Surviving student poverty: How to move out without dropping out

Begging is one way to make ends meet. Alternatively, you could read this article.

Aly James is an expert when it comes to student poverty. She survived four years of university without financial assistance: No youth allowance. No sponging off parents.

After year 12, Aly was  accepted into her dream university course – the Bachelor of International Relations at the Australian National University. This meant moving out of home in first year uni. She went from the comfort of her parents’ home in the Hunter Valley, to Canberra, a distant 435 km away. But there was one rather large obstacle:


Aly’s father fell ill while she was finishing year 12. He could no longer work, meaning her family couldn’t financially support her while she tackled the double whammy of moving out and adjusting to first year university.

Despite this, Centrelink denied her youth allowance.

“Because my mum earned too much, my family was in that bracket where we earned to much to get Centrelink, but not for them to support me through uni,” says Aly.

“It’s really hard to study when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to eat.” But somehow, she pulled it off. Keep reading to find out how.


Moving out: What are the costs?


Start up costs

Aly worked over the Christmas break to save around two thousand dollars, which she spent on linen, cooking supplies and university supplies like books and stationary. “Bring what you can from home. You probably don’t’ need as much as you think you’ll need.” Aly recommends scrounging from relatives before moving out; her grandparents chipped in with spare cookware.


Weekly costs

It cost Aly around $185 per week in rent to live at Burton and Garron Hall, an on-campus, self-catering residential college.

She spent around $150 per week on living costs: $50 on groceries, $30 on fuel for short trips to work, $50 on medication and the remainder on socialising.


Aly James

Image: Instagram @JustVandoll

Aly’s Typical week

Aly worked around 25 hours per week doing morning and evening shifts in a restaurant. Her uni degree had around 15 hours worth of weekly classes.

“I’d get up at 6am and be at work at 6.30am. I’d work until 10am then go to class from 10.30 until 2 or 3 o clock in the afternoon. I’d go home, have a nap and then work on assignments and have an early dinner.”

After that, it was back to the restaurant for the evening shift until around 9.30pm.

“I’d come home to college and usually meet my friends. They’d be drinking, I’d just hang out and chat.”

She recommends reducing your study load to make things manageable. This means studying two or three subjects instead of four per semester.

Research shows that uni students’ marks suffer when they work more than 15 hours a week. It’s also good for your mental health: doing two or three subjects instead of four will keep stress and unhappiness at bay as well.


Money saving tips


Textbooks are optional

First year students often make the mistake of buying all the books on the booklist. Aly learned this the hard way: “Don’t spend $500-$600 on textbooks in your first semester.”

Get the essential ones. Don’t by the optional ones.

Lecturers or tutors usually let you know which books are essential. If they don’t, ask them. Often some books are barely used and can be borrowed from the library when needed – but get in early!

Some students choose to download pirated copies of textbooks from the internet rather than spend their grocery money on them. It should be stressed that this is illegal and is not in any way being recommended by



Campus food outlets will suck you dry. “Even to buy shitty food on campus is $10 or $15. If you go to Subway it costs you eight to ten dollars and that adds up a lot.” If you don’t know how to cook – learn. Preferably before you move out.

Here are Aly’s favourite receive sites for cheap student meals:


Learn how to use spices, eat less meat

Being poor doesn’t mean boring food. “Rather than investing in a $12 bag of mince buy four different spices. You can make really cheap food taste amazing.”

Meat is expensive. If you’re serious about moving out on the cheap, load up on cheap, tasty and filling vego food. Aly’s staples included:

  • Burrito bowls jammed full of chick peas, mixed beans, fresh tomatoes, cumin sage and beans. “I’ll have that with brown rice and lettuce and cheese or bio cheese and avocado – and they’re delicious.” Make actual burritos or turn it into a toastie for a quick meal on the run.
  • Vegetarian curry: “Buy a can or jar of curry paste and you can normally get two or three big batches of curry out of that. Put potato, sweet potato and and some frozen peas in a curry – they’re all really cheap.”


Seasonal veggies aren’t hipster food

When vegies are out of season they’re often imported, more expensive and less taste. “Buying seasonal vegies sounds like a hipster thing to do, but you are going to get better quality stuff cheaper.”

Adapt your recipes depending on what’s in season and going cheap. “With the burritos, if eggplant is really cheap I fill it up with eggplant, or if mushrooms are really cheap I’ll fill it up with mushrooms.”


Freezer containers will keep you sane

Cooking in big batches is a key to moving out on the cheap. But if you don’t want to eat the same thing for seven days straight, you’ll need some plastic containers to throw in the freezer.

“Mixing it up seems like a really simple thing but it’s really good for your state of mind,” advises Aly. This means freezing some of the batches you cook to ensure you have two or three different delicious frozen meal options.

Not all foods freeze well, but curries and bolognaise are particularly good. Sealable containers are best, but if you’re strapped for cash, cheap takeaway containers will work.

Freezer containers double as lunch boxes. Bring a sanga or pull a frozen meal out of the freezer and zap it microwave while on campus. There will be one somewhere – ask your student union.


Get a healthcare card

You don’t need to be on youth allowance or Austudy to get a health care card.

“This is really important for people to know. I wish I knew that four years ago. It’s taken my eighty-dollar medication down to six dollars each.  That’s a huge saving.”

See the Centrelink website for more details.


Don’t get pissed to often

Aly didn’t drink, which made moving out a helluva lot cheaper – booze has blown a hole in many a uni student’s budget.

“Thankfully people didn’t freak out when I said I didn’t drink, but a lot of the culture is still based around drinking.  I think if you didn’t have my teetotalling attitude it would very quickly add up to being quite expensive.”


Be a crafty shopper

  • Buy from markets toward the end of the day when they’re tyring to get rid of stock
  • Figure out on which days your local supermarket marks down bread and meat
  • Plan meals and use shopping lists so you don’t double up on items you already have
  • Drink long life milk instead of fresh milk