General (Mostly Money-Related) Tips and Tricks in Living in London/ United Kingdom
As a student in the UK, when we applied for Tier 4 UK VISA, it’s written that the expected monthly budget for London is about 1200 GBP. That’s also how much I get from my scholarship. So, how’s the reality? Is that amount enough? Those are valid questions, especially if you’re planning to bring your family with you. Believe it or not, if you’re planning your budget well, you can actually use that amount for a small family, with decent meals and everything. I have usually saved about half of my allowance each month (and use the saving for emergency conference travel fund, normal travel fund, and do leisure activities in between). Everyone has their own way to manage their own budget. Your life is your life, you’re the one who knows it best. Learning from how other people handle theirs, make it suitable for yours. For note, this is a compilation of things I’ve done and things people suggested to do to keep your budget low and living fuller (hopefully) in the UK.
I think “learn how to cook” is one of the first suggestions people give for people planning to study abroad. This is true though. Unlike in Indonesia, labour wage is usually very high in other countries. When you’re living by yourself in Indonesia, it’s easy to foregone cooking because buying meals in warteg is very cheap for a fulfilling meal. When you’re abroad, the cheapest meal you can get is fast food (that ironically was “gourmet” back home). 1 GBP usually give you either 2 pieces of sandwiches or a burger. With that amount, you can already have at least two meals with twice the portion and more varieties. Learn some easy recipes such as fried rice, soup, or stir-fry. Look for recipes on the internet. Try to cook a meal you like or cook with your friends.
If you’re not really into cooking or thinking that it’s quite the time waster, cook in a big batch in the weekend. Save leftover in the fridge. IF you have a big freezer, you can even prepare bigger portions and freeze everything to be heated up later time. This method is probably okay if you’re like me, having no problem with eating the same meal a few times. If you’re easily bored, you can buy different sauces to give varieties to your food, and cook a basic meal and mix and match to vary them, such as rice/ noodles, vegetables, and meat. IF you’re in share houses, it will be nice to cook in turns. You can cook once but have a variety of meal.
The other cooking tips I can tell is that buying in large quantity. This also applies to other items. Please do know your limit though. Don’t just buy 5 kg of potatoes because it was cheaper and ended up not eating them (or getting bored of a month of potato dishes, this me telling from experience). Stuff like detergent and cleaning products, tissues, shampoos and soaps, oil, or rice should be fine to buy in bulk. Or cook the portion for the recipe and freeze (I really like freezing stuff, in case you can’t tell) the rest.
Bring lunchbox everywhere, even when you don’t really need it. It can be something simple like sandwiches or fruits. Or that one pack of chips you bought 5 pack-for-1 GBP. Also water bottle. Very useful especially if you’re travelling/ have activities all day. When you’re hungry or thirsty on the way, you can’t have another way than to buy. Even the supermarket mineral water costs at least 50p. Once or twice it’s okay, but it will build up. There’s a lot of refill station in the university, so no worry of dehydration. Also useful if you’re into caffeine or tea or juice. Bring a flask from home. Even Americano costs 1.5 GBP, that’s a full meal price already.
(Note: people write that you can just go to a pub or a restaurant to ask for tap water, I’m not that good with people, so never actually tried this. Do tell me if you manage to do this successfully)
The other cooking tip is to get your palate accustomed to the local taste. I think maybe this is quite hard, especially for people with “Indonesian tongue”. Sure, I do cook soto sometimes, but in the UK stuff like bread and pasta, cheese, or milk is definitely cheaper than rice noodles, tempe, or coconut milk.
Choose supermarket brand. The supermarket brand is usually cheaper than branded stuff. You can also look at different supermarkets. There’re generally less expensive supermarkets such as Lidl, Aldi, Asda and Morrison, but there’re even things that are cheaper in Sainsbury’s (like 4kg of potatoes, white bread and honey, I kid you not) or in Co-op (with NUS Extra, crisps and condensed milk are two of them). If you’re really specific with your taste you can select which item you want to buy off-brand and which you faithfully buy. If there’s local market available near your area, you can also look at the market. Some items are cheaper there compared to the supermarkets. If you’re buying halal meat, you can see into halal butcher in the area as well. If you buy for many people or alright with buying in large quantities, online delivery is a good idea as you can compare prices (website has died sadly as of 2019) and have more options including their basic ranges. Sometimes they offer you replacements that are more expensive heheh. Not to mention the new member discounts! I think I had accounts in all supermarket offering delivery and borrowed my labs’ fridge as £80 grocery for one last me two months ahahah. Just choose cheaper time delivery slots. Also remember to get all your loyalty cards!
