8 Students share the reality of the cost of living crisis

The economic state of the UK provokes a heartbreaking chain of events for today’s students – affecting numerous areas of the university experience, from social opportunities to academic performance. 

Scarring the current generation of students, the cost of living crisis means basic material necessities, such as adequate food, heating, and study time, are becoming privileges. 

Recent research by Blackbullion reveals that the majority of students are concerned about money. And with the age-old ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ struggling financially too, students are hesitant to seek help, feeling increasingly isolated and noticing their mental health deteriorating.

Stressed, anxious, and depressed, students are experiencing a warped reality of university life, burdened by economic difficulty. As young people on campus share their first-hand experiences right here, Wellbeing Leads can get a better understanding of life as a student in 2024, and how to proactively provide support.

We’ll cover:

The stats: The actual reality of what’s going on

According to 2023 research published by Blackbullion, 9 out of 10 students are worried about money – an increase from 75% in recent years. Previously unmoved by the financial pressures of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, this figure has in fact been shifted by the cost of living crisis.

The financial gap between what students have and what they need is 39% larger than it was in 2022 and shockingly 67% more than in 2021. And with every household impacted by soaring inflation, the open secret of university – the Bank of ‘Mum and Dad’ – can’t necessarily prop students up either. 

65% of students report that the financial crisis has impacted how much their parents or guardians can support them, and almost one quarter are reluctant to ask for help altogether. As a result, students resort to making difficult choices about everyday necessities, cutting deep into their standard of living, choosing between heating and eating, accruing new debt and taking on extra work which compromises their grades.

7 in 10 regularly feeling isolated and 4 in 10 feeling less optimistic about their future.

The additional layer of stress is creating more emotional pressure on students and driving them into isolation with their money worries. 58% of students feeling concerned over financial precarity say it negatively impacts their mental health, with almost 7 in 10 regularly feeling isolated and 4 in 10 feeling less optimistic about their future.

Students’ wider wellbeing is also suffering: over two fifths of students say money worries affect their sleep and 30% say their physical health is impacted. Similarly, over a third have gone hungry and reduced their daily meals, while 1 in 6 has cut back (or considered cutting back) on personal hygiene.

Personal finances are often an emotionally charged topic, so it can be a huge challenge for students to break down these barriers and seek help.

The truth: 8 Students share their experiences

When Vivi Fredugut launched Blackbullion, her desire was to break down the barriers and stigma around talking about money. She explains:

“By destigmatizing money, we can remove blockers to key conversations and encourage more students to seek the help they need so urgently.”

As things get tough, silence on the topic is destructive. In Blackbullion’s landmark research, students open up about their financial, social, emotional, and academic experiences during the cost of living crisis – helping provide an insight into student minds in 2023.

Jake studies a medical degree and is a carer in the NHS. He explains he is extremely strict on heating the house and has been cold countless times. He limits himself to shopping in cheaper supermarkets and relies on reduced sections.

“Mainly it’s made me have to take on more shifts at work, which means I’m struggling to keep up with the work my degree requires. I’m a mature student so I pay for my degree outright with support from my partner for our joint bills. It would be impossible without that support. We had agreed I would mainly pay towards things like food and some of the bills – the two things that have seen the biggest rises in inflation. The net cost/opportunity cost to me per year to take the course has been around £30,000 so it has been a big struggle.”

Noticing soaring inflation in supermarkets, as well as rising energy bills, Jack is making difficult decisions about cutting back – significantly reducing the number of meals he eats, going hungry and limiting his personal hygiene. 

“I’m eating once a day instead of three times, only attending classes I can afford to travel to, not eating at University, and bathing less due to heating costs.”

Jessica is making similar choices, forced to think differently in order to maintain her personal hygiene and struggles from period poverty.

I eat fewer meals (only have dinner and any leftovers for lunch), wash my clothes in the shower because laundry is too expensive in student accommodation, and rely on there being sanitary products available at university.

Eating less, working more and going hungry, Hanah admits to finding the cost of living crisis a testing time. She compromises her study time and experiences shame and guilt around money, relying on free food events and support from her parents.

“I am trying to attend more events with free food on campus.. unfortunately, I have been hit with food poisoning because of this. I have had a terrible time recently. I have had to work several more shifts at work leaving me with little to no time to study. I have borrowed money from my father which is extremely unfair to him because he also has a household to run.”

