Friday, April 4, 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of Youth Allowance: Ten tips for surviving on a student budget

"The drive there takes an hour. When it's late and the road is clear sailing, you can make it in forty-five. If you are lucky, you can do the trip four times.

Four trips, fifty bucks a pop: two hundred dollars for a night's work.

All you do is deliver your passenger to an address. Watch as she totters up to the door in her high heels. Wait the hour until she's finished. Drive her home. 

Occasionally there's trouble. She yells. Sometimes she screams. That's when you really earn your money. You grab the spike you keep in the boot. Make sure the girl gets out okay. 

Most nights are quiet. You sit in the car. Read the chapters of your textbook. Start work on the assignment that's due on Monday."

This was the introduction to an article I wrote during my undergrad journalism degree, an article on Centrelink payments like youth allowance that had students resorting to desperate, even illegal, measures to pay the bills. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at the time, Larry Anthony, was trumpeting that Youth Allowance was a success. "The Coalition's support for students and young people has helped increasing numbers to make the most of their skills through further training and education," Mr Anthony said. "This is good news for our country's future".

Not such good news for the students themselves.

I interviewed three students for my article, all of whom had turned to illegal ventures to make ends meet, including David* who, as in the introduction, chauffeured prostitutes on the weekends with a sideline in selling stolen goods to help finance four years of study to become a social worker; Sam* who turned to selling drugs; and Tracy* who worked cash in hand at a restaurant.

In 2001, the Youth Pathways Action Plan Taskforce was handpicked by the Prime Minister (John Howard) as a means of promoting his success with the restructuring of the CES and Social Security into the magnificent venture that is now Centrelink. The report they handed in, however, was so critical of Howard's policies, that the government had suppressed it for five months. When details of the Pathways report were leaked in parliament, it was shown that some young people receiving benefits had turned to petty theft and drug dealing to survive. The Report also revealed that the levels of income support offered to young people were not sufficient to cover the costs associated with commencing study.

The response? A statement that the government was developing a comprehensive response to the Report for consideration in the 2002-2003 budget.

Today, 12 years later, students on Youth Allowance still live far below the poverty line. What that is depends on who you talk to, but by halving the median of all pay packets in Australia it ends up as roughly $350 a week. Today, youth allowance will hand a single, childless person over 18 who is "required to live away from home" a maximum of $414 a fortnight.**


In Australia, we are incredibly lucky to receive any financial support for higher education. Don't get me wrong. Not only are some students eligible for Youth Allowance (YA), Austudy or Abstudy but some are offered Commonwealth Supported Places (which can reduce your degree fees) and FEE HELP (deferred loans). These things are great if you can get them, but they are not particularly generous. And they don't necessarily make it that much more affordable to pursue full-time study. Study is hard enough without having to worry about money all the time, without having to think harder about how you're going to pay your rent or eat this week than you have to for your next essay or exam. So here are a few of my (sometimes hard-learned) tips for surviving on a student budget:

1. Find out what help you're eligible for. In addition to the financial support I mentioned above, the Australian Government also offers a range of scholarships and education costs scholarships that you may be eligible for. If you receive even $1 worth of YA you may be eligible for a Relocation Scholarship if you're moving away from your hometown to go to uni or a Student Start-Up Scholarship to cover those early-in-the-semester costs like textbooks and student fees. If you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student, you may be eligible for additional Commonwealth Scholarships. The government also offers eligible YA recipients a Low Income Health Care Card (if you meet the income test). Not only does this give you access to cheaper medicine (under the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme) and health services but you can also get discounts on a stack of stuff like amenities bills and public transport.  Each state and territory offers slightly different discounts.

Some work-related self-education costs are tax deductible. You can check with the Australian Taxation Office to see if this applies to you if you're working and studying at the same time. Come tax return time, you might get a little extra back.

Most universities will offer their own range of financial assistance including interest-free, short term loans, food or textbook vouchers or financial hardship grants. And if you're really struggling, then various community organisations such as the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul or Lifeline offer vouchers for amenities bills, food parcels and cheap clothing. Don't be a jerk and use those services though if you can get support easily elsewhere - they're for people suffering genuine hardship, not 'oops, I drank my rent money on Saturday night' regrets.

