Students, finance and mental health: why we should talk about money.

We are not honest about money.

Sure, in almost every conversation I have with fellow students, at least one of us will make an offhand reference to the dire financial situation we are in or joke about our overdrafts. We might talk about SAAS, saving us every month on the 7th, and how we can’t really do much, pay bills or buy food until then, probably accompanied by an awkward laugh and a desire to move the conversation on.

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One of the coffees I felt guilty for buying. (Not pictured: my electricity and gas bills because I thought that was a bit much.)

It is, I have found, very difficult to tell people ‘no’ at university. Surrounded by talk of ‘making the most of it’ and ‘this is your time to try stuff’ you feel obligated to say yes to going out with people in halls or to spend your money on coffees or jaegerbombs or 3am McDonalds. Socialising outside of class depends predominantly on spending, with fewer and fewer spaces where you can go and sit without buying something first. Certainly in Aberdeen with the appalling weather, the chances of you sitting outside, lazing in a park or walking along the beach, are few and far between during the winter months and the temptation to stay in and order pizza is high.

When you go to university, this new found freedom, the ability to spend your money on whatever you want is exhilarating. I remember in first year the joy of seeing my account go up each month. I was careful with money, knowing I had to pay rent and food but soon as I came to know more people and as the chances to socialise grew, the money started to drain.

It is slightly different now at the end of fourth year. I pay rent, electricity and gas, wifi, food and soon will be paying council tax too. I gave up my retail job last August to concentrate on my studies (and other circumstances) and have felt the pinch, needing to rely on my parents for help for the first time in university. The guilt and humiliation that comes with the first request for financial help continues to stay with me towards the end of every month.

And I recognise that I am in a privileged position in that I was able to give up my job and that in my time of need as a result of this I have parents who want and are able to help me as much as they can. And I also want to state that I am proud of myself for getting so far into my degree without needing much more help; I remember being surprised in first year at how many people had their parents paying for their rent in its entirety and were surprised at my situation. (That is not a judgement, incidentally – if your parents are able to help, that’s great! – but merely an observation.)

Money is and always has been something I’ve been aware of from a young age given my family’s financial situation but it was never something I could really ask about. It can feel isolating to be stuck in your overdraft and surrounded by people who appear to be comfortable enough to buy a cinema ticket without worries or anxiety about the cost plaguing them during the whole film. I’m constantly thinking about my bank account, about the cost of things, how I can scrimp and save here so that I can spend there and pretend that it doesn’t make my insides do somersaults every time I use contactless. When that’s on my mind and someone asks how I am, do I tell them that all I can think of is money or are they able to see the cartoon pound signs flashing in my eyes?

Financial problems can and will contribute to the deterioration of mental health as well. As many as 1 in 4 university students suffer from mental health problems. Research by the University of Southampton and Solent NHS Trust revealed (to everyone’s surprise) that “financial difficulties and worrying about debt at university increases the risk of mental health conditions such as depression and alcohol dependency among students.”  In England, reportedly, the hike in tuition fees has put an increasing strain on counselling and mental health resources at university.

Whilst that research is not thorough and did not require more than a few clicks, it only reiterates what I already knew from around me. I see some of my friends struggling with paying bills and buying food, working two jobs whilst doing a full-time degree in order to afford a social lifestyle, and resigning themselves to the fact that when they graduate, they’ll have tens of thousands of pounds of debt ahead of them to carry into their new lives. I see people with anxiety and depression amongst other mental illnesses, perpetuated by the fear of the world ahead and the reality now.

In the same way that so many mental health charities and campaigns encourage open and honest conversation about mental illness, I appreciate when I am able to be open about my own financial problems with someone without feeling judged or ashamed and I am glad when they feel they can reciprocate.

To be honest I’d like to encourage us all to be more open. There’s a taboo surrounding money; you’re not able to ask people because it’s considered nosy or intrusive and a private affair. And I’m not asking for numbers or details of your pin number. Instead what I’d like is open and frank conversation about the realities of student life and the budgets we try to stick to but inevitably fail to do so. It will make it much, much easier when it’s the end of the month and we can’t buy that round on Tuesday. Sharing our problems rather than bottling them up as we all know is the far better option. Instead of feeling as though I need to make up excuses or try and negotiate down to something cheaper without bringing up the cost, we will be able to be honest and say, ‘fancy doing something else?’

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