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Dealing with debt

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Managing your finances is just one of the many challenges you will encounter as a nursing student. Clare Lomas looks at some of the practical steps you can take in order to prevent financial concerns from spoiling your time at college

Nursing students are no strangers to financial hardship. But with the UK in the grip of a credit crunch and the cost of living on the rise, making it through three years of college without experiencing any financial difficulties is becoming increasingly difficult.

According to a recent survey by Unison, over half of all health students have considered leaving their course, with 78% citing financial difficulties as the reason. The survey also revealed that more than 90% of health students are in debt, with almost a quarter owing more than £10,000.

‘Morally, we should not be condemning students to years of poverty when they graduate,’ says Gail Adams, Unison’s head of nursing.

‘There are still high attrition rates among nursing students and debt has a big impact on this. All students should be seconded to nurse training and paid a proper salary,’ she adds.

Under the present system, nursing students are entitled to a bursary, which is means-tested for those studying for a degree. In 2007–2008, a full bursary for nursing students in London stood at £7,194 a year, falling to £6,122 for those studying in other parts of England.

‘The bursary is not enough to live on, especially if you are studying in London,’ says Louise Reynolds, a final-year nursing student at King’s College London.

‘Once you have paid for things like rent and bills, there really isn’t much left. If you don’t work, you end up spending money that isn’t yours because you have to take out loans.’

Working part time is one way many students supplement their incomes. According to the Unison survey, 70% of the two-thirds of health students financed through a bursary took on extra paid employment in 2008.

Fidelma Gallagher, a third-year nursing student at Thames Valley University in London, works as a carer in a nursing home 12 hours a week. ‘It can be tough on top of placements and studying but I’ve been able to buy books with the money I’ve earned,’ she says.

But Claire Cannings, welfare adviser at the RCN, believes taking on part-time work should be treated with caution.

‘Part-time work is frowned upon by a lot of universities as it is likely to interfere with your studies,’ she says.

‘The average age of a nursing student is 28 and many have families,’ she adds. ‘Doing a full-time course, looking after children and also doing part-time work can be very difficult.’

So what can nursing students do to help juggle their finances more effectively? Rule number one is to work out a budget. ‘Sit down and work out exactly what you have available so you know what you’re dealing with,’ advises Claire.

‘Then shop around for the best deals on bank accounts and try to choose one that offers a staggered overdraft facility to avoid getting into too much debt too soon. Also, look at price comparison websites to get the best deals on utilities.’

Knowing what you are entitled to is also important Claire emphasises. ‘If you are working part time, the first £6,035 of any money you earn is tax free, so make sure you fill out the relevant forms to ensure you are not being taxed.

‘As a student you are exempt from council tax, and if you have children you may be entitled to full child tax credit, so make sure you find out what is available to you, both from the government and your university.’

Outgoings such as rent, travel and books can be very costly but if you get to know your cohort you can share books and downloaded information. It is also worth finding out if any final-year students are selling their books so you can buy them second hand and save money.

Depending on where you study, you may be entitled to travel discounts or to claim back expenses.

‘Travel can be up to £30 a week in London. It’s particularly expensive when you’re on placements,’ says Louise. ‘If you can, try and get placements in the hospitals closest to where you live and although it can be a bit of a complex process, do try and claim your travel expenses back.’

Sharing a house with other nursing students can help cut the cost of food and make budgeting easier. ‘In our house we all put money in a kitty every week for food and bills. We also shop and cook together sometimes – getting a bottle of wine and staying in is much cheaper than going out,’ says Fidelma.

For most students, a certain amount of debt is unavoidable. So if you have to take out loans or credit cards, make sure you get the best deal you can. ‘Commercial debt is significant, so avoid credit cards with excessive rates of interest,’ warns Gail. ‘And
if you do get into trouble, contact your student welfare department or a free debt advice service straight away.’

Universities have an ‘access to learning’ fund for students, and you may be entitled to money from this if you are struggling. If your circumstances change, contact the student welfare department, which can review your entitlements.

Surviving financially is not the only challenge nursing students have to contend with during their three years at college.

Returning to full-time education after years away from studying, or dealing with distressing experiences on the ward can also take their toll. If you are a mature student who hasn’t studied for a while, try to ease into it gently – and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel you are struggling. Your mentor, as well as your fellow students, will be valuable sources of support.

Make sure you prepare yourself for clinical placements. Make time to see your mentor, go to meetings fully prepared and get to know the whole healthcare team – a knowledgeable healthcare assistant can teach you a lot.

Joining a union is also advisable so that if you do have any problems you can be supported by a professional organisation. ‘Unison regularly helps students through academic appeals or questionable conduct procedures but you don’t have to wait until you’re in trouble to join,’ says Gail.

But if you do find that you need help, be proactive and speak out. ‘If you are unsure of something, or are experiencing something for the first time and need support, don’t be afraid to articulate this,’ says Gail. ‘And always trust your own instincts – if your gut is telling you something is wrong, it usually is.’

Making the most of your finances

• Work out a budget and stick to it. Take out all the money you need at the beginning of the week to avoid using your bank card

• Keep a spending diary so you can keep track of all of your outgoings

• Shop around for the best deals on bank accounts, credit cards, loans and utilities

• Find out if you are entitled to any benefits and look at the NUS website (www.nus.org.uk) to see what student discounts you can get

• Do a big weekly food shop and try and stick to supermarket own brands

• Download and share information from the internet. If you need to buy books, get them second hand

• Join a union and attend events like RCN Congress where you can pick up things for free

• Try to avoid eating out and take a packed lunch when on placements

• Check out different modes of travel and find out if you are entitled to any discounts – and always claim back travel expenses if you can

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