2. Get a job. Get a crappy job; get a good one; get whatever you can. Just make sure you're safe and covered if accidents happen. This doesn't just help financially, it also makes getting work after you graduate much easier. Any experience tends to be more appealing to employers than no experience. Working while studying, though, can be quite a juggling act. I see a lot of students who come to me asking for extensions because their work/study balance has gotten completely out of hand. Quite a few are working and studying full-time because they aren't eligible for support.

If you are getting a payment like YA and land yourself a causal or part-time job, then make Centrelink work for you. Take advantage of the 'income bank' they offer. It's a bit awkward to explain but essentially you can earn up to $415 a fortnight before your YA payment is reduced. If you earn less than that, the difference between your earnings and the $415 limit is accrued into your income bank (up to a maximum of $10,300). This income bank acts like credits to avoid reductions on future YA payments - so if you accrue $50 in your income bank, you're allowed to earn up to $465 the next fortnight without getting your YA reduced. It's confusing, but you can end up ahead financially if you manage it right. Get someone really patient from Centrelink to explain it to you.

3. Take advantage of student discounts. There are plenty of student friendly businesses out there offering discounts or concessions on their products and services. It's not just public transport, but a huge range of food, entertainment, electronics, health and beauty services, event entry, memberships, etc. Some offer general discounts on all products; others may offer special deals on certain days. Some banks offer fee-free accounts to students; McDonalds will give you a free medium-sized drink if you download the voucher. Sites like Student Edge can give a good overview of discounts offered in your state, but don't be afraid to ask when you rock up to a counter if they'll knock a little off the top if you flash your student card.

4. Take advantage of what your uni offers. All universities will have a range of free and reduced price services for students. Stuff that'll generally come free: wifi and internet (although you may have download limits), library access to academic and entertainment resources, counselling or health care, tax help and career consulting, limited software packages, diaries and a stack of small freebies if you can suffer through O-week and the various expos. Joining your uni's student union can also get you access to additional discounts both on campus and off. The University of Melbourne union discount, for example gets you 20% at Readings Bookstores and the Book Co-op as well as cheaper membership to ACMI and discounted concert packages at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The University of Sydney Union will give you 15% discount on your academic dress at graduation and 15% off made to measure shirts and suits at George and King (although I imagine if you're a struggling student - probably not a great idea to have suits specially made).

5. Share accomodation. If you can live with your folks, that's fantastic (sort of). Stay there are long as you can (although don't keep acting like a 13 year old - do your own damn laundry). If you can't be at home, for whatever reason, share accomodation is the way to go. There is plenty of it in every university town. Most universities have people at student services who can help with housing and matching you up with potential housemates if you don't already have a posse from high school. Be smart about how you share expenses and what you're officially listed on, whether it's the lease or any joint gas/electricity bills. If you are one of several people listed, you'll be on the hook if one of your housemates falls behind on payments or ups and leaves the country. Have a clear arrangement about how and what you'll share and any specific responsibilities.

