Student overdrafts: everything you need to know

Being a student isn’t cheap, and with living costs rising whilst maintenance loans barely cover rent costs, students are relying on their overdrafts more than ever to get them through uni.

In our annual National Student Money Survey, 45% of students said they use their student overdraft as a source of income and 51% said they turn to banks when they’re in need of emergency cash.

But whilst there’s no denying the perks of a 0% student overdraft, it’s important you know exactly how it works, potential pitfalls, and how you’ll (eventually!) pay it back.

This guide should have everything you need to know about choosing, using and never abusing the wonder that is the student overdraft.

What’s an overdraft and how does it work?

question markEssentially, an overdraft is when the bank let you spend more money than you have, up to a pre-agreed amount.

When you go into your overdraft, it will show on your bank statement or online banking as a minus number. For example, if you have £100 and spend £200, your account balance will show as -£100. If you have a £1,000 arranged overdraft, your ‘available balance’ will then appear as £900.

Think of it is an emergency piggy bank that you can dip into if necessary, but that you’ll need to pay back eventually as it’s not technically yours. It’s tempting to think of your student overdraft as free money, but unfortunately this isn’t the case – it’s a loan.

There are two stages of overdraft to be aware of:

  1. Arranged overdraft

    Sometimes called a ‘planned’, ‘authorised’ or ‘agreed’ overdraft, this is the amount pre-arranged with your bank that you’re allowed to ‘borrow’ in your current account. With most student accounts, there won’t be any interest or transaction charges on this amount.

  2. Unarranged overdraft

    Sometimes called an ‘unplanned’ or ‘unauthorised’ overdraft, this is when you exceed the pre-agreed amount you’ve arranged with your bank. The bank tends to charge fair whack when this happens, so it’s important to avoid doing this as much as you can!

Choosing the right student overdraft

student overdraft
As you can probably imagine, choosing the right student overdraft involves choosing the right student bank account, as they come as a package.

Most high street banks will offer student accounts nowadays – you can find out what the best deals are for this year in our guide to the best student bank accounts for 2017/18.

You’ll find overdrafts of up to £3,000 are available with many student accounts, but how much you actually get depends on your credit rating, and often the amount will start lower initially, and you’ll need to ask to have it increased at the end of each academic year (it doesn’t happen automagically).

The best student overdrafts will offer:

  1. Interest-free money– Finding an overdraft with 0% interest is crucial. You’re probably going to spend a good few years in your overdraft, so the last thing you want is to be accumulating extra charges on what you spend. Not every bank will give you an interest-free student overdraft, so make sure you check this.
  2. A guaranteed minimum amount, usually increasing each year – Some high street banks offer an overdraft ‘up to’ £3,000, but how much you actually get depends on your credit rating and what uni year you’re in. However, some use subtle ‘up to’ references to lure you in, only to restrict your limit once the account is open. 
  3. Big enough for your needs, but not so big you won’t be able to pay it back – don’t be blinded by the largest overdraft amounts. Although it’s easy to get carried away when you see all those 0’s, remember you’ll have to pay this back eventually so in reality – a bigger overdraft means more debt.

5 things to remember about your student overdraft

It’s no wonder new students get excited about the extra £££ in their account – but it’s worth remembering that your student overdraft doesn’t come completely without warning!

Here are a few important factors to bear in mind.

  1. An overdraft isn’t free money

    Take-cash-onlyAn overdraft is essentially a loan, so you will have to pay it back. Therefore, the less you borrow, the less you’ll have to repay later!

    While the facility is great to have as backup, that doesn’t mean you have to use it just because it’s there.

    Thinking of your overdraft as free cash will likely result in you powering through it pretty quickly, and then where will you turn to for emergency cash?

  2. The bank can cancel it at any time

    Unfortunately, your overdraft is never 100% reliable, as most banks will have something in the T&Cs that permits them to cancel it at any time without reason.

    Whilst it’s unlikely this would happen with a student account, it’s still worth being aware of as it could come with some hefty charges if you’re none the wiser.

    They’ll need to inform you before they cancel, though – which is why you should always read any (e)mail the bank sends you!

    If your overdraft is cancelled, contact your bank immediately to agree on a repayment plan.

  3. You’ll be charged if you go over your limit

    avoid overdraft chargesIf you exceed your overdraft limit, this is known as using an unauthorised overdraft, and will either come with a fee or your payment will bounce.

