Good financial planning can help you avoid a financial crisis so you can focus on your studies and graduate with as little debt as possible. You shouldn’t wait until you’re living on your own for the first time to start learning about your new responsibilities as a student. Whether you’re moving into residence on campus or renting an apartment, whether you’re buying a meal plan or cooking for yourself, you’ll be forced to adapt to a whole new set of financial obligations and challenges. Here are some tips to help you develop a good financial plan, keep it up throughout your studies and prevent a financial crisis.
Create a realistic budget
List all of your sources of monthly income and when you anticipate receiving them.
This includes your net employment income (your take-home pay, after taxes); the total amount of any savings you have; scholarships, bursaries or awards you receive; government assistance you receive; any money you’ll receive from family or friends; your RESP, RRSP or Trust withdrawals and any other money you plan on receiving.
Evaluate your expenses by prioritizing and recording them—to help you create a truly honest budget.
Starting this before beginning your university studies will help you through the transition to student life. You’ll be able to see how your purchases and spending habits change and where you need to watch your spending. While you may be able to afford that $5 coffee today, you’ll have much greater demands on your wallet when you’re a university student.
Types of expenses
Tuition and cost of studying: Find out the amount of tuition fees, incidental fees, ancillary fees and administrative fees that will automatically apply in your program. Also take the cost of your books and supplies into consideration and that this will have an impact on your budget at the beginning of each session. Finally, consider other factors like whether you’ll need a new personal computer or you’ll need to photocopy and print numerous documents on campus.
Cost of living: How much is your rent and will it change? Will you have a roommate or live on your own? Are you living in residence? Are you expected to pay your residence fees by a certain date? What are your plans for food and meals? Should you buy a meal plan? If so, which one? What bills will need to be paid every month (i.e., hydro, gas and electricity, tenant insurance, home or cellular phone service, Internet, television)? How much do you anticipate spending on personal expenses like haircuts and laundry? All of these items are part of living and will reduce your savings. It’s very important to put a lot of thought into how much you can reasonably afford to spend on each of these items and learn to distinguish between needs and wants.
Transportation: Full-time uOttawa students residing in Ontario receive a uPass, which provides unlimited access to Ottawa’s public transportation system. Any other public transportation pass you purchase must be included as an expense. If you’re living on or near campus, you probably won’t need a vehicle. However, if you choose to drive your own vehicle, remember to consider all of the added costs, such as loan or lease payments, regular maintenance and oil changes, insurance, gas and parking. If you decide to ride your bike to school, budget $40 per session to lock your bike indoors or pay the one-time $15 (refundable) fee for a security card to access the free bicycle parking facility.
Health care: Be sure to get healthcare coverage if you aren’t covered by either your parent or guardian’s health plan or by the student health plan. Keep in mind any fees related to your vision, such as glasses, contacts and eye exams. While you can’t plan for unforeseen illness or injury, you can at least plan for regular appointments and prescriptions.
Savings, loans and banking fees: Include any existing financial obligations like loan payments, credit card payments as well as contributions to your savings plan and premiums for life or disability insurance. Check if any banking fees are withdrawn from your account—as a student, you should be able to find a bank that offers no-fee student products.
Emergency fund: Try to have an emergency fund of $500 throughout your studies. This is an emergency fund to help you in times of need so you won’t have to fall back on credit or loans.
Leisure and entertainment: While it’s important to take a break from your studies and enjoy yourself, you should always look for ways to do this at little or no cost. Don’t forget about other expenses too, such as pet-related costs (veterinary visits, vaccines, food and accessories), music downloads, movies, sporting events and dining out. You should also consider travel in this section, including the cost of any airfare, car rentals, gas, hotel or meals while on vacation. If you go home between sessions, remember to budget for the cost of this travel.
Set financial goals.
Setting goals will help you stay focused on controlling your spending and give you a sense of security and optimism about the future. Write them out and put them somewhere you can see them every day to help you stay focused on the reward at the end.
“I will not incur more than X amount of debt per session.”
“I will contribute X amount towards my loan by the day of my last exam.”
“I will save an extra $100 per month to pay for my annual family holiday in February.”
Create your budget.
