The holidays are over and you are likely in one of two situations. You are either enjoying a newfound fortune (granted a fortune for a student is a $25 Starbucks gift card) courtesy of your generous family members, or your own festive generosity has left you comically light in the pockets.
Whichever situation applies to you, budgeting your funds from here on out is something worth thinking about. It’s a new year, and what better New Year’s resolution that to gain a grasp on your dollar dollar bills? Even better is the fact that, because it’s a New Year’s resolution, you really only have to keep it up for the first weeks of January.
Below you’ll find not necessarily a “guide” to budgeting as much as a list of observations. From a student for students, these are some of the most practical insights I’ve picked up over the past four and a half years living as someone studying at university. My notes span from first to fourth year and touch on all the financial changes that happened along the way.
I spent almost no money in first year. I stayed home, had a meal plan and I used a friend’s Netflix account. An extravagant splurge might have seen me hopping on the subway with some friends and heading to Downsview for discount movie Tuesdays.
I fine-tuned my frugal craft even further in second year, now (unfortunately) free from my meal plan and living in the Village just outside York’s Keele campus. The only time I treated myself to takeout was after an exam, and I dialed in my weekly grocery consumption to an exact science. I am not joking — it got to the point where I knew precisely what I needed to buy and how much to spend so that, come that very same day the following week, I would have just finished eating the previous week’s grocery load. More simply put, if I bought my groceries on Monday, I would just be finishing my last apple that following Monday.
Third and fourth year, however, came to tell a different tale. Less time during the week, more income and a much more consistent friend group equaled more reliance on eating out, blowing off steam during the weekend (bars, exhibits, music festivals, clubs, theatres etc.), and overall just a greater willingness to spend. As I’m sure many a student has felt, after a day of work and/or school, the thought of a quick and easy chicken-strip meal from Popeye’s sounded much more appealing than a laborious medium-well steak and grilled asparagus cooked at home.
Now, in fifth year, I find myself returning to that mind-set from years one and two, not necessarily because I want but because I have to. As someone who has lived the university life both spending the absolute least amount of money possible and teetering on the realm of extravagance, allow me to share some key pieces of insight I’ve picked up along the way:
Get a credit card
They are scary, but they are incredibly useful. To be honest, the only reason I got my first credit card was so I could buy concert tickets myself and did not always have to ask my friends to do it for me, but beyond the reasons of online shopping, credit cards can be vital in helping you make it until your next paycheck.
Let’s say that, for whatever reason, your biweekly pay cheque is half as much as usual (late timesheet submission, you came down with the flu and couldn’t come into work, etc.). You take what you have, pay your rent, hydro and maybe the minimum monthly payment required of your tuition fee (or maybe none of this applies to you, and you’re just terrible with money and you spent more than you should have). With the amount left in your account, food becomes an issue. Not wanting to subject yourself to mercury poisoning from eating nothing but canned tuna, you decide to purchase your food for the following two weeks with your credit card. The following month, you pay it off with your fresh new paycheck, and everything goes back to normal.
If you stay on top of your bill every month (keep that credit score high!), credits cards can be lifesavers in these kinds of situations. Many banks offer very manageable credit cards specifically suited to students and can have you signed up in a matter of minutes.
“I spent $900 over the last two weeks eating out,” a friend of mine recently told me. Though perhaps not always to this extent, I know a lot of people who have similarly suffered from the bug of eating out, myself included. As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to comfortably get through a week on $40-50 worth of groceries, oftentimes even less than that. If you live with friends in the Village, in an outside apartment or even in residence, you can cut the cost even further by splitting the grocery load.
The most common excuse as to why students don’t buy groceries is probably, “I never use everything I buy. I waste so much food.” I’ve found the easiest way to buy an accurate amount of food for the week with minimal wasting is to roughly visualise at least one meal you will eat each day. For me, this is usually dinner, which is often just some variation of meat/vegetable/carb. I’ll buy enough meat (ground beef, a of couple chicken breasts, maybe a small piece of salmon), vegetables (two bunches of spinach, some sweet potatoes) and starch (one pack of pasta, some jasmine rice) to last at least five days — and then just rotate between ingredients when making dinner.
Resist the urge (at least a little)
Say it’s April (it will come), and after a year of paying tuition and not working because of the demands of school, your bank account is bone dry. You’ve squeezed every penny, for the past few months in particular, and now your only saving grace is that you’ve begun your paid summer internship/job. A few pay cheques in, your friends’ invitations to dinners, bars, movies and everything in between that used to seem so expensive all of a sudden appear much more appealing. By the end of summer, you’re eating out at least once a day, going to as many social functions as you can and, despite the fact that you are making money, your bank account looks eerily similar to how it did at the beginning of the summer.
And why shouldn’t it? It’s great to treat yourself to convenience when you can afford it. Although some element of inevitability comes into play when you find yourself with less time and slightly more money, it’s still useful to keep in mind that even though we can spend more, we don’t always necessarily have to.
One easy way to help counteract this slippery slope is to figure out how much you need to maintain the essentials every month (food, rent, commute etc.), and then place that amount in a separate account. Your spending money instantly becomes more tight, making you more likely to think twice before a needless splurge, and you become more confident in knowing that, at least for that month, you’ll be OK.
Commuters: ditch the cash
This one may seem obvious, but the price of a TTC bus ride for an adult using cash is $3.25. The same fare using tokens or Presto is only $2.90. If you’re only taking the TTC twice a day from Monday to Sunday, you’re saving $20 a month.
Also, until the age of 19, students only have to pay $1.95 per fare if they can produce valid ID. While this price is the same whether you are using Presto or tokens, if you are using tokens you have to buy at least five at a time, bringing your total up to $9.75 every time you buy the tokens. The same thing applies if you purchase tokens without the student discount. Even though you are only required to buy three at a time rather than five, you still end up paying $8.70 every time you buy tokens (the adult TTC fare being $2.90).
The discounts through Presto continue with GO Transit. Not only does your discount become larger with every ride you take on GO, but if you register your Presto card as a student and show the required ID, you save even more money — the discount being increased by an additional 7.25 per cent.
Long story short, get a Presto card. They’re only six dollars to buy and they can save you a lot of money.
Use that student discount:
If you didn’t already know, simply being enrolled as a university student entitles you to discounts at a huge selection of stores all across Canada. Clothing, food, transit, electronics —
the amount of discounted items is endless.
Food is a big one. Relating back to the previous point of buying groceries, often grocery stores have specific days during which students can get a discount on their entire purchase. Metro, for example, provides a 10 per cent discount on all groceries every Tuesday and Wednesday.
These insights and suggestions, of course, are all derived from personal experience. If you’d like more professional advice, you can check out a previous post of mine entitled “Money Talks,” where in York’s Manager of Scholarships & Bursaries, Karen Warner, shares her top three financial tips for students, as well as a very comprehensive guide created by my colleague Megan, entitled “Financing University 101: Creating a Budget.” Also incredibly useful are the multitude of resources and services offered by York’s official Student Financial Services.
So that’s it. That’s all I have to offer you fine people. If after taking in this mishmash of personal and professional insight you still find yourself struggling with financial literacy, you can always book a financial advising appointment to help develop a plan specifically suited to your situation.
If you have found something to work particularly well in helping you to save money, please throw it down in the comments, or tweet us at @YorkUstudents. I’m always looking for more advice to steal.