If you’re determined you can also look at the time when your local supermarket has their “reduced to clear” aisle filled. Like late at night, early in the morning, or the day before a bank holiday (seriously, my local Co-Op has its vegetables and loaves of bread reduced to 10p+ after 18.00, I’ll just check there every day if only I don’t need to cycle 30 minutes just to go there). The aisle is filled by food with expired dates looming near, especially vegetables and fruits. They’re generally okay for 1-2 more days (my belief). If you’re planning to cook them soon or freeze them, they should be fine. It’s also a chance to try food you don’t usually eat. The same principle can also be applied to eating out. Some restaurants have lower prices before they close or in specific time such as lunchtime. I know from a friend that Itsu (a Japanese restaurant) cut their prices in half an hour before they close. They are still being priced 1 GBP at the least, but if you’re hungry and planning to buy them at 8 pm, it’s better to wait half an hour to buy. Another alternative is to get a Too Good to Go app, especially for Yo! Sushi (which I sadly avoid).
For Indonesian cooking, it’s generally cheaper to buy soy sauce, instant noodles, tamarind, palm sugar and spices in Chinatown or Asian store than in supermarkets like Sainsburys or Waitrose. You can also join a lot of Indonesian events if you miss Indonesian food, like the monthly pengajian, Indonesian fair, food festival, and others.
If you’re a Muslim, between 23 September and 21 March, especially over the winter, you can also fast. You can do that all over the year of course, but I guess if you have the choice you want to fast less than 14 hours.
Looking for Accommodation
This is the most significant part of your monthly spending. Mine’s about 2/3. If you live in London, university accommodation is about 500-700 GBP/ month. The nice thing about university accommodation is that everything is available (fully furnished, heating, appliances, internet, electricity bill, sometimes free laundry and janitor like mine, even catering), so there’s no need for you to think of bills and an excuse to waste electricity. They’re also usually close to campus. And because everyone’s a student, you can get a friendly environment to study, and to interact with people from different countries.
On the other hand, you can get a lot cheaper to live outside of campus. The downsides are they are usually farther, you need to arrange bills, and ready to pay more in winter. Often, people trick this by wearing a lot more layers in winter. You can rent a house to share with other friends. You can also get a lot of cheaper by sharing a room. This may be not a choice if you value your privacy.
Renting farther and farther from the city centre may be cheaper, but 1-hour commute even using tube’s not for everyone. If you’re ready for that, you can make activities for your commute such as reading or listening to a podcast.
You should also look into the neighbourhood. Is it safe? Can you reach the place quickly? Are there supermarkets nearby? Do you need halal butcher? Don’t just go into homes with the lowest price but you ended up stranded on campus after a long essay night.
You can search for accommodation by asking for hand-me-down housing for students in the previous year, especially if you haven’t arrived in the UK yet. You can also look at sites such as Rightmove or gumtree, spareroom (Or local version like citylets for Scotland) and other sites. Please be careful because there’re a lot of scams as well. If it’s needed, you can use agents to look into flats. Choose one near to the place you’re planning to rent for faster response in emergencies.
By applying a lot of different tricks you can cut the accommodation cost to 300-500 GBP/ month.
For appliances, you can try to find friends who’re leaving for hand-me-downs. You need to check what’s available when you arrive, what can be substituted (like a rice cooker, for example. It’s not as easy but cooking rice without rice cooker’s definitely possible (looking at my steamer)), and what to buy. You can also buy second-hand in charity shops (such as Oxfam, Fara, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Scope, and so on), in sites like Gumtree (if you’re patient, they’re a lot of people offering stuff for free), eBay, facebook marketplace, or in your local car boot . If you want to buy new, you can buy them in places like Argos, IKEA, or Wilko.
