Vouchers and ready meals: a lesson in student economics

Posted on 13 August 2012 - 2 Comments
Stretched student finances.

Stretched student finances.

As a student, my economic lifestyle tends to revolve around the cycle of spending as little as possible during the university year, and then earning as much as possible during the three-month summer holiday. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain this balance, with my bank overdraft becoming noticeably larger and larger, writes Sarah Cottam.

My main expenditure at university is food, yet the prices recently have been increasing slowly in supermarkets – not helped by inflation and the VAT rise which, whilst in terms of each individual product does not matter, when the final total at the till racks up, it is considerably more than it ever used to be. This has led to countless hours that I now spend trawling the supermarket aisles comparing the prices of every single item in my basket, along with analysing all the offers, to see which is the cheapest, turning what would’ve been a quick trip into at least an hour. It is even harder as a student to live the so-called ‘healthy lifestyle’, with the costs of fruit and vegetables being far higher than the regularly promoted and cheap ready meals. It’s no wonder that many choose not to live healthily.

Similarly, while many would consider a trip to the supermarket to be just that, my friends and I find ourselves making the journey to at least three supermarkets, along with various local shops and the town market, comparing whatever prices we can in a desperate attempt to reduce our expenditure.

It is also clear however, that businesses are struggling, as people reduce their spending, leading to the new mantra ‘don’t spend unless you have a voucher’. This has been one of the most beneficial changes due to the current economic climate; it doesn’t matter whether you’re shopping online or going to a restaurant, you can normally dig out a voucher that gives you some sort of discount whether it is free postage or a two-for-one.

When it comes to returning home after the university year has finished, there is only one thing on every student’s mind, and that is finding a job. The retail sector is said to be one of the UK’s biggest employers with part-time jobs ideal for students, yet the sheer amount of shops that have closed in my local area in the past 12 months help to indicate the lack of possible employers. Since being home this year, I have distributed countless amounts of CVs, all with the promise of a return phone call. However, when businesses often don’t even give you a response, there is little pushing you on to continue looking. Despite having had previous work experience and living in a city that is bucking the unemployment trend, trying to find work has been extremely difficult when what jobs that are available all require ‘previous experience’, yet how can you get experience when no-one will give you a chance?

Sarah Cottam is an undergraduate at Loughborough University, and she is juggling three jobs during her summer holiday. She is a diarist for the British Future Generation 2012 project, which seeks to find out more about how 18-25s perceive the challenges of the economic downturn.

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  • Comment by Dan Hart at 13:17 on 15.08.12

    Friends and i faced roughly the same concern regarding the price of food, though with added interest in finding sustainable (not just organic, but locally produced or ethical/fairtrade) food as well. It’s a big concern! In response, we managed to set up a student food co-operative that bought food (both dried and fresh) in bulk and direct from ethical suppliers (missing out the retailers altogether). Because of this more direct relationship (and with the help of a few other volunteers) the co-op was providing great food – both healthy and ‘sustainable’ – for us and others for prices lower than the cheapest supermarkets in the area (even Asda!). The point here is not that everyone should start up food co-ops (though they should!), but that there are alternatives to the limited array of life choices on display on the high street. For example, your point about ready meals being cheaper than vegetables – this may sometimes be true, but only if you both shop and eat alone. My experience is that most students live in shared accommodation, and everyone has to eat, and presumably (at least if you’ve chosen to live with them and haven’t yet had the annual house fall-out) you get on with other people around you. Given this, a more cost-effective (more so than individual ready meals as well) way of ‘doing’ food is by cooking shared meals. It’s common knowledge even among the food illiterates among my friends that cooking benefits from economies of scale, so the more people you get in on the act, the cheaper it will be for everyone. It goes without saying that it’s also a nicer way to enjoy food – with friends. There are other things like this to consider, which i’m sure you’ve thought about, but the main thing seems to me to be that we break away from the idea that there’s nothing else for it but to give up the clothes on our back to buy good food, or to spend half our waking hours searching out a city’s cheapest deals. To reiterate, the concern is a challenging one, but alternatives exist. Personally i think supermarkets and other high st food retailers might one day ‘get it’, but until then, it will partly be up to us as students to search out innovative ways of doing it for ourselves.

    I appreciate your worry, but thinking outside the box does help

  • Comment by Dan Hart at 13:23 on 15.08.12

    Ignore the last line of previous post. That was definitely me writing my ‘plan’ and was supposed to be deleted…now ends up sounding v condescending, sorry!