In fourth-year university student Sam Nixon’s fridge, there is a bit of pizza. Sure, it’s cold, a leftover from an event at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.
But, hey, it’s also free.
Professors paid for it. And it’s loaded with pepperoni and veggies.
A handful of students were only too eager to grab the leftover slices after the event and take them home. Nixon, the Acadia Students’ Union academic and external vice-president, was one of them.
That pizza ended up feeding her and a couple of friends.
“Free food is a huge drive to get students out because it's free and we don't have to take time to cook,” Nixon says.
No time to cook. And, in many cases, very tight budgets.
Tristan Bray, executive director of the roughly 20,000-member strong Students Nova Scotia, says university students in Canada live on an average budget of about $16,500 for the school year. For an undergraduate student, tuition in Nova Scotia is the most expensive in Atlantic Canada with an average cost of about $7,083 per year. An affordable rent for a student in the Halifax Regional Municipality is considered to be about $500 per month, or roughly $4,000 for the school year.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s tuition, by comparison, is a bargain with an average tuition of just under $2,614, according to Statistics Canada figures. Going to university on Prince Edward Island comes with an average tuition of $6,030 and New Brunswick's tuition average s about $6,916.
Nova Scotia’s high tuition fees mean that students studying in that province are typically looking at only $5,500, or about $150 per week, for everything else, including books, university fees, clothing, heating and telephone services, and, of course, their social life.
Not everyone can do it.
“I have friends that skimp on their groceries … or read the crappy PDFs of textbooks online rather than buy the books,” said Nixon.
Saint Mary’s University assistant registrar of student finances, Marla Douglas, says many students resort to using the university’s food bank, the Community Food Room, stocked in part with the help of alumni food drives. It’s open four days a week and is filled with canned goods, tuna and eggs, fresh veggies and other staples.
Struggling with finances is all-too-common for university students. Many of them do need to use campus food banks, now a feature of many universities. Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island both have similar food banks. The University of New Brunswick doesn’t but provides students with Sobeys gift cards that can be used for gas, food or medication.
There is also other help available to students, including programs to give them money-management skills early in life.
“For a lot of students, when they get here, it’s their first time managing their money,” said Douglas.
On its website, Saint Mary’s University offers 13 budgeting tips. Other universities in Atlantic Canada offer up similar advice through their financial services departments.
Most of the tips are about keeping track of the little money students do have. Buy used textbooks instead of new ones. Opt out of additional health and dental coverage. Use Skype instead of cell phones for international calls. Walk, bike or use public transit to get around instead of a car. Use credit cards sparingly. Pick up stuff that’s on sale. And keep track of spending with an Excel spreadsheet or use a budget calculator on bank websites.
"You’ll likely be spending money on fun, but sometimes it’s good to say no,” the university advises students. “Choosing which activities to go to will not only help you save money, but possibly your academic grades.”
Living in the family home while going to university – when that’s possible – is also a big way for university students to curb expenses, saving tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a four-year degree. In 2009, Nova Scotians who lived at home while getting that education saved more than $25,000.
Grants, bursaries and scholarships are the motherlode, a cash cow, for university students and well worth the little bit of time needed to apply for them.
“If your application is successful, the big benefit is it's money that you won’t have to pay back,” Saint Mary’s University tells students on its website. “Keep in mind that many post-secondary institutions offer automatic scholarships for maintaining your grades at a certain level. Generally, the higher your grades, the more money you receive.”
Getting a part-time job, though, is still critically important for many students. Nixon opted to move to Wolfville from Dartmouth to study at Acadia University and doesn't qualify for provincial student loans because of her parents' income.
They cover her groceries and provide much-appreciated care packages and the occasional lasagna or other meal she can take back to school during visits back home. Part-time jobs, including three years of working for a catering company and now as an executive for the student council, cover the rest of her expenses.
It’s a trade-off: exchanging time that could be spent studying – or sleeping - for money. Nixon puts in 15 hours per week at her job.
“That takes up a ridiculous amount of my time,” she said. “I’m dead tired.”
Although the university student would like to sleep eight or nine hours every night, she gets by on just a bit more than six.
At Saint Mary’s University, the student finances department cautions students against taking out more in loans than they need to avoid a massive debt by graduation. Many students, though, see those loans as a necessity to pay for that education.
After all, Nova Scotia has the second-highest tuition of all Canadian provinces. Earlier this year, the provincial government loosened up the purse strings to give students in that province more access cash.
In its latest budget, Nova Scotia upped its contribution to financial aid for university students by about $500 for those in the lowest income bracket and gave all students an extra year to start paying back their loans. Those students most in need can also get their Nova Scotia provincial student loans forgiven when they graduate, meaning they don’t have to pay them back.
None of that, though, will help Nixon and other students like her.
Without the student loan option, she has turned to a bank. Instead of getting an interest-free loan from the province, Nixon is facing an interest rate of 4.2 per cent and a total student loan debt of about $40,000 by the time she graduates in May.
University student associations figure governments should be doing more to help them get an education.
In Ontario, the provincial government has wiped out a tax credit for university students, which it claimed would save $145 million this year, and instead started giving them aid money up front for families earning less than $50,000 per year. Up to a third of Ontario’s university students are now getting free tuition – and some of them receive more money than they pay in tuition – under this program which includes mature students.
New Brunswick announced a similar program earlier this year. Under that program, a student who comes from a family of three earning $61,000 or less would be eligible for $3,614. Add in federal financial aid and almost the entire cost of tuition for that student would be covered.
At Students Nova Scotia, Bray wants Nova Scotia to follow suit.
“Providing that grant up front will allow students who could not afford to go to university with an opportunity to do so,” he said. “You could impact the majority of students in Nova Scotia who apply for a student loan.”
With its changes in financial aid for students, Ontario saw a reported 10-per-cent spike in applications for aid this year, suggesting the more generous offerings might be helping the province retain university students.