Britain is currently in the grip of a three-fold cost of living crisis. The covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have driven prices up, with the real effects of our recent departure from the EU being somewhat masked behind these other global socioeconomic and political flashpoints. Inflation is spiralling with the cost of everyday items and, particularly, fuel/energy costs, rising at an alarming rate.
With this in mind, I wanted to share some tips to use if you’re worried about your stretching your finances. They might help you to reassess your budget and remain on track until either your PhD or the economic crisis is over – and it’s looking like many of us will complete our studies first.
Value of Stipends
If you are undertaking a funded PhD, you will receive an annual stipend, paid to you on a monthly basis. These differ but the average seems to be around £15,000 per year, which is untaxed. However, that stipend is not the equivalent of a living wage in the UK at present for those over 23 years old – that would be £19, 760, with a take-home pay of £17,013 after tax and National Insurance. For those of us over 23, then, the stipend already works out as less than the UK minimum.
Of course, as the economy changes and the cost of living increases, that stipend relatively falls. Your money won’t stretch as far, and since many of us are seeing this change during our studies, that stipend will reduce during the course of your PhD.
Budgeting is crucial to making your money last. Few of us have been trained in this, and it can be difficult to learn the skills and discipline necessary – but it is crucial that you know how much money you have coming in, and how much is going out.
Work out your current income and expenditure. You can do this via a host of apps that have appeared which can help you to budget. Some will link directly to your bank account, helping you to budget without having to print statements and such. In these apps, you can set up categories and limits on spending, so that you’ll receive a warning if you go over budget. This is similar to the way smart energy meter screens work and can be useful for keeping track without spending a lot of (valuable study) time on your finances.
Of course, you can also go the old-fashioned route. Print out your most recent bank statement and go through it line by line. Look at where you spend money – highlight your priorities, then start deciding what you need and what you don’t for the rest.
Here’s the difficult part – start pruning non-essential items and decide what you can live without. You might need to say goodbye to one of those umpteen subscription services you have. Yes, this is hard – it’s become a condition of sociality that you keep up to date with the latest shows and movies – but it’s worth asking yourself what you really get for the money. Often we sign up on a whim, or forget to cancel a free trial, and are stuck paying for services we hardly use.
Look at expenditure on items like food. Can you cut your costs by buying own brand or cheaper versions of your favourite foodstuffs? Could you go to a different supermarket altogether, such as Lidl or Aldi whose business models are based on providing high-quality food at low prices? (N.B. this is not an advert – it’s up to you to make these decisions, but any brand name suggestions from me are simply coming from experience!).
For some, you’ll be funding your own PhD study through loans or savings – this one is particularly important for you, but applies across the board. Please, please, don’t try to fund yourself through credit – it will come back to bite you.
Credit seems like a useful get-out-of-jail card when finances are tight. We often look positively at the future in situations like these, assuming that getting the credit will put us on a track where we’ll have more money in the future and be able to clear our feet. However, life is full of sudden, surprising twists and turns and, unfortunately, those of us who rely on credit most are often the ones whose lives takes chaotic twists.
You never know what situation you’ll be in, so you absolutely cannot predict your ability to clear those debts. The best bet is to avoid credit completely, if at all possible. If it’s essential, make sure you budget first and assure yourself that you can afford your repayments.
There is plenty of debt advice available if you’re already in this situation – the best first port of call is your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about savings during a cost of living crisis. However, we’re all in different situations financially and, if you are careful with money and have anything to spare, it’s a good idea to stick it in a savings account. Interest rates have been raised significantly so you’ll get more return on those savings just now.
Putting just £50 a month away nets you £600 a year without any interest on top. During times like these, that £600 safety net could get you out of a tight spot. If you do your banking online, Monzo has a great facility to round-up your spending – all of the spare change gets deposited in a savings pot. Plum is another service that connects to your bank and allows you to set up various saving rules – once set up, it will run them weekly and deposit the money in your Plum account, and you also have the option of opening high-yield savings accounts.
Working while studying
As a 42 year old student, the stipend alone is not enough to live on. I’ve carried out a lot of extra work during my PhD, mostly in my capacity as a freelance artist-designer-whatever-you-need-me-to-be. It can be tough juggling both, but if there’s one thing that robs you of drive and motivation, it’s financial worry, so I found that the extra work mitigated the worry and in the long run, it was better to be tired than stressed.
If you’re able, try taking on some part-time work. You can often find out about jobs through your HEI and, occasionally, vacancies with the university will come up. I’ve undertaken a lot of work with Dundee University as my client during my study – I’m doing a comics studies course, so when comic work comes up, I’m high on the list. It will be different for everyone, but keep your ear to the ground, and always be available!
Also look out for internships that relate to your research or more generally your study. SGSAH run internship throughout the year in a variety of roles – such as the blogging internship I’m currently undertaking! These roles can help you gain new skills, provide you with a different outlet for your research, and meet other students. The extra money you receive can keep the wolves from the door just that little bit longer.
This is a long article, because this is a pressing issue for many of us right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re managing your finances during your studies and the present crisis we’re in, so please feel free to comment!