Students & Graduates

Five Year Student Inflation Report

NatWest student living index charts five years of financial change

From Covid-19 to living cost pressures, students have had plenty on their plates in the past five years. Since 2018, the NatWest Student Living Index has been on hand to chart it all.

Our annual survey, which is carried out at the end of each academic year, covers common sources of income, rental trends, supermarket spending, attitudes towards budgeting, and plenty more.

As the world gradually moves on from the Covid pandemic, we’ve decided to take a look at how life has changed for students over the past five years.

We’ve compared a wide variety of areas to see how different costs and lifestyle trends have evolved in the past half-decade. Our review covers the worst of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, plus the emergence of the current squeeze on living costs.

Read on to explore our full findings and find out where the biggest shifts have taken place.

Student loans provide largest income boost

Perhaps unsurprisingly, student loans have remained the top source of income for university goers over the last five years. Student loans gave them an average monthly income of £443.40 back in 2018. This fluctuated in the years that followed, before peaking at £714 in 2022.

Away from necessities like food, household bills and travel, socialising remains Parents and other family members are the next largest source of student income. On average, they typically contribute around half as much as student loans. Their monthly contribution stood at £199.70 during 2018 but had surged to £434 by 2022.

We’ll have to wait until next year’s survey to see whether the large 2022 increases in student loans and family contributions mark the start of a new trend. But the lingering effects of the pandemic may explain the rise for means-tested student loans. And it’s possible the growing pressure of inflation might be fuelling higher parental contributions.

Read up on student finance and loans

Grocery shopping continues to dominate monthly spending

Supermarket shopping has consistently taken up the largest share of students’ income since 2018, after their monthly rental costs. Monthly spending on groceries has ranged from around £76 to £83.50 since our survey began. It’s currently at a similar level to where it was back in 2018 (at £76.29 now compared to £76.30).

The peak, of £83.50 recorded in 2019, was more than double students’ spending on the next biggest outgoing. Spending on groceries remained high in 2020 and 2021 (at £81.60 and £81.20 respectively). This may reflect students spending more time at home or in rented accommodation amid the pandemic, with the figure then dropping back in 2022.

Rising living costs force students to think outside the box

Our annual research reveals how student spending and lifestyle habits evolved during different stages of the Covid outbreak. From budgeting and socialising to studying trends and even alcohol spending, the rise of social distancing forced students to think in new ways.

Mixed picture on rent and accommodation costs

Students have faced a mixed picture on their monthly rental and accommodation spending since 2018, with the pandemic disrupting a steady increase. The monthly average jumped from £465.50 in 2018 to £486 the following year. But the figure declined to £437.40 during 2020 as Covid took hold. These costs then bounced back in 2021 to £518, before dipping again in 2022, to £455.

Dramatic upswing in overall student incomes

While overall student incomes declined steadily across the first three of our surveys, this changed significantly in 2021 and 2022. Average monthly incomes fell by 3.44% year-on-year during 2019 and a further 5% in 2020. But the end of lockdown restrictions and other pandemic measures appears to have spurred a sizeable bounce-back, with incomes climbing 2.7% in 2021 and by a huge 65% in 2022. The average now stands at £1,805.

Subject choice still the strongest reason to apply

Subject choice continues to have the greatest influence on university applications, despite a growing media focus on living costs. It’s come out on top every year since our Student Living Index began, hovering at 50% or just below. University reputation follows, consistently scoring between 19% and 23%. Leeds knocked Durham off the top spot for reputation in 2022.

Majority of students doing their best to budget

Students appear to be learning valuable financial lessons from the Covid pandemic and current cost-of-living pressures. Budgeting has remained high on the agenda for most university goers, whether they’re carefully planning their spending, or at the very least trying to. Across the five years under review, the proportion of students failing to consider what they spent never exceeded 6% (2019). By 2022, it stood at just 2%.

End of lockdown puts fizz back into alcohol spending

Our 2022 survey marked the end of a slowdown in average alcohol spending, with the removal of Covid restrictions potentially having an impact. Students typically spent just over £41 a month on alcohol in 2018. This slipped 34% in the following year to an average of £27.20. The figure remained relatively low in both 2020 and 2021 (at £29.30 and £27.10 respectively). This trend might be explained by members of Generation Z appearing to show less interest in alcoholic drinks.

The return of socialising and a sense of post-Covid normality kickstarted spending in 2022, however. Monthly spending leaped 37% to £43.30. Our 2023 index will give a much stronger indication of whether there has been a meaningful shift back towards alcohol.

On a regional basis, Liverpool’s students are now spending £30.50 more on alcohol than the UK average each month. At the other end of the scale, Cambridge students are currently spending the least (£16.60 a month).

Socialising makes post-Covid comeback

Away from necessities like food, household bills and travel, socialising remains the largest area of spending for UK students. Students’ spending almost doubled from 2021 to 2022, with the easing of pandemic restrictions likely to be a key factor. In 2022, spending on going out and socialising with friends reached an average of £70 a month. Newcastle, Liverpool, Canterbury, Leeds and Manchester were top when it came specifically to going out, with London sixth but still above the average. Students in Southampton spent the least on going out, at £14.70.

During 2021, with partial Covid restrictions still in place, the sum spent on going out and socialising was significantly lower (under £43). When it came to going out in 2021, Manchester, Oxford, Newcastle and Liverpool students topped the chart, with York at the bottom.

Combined spending on socialising and going out was also much lower than the 2022 total during 2018 (£46.10), 2019 (£44.20) and 2020 (£42.40).

Academic study stays top of the activity chart

One thing remains consistent for students despite the ups and downs of the past five years: time spent on academic study. This has consistently been their most time-consuming activity since 2018. Studying time spiked in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, hitting a monthly average of 98 hours. By 2022, this had eased closer to the norm, at 84.42 hours. Students at red brick universities generally dedicate the most hours to studying.

Our latest survey points to a return to in-person campus teaching. Yet the impact of social distancing and home-based study is still being felt. Some 45% of study time was spent at home in 2020, climbing to 70% in the following year. But by 2022, 63% of student’s time was spent back on campus.

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Download the Student Living Index

Are you currently attending university or still deciding where to go? Read our 2022 Student Living Index in full to discover which students are spending the most on rent, who the most sociable are, and much more.


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