6. Share food. Buying in bulk is almost guaranteed to be cheaper but can be a bad idea if you have no room to store it or can't eat it before it spoils. So buy bulk where you can and share it out. Good ways to get bulk savings include:
  • joining a co-op. Most unis or cities will have fruit and vegetable or general grocery co-ops. The general idea is you pool your resources, shop at wholesalers and then share out the goods evenly. You might pay a small fee to join or be required to "volunteer" for a job such as buying, boxing or distributing, but you'll usually get great savings. 
  • shopping at university co-op stores with bulk dry-goods such as dried pulses or grains.
  • shopping at ethnic supermarkets where they tend to do bulk goods more cheaply than the big names. Think ten kilo bags of rice, 10 litres of olive oil or 500 grams of cumin. 
  • Investing in good quality and well-sealing containers (be careful about "borrowing" your mum's Tupperware; she might notice)
It's easy to reduce your food costs overall:
  • Buy local. Fewer food miles generally means cheaper prices.
  • Buy in season. If you're eating food out of season, it's usually more well-travelled than you are and will come with a hefty price tag to match.
  • Don't eat meat every night. Tofu, chickpeas and other pulses (especially when bought dried) are waaaaaay cheaper than meat.
  • Cook in bulk and use your freezer.
  • Create a weekly meal plan that'll give you plenty of meals and leftovers.
  • Eat your leftovers.
  • Learn the patterns of your local markets/supermarkets including what days and times things are marked down. Each section usually has a day.
  • Don't shop hungry. You'll come home with more than you need.
  • Eat at co-op restaurants where volunteers cook (generally vegetarian food) and you pay a few dollars for a cheap and wholesome meal or even volunteer yourself and get fed for free for just an hour or two of work. The Hare Krishnas operate co-operative style vego cafes, where you can get all-you-can-eat for just a few dollars. Check them out in Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, Adelaide, Sunshine Coast and elsewhere.
  • If you can handle it, there are websites, maps and apps giving ideal locations for dumpster-diving, scrumping or urban foraging. Just be careful you don't cross the line into stealing or trespassing and, if you're picking your own, make sure you're informed about what's edible and what's poison.
8. Go secondhand. This applies to just about everything from furniture and clothes to textbooks and labcoats. Look on the noticeboards for what your fellow students are selling or want to swap. There may also be secondhand text books for sale on consignment in the campus bookshop. Look at freecycle, ebay or other online sites for cheap or free stuff in your area. You can also set up your own swap-meets among friends, each bringing your unwanted clothes or other items and then having a dig through the pile to see if their trash might be your treasure.

9. Get rid of or reduce your vices. Smoking, drinking and pokies - three of the easiest and dumbest ways to part with your money. A friend calls each of them tax for stupid people. That's a bit harsh, but rising taxes, duties and pay-offs to various levels of government, mean smoking and drinking are becoming rapidly more expensive past-times. They're also bad for you (I'm a mum, I have to say that. Pass the wine). Gambling is also ultimately a money losing situation. The house (or the pub) always wins with the pokies.

10. Budget. Actually write yourself a budget. There are plenty of online tools to help you out here. What you need is to know your expenditures and keep track of your spending. Know exactly how much of your income should be leftover after all your expenses have been paid so you don't spend your rent money on the good stuff. Keeping track makes you more aware of all the little purchases and how they can actually add up over time.

If there's any wiggle room, allow yourself some savings. Having a little pot of money put aside can help you save in the future if unexpected expenses or emergencies would have otherwise had you reaching for a credit card or a high interest loan.

Do you have any other tried and true tips for stretching your dollar further? Are there any secret student discounts you've used? 

Not their real names.
** 'Required to live away from home' is the clincher there. To be eligible for youth allowance you need to prove you are independent, which can be tough to do. You automatically qualify as independent when you hit 22 (this used to be 25, which was horrendous). To qualify any earlier you must have a dependent child; OR show you've supported yourself through fulltime employment, hitting a specific target of hours and income for the two years prior to claiming; OR prove you have an incredibly crappy homelife or "parents who cannot exercise their responsibilities"; OR be an unadopted orphan or refugee; OR be married or in a defacto relationship for at least 12 months. The idea with this is that the government wants your parents to support you or pay your way through university. Most school leavers who go to university will finish their Bachelor's degree by 22 years of age. 


  1. Great article. The required to move from home is my biggest flashpoint with this crappy system. My has had to defer university as she doesn't qualify as 'independant' even though it is impossible to study her chosen field any closer than 700 kilometres away from where we live.
    It breaks my heart for the many rural kids who end up deferring and end up ultimately not ever going to university as the wait for independence is too long.
    It sometimes feels like the government wants to restrict who gets an education.

    1. So frustrating, especially when they've done all the hard work to get the marks to get in. It's great that some unis are offering "bonus points" for rural kids to get into some courses and some students are eligible for the relocation scholarships from the government, but it's really not enough when the basic financial support is out of their reach.

  2. Some excellent advice here. I remember struggling at uni and ended up going part-time then dropped out completely so that I could earn enough money to live. Crazy! I Worked for four years then my new wife and I moved in with my parents (!) so I could afford to go back and finish my degree!
    As the Student Advisor for a group of students about to complete Year 12 (and many head to uni) I will be bookmarking this to share with them. Thanks!

    1. I've know quite a few people who've had to move back in with their folks to afford uni. I hope your relationship with your parents (and your wife!) survived it.


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