10 money mistakes I made in my first year at university

Jack Donkin, 19, has just completed his first year at the University of West England in Bristol, where he is studying for a marketing degree. So what has he learned about budgeting? Enough to make sure he doesn’t make these 10 mistakes again next year…


As with all freshers, leaving home last September brought me new-found independence. And with this independence, came freedom to spend money in whatever manner I saw fit.

This meant constantly weighing up ‘necessary’ from ‘unnecessary’ expenses – Jägerbombs versus bus fares, for example, eating out versus text books. It sounds easy on paper but, it’s not always in practice.

If you have already made it through university, I’m sure you will empathise. And if you haven’t, perhaps these 10 money mistakes I made in my first year will help you. After all, so long as you can see them coming, they’re effortlessly preventable.

1. Shelling out full price for textbooks

In year one, the majority of recommended textbooks will only be valid for duration of fresher’s. Unaware of this, I naively wandered to the university bookshop and paid full price.  What I should have done, is to buy the books I needed from second-year students who, no longer requiring them, were looking to sell.  Sellers are easy to find on Facebook fresher’s pages.

Alternatively, university bookshops – and even high street stores such as Blackwell’s – may sell previously-used text books at a discount, having bought them back from other students. 

While I paid full price upfront for mine, at least I realised this much and (after minimal usage!), sold them back to the university bookshop for £50 – half of what I originally paid.

2. Shopping as a lone wolf

Acquainting yourself with people who have similar tastes is a virtue – especially when it comes to your budget at uni. By shopping together, cooking together and drinking together you can take advantage of 2-for-1 and 3-for-£10 offers on food and multi-buy crates of alcohol.  Your bank balance (and stomach if one of your flatmates is a culinary genius) will thank you for it.

Had I taken a communal approach to supermarket shopping from the start I would have saved a considerable sum of cash, while vastly improving my nutrition levels – a classic working example of economies of scale.

3. Paying for other people’s taxis

If you are taking a taxi, booking it in advance and agreeing a fare is the cheapest way to do it. But make sure you collect the funds fairly too. In a taxi of six there are always (always) at least two people who have ‘only got a £20 note’.  Have your coins ready for your share, and make sure everyone else does too before you drive away. It’s when £1 and £2 coins become gold-dust.

4. Underestimating the cost of ‘cheap restaurants’

Musicians Ed Sheeran and Example may have a ‘black card’ from Nando's entitling them to life-long free meals from the budget restaurant. But while you are at uni even cheap eateries like this one are COMPLETELY unnecessary.

If you go to Nando's you WILL spend about £12. From experience, you will probably also go twice a week – and that’s £24 on chicken that you didn’t need to spend. Getting into the habit of casual eating out – even if it’s cheap – is budgeting suicide at uni. Definitely one for special treats only.

5. Lending to a mate (it may be the last you see of your money)

Lending to a friend is something that most of us do from time-to-time, and most of the time, we also get our money back. But lending at uni is different. People have much less income from paid employment and are unable to source money elsewhere (ie, from parents).

Many of those who want to borrow money are also so overdrawn that they cannot access cash from their bank accounts even if they wanted to; to the extent where I felt guilty for asking for money back.

Granted, if a pal really needs some cash, then do it but my advice is, ‘lend with caution’ and don’t lend again until the first debt has been repaid.

6. Overspending on ‘rounds’ in pubs

Personally, I have faith in the ‘rounds’ at a pub, but when you go for £1 pints and spend £25 having drunk eight, you know something is wrong.  Every group has ‘that guy’ that avoids their round, drinks half the pitcher or ‘vanishes’ when required to shell out. I suggest each putting £10 or so into a ‘kitty’ at the start of the night, and designating a trusted treasurer to go to the bar.

7. Underestimating tactical supermarket shopping

Here’s the three most common supermarket shopping mistakes I made during my first year at uni:

Mistake one – going while I am hungry. In this scenario, you will buy food you want in that moment of time ultimately punishing yourself later in the week when all you have is sausage rolls. Buying food for future meals is the way forward, so eat before you leave.

Mistake two – missing the ‘golden hour’.  The ‘golden hour’ being the term used to describe food price reductions. Reduced meat, veg and ready meals…time it right and you can fill your basket for under a tenner. Simply utilise your freezer.

Mistake three – buying branded. Never overlook supermarket ‘basics’ versions of products. Granted there are a few poor quality items, but a lot of the meat-free and carb-based basic versions are equal, if not better, than branded alternatives. I was a sucker for expensive ‘lightly salted Dorito’s’ for example, until I discovered ‘Sainsbury’s Basic Tortilla Chips’. Give it a go and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

8. Paying for societies (clubs) you will never go to

Fresher’s fairs, simply put, are societies trying their hardest to get you to give them your money so they can remain open under strong financial pressure from the Student's Union.

My first year mistake here was signing up for multiple ‘beneficial’ societies, paying the membership fee, (generally £5 to £10 per club) and not once attending. I even found myself deleting the weekly newsletter without so much as speed-reading it through.

Be prepared to be sold to and ask yourself, ‘Will I still want to do this by Christmas?!

9. Keeping my savings and weekly spending money together

I was lucky to be able to go to university with a decent savings cushion. And last year I also received a monthly payment, equivalent to £80 a week, from my parents to cover living expenses. But combining this money with my savings account proved financially lethal.

A budget of £80 a week should be ample for any student, but mixing that with my savings meant my weekly outgoings became immeasurable. I ended up averaging almost £120 per week, which meant my savings slowly dripped away – worst thing being that you hardly notice it!

My advice: separate savings from your living allowance and transfer one to the other only when absolutely necessary. Start out wise about budgeting and you won’t go wrong.

10. Considering a 16-25 railcard ‘too expensive’

I cannot stress enough the importance of buying a 16-25 railcard before you go to uni! This card, at a cost of £30, saves you 1/3 on all UK rail travel for 12 months. Now for the maths.

A return ticket from Bristol to my home in Alsager in Cheshire, costs £64, so that would be £42 with a railcard. Just on the first trip then I could have saved £22, which is more than 70% of the railcard cost. Two returns, and the investment has been fully paid off, with an additional £15 saving!

Many students, including myself, delayed buying the railcard as £30 seemed like large initial outlay. I finally got around to buying mine in January this year but, had I made the purchase when I started uni, I would have been £88 better off – one of my most expensive mistakes.

Being a student goes hand-in-hand with financial hardship, but you don't need to make things harder than they need to be. I won't make any of these mistakes again when I go back to university in September but, having read them, hopefully you won't make them at all!

Please note: any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

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