If you don’t have a washing machine in your flat, you can wash your clothes in the coin laundry machine. Even if you have a washing machine, the electricity bill can be reduced by washing in bulk every time. Doing laundry by yourself is definitely an option, but please mind the time spent, the condition of your bathroom, the water bill, whether your flatmate mind/ not, and the drying especially in winter.
Commute and Travels
Sometimes places closer to campus can be more expensive, but after calculating the transports, it ended up cheaper. When you live close to campus, you can just walk or just buy a second-hand bicycle (in Gumtree or eBay or your local bike shop) to commute (electric bike is also excellent, especially if your electric bill is included in your rent). Live closer to campus means that it’s easy to pop by anytime, nice if you want to join a lot of campus activities.
Bulky wallet, here we come (hotukdeals, whatdotheyknow, lawchristopher,http://travels.kilroy.net/)
If you live in London, you can have Student Oyster Card by ordering it in TFL website. Even if you only visit London for a few times, having Oyster card (or contactless, bless contactless) will be very helpful. You can then buy a weekly, monthly, or yearly travel according to your schedule. You can also purchase bus-only travel card which is cheaper (but going by tube is generally faster) or zone-based travel card. You can also do it halfway, like if you’re living in zone 3 but quite near a station in zone 2, you can buy a zone 1-2 travel card and going by bus to that station.
You can also have a 16-25 National RailCard (30 GBP yearly or 70 GBP three-year if you’re under 25 in the third year) as long as you’re a student and not just for below 25 (though you need a student statement as proof). If you link your 16-25 National RailCard with you Student Oyster Card, you can cut 1/3 of your travel budget. You can just buy one in a train station, or order one by mail (if it’s not emergency, do it this way. It’s 3 GBP cheaper, and you can have one with your photo printed on it. Or just buy straight at the train station if you’re in a hurry).
Before purchasing the 16-25 National Rail Card, don’t forget to buy an NUS Extra Card for a discount for 16-25 National Rail Card. You can add ISIC (International Student Identity Card) on your NUS Extra for 3 GBP more. It’s not that useful in the UK (Eh I digress as the Co-Op discount is worth it), but I did get a significant discount when I booked a student dormitory in Prague and when I booked buses across Europe, so I guess it paid off.
Do you need to go “right now”? If you just travel one-off, you can reduce your travel cost by travelling outside peak times. With off-peak travel, you can get a lower price. Peak fares usually apply between 6.30-9.29 and 16.00-18.59 Mon-Fri. If you’re going opposite of the usual commuting rush using National Rail (like for example, going to London in the evening from another city), you can ask to the counter whether the Peak fare apply or not.
If you’re living in London outside zone 1 and 2 and want to go somewhere not inside the 1-2 zone using a tube, you can also travel by avoiding zone 1 and 2 for cheaper travel. Please check in TFL single-far finder first whether the route’s suggested or not. One-off travellers will also benefit from the capping system. Just use bus all day, for example, after the third bus journey, everything’s free until 4 in the morning.
Also, don’t forget to always ask for student discount of concession every time you buy stuff or going into places with entry ticket (cashier guy in Rymann doesn’t even offer any). There are sites for all student discounts, like Unidays for example. Check the attraction’s site before you’re planning to go to the places because usually entrance ticket is cheaper by 10% at least if you buy the ticket online before the date. If you’re going there with friends using National Rail, you can also use 2 for 1 ticket or Two Together. Also, check if the city has free hop-on-hop-off buses.
Megabus is nice for random travels because you can get a 0.99 one-way-ticket, especially if you live In a hub city like London (be careful about VISA application using this ticket because it doesn’t have your name on it, sometimes the counter is asking for a name in your ticket). The trick is to buy long before the travelling date (2 months to be exact) and choose off-season travelling dates. Using NUS Extra Card, you can get lower Megabus price as well. For some cities, Megabus is not available, but there’s National Express. They’re generally more expensive, but NUS Extra Card and book-far-before-the date principle are still being applied. There’s also a coach card for 25% discount (though it’s not applicable for their lowest price).