With little money spare, Vamshi is forced to cut back on commuting costs, avoiding going to campus to study or attend lectures and seminars. He explains that he simply can’t afford university life:

“I can’t afford to satisfy my hunger. In a few situations, I don’t have money to travel to my university. I’m trying to save but every month I’m running out, with about £50-70 less.”

Keila shares the difficult choice she has to make, between one basic necessity and another. The cost of living crisis also means her academic attainment is suffering, unable to dedicate time to studying or afford course materials.

“Most of the time I need to cut my food, because I need to choose between paying for the transport to work or university. The only thing I can cut is the food. Also, I cannot afford the books I need for university, and I have not attended one exam because I didn’t have the book. I am working all the time, I barely have time to study. My grades are dropping drastically.”

Single mum, Sharon has more than one mouth to feed, which is proving difficult as a student. She avoids putting the heating on until absolutely necessary, struggles to afford personal hygiene products and must carefully consider how to stretch food.

“I don’t use the heating unless we might get ill. I have very little to buy food with and I have to make meals last. Sanitary items are expensive and this can prove a problem.”

For Asim, the reality of financial instability is a bleak one. The cost of living crisis has a knock-on effect on his physical and mental health, impacting his ability to study. He simply states:

“Sleepless nights, constant stress, unable to focus.”

The solution: How you can help students proactively

These distressing experiences demand an urgent, acute response. Universities must seek to tackle these challenges by getting serious about communications, deeply creative with problem-solving, building communities, and simplifying how students can access support, explains Vivi.

“It requires a whole-institution approach that supports applicants and students at every stage of their HE journey, from pre-arrival to post-graduation. It includes looking at relevant, practical monetary and non-monetary ways to help, from accessible hardship funding to subsidized food and travel and free health, hygiene, and period products.”

“Now more than ever, it’s the time for universities to collaborate more meaningfully, strategically and imaginatively with industry.” – Vivi Friedgut

Some suggestions of ways to do this include:

Hold conversation starter sessions. Establish a safe environment that encourages students to engage in discussions about money. By doing so, intricacies around financial assistance can be clarified with judgments and concerns diminished. Leaning on student ambassadors to guide these conversations, including icebreakers, means students will feel more at ease and less alone. Peer-to-peer support is the key here!

Encourage students to get involved with financial wellbeing initiatives. Be sure to include students who feel uncomfortable or anxious having face-to-face discussions about money, by building online and social media initiatives – from Talk Money Week to National Student Money Week and Money Confessions.

Provide information about the real cost of studying. Ensuring accurate information about the costs of life on campus has become increasingly important. Before students arrive at university, they must receive guidance on managing paid work and studies. This should be easily editable and updated to reflect changes in the cost of living going forward.

Highlight the facilities available to students that may help support their studies and finances. Promote on-site resources and encourage students to maximize time spent on campus, for instance working in the library instead of at home, taking advantage of any community fridge or cupboards, and staying informed about free events organized by the university or SU.

Support students to find paid work. Finding a job is the surest, tried-and-tested way of earning more money. With this in mind, direct students to the careers team, share information on how to find on-campus jobs and increase the availability of these if possible.

Get in front of students. If resources allow, create a pop-up station to build awareness of the support available to students during the cost of living crisis. With isolated students unsure of where to get help, visibility of staff support and student ambassadors can be key.

Partner with academic staff and other teams. Teamwork is needed to drive change about student financial wellbeing at an institutional level. For example, Nottingham Trent University has introduced financial education as part of some degree courses, to take a proactive approach to helping more students manage their money.

With universities cash-strapped and resources finite, tackling the cost of living crisis on campus may seem like a daunting task. But support can be provided in many ways, and simply listening to student voices shouldn’t be underestimated. With many feeling unable to turn to family, the role of the Wellbeing Lead is absolutely necessary for the student support network.

Combatting the cost of living crisis: Insights and solutions for students

Join TriggerHub’s financial webinar to delve into the profound impact of the cost of living crisis on students and uncover practical solutions for campus communities. Secure Vivi Friedgut, a renowned financial education expert, as a guest speaker for your events, and ensure her insightful book is readily available in the campus library for bulk purchase. 

This is your chance to empower your community with knowledge and actionable strategies to navigate these challenging times.

Are you seeking more inspiration to create a mental health impact? Longing for a hub with resources, tools and training? Unlock exclusive access to PartnerHub and transform your mental health support today. Contact us today to book a free demo and take the first step toward transformative campus change.

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