Thousands of young New Zealanders will be heading off to the big wide world of tertiary study for the first time this month. For many, success will come down to how well they handle their finances.
Student poverty is romanticised in our society, says Daniel Haines, president of the the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA). The reality is that the extreme financial distress a chunk of students find themselves in is no fun at all. It's extremely hard to live on a student allowance. But students, like other people, can make poor financial choices that compound their woes.
Those who master the art of money management will have a better time, however, than those who spend without thinking.
I have mixed my favourite student finance tips with some from organisations such as StudyLink, Sorted.org.nz, Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and NZUSA, and recent graduates:
• Create a budget. Students have many financial choices to make. The great thing about the B-word is that it gives you insights into your spending and your financial behaviour. Following a budget can result in lifelong lifestyle changes. Students who don't budget will go on to be workers who don't budget. Even on a doctor's or an engineer's salary they may not be able to make ends meet if they don't know how to manage money. StudyLink's Sussed tool will give you an idea of the total weekly living expenses to do the course of your choice. Then go to sorted.org.nz to get started with a budget.
• Plan. If you can think beyond Friday night then you'll manage your money better. Plan your whole degree to avoid wasting money on unnecessary courses, says Paula Case, marketing adviser at Sorted.org.nz who is not long out of university. StudyLink general manager Susan Kosmala recommends students apply for loans and allowances as soon as they can because it can take about eight weeks for loans and allowances to be granted. Don't leave it until you get into a financial crisis.
• Apply for scholarships and grants. Not all scholarships and grants go to super-brainy students. For example, at MIT the South Auckland Health Foundation (SAHF) Scholarship offers up to $5000 to Counties Manukau residents who are willing to work in the region for two years upon graduation. The Betty Loughhead Soroptomist Scholarship offers variable amounts to female students aged over 25 who wish to train for a work-related course. Universities and polytechnics offer grants and vouchers to students who have exhausted all other means of making ends meet. Student associations also offer parcels and emergency hardship money, says Haines. Free or subsidised health and dental care are also available.
• Work. Work may be a four-letter word. But plenty of students work up to 20 hours a week. The University of Auckland recommends students work part-time for the experience. No student studies from 6am until midnight non-stop. Even if study is a 40-hour a week job, plenty of workers put in longer hours than that. One newly graduated AUT student who now works for a tertiary institution earned extra cash at one-off events such as rugby games and concerts. Student Job Search at SJS.co.nz has lots of part-time jobs for students. Many of the jobs on offer this week paid more than the minimum wage, with some, such as casual tutoring work, paying more than $20 an hour. "If you're really good academically, you can (also) tutor other students (at university)," says Case.
• Make money-saving a contact sport. Some people really enjoy the art of saving. Look for one way each week to spend less. Sometimes that requires a radical rethink of your approach to life - such as taking up cycling to save on transport costs. Shop for food at weekend markets such as Avondale, Takapuna and Otara. Make a point of finding out where the best student discounts are, and if you need whatever they're selling, shop there. A couple of Case's friends shared a room to save on costs. And she entered competitions to win things like food vouchers and pub tabs.
• Don't own a car. Cars and parking eat money. The best thing to do is walk, or ride your bike. Up to 15km each way for a cycle commute is quite do-able for most people. If really necessary use public transport.
• Manage your internet and telephone costs. Internet and phone bills eat into student money. Some pay as much as $100 a month for all-you-can-eat wifi and fall for the "free phone" rort that ends up costing hundreds of dollars more a year than the same phone bought up front but used on a basic $16 to $20-a-month pay-as-you-go package. Case used the university's wifi to cut down on internet costs at home. At least shop around. Flip.co.nz offers unlimited wifi and New Zealand landline calls for $85 a month.
• Move back home with your parents. This only works for students whose parents live in a main centre. If they do live locally, or you can switch universities, then it makes a lot of sense to live at home. Some students can live for free. It's probably better if parents charge a modest amount for living expenses to teach their young person some valuable money lessons.
• Spend less on groceries. Do the maths for a few weeks and work out what it costs to make certain meals. Those with a lot of packaged items, expensive meats, or gourmet ingredients that your parents take for granted may turn out to be quite expensive. Living on mince and rice every day may, however, get boring, so learn to cook and look up "grub on a grant" type recipes.
• Bring lunch. It's so easy and can save lots of money. The AUT graduate quoted above always bought her lunch, but realises now that it wasn't kind to her wallet. Eating out whether it's in the day or the evening is costly.
• Shop second-hand. Case always bought second-hand text books on Trade Me. Others swallow their pride and buy from op shops. "You can find some great bargains and Auckland's K Rd is a gem in this respect," says the AUT graduate. For that matter, don't shop at all. Most of the things we buy aren't necessities.
• Drink less booze. Alcohol costs a small fortune, even if you buy before you go out and pre-load as some students do. Don't be too hard on yourself, but limiting the number of times you go out per week or the amount that you drink each time will free up money and be good for your health.
• Check out the job opportunities. Don't study a profession which is already overrun with graduates. You need to know if your investment is going to pay off, says Kosmala. She recommends students look at the Occupation Outlook 2014. It shows at a glance the likely income and job prospects in various occupations.
• You don't have to spend it. Just because you can get a student loan doesn't mean you should or that you have to spend it all. It's best not to have the loan in the first place. You may, says Kosmala, be able to get $170 a week living costs. If you move home you'll have a lot less to pay back when you graduate. "It's about choices," she says.
• Learn from others. Ask other students how they make ends meet. They won't all be given it on a platter by their parents or be spending way beyond their means. Avoid those who have a chip on their shoulder or a half empty cup. Most universities have budget advisory services or can point students to a local one. The people who work in these services have seen it all. Your situation won't be unusual and they'll have useful suggestions.