Self-Critique of Four Years of Student Finance

. 8 min read

Now that I'm coming to the end of my studies and telling people that my 'plan' is to travel until I run out of money, I'm starting to get asked where on earth I got that money from, and I thought: well, thats a great question!

Coming to the end of my degree sets me up perfectly for an overview/summary of what my financial situation is like. Previously, all I had were some rough estimates of how much I've been spending and saving, getting some actual numbers to ground me in reality has been incredibly poductive and I highly recommend you try the same.

I'll start by including some relevant details about myself, followed by a summary of my income and expenses over my four years of tertiary education, finally I'll reflect on what I've learnt, what I'd do differently, and some of the ethical questions that should be raised when considering my 'financial strategy'.

About Me

In the UK, student finance is handled quite uniquely; tuition fee loans and 'maintenance fee' loans (and grants) are treated separately. The latter are means tested, meaning students from low-income households receive more support. Neither have to be paid back until one earns more than a certain amount. An easy to digest summary can be found on moneysavingexpert.com.

The reality is I can't rely on my family for financial support, since becoming an adult I've never asked for money (however I have been given gifts). This is relevant because the government places my family in the lowest bracket of household income and thus my student maintenance loan is the lowest and grant the highest. On the same note, and to my surprise at the time, the university that I studied at - the University of Nottingham - also provide a non-repayable bursary for low-income students.

Extra things to consider are my 6 weeks at Korea University International Summer School and my year exchange to New Zealand, this less-than-standard academic track has additional expenses associated with it, not to mention the effect it had uprooting me from my weekend job.

I would like to say that my first two years of university reflect a 'fairly standard' student budget, but I'm not sure that's true (especially since I wasn't tracking my expenses back then). I say this because even early on I wouldn't spend much on expensive food, go to restaurants, or even drink much alcohol... Either way, if I started with a frugal mindset it was amplified when I heard about early retirement; the last two years of my degree,I really learnt how to penny pinch, in my most extreme case (whilst tracking) I've spent $30 on food per month. Even expenses like September 2016 in New Zealand seem excessive at this point, despite only spending a quarter of my demographics income. My flatmates would joke about when I'll be joining them for my next monthly shopping trip. Not that it wasn't hard work to develop this kind of mentality, the reality is I've just kind of normalised this level of frugal-ness.

The Numbers

All in GBP unless otherwise stated.

Year 1

Childhood Savings ~ 400

One grade away from a 1000 scholarship.

Student Halls - 4938.40
Catered accommodation on campus.

University of Nottingham Core (low-income) Bursary - 2000

University of Nottingham Global Travel Bursary - 750

Korea University U21 Scholarship - 500000 WON

Korea University International Summer School - Not tracked but I was definitely not frugal while here.

Student Finance:

Grant - 3387
Loan - 3862
Tuition - 9000

Carry Through ~ 2200

Year 2

Rent - 290.40/pppm
10 month contract.

University of Nottingham Core Bursary - 1000

2:1 Scholarship - 200
Incentive for Physicists to get their fundamentals down; a welcome reward for a good first year grade.

Weekend Job - 911.17

Student Finance

Grant - 3167
Loan - 4157
Tuition - 9000

Carry through ~ 6000

With 1000 of that in a 'Help to Buy ISA', something I recommend to anyone in the UK. Also, note the shorter academic year due to study abroad starting early.

Year 3

For a finer breakdown see my Study Abroad Expenses.

University of Nottingham Core (low-income) Bursary - 3000

University of Nottingham Global Travel Bursary - 500

Student Finance

Grant - 3387 + (1536.76 travel bonus)
Loan - 5314
Tuition - 1350

Carry Through ~ 6800 (Jul)

Due to (percieved) uncertainty in my finances (due to being abroad) I stopped regularly adding to the ISA, this was not a good idea.

Year 4

Rent - 240pppm
I have yet to pay bills for Year 4 (Aug)

University of Nottingham Core (low-income) Bursary - 3000

America - Expenses Log

Crypto - 500
Thought I'd try my hand at cryptocurrency/tokens, pretty risky though and I have no idea what I'm doing so not worth writing about.

Student Finance

Grant - 3482
Loan - 3879
Tuition - 9000

Net Worth

(Kinda) At time of graduating.

Current Account ~11000
Help to Buy ISA ~2700
Crypto ~760

Depts

This doesn't include interest over the years.
Maybe I shouldn't even include my student loans under debt... a more accurate description is "graduate contribution system" (in the UK).

Maintenance Loan ~17212
Tuition Loan ~28350

What I've Learnt

Gratitude! I hadn't realised just how much support I've been given until I added it all up:

  • Total Scholarships: 10500
  • Total Grant: 14959.76

this is honestly a jaw dropping amount of money to see that's been invested into you.