For flying, Ryanair is the beloved cheap airline. Don’t forget to keep to the baggage allocation, check your info and date, and check-in online. Oh, and check the airport name and location, and the transportation to/from especially if you’re using the last/ first flight (as travellers with student budget usually are). Or just look up in Skyscanner for the lowest price (and better deal, like Smartwings to Prague with baggage allowance, for example), or just do surprise travelling, by choosing Flexible in your destinations.
Travelling with friends, renting cars can also be an option, like renting in Europcar. Driving in the UK is pretty similar to in Indonesia, as we drive in the left as well. You can use your Indonesian driving license to rent a car in the UK. Please be careful because along with the car comes all responsibilities. You can also have a car (or scooter!) for daily commute using Indonesian driving license in your first year (and apply for UK’s one the following years). The secondhand car and motorbike prices are okay, the gas prices are pretty reasonable, but the insurance (and congestion charge if you’re in London) is pretty expensive so think again and again before planning to drive. Or you can just rideshare (“numpang”) using blablacar.
If you don’t have any acquaintances to bunk (like helpful LDPD friends in LPDP Hospitality) to or not comfortable with sharing houses with Couchsurfing, when you’re travelling to other cities, you can look at YHA (Youth Hostel Association) or YMCA for accommodation. They’re usually cheaper compared to a hostel (one near my lab is 14 GBP/ day). Booking.com‘s price generally very reasonable as well (and you can pay by cash, and cancel a few days before. Neat for VISA application). If you’re Indonesian visiting London, Wisma Nusantara, Wisma Indonesia, or Warung Padang are viable choices. Travelling in the holiday season? Maybe there’re other students renting their room for travellers. Airbnb’s room is generally nicer, but it does have higher lowest rate than Booking.com (my referral link, hint hint).
Continuing with the travelling theme, you can also look at your university student’s website. Like, in UCL, for example, there’s something like Give it A Go or Student Deals, or RSC Key, or Concession ticket in London Philharmonic Orchestra for cheaper opera tickets, and holiday. There’s also some student scheme to travel together like Unitrip. Don’t forget to bring your student card, because concession price is generally lower, as well as an online ticket. If you’re reaaally willing, you can also queue for the 30 tickets available in Barbican theatre for evening show daily. They open just after 10 am, but for the most sought after tickets, people are queueing as early as 6 am. There’s also dining in Skygarden for free by reservation. If you lurk by deal sites such as hotukdeals, sometimes there are tickets and vouchers for free events & restaurants. For people using 3 Mobile, you can join its discount club Wuntu (has died as well), while for O2 you can join O2 Priority, and in Vodafone you have VeryMe Sometimes they have free tickets to movies, restaurants, gyms, etc. My bargain loving self has different phone numbers solely for these clubs, I have obtained more than 10x my phone balance investment worth. People also like to resell tickets online (though be careful as sometimes they couldn’t be resold), a good thing for surprise entertainment!
There are a lot of free museums, especially in London, like the side-by-side Natural History Museum, National Science Museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum. The British Museum Is free as well. (though they do have donation box) (I think I need to make a separate article for these. Update: there’s a separate article!). They always have monthly lates event at the end of the month, they usually have special events and talks.
You can also do part-time jobs if you’re self-funded or want more allowance (though I do think mine’s enough already)! The maximum is about 20 hours/ week (based on T4 VISA). Do think of your limit though, you can do it, but you’re here to study.
The nicest job should be the one related to your field. Being a teaching assistant or helping in the lab sure is helpful. If your experience is something that’s shareable to tutor, you can also do tutoring. For one-off jobs, you can also help to wait for dormitories in holiday seasons or to help at exams (as proctors or helper for impaired students). If you’re feeling adventurous, you can apply to be test subjects for research. There’re a lot of them, from being questioned, doing a particular diet, discussing some stuff, and others. Fast food and other service-related jobs can be applied outside the campus.
You can just look at your uni’s website or Gumtree for vacancies. In my department, there’re kitchen helper job (I helped as a server for Christmas lunch last time), clean room cleaning job, and printer help job, so there are actually a lot of them if you’re looking closely. There’re sometimes vacancies for Indonesian tour guides/ translators advertised in PPI or other Indonesian community. If you like cooking and there are sizeable Indonesian population nearby, you can also offer a cooking service. Likewise with computer tinkering and hair cutting and other skills.
