Have we evolved past frugal student living?

It’s a compulsion I’m guilty of myself. You could put it down to unimaginative procrastination, but gratuitous spending both on and offline is something I find myself doing without even realising. Even when browsing a perfectly innocent website, adverts curiously tailored to your taste lure us in and before you know it you’re convincing yourself £150 is quite reasonable for a jewel-encrusted fruit bowl (it was down from 300). Although the thrill of buying is undeniably a guilty pleasure for most people in this country, even as the recession bites, has compulsive materialism evolved us past the ability to simply say no?

Dodo via Wikimedia Commons

It appears that the level of consumerism has changed dramatically from Britain’s former generation of students. The exhaustive tales of a time when students dressed head to toe in thrifted finds from Oxfam and survived on a diet of canned goods, such as in the Young Ones, is unquestionably no longer the case for today’s generation of students. According to lecturer Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, “students might not be rich, but they are comparatively better-off than students once were – and all the talk about debt and fees masks this. They have an expectation of a level of support from their parents that would have been unthinkable in the 1970s.” Although it appears that conditions of student living and budgets seem marginally less severe, it seems that such images of scarcely making ends meet have made way for a less modest lifestyle. Our powers of financial restraint are therefore often under pressure to falter.

According to Lee Eisenberg, former joint-executive of retailer Lands’ End, the average shopper falls into two categories, the “classic” and the “romantic”. The classic shopper shops according to what he or she needs, and the romantic shopper buys with his or her “heart” so therefore may buy something based on its design or to improve their mood. Unsurprisingly, since 2007 the number of “romantic shoppers” has dropped in favour of “classic” ones, however despite this, as a consumer group we still wear our hearts on our sleeves when it comes to indulge buys. This is illustrated by the incredible £121 spent by the average student after rent, according to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

There is increased financial pressure on parents to push students through university, thereby making our perception of how much we actually have more blurry than former generations of university-goers. However, that is not to say that we do not all have a clouded vision of our finances, as many students (58 per cent), despite their increased spending, use money from extra-curricular work commitments to support themselves. So although we’re spending more, with more than half of students holding down part-time work alongside their studies to do so, it seems we feel we can entitle ourselves to the odd trinket.

So where do we go from here? The government wants us to refrain cutting out excessive consumer spending, but keep us wary of its limits, parents advise strict frugality to the point of ridiculous, while at the same time being constantly bombarded with ever-evolving “seemingly-cheap-but-in-reality-requires-selling-several-organs-to-afford” student fashion and lifestyles.

Speaking from my own experience as a student, it seems that where our financial sense can falter is our perspective on why we’re buying something. It seems to me that a slightly more strict definition of “want” and “need” is needed, because it is often clouded by aggressive advertising and shopping environments. With universities treating us as consumers, sometimes it can be hard to go against the grain of such an acquisitive society. So, although some do have a healthy work-play balance when it comes to money, for many (myself included), it appears that restraint is still an undervalued virtue for UK students.