Download the cash-flow worksheet and save it on your computer. (Microsoft Excel file; 21KB)
Instructions to use cash-flow worksheet
on the left lists five different headings with sub-headings, arranged from top to bottom. You can change these headings to suit your needs. Use the information you’ve gathered about your expenses to change the headings as you see fit. Include your sources of income separately. The more detailed your record is, the easier it will be for you to track the money coming in and going out.
lists your priorities. Give each expense a 1 (need) or 2 (want) priority code. For example, education fees, housing and utilities are all priority 1 items. A car, a cell phone and entertainment would be priority 2.
and onward, moving from left to right, represent the months of the year, from August to July. Each month should have a “Planned” column and an “Actual” column. When creating your budget, you’ll use the “Planned” columns. You’ll complete the “Actual” columns at the end of each month to see whether you’re living in keeping with your budget.
Filling in amounts:
Indicate your income by recording the amount of your various sources of income according to when you expect to receive them. Next, fill in the planned amounts of all of your priority 1 expenses. You’ll notice that your most expensive month is September since you’ll have to pay tuition and books all at once. Allocate a larger percentage of your lump-sum income to the month of August so you can pay off your tuition and still be able to cover your other monthly expenses.
The worksheet will automatically deduct your total monthly expenses from your total monthly income each month. If you get a negative figure in a particular month, borrow from your lump sum amounts elsewhere to add the income you need to break even. You can continue to move around your various lump-sum amounts to best meet your income needs for priority 1 expenses. Begin adding priority 2 expenses as you see fit. Your expenses must never exceed your income, and you should never finish a month with a deficit. If you have lump sum money left over or unused, use it to pay off your debt, invest it or pad your emergency fund.
Once you’re satisfied with your budget, save it on your computer and be sure to go back to it every month. It will act as a reminder of how much you’re allowing yourself to spend, your long-term goals. Most importantly, by updating the “actual” columns at the end of each month, you’ll know whether you’re living within your means or should be making adjustments somewhere.
Make the most of your spending money
Eating and cooking
If you are on a meal plan, find out what your daily limit would be so you don’t run out of funds too soon. Track your balance and try not to spend too much on coffee and snacks. If you enjoy snacking, consider purchasing snack items at the grocery store and keep your meal plan funds for…well…meals! Carry a reusable water bottle and coffee mug, and avoid frequent trips to the coffee shops.
Learn to cook. If you’ve never fried an egg or boiled pasta, it’s definitely worth learning to do so. Cooking for yourself will save you thousands you might spend on overpriced take-out and ready-made meals. Ask the chef of your household to give you some cooking tips, and show an interest in how your meals are prepared. Also learn how to compare products and prices when grocery shopping. Find out how much you’ll need to spend on a week’s worth of groceries so that once you’re shopping for yourself, you aren’t surprised when it comes time to pay at the register.
Our campus bookstore is a great place to start. You can rent, buy used or order your textbooks online. Also try to keep your books in good shape. If you have friends who’ve taken the same courses you’re planning to take, borrow, rent or buy their textbooks. And if you have friends that are taking the same course as you but during a different session, share the books. After you’ve completed a course, turn unneeded books into cash by selling them online or posting them on student bulletin boards.
Don’t be shy about emailing your professors. Ask them for their book lists in advance so you can shop around. Compare prices on different websites and call local booksellers around Ottawa. Find out if professors will be putting the books on reserve at the library or if an electronic version is available online. This option could help you avoid spending any money on the book at all. You can also check with your professors to see if a previous, often cheaper, edition of a particular book will suffice. If there are only minor differences in the editions, or the addition of a single chapter for example, you could share or borrow a friend’s book to make notes from the sections missing in your edition.
The University of Ottawa has two fitness centres on campus, intramural leagues, fitness classes and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The cost of all this is built into your incidental fees. Paying for gym memberships, extra fitness classes and sports fees elsewhere is just duplicating what you have and is truly a waste of your money.
Look into clubs offered within the University of Ottawa community and avoid spending your money on external club memberships. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, there’s nothing stopping you from reaching out to your fellow Gee-Gees and starting a club of your own—for free!
Instead of spending any remaining money on a vacation or putting your trip home on your credit card when you don’t have the funds to pay it off, find alternatives. You can find equally fun and relatively cheap local activities to pass the time during reading week or you could consider using a reputable ride-share program to travel home for next to nothing. Remember to always ask about student discounts.
Asking for student discounts
Always carry your student card and ask vendors if they have a discount. Do your research to find good deals. Large chain grocery stores often offer student deals on specific days of the week. Restaurants might also offer meal specials on particular days of the week. Other ways to save include cheap night at the movies (usually Tuesdays), discounted student tickets for National Art Centre events, free access to permanent exhibitions at national museums (Thursday nights), discounted prices on software at the University of Ottawa bookstore, inexpensive or free tickets to Gee-Gees sporting events, student discounts on NHL games and a myriad of free events in and around the city.
