Surviving Student Life: A U.K. Guide

How to Survive Your First Weeks of University—and Avoid the Mistakes That Screwed Me Over

Drinking is an exciting factor of student life - but the cash adds up.

In the U.K., becoming a student at a university can be a monumental stepping stone in your life; it's the leap away from the confines of your home, your parents, and your friends (and those people you call friends, yet grit your teeth in the company of). At the age of 18, university for U.K. students is also often a gateway to the previously illegal: alcohol, cigarettes, nightclubs, and more (yes, we can do those at that age—apologies, America).

The first few weeks of settling into university is far too often alien, strange, weird but fun—a different environment often spurs on the 'new-me' attitude for many students, and focuses change from 'will I get to see my old home friend before I leave?' to 'can I really afford these new sneakers? I guess noodles for the next few months won't hurt.' You're given money you've (most likely) never had before, responsibilities you've put off for years, and a new group of people you have to work out who you want to be stuck with for life.

So, what exactly should you do? Whilst there can never be a full and die-hard plan you should stick to like a fresher sticks to a pitcher of cheap booze, below is just a rough plan of what you can do (and avoid) to thrive in those first few weeks.

Manage Your Student Loan Early

When your first student loan comes into your bank, you'll feel rich. For many, myself included, it's the most money that you've personally held, and you're responsible for all of it. And you get the urge to spend big—that's pretty normal. But resisting this urge is the key to success at university, and the key to a university experience during your first few months devoid of stress and worry.

Yes, it is hard, and yes, I am a hypocrite in this field. But I feel that gives me the hindsight to say "don't splash the cash," because I'm most certainly paying for that now. The best guidance, and what I do weekly, is to create a really simple Excel spreadsheet to monitor your income and watch your outgoing spending. Create a table for what you NEED to spend, covering accommodation, any bills (sometimes parents don't agree with paying for your phone bill, so we have to account for that) and your weekly food costs. Accumulate this cost for the amount of time until your next student finance payment (typically around January). Then, make a list of your income: the first being your student loan, and then any other sources of income; parents, grandparents, jobs, grants, and scholarships. As above, set the final figure up until your next payment in January, and deduct your outgoing costs from this. If you're 'in the plus', awesome! If not, figure out if you need a student bank account, if you need to cut back on weekly food, or if you need to seek out a part-time job somewhere.

I didn't do this straight away, and as a result, by the time my next payment comes into my bank I will be vastly overdrawn (luckily I have a fee-free overdraft—thanks, NationWide!) so get in there early and avoid the headaches.

To reduce your weekly/monthly spending, look for cheaper phone contracts (SIM only deals are often 5x cheaper than phone+SIM), shop around for the cheapest food that you'll actually eat (near my university is an ALDI, where I can cut my weekly food shop to around £13) and buy pints wisely (don't pay £4.50 for that drink when you can pre-drink at your friend's flat and go to the place next door that only charges £2.50). Little savings add up—trust me.

Alcohol Gets You Drunk—Money Doesn't.

As the caption says, alcohol gets you drunk. The amount you spend on alcohol doesn't. Whilst I hate 'cheap' vodka, and would never touch it (sorry own-brands!), I can tolerate own-brand gin and Amaretto; so, make compromises. See what you are staunchly adamant to keep—in my case, I do love my Ciroc—and see what is exchangeable for a cheaper alternative: often ciders, beers and wines. When drinking out with friends, refuse to buy rounds (because you'll never get the equivalent back) and don't be afraid to buy the cheap option; Strongbow Dark Fruits is an awesome student choice.

But most importantly, be safe. You have all heard about the student horror stories of rape, drink spiking, assault, theft and so much more. And whilst these are rare, and we adopt a 'never-will-happen-to-me' attitude, it's best to keep vigilant. Cover your drinks, and if your friend asks you to cover for theirs whilst they nip to the toilet, do so like you're protecting your baby (or puppy). Look out for each other, because your friends are your safe-keepers, too. Don't drink until you black out, unless you're somewhere safe to do that (your student kitchen counts), and make sure you prepare for hangovers, colds, injuries, and more. Prop a bin next to your bed on the floor—trust me on that one—and place a glass of water with a few paracetamols on your bedside.

If, when recovering the morning after, you face the shock-horror of a ridiculous bank statement from the night before, maybe plan a few (cheap) chill weeks? Movie nights with your buddies, walks to town, and student cinema tickets are all vastly cheaper than nights out, and often make way for the best memories. Always look to improvise; nightclubs are great, but if you're strapped for cash, drinking at your flat over a game of cards is a pretty damn good alternative.

Shopping: A Curse Dressed as a Blessing

Shopping is, honestly, the best thing for students. It kills time, it's a great way to hang out with friends, and, well, it gives you new stuff. New clothes, new books, new plates and bowls and mugs and cutlery, new glasses, new phones, new computer and new stationary. When you're given the independence that hundreds of thousands of students are given, a 'new' thing is often reflective of the new you.

But, as with everything, monitor what you're buying. A student discount is the greatest blessing we face daily, but it amounts to sizeable sums altogether. If you're used to a clothes shop every other week, why not cut down to once a month? Sometimes, shopping online gives the best discounts, too (a good source for men's clothing is Boohoo) and is sometimes most convenient. As for computers, shop around for the best deal, and make sure it's the best choice for you. A £200 chromebook sounds like a bargain, but won't feel like one to a photography or film student. 

The same applies for phones: pick what you need, at the price you can afford. Is it cheaper in the long run to buy your phone outright and pay for a SIM only contract, or would it be easier to buy a phone+SIM package? Sometimes, the newest phones aren't even the best compared to alternate models (I'm looking at you, iPhone X compared to the iPhone 8 Plus...) so check around. A few saved £ will be much appreciated when you're scraping by on a few noodles at the end of December.

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Surviving Student Life: A U.K. Guide