St Margarets parent Hilary Thomson found the one thing her child needed wasn’t available from any shop…
Freshers week looms and, in anticipation, retailers are queuing up to sell soon-to-be students everything from calculators to colanders, not to mention overdrafts and credit cards. At the big Sainsbury’s in Hampton last weekend, the aisles were crowded with young people and slightly stressed-looking parents piling up trolleys with duvets and giant packs of pasta. At Ikea last week they ran out of tin openers. Imagine.
Yet the one thing you realise your child really needs at this stage is not available from any shop - and that’s an instant grasp of the reality of budgeting, banking, credit, sensible shopping and general money management.
Every year, students have to leave their courses because of debt. And according to another local parent, Lucy Timms, much of it is unnecessary. As a university lecturer she has seen how poorly prepared many students are for independent living. “I was horrified to know that many of my students were spending £15 or more a day on food as they had no shopping, cooking or budgeting skills. This meant them getting into large amounts of unnecessary - and going forward unmanageable - debt.”
Parents who recall their own subsidised and state-supported university days may be wondering what on earth the problem is. But with deregulation has come an entirely more commercial approach to accommodation, catering and even student entertainment.
Remember that lovely, scruffy refectory where you could get a huge cooked lunch for next to nothing? Chances are it’s now a Costa coffee shop where a Meal Deal costs the same as it would in Knightsbridge. Thinking fondly of those halls of residence you only paid for during term time? Campus accommodation and university town houses and flats now have to be rented for 52 weeks a year, not just 30.
Unfortunately most schools teach money management skills at around 16, when kids don’t qualify for credit cards or loans and rarely have to fend for themselves financially. The result is that when they do flee the nest, their money management skills are often sadly lacking.
Combined with a prevailing attitude of “we’re going to be in debt so it doesn’t matter how much” this can be dangerous. In addition to their actual student loans, many will leave university with a £2,000 or even £3,000 overdraft and £500 of credit card debt, since the banks routinely offer students an increased limit every year. According to September 2013 research from Santander, students spend on average £8,681 on accommodation and living costs per year. That’s around £1,400 per year more than the most generous student finance package, which in any case is only available to lower income families.
When Lucy and I first started thinking about these problems, we did a straw poll among teenagers who had applied for university. Alarmingly, none of them understood how credit works, couldn’t explain what an overdraft is and didn’t understand interest rates. When we asked about shopping and cooking on a day to day basis, most said they ‘wouldn’t know where to start’.
Why is it that teenagers who are so beady-eyed when shopping for fashion online will fall for the worst value ‘offer’ in the supermarket, simply because it’s the first thing they see? The answer is simple. In comfortably middle class areas like ours, many parents have never had to take their children food shopping on a regular basis and, if they did, wouldn’t necessarily need to go bargain-hunting. Their teenage offspring’s experience of food shopping is often limited to nipping into the corner shop for snacks.
So what do you do?
If you are more organised than I was when my oldest son went off to university, you will take your child shopping, help them work out a budget for their living expenses and set aside several evenings to demonstrate the cooking of tasty and nutritious meals capable of competing with the attractions of takeaway pizzas. They will be grateful to you and tell their friends how lucky they are to have such helpful parents. They will not shout at you and accuse you of trying to ruin their life. You will not loudly point out how much their university education is costing and predict that they on a rocky road to ruin.
Failing that, there is an alternative.
Lucy and I set up Headstart Uni precisely to help busy parents to support teenage children going to university. We provide a friendly (and yes, fun!) workshop for teenagers called University, Money and More which covers the budgeting, credit and money management thing, helps them work out their own plan and gives practical, realistic tips on sticking to it. We give advice on managing their student bank account, avoiding unnecessary debt and even finding and getting vacation work.
We also run Smart Shopping supermarket evenings, where teenagers learn through a series of fun challenges, about shopping for best value and planning their food expenditure to maximise their available budget. And our 10 Meal Trick provides them with a series of uber-easy meals they can cook from day one which reflect the constraints of student cooking including limited space, equipment and storage.
Our University Finance Mythbuster workshop for parents also gives practical advice about the student loan system, the cost of university education and how to minimise it.
And if it’s all too late for Number One Son (or daughter) and they are already at university burning their way through your budget in double-quick time, we can help with vacation courses on money management, cooking, finding holiday jobs, interview technique, social skills and much more. All of it based on the actual experiences of university students and their parents.
Our workshops are for up to 6 teenagers or parents at a time, are friendly, informal and ideally suited to groups of friends.
If you would like to know more, please give us a call on 020 8744 3038 or visit our website www.headstartuni.co.uk