As a bachelor, with an average income of 17750 (over the past four years) I am more than able to cover my already very comfortable lifestyle. This has helped put career goals into context and how much I value a high wage versus a satisfying/motivating job.

With average savings of 3615 per year I have massively over estimated my savings rate. At this rate (~20%) it will take me 37 years to retire! All else being equal, I'd have to be earning just around 70000 per year to achieve my goal of an 80% savings rate! ...Since I can only think of ways I'd like to start increasing my spending, I'm not quite sure how realistic that goal is anymore!

What I'd Change

God it's so embarrassing to admit that most of those 'savings' are in a current account. I should have been "making my money work" by using a savings account or contributing to a cash ISA.

If money was my primary motivation it's honestly worth bringing up whether getting a degree (especially a masters) is worth it. Not only have I accrued a dept, I've missed out on four years of opportunity costs! Luckily, money isn't my only motivation and I'm thankful for what I've had the privilege to experience, even if it did get stressful!

One of the largest expenses as a student is ones accomodation, having experienced catered halls, room share, and flatting I can say I don't regret going into campus accomodation in my first year. Having said that it is quite excessive and I strongly believe you can get the same social environment in self-catered and/or room share accomodation. Another option is living with family while studying. This can be an incredibly financially sound choice, for those who have it, especially if your family are the type not to charge rent. However, from what I hear, one must make a proactive effort to socialise in first year.

Investment in oneself, especially whilst young, has compounding value. I would even go as far as saying both literally and figuratively. Health and self-education are things I became too cheap with.

Difficult Questions with Difficult Answers

As I've said, making this summary has been eye opening. Firstly, it's simmered down my ego regarding my savings. If it wasn't for the grants/bursaries over the years I would have been forced to drop out and/or get a job. This appreciation has raised some questions which I'll walkthrough now...

Responsibility of not 'wasting' a good education

Over the last four years I've been developing a deep specialisation in Physics, giving me a unique skill set. Although I'm confident that I will always use the broader, 'scientific problem solving traits' that I've learnt, I'm uncertain about how much I'll apply the knowledge that I've been taught. Society has invested in me gaining this knowledge, hasn't it? And who's fault is it if I turn out to be a bad investment? If I decide to move out the country, or not use these skills (by going into a totally different profession, like writing for example).

Similarly, I have gotten this opportunity in place of someone else, someone who may or may not have been a better investment, someone who could have made more use of it.

Responsibility of not 'wasting' my financial position

One of the first things in my notes on The Richest Man in Babylon is:

A wealthy person will quickly become poor if they do not have a stream of income to keep their purse full

Having savings means having the ability to "make your money grow", should I really loose my advantage by travelling? It's conceivable that even in just a few years I'd be able to invest in real estate. Instead, I'm just letting my money dry up. On the other hand one could view travel as a risky investment, a gamble that the experiences and character development I gain from travelling will pay off in the long run. Not to mention to inspiration it may yield for business plans.

Questioning the ethics of potentially not returning the money invested in me

Firstly, most people don't pay back their student finances... in full. But they also don't take steps that lead to not paying it back at all (choosing a lower income path, or moving abroad). If everyone done what I may do, the money would dry up and people who really need it would find it harder to get an education. To try and get objective about this, the payment method is agreed upon by the student loans company if I don't meet the criteria then I don't pay - simple as that. I don't think not repaying a student loan this way is wrong, what I'm not sure is if it's bad and if it is, is it enough to change my plans?

Related: Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics - Stefan Molynuex

The bursaries are an entirely different question... they're essentially donations from alumni intended to help those in difficult circumstamce, how would they feel if they found out they are basically paying for my travelling? Having said that, because of them, having a summer/weekend job has been optional which has been huge. I'm actually kind of okay with scholarships/grants as there is no agreement on how it gets spent, a stoic person would know that as soon as it leaves their hands they have no control on how it gets spent.

Related: The Enchiridion - Epictetus

Motivated to make use of this opportunity while I can

This feels like a key time in my life, and tied to my doubts about wasting my financial position, is fear that getting employed, after a long of being away, is more difficult. Not only that but the motivation for how hard I've been working so far has been from the structure and deadlines of university. I wonder how my attitude will change without that - I suppose this is perfect practice to see if I even like the early retirement lifestyle!

On the other hand, I have the age old excuse: I'm still young; and although one way interpretting that is that each decision I make now exponentiates for longer, like the butterfly effect, I instead prefer to think that means I should be considering weather or not I can make that decision! While I'm young I don't have as much weight holding me back, its still easy to switch course if I think Im going in the wrong direction!


My mind has been all over the place with these topics, as you might tell from my writing! If there are any comments, questions, or criticisms don't hesitate to post in the discussion section!



Graeme Russell

I created this blog as a way to reach people about topics I care about: ethics, self-improvement, and lifestyle. I hope you can find something of value here.

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