We explain what your options are if your student finance isn’t enough to cover your university costs, like accommodation or books.

So you’ve found out how much you’re eligible for in student finance, and you’ve realised that your student budget isn’t close to covering all of your living costs at university. 

It’s a common scenario many students and their families face — one that can come as quite a shock once you start crunching the numbers.

So where should you look to make up this financial shortfall? Whether you’re heading off to university in a couple of months, or you still have a while to go, take a look at your options.

Student finance not enough – what you can do

Look for additional funding

Scholarships, bursaries, and grants are pots of money that universities, employers, charities, trusts, and special interest groups give out to students each year.

They’re not just given to those who score top grades, either. They’re awarded for lots of different reasons, including:

  • low residual household income
  • widening participation (WP)
  • care/foster leaver, estranged students, carers (WP)
  • disability (WP)
  • music
  • arts
  • sport
  • placement/year abroad, or travel
  • specified subjects
  • non-UK/international students

But unlike student loans, these don’t have to be paid back.

As you can guess, scholarships, bursaries, and grants are not thrown around willy-nilly. You have to look for what’s available and apply. But with just 29% (UCAS ‘Freshers Experience 2019’ Survey – January 2020) of students actually applying — 76% of whom were successful — the odds are in your favour to try.

Rethink your university choices

If you’re still researching your universities, the choices you make now can shape your student budget – especially if you’re split between very similar courses in different corners of the country.

For instance, when it comes to accommodation, the student rental market can vary from one city to another. London and Brighton are really popular places to live in — not just for students — which means landlords and letting agents can charge more here. By comparison, your rent will stretch further in cities like Liverpool or Plymouth, where there is less demand.

If a nearby university or college offers a course you’re interested in, would it be worth living at home and travelling in for lectures? While you may not enjoy the same independence as you would moving away from home, you would save a tidy sum in rent (and perhaps free laundry too).

The cost of living goes beyond housing too, from your weekly food shop, and getting around, to keeping yourself entertained — location can impact these living costs.

For instance, you may spend less on rent or public transport in Glasgow than in London, but your energy bills may be higher, given that it gets much colder there. And if you’re from the south-east of England, travelling across the country for the holidays or a weekend at home won’t be cheap.

Search, compare, and save universities and courses to make your decision easier.

Choose your housing carefully

Once you’ve settled on your firm and insurance choices, make sure you explore the full range of housing options available to you. Accommodation will be your biggest living expense, but there are ways you can save some cash here:

  • A basic room is really all you need once you’ve put up some pictures and personal mementos, so don’t be wowed by brand new halls, fancy fittings, or massive rooms — these are usually at the more expensive end of the housing spectrum.
  • An en-suite bathroom will push the price up, so look for halls with shared bathrooms instead.
  • Ignore fancy extras you won’t use, like cinema lounges or games rooms.
  • It’s often less expensive if you share communal spaces with more people.
  • Some halls are cheaper if you move your belongings out of your room during the holidays so it can be rented out (to international or summer school students).
  • While being in campus halls for your first year has its benefits, see if renting a room in a house or flat in town would work out cheaper.
  • In second and third year, apply to be a residence assistant for free or discounted accommodation.

See if your family can help

When you’re applying for means-tested student finance, your parents will need to provide evidence of their income, so they’ll already be involved in the finance process. But it’s important to have these conversations with them – even if it can be difficult or awkward – so everyone is on the same page, and you can discuss your options together. 

Even if money is tight, your family may be able to support you in some way, such as continuing to pay your phone bill, sending you a little cash for nights out, or picking you up at the end of term (to save you a train fare). You could even come to some sort of deal, such as if you keep your grades up, then they’ll buy you a new laptop.

However if they can contribute, it all helps.

Take a year out and save up

If the numbers simply aren’t working in your favour, consider waiting a year to apply – or defer, if you already have your place – and use the time in between to work. Even if you pay your parents a little rent, you can still save a pretty penny in that time.

This might seem like a dramatic move, especially if most of your friends are heading to university and you feel like you’re missing out. But if it means that money is less of a stress once you begin studying, it can make for a far more positive university experience.

Plus, a year out can also give you more time to think about your university choices, pick up key skills and experience, and even fit in some travelling. 

Consider an alternative study path

Is a three year undergraduate degree the only path to where you want to get to?

If you have a career goal in mind already, a degree apprenticeship could be worth a look. You split your time between lectures and working in an actual company, who cover your tuition fees in full and pay you a small salary – yes, get paid to learn and kickstart your career.

Many students struggle to find time for career-building activities like internships or work placements, on top of university work, jobs, socialising, and so on, but degree apprentices get this in spades as part of their course.

If you don’t want to commit to three years worth of study – or living costs – there are also shorter qualifications too. Higher National Diplomas (HND) and Higher National Certificates (HNC) are equivalent to the first year or two of a full undergraduate degree, and while not widespread, two-year degrees condense a three-year degree into a shorter length of time. 

You may even decide that further study isn’t essential for that dream career (at least right now). Getting an entry-level position in a company and working your way up can lead to further education and training opportunities along the way. This can give you a far more comprehensive perspective of all aspects of a particular organisation and industry.

Off to university soon?

If university is fast-approaching, but you’re still worried about making your student loan last, here are a few quick ways you can boost your student budget. And if the cost of living is making your next steps harder, here's the latest support on coping with the rising cost of living.

  • Get a part-time job at university: retail, hospitality, babysitting, tutoring, and event work are some of common jobs students pick up to fund their studies. Hit the town in freshers’ week with your CV, check online job boards like Gumtree, or pop into your student union to see if they can help you find something.
  • Get a student bank account: student accounts have a bunch of incentives and facilities specifically to help students get by at university – namely an interest-free overdraft which allows you to borrow up to a certain amount without incurring charges — handy when you’re still a few days away from payday or your next loan.

    Read more about student bank accounts in our guide to managing your money at university.
  • Work through the holidays: use that month off to earn as much money as you can for the term ahead, especially any overtime you can pick up around public holidays. 

    If you’re lucky, you may be able to resume a job you had before you went to university, or if you work for a big chain at university, you might be able to transfer to a branch close to home.
  • Take part in research on campus: you’ll find students and staff running various studies all over campus as part of their research, which they need participants for.
  • Sign up for online studies, groups, and surveys: brands and companies often want to get students’ opinions about their service or product, and will survey a small sample (usually via a third party). This may involve answering a quick questionnaire online, participating in a focus group, or even testing a product. 
  • Sell unwanted stuff: packing for university is the perfect opportunity to clear out any junk that’s gathering dust, especially if your parents have plans for your room, or decide to downsize their home once you leave. This might be that guitar that you never quite stuck to, an old laptop you’ve since replaced, or even larger items like furniture or a car. 
  • Enquire about hardship funds: universities and colleges may offer extra money to students facing some form of financial hardship while they’re studying. This is usually reserved for those who’ve exhausted all other sources of financial support. What’s available will depend on your university/college, and you’ll be expected to show evidence of your income and outgoings (such as bank statements).