How to Afford London as a Student
“Money, money, money” blasts in my ear as I tap down my monzo to the contactless card machine the barman has gleefully pushed in front of me, while he makes my end-of-mocks celebratory G and T. The short, sharp bleep from the machine as the neon plastic of my card skims the screen signals the last of my weekly budget leave my account. It’s only a Wednesday. Looks like it will be another quiet weekend in for me. This is an all-too familiar story for the many silly students who believed the Big Smoke was for them when they filled out their UCAS (or in my case, Lawcabs) forms. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
London is expensive, and unless you know how to do it right, you’ll find yourself running out of dollar faster than you can say, “student loans company”. The days of £1 Jäger bombs at Kasbah, Coventry’s finest club (I did my undergrad at Warwick) are long gone for me. So, here is everything I have learnt over the past few months in my journey to dealing with the pricey reality of being a student in London.
Accommodation is arguably the most inflated cost you will meet in your move to the big city. Spending between £600 to £800 pcm is very common if you want to live anywhere remotely accessible to central (close to a Zone 2 tube). Although delving deeper into the London villages will certainly take down your costs.
Tip #1 – be close to a tube station wherever you end up. Minimising that commute will be worth the price. However, money can be saved by picking up a spare room in a house (as opposed to student halls) or foregoing the extravagances of large double rooms or ensuites. Just consider what you really value in you day-to-day living space.
As tempting as a wild night at Ministry of Sound or XOYO might be, you will very quickly be disillusioned by their prices. Entry on the door for venues such as these can start at £20 alone, and that doesn’t even take into account transport to and from the venue (which will probably be very far from your cheap(ish) area of London), drinks in there and the inevitable alcohol-sponging, cheesy chips on the way home. Moreover, despite their national hype as some of the UK’s largest and “coolest” clubs, they just aren’t that vibey. As much as you’d like to brag to your friends back in the Midlands about your regular outings to some of Europe’s biggest super clubs, the true Londoner will judge that tragic choice of venue.
Tip #2 – relish the opportunity of being a tight arse and discover the gems in your own neighbourhood.
For example, I live in Hackney, where Dalston, Stoke Newington (affectionately nicknamed "Stokey" by locals) and Finsbury Park have all the excitement I could want. This includes cheap London pubs-turned 80s disco by 11pm (complete with grunge basement at the Three Crowns); colourful and a little bit retro gay bars (like Dalston Superstore); and, boozey bowling at Rowans. And if you must venture out, look for the good deals in the edgier areas – Shoreditch, Camden and Brixton will have more of the night that you are looking for. Don't forget to pick up a £2 cheese bagel from the famous 24-hour bagel shops on Brick Lane if you've ended up in Shoreditch.
Tip #3 – finally, for the weeknight drink with course mates, I regularly use an app called Dusk which gives you a weekly free drink at many pubs and bars. And, don’t forget the student bars – the UCL Institute has some of the cheapest drinks in Central London.
Of course, don't forget the joys of a £5 bottle of Sainsbury's malbec in your own home accompanied by some homemade nosh. Summer will also (coronavirus-permitting) offer the perfect opportunity to sit and graze in London's parks (like Primrose Hill).
London is absolutely full to the brim with restaurants serving every cuisine under the sun, at every price point. No doubt you will want to frequent some of these whilst living there.
Tip #4 – if you are an absolute foody like me, my go-to is always a food market (TCR and Borough Market are favourites) or some other sort of multiple vendor spot – like Dinerama, Boxpark, Flat Iron Square, Pergola or Seven Dials Market. The huge seating areas in these venues are perfect for big groups and there are so many different food stalls to try often priced around £10 a meal.
For actual restaurants, I would recommend always giving them a google for any deals that could be on offer – lots of places, especially near the unis, will do great student discounts.
Another fantastic money saving source is comparethemarket.com, which gives you the opportunity to use Meerkat Meals (2 for 1!) in many local and high-street chain restaurants when you buy an insurance policy through them (like £3 travel insurance for your lads' holiday to Alicante). Note also, where the food is cheap, the drinks might well make up for it - check the price of those too before you decide to cave for an £8 burger and chips, only to find yourself with a bill for a £14 G and T like I did the other day!
Tip #5 – lastly, make use of apps like Karma which let you pick up discounted food that might otherwise be chucked out. This is always a great idea for late nights in the library.
Tip #6 - to save your cash day-to-day, take in a packed lunch and a coffee flask. If you run out, Pret offers 50p off any hot drink when you bring in a reusable cup (making their surprisingly good filter coffee only 49p!)
Many museums in and around London are free or ask for optional donations, meaning that there is no excuse not to go for a gander around some exhibitions. The London Museum operates on this basis and gives a full overview of London’s history, right from the prehistoric times until now. For something a little quirkier, the Wallace Collection on Manchester Square offers an extensive art collection and houses the largest display of armoury in Europe.
Tip #7 – Tate Collective! – signing up for tate collective membership (for 16-25 year olds) will get you £5 exhibition tickets. You could be one of those people on Instagram sharing your experience of Olafur Eliasson’s foggy tunnel (you know, the orange smokey room you’ve been seeing on everyone’s stories).
If you are ballsy and want to get in a little extra cardio, get on a bike and brave the Tour de France peloton that is the London cyclists’ commute. Spend money on the lock, not the bike because it might well get stolen.
Tip #8 – if you are a student, take the time to purchase a student oyster card if you know that you will be travelling a lot (at least Monday-Friday 2x a day). It will likely work out that a monthly travelcard loaded onto it will save you much more than the capped charges on your contactless card or phone – I save about £40 a month this way.
My last tip, which you are likely already considering is to get a job. I don’t need to tell you that a part-time job offers a range of soft and/or practical skills that will look great on a CV and will help you save up that precious beer money.
Tip #9 – start by looking at what jobs your university has to offer. University jobs often offer great hours and flexibility and the opportunity to mix with other students.
Tip #10 – the nature of London means there are a lot of last-minute shifts to be filled at major events. There are so many agencies that supply these events, which do offer a good option. However, if you want more certainty over your work than a random phone call a couple hours before you are due to start, then consider an app called Stint. The app works almost like Uber to display your skills and expertise direct to the business you could be working for, guaranteeing both more suitable hires and reputable employers.
Please comment any money-saving tips you have below!