Prevent a financial crisis
Ask for help sooner rather than later.
If you find yourself approaching a financial crisis and don’t have an emergency fund to fall back on, you may want to consider asking your family to lend you some money. Don’t wait until your financial problems are out of control. There’s no shame in asking the people who love you for a little help when you need it most. If they have the means to help you, they might be able to do so…and this is usually the best option for interest-free payments.
If you’re going to be on your own for the first time, you might need dishes, furniture, cleaning supplies and other items to get you started. Include them in your birthday, holiday and graduation present wish lists. Nothing saves you more money than a year’s supply of toilet paper, a gift card for Ikea or extra credit on your uOttawa account for the campus bookstore.
Save your summer employment income.
Don’t spend all your income from your summer job on parties and clothes. Bank it instead. The money could cover a large portion of your tuition for the Fall session, which means you’ll be relying less on borrowed money that will cost you even more in the end. Also, keep an extra $500 in your savings account for emergencies only. Be your own hero and give yourself a little bit of wiggle room in case you run into some unforeseen expenses. Emergencies will happen and credit should be a last resort.
Keep track of your wallet or purse at all times. Properly file or destroy any documents that contain your personal information. This is especially true for those of you living in residences or other group living situations. Don’t share your passwords or bank cards, be sure not to use unsecured Wi-Fi networks to complete online banking transactions and keep your valuables locked up. Don’t lend money to anyone, or, if you do, have your borrower agree to repayment terms and get the repayment agreement in writing. If you have friends who are always forgetting their wallet or frequently asking for money, set boundaries with them and don’t put yourself in situations where you have to pay for anyone but yourself. You’re now in charge of your financial future. Support yourself—not your friends or rez buddies.
Use credit carefully.
Do your homework before applying for credit and never rely on any form of credit as income. Meet with a financial advisor at a reputable financial institution. These people can provide you with good advice to help you pay your academic and living expenses. Contact them for an appointment to discuss your credit options if necessary.
While credit cards are a great safety net for many students living on their own, they can also be the source of great financial difficulty for others who are targeted by lenders who want to tie students in early and tap into their income potential. Understand how to use credit wisely and effectively by following these simple guidelines:
- Avoid carrying a balance. The more debt you carry, the less wiggle room you’ll have during a real crisis.
- Read your credit card agreement carefully. Know the interest rates as well as the impact of taking a cash advance or missing a payment.
- Don’t charge things to your card if you don’t have the funds to pay them off.
- Track your monthly statements to notice if you’ve been the victim of credit card fraud.
- Keep your limit low so you can’t purchase more than what you can afford to repay.
- Consider setting up a pre-authorized payment at your bank to make sure you always pay off your balance.
Student lines of credit and overdraft protection are other forms of safety nets that can help you in times of need. For lines of credit, you only pay interest on the balance owing, and repayment terms tend to be more flexible than with credit cards. Likewise, overdraft protection prevents frequent banking fees in the event that you are overextended.
Find solutions to a financial crisis
Take advantage of free services offered right on campus. The Office of Campus Sustainability and the Student Federation have put some services in place to help you in your times of need, but you can take advantage of them at any time. There are many more initiatives and services available, but here are a few.
- The Free Store allows students to drop off the stuff that they don’t need or want any more. This allows other students to get things that they need at no cost. This is a store where everything is free!
- The community kitchen offers free cooking workshops for students. You can share resources and skills with like-minded students, learn to prepare healthy and balanced meals and get support from a dedicated coordinator, all while meeting new people in a social setting.
- Bon Appétit is the campus food bank for students who find themselves with empty wallets and even emptier stomachs.
Academic and community resources
Other resources that may help in times of financial crisis include your dean’s office, your academic department and faculty members. These people may know of other options offering a little extra financial support in the event you’re facing a crisis. You can also check with any club or organization to which you belong. If you’re involved in any cultural, religious or community organizations, they may also have resources available for emergency situations.
Financial Aid and Awards Service
Don’t wait to contact us if you are struggling: we can’t help you unless you let us know that you need help.
If you’ve applied for government financial aid and are waiting for your loan certificate or bursary cheque to arrive, you might be eligible to apply for an emergency loan of up to $500 for books, food or rent. Certain conditions apply. Please note that emergency loans are not available to students waiting for funds to be deposited into their bank account. Please contact the Financial Aid and Awards Service for details.
If you really feel like you’re sinking into financial despair or if you’ve been the victim of a crime or another incident creating financial hardship for you, make an appointment with a financial aid counsellor. We’ll assess the urgency of your situation and do our best to get you the help you need.