink. One drink can so easily turn into a round for all your new friends down at the docks at 3am.
When you leave home in the morning, take only the cash that you think you’ll need for the day. That’s it. You’ll be disciplined in no time.
5) Convenience isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be
Get your butt into gear and get into the habit of cooking for yourself and packing your own lunches and snacks for the day. A sandwich and cold drink a day, not to mention a bottle of water, maybe some biscuits and chips, and … all add up; and so do the (unhealthy) pre-cooked box meals, takeaways and pies, and other student staples.
It doesn’t take a long time to cook a simple, healthy, nutritious meal, and the leftovers make great lunches the next day. Cook a big stew and freeze portions that you can defrost on the nights when you’re too busy to cook (also a great way to use your bulk veggies). You might find that cooking actually relaxes you at the end of the day, and there is little more satisfying in life than enjoying a delicious meal you cooked yourself.
6) Study the entertainment section of the local newspaper
You’ll find out which galleries have openings (sometimes with free drinks and snacks), which museums have new exhibits (sometimes free entry), which cinemas have discounted matinees, which church is having a fete, which children’s charity is having an auction, which restaurant is having a buffet special … etc.
You’ll find a variety of cheap things to do, things you might not ordinarily try, but which could open the door to a whole new passion.
7) Use pedal power
Most cities in Australia are trying to promote cycling as a viable alternative to driving, with plenty of dedicated cycling lanes. Make use of them. Bicycles are cheap and cycling is good for you.
If you really don’t want to cycle, then use public transport. Again, most cities in Australia have reliable public bus systems and these tend to have concessions for students.
If you have to drive, try to carpool.
8) Earn some on the side
You can supplement your income by getting a part-time job. Waitering is always popular, as are jobs in retail. You might also want to consider becoming a guinea pig. If your university or college has a medical facility, chances are good that they’re going to need test subjects for everything from new drugs to experiments on how drinking coffee and eating chocolate affect sleep – and they pay test subjects.
There are many, many other ways in which you can save money as a student and still live comfortably. It may take some trial and error – and always that discipline – but it’s entirely possible to be happy, healthy, and entertained without bankrupting yourself or your parents.