Look into what’s available and what your need is. If you have campus internet, and you have wi-fi installed in your dormitory already, do you need unlimited internet on your phone? Generally, if you have internet in your flat and on your campus, your phone internet will mostly be used for maps and general messaging outside. I ended up using PAYG service for that (I use Three. My 10 GBP balance had lasted for 9 months (update: and counting) already. I also use a 3 scheme of free 200 MB/month but it needs new SIM card and the promotion period has ended so I don’t think you can have it now). Don’t forget to look at the signal coverage around your area as well. Indonesian students usually use Giffgaff PAYG or goodybags or Three. If you have your address already, you can have the card sent to your address when you arrive in the UK (which is pretty neat, I could pop the SIM card straight after I came in the flat, which is miles away from provider’s booth). If you’re planning to travel to other countries a lot, I indeed suggest this provider, because of its Feel at Home scheme, works even in USA and Indonesia.
There’re a few buses and train service that offer wi-fi as well (like in Surrey’s Metrobus or SouthWest Train). There’s also London free wi-fi guide. For certain providers, you can have wi-fi in London’s Tube (including Virginmedia, EE, Vodafone, O2, and Three). For calling family in Indonesia, Skype, Whatsapp, or Google Hangout can be a choice. If they don’t have internet, you can buy Skype credits. Sometimes Lebara can be cheaper for an international call, do check the rate.
I’m not talking about shopping with credit cards (though sometimes they’re helping). Loyalty cards are pretty big in the UK. It’s not that important, but you can use them to track what you buy as well (this can be the reason to avoid it altogether). As the closest shops to my lab are Sainsbury’s and Co-Op I have a Nectar card and a Co-op Card (+ NUS Extra). You can have Tesco/Waitrose/supermarkets of your choice loyalty card as well (perks for Waitrose’s free coffee!). For Nectar Every 1 GBP you get a point. 500 points give you 2.5 GBP off. That’s not much, but you will do monthly grocery anyway, so it doesn’t hurt. The perk for Nectar card is that it’s also used for Train (I always book online for the points), eBay, and others as well. You can try to track stores you buy/ use often, and apply for their loyalty card. You can also do this for Odeon Cinema if you’re into movies.
Also, check in your NUS Extra website if there’re discounts available (also Unidays). There are a lot of them, ranging from supermarkets, clothes, travels, and experiences. I already mentioned before but buy off-brand and secondhand. Usually, people buy electronics in Argos, and clothes in Primark. If you want to splurge you can wait until the season ended (buy “winter clothes” in March, for example. Especially for students with longer study period) or in boxing day (26 December) for sale.
Discount codes are abundant, you can find Uber discount codes everywhere. You can eat 50% off in nice restaurant as well, by looking at sites like hotukdeals or moneysupermarket. (though the prices are high still)
You can find a 1-Pound Store like Poundland or Poundsaver all around the UK, this is nice for dishwares and cookware (bought cup, knife, scissors, strainers, and a lot more there), snacks, beauty products, fruits, soaps and shampoos. Do check if the price is lower in nearby supermarkets though (like toothpaste, mouthwash, coffee, canned food). I find Wilko pretty cheap overall, and IKEA’s price is quite reasonable as well, but they’re not that common in the cities.
Cashback apps are also good if you buy everything online! I use Quidco for my ebay purchase a lot. The click and snap apps are good if you like to try something new! If I go to town (once in a blue moon event), I get my Shopmium, Topcashback , Checkoutsmart , and GreenJinn ready to see what’s interesting (my friend R keeps protesting of me bringing TukTuk Tea. They’re almost always have free offers and the Sainsbury’s near UCL stock them. Not sponsored, honest.).
For generic pharmacy, It will be wise to bring things you really need from Indonesia, as you need prescribed recipe a lot here (though if you don’t, they’re very cheap. You can check whether they have your drugs in their website before packing). In general, you can get them in Poundland, Superdrug or Boots. You can get glasses and contact lenses in Boots, Vision Express, Specsavers, and Visiondirects, even Tesco optician (it has free eye-test, the whole thing. Update: no more Tesco Optician now, but Specsavers sometimes has free eye-test coupons) though I believe bringing a spare pair is necessary. You can also buy online from Selectspecs or Googles4You if you really want them cheap. If your university has pharmacy or glasses store, you can visit them as well. For minor repairs, all of those stores usually don’t charge anything.
Don’t forget to bring small changes, as some stores don’t accept cards at all or below some values (not to mention buses!) It’s not the usual suggestion, but choosing the right bank is rather nice as well. The typical bank recommended to fellow Indonesian are Santander, Barclays, or Lloyds. For foreigners, they’re basically the same, no perks like British students like Coach Card. I don’t know with those banks (as I ended up not using them), but ask around and choose one with the easier application process and waiting list, and choose banks near to your home instead of your university, especially in the new term as they will be swamped. I ended up using TSB because the waiting time was only 3 days that time (compared to Santander) and the difference between the address written from my lab’s office and my student statement making the application difficult (basically my application experience was very recommended. This is definitely not sponsored, honest.). In TSB, you can have the contactless card as well, it’s widely used in London. I ended up using it for my TFL travel (and giving out my Oyster card to a friend).
The perk is that you have 5% cashback for the first 100 GBP you spent with contactless (I never go over 100 GBP though) (this promo has been expired). I can’t get student account, but I get a Classic Plus account instead (which offers you monthly interest if you “put” 500 GBP in your account each month), and monthly saving account in the side. If you want a Sharia account, the only choice right now is Lloyds. If you get monthly funds in foreign bank account, Santander waives one each month for you. If you get a lot of transfers in a foreign currency, sadly you can only choose ones with less rate (sigh, TSB). If you travel a lot to get money in ATM abroad, unfortunately, you don’t have much luck to skip all the charges, but Metro’s ATM transaction fee is free for EU (there’s one with free charge worldwide, but it’s not a nation-wide bank). I also use Monzo now though, which is a prepaid card with Mastercard exchange rate, for transactions not in GBP.
Books and school supplies
Don’t just buy every book in your reading list, and buy every book you want to read in the bookstore, as they’re quite pricey and not to mention can be quite cumbersome. First, check whether your university library or your local library has it. If you’re into digital books, you can also buy the e-book version, or borrow it in overdrive (by joining local library. I can’t emphasise any more than this, I’m happily reading books in my middle-of-nowhere-flat thanks to Surrey Library). After that, you can check whether it’s really essential for your course and your field, or it’s one-off mention. Look for secondhand like in Waterstones, eBay, or gumtree, before thinking of buying new. Amnesty International book sale is also an option for books priced only at 1 GBP.
Don’t expect that you can just photocopy all books because other than copyright, photocopy service (ink) is quite expensive. I think for printing and photocopying, university printing is generally quite cheaper than outside printing. Do think of what to print, really, because they’re quite expensive compared to in Indonesia, and most courses submissions’re doable online. If you’re comfortable reading papers and journals in your computer, that will help. Or you can just put everything inside an ebook reader, your phone, or your tablet. Photo printing is necessary for VISA application. One of the cheapest is I think printing service in Boots. Their one-day service is 0.25 for 10″ (and a half for a week one), cheaper than the photo booth scattered everywhere with their 5 GBP service (they do include the photo-taking part though). Other alternatives are local print-shops which are usually cheaper.
Don’t go printing something in Rymann except for emergencies.
Closing and General
Generally, for produce, I think UK prices are not that bad, not as expensive as I thought it would be. The same with clothes. Good quality secondhand stuff are quite cheap (you can buy a secondhand car by just 300 GBP?? Insurance is expensive though). Generally services are far more expensive in the UK, that includes cooking (eating out), repairing (if you can tinker), sewing (please bring/ prepare small sewing kit to repair your clothes), haircut (cut it yourself if you can, go to the free haircut from student hairdressers or ask your friend to make you their guinea pig. Or learn to cut other’s hair! That a money-making scheme right there).
Needing to save money is okay, but you need life and experience. Hopefully, this article can help people who are living/ planning to live in London/ UK in general. Not an exhaustive list so suggestions and corrections welcome.