    Unplanned overdraft fees vary from bank to bank, but you’ll usually have to pay a monthly fee plus a daily fee for every day you’re over your limit, too – so the charges can fair add up!

    The daily fee can be relative to how much you’ve overspent – so if you’re over by a hefty sum, you could be racking up massive fines.

    Our 2017/18 guide to student bank accounts includes a breakdown of the unplanned overdraft fees charged by each bank.

  4. Your credit rating matters

    Your credit rating affects everything money-related, from your phone bill to buying a car or a property.

    Although it does become more noticeably important later in life, having a good credit rating relies on you being sensible with your student account, and you’ll even need a decent credit score to get a student overdraft in the first place!

    If you’re constantly going over your arranged overdraft limit, have had your overdraft cancelled or have been turned down for extensions on your limit, this is an indication that your credit score is in bad shape.

    Try to have some foresight about the impact your spending habits could have on your future finances, and here’s a guide on how to improve your credit rating if you’re worried about the state it’s in!

  5. One student account should be enough

    You might’ve heard other students saying that once you’ve hit your overdraft limit, you can just open another student account and start over with another overdraft.

    However, most (if not all) banks will have a clause in their terms and conditions that forbids you from opening more than one student account.

    Plus, having multiple overdrafts is a sure-fire way to cause your debt to spiral out of control – if you can’t pay back the first overdraft, what makes you think you’ll pay back a second one?

    Opening multiple accounts also has the potential to do terrible things to your credit rating, so think very hard before you decide to borrow even more money.

How to avoid overdraft charges

Spending-overdraftDipping into your unarranged overdraft can have a wide range of repercussions – including monthly fees, daily fees and transaction fees – and banks often make it difficult to understand exactly how much you’ll be charges.

Some banks cap the amount they can charge you, but generally you can be looking at the following:

• Between £5-40 monthly fee
• Between £1-6 daily fee (normally capped at a certain amount each month)
• An additional £10-25 for every direct debit, card payment or any other transaction.

Here are some tricks you can try to avoid any charges on your account.

  1. Take note of regular incomings and outgoings

    Be mindful of your regular payments like direct debits and standing orders – how many you have, for what amounts, and note the days they come out of your account (pay extra attention to payments such as phone bills, which can be unexpectedly higher month-on-month).

    This way, you can make sure you’re always far enough from your overdraft limit that you won’t go into your unarranged overdraft when your bill comes out. This is the most common situation that results in a charge for exceeding overdraft limits and incurring charges.

    Not having enough cash to cover these payments can go two ways (and neither option is good): If the bank makes the payment on your behalf (meaning you go over your overdraft limit) you’re likely to be charged fee; if the bank stops the payment from going through, you could end up giving an admin charge to the company you failed to pay, plus a returned item fee to your bank.

  1. Use a prepaid card for spending money

    distracted by phoneThere are loads of smart new prepaid cards emerging these days that are aimed at helping you budget better.

    These cards are linked up to your smartphone so you get a notification every time you spend cash, and you’ll be alerted when you’re about to go over budget.

    After you’ve worked out your weekly budget (see above tip), you can transfer your allocated spending money each week onto a prepaid card, meaning you’ll only ever spend what you’re permitting yourself to.

    This way, you’ll have much better control of what goes in and out of your account daily.

    Check out our guide to the best prepaid cards currently on the market to decide if it’s a good option for you.

  2. Use mobile banking

    You might feel like hooking up your bank account to your phone to receive updates about your balance sounds like hell.

    However, research has shown that it can encourage you to have much better control of your finances if you have access to your bank account on your phone.

    In fact, according to the FCA, you’re 24% less likely to incur overdraft charges if you use mobile banking with text alerts!

  3. Get Facebook alerts

    facebook chatbotAs well as using your banks own app, it could also be worth looking into intelligent new software like Cleo.

    Cleo is a Facebook messenger chatbot that gives you frequent insights into your spending by sending you a message on Facebook chat – including a heads up when you’re getting close to your overdraft limit!

    Find out more about Cleo as well as other similar service in our guide to automatic savings bots and apps.

Paying off your student overdraft

2014 Grad job marketAfter graduating, you’ll be eligible for a graduate bank account. Graduate bank accounts are designed kind of like a stepping stone to give you some time to pay off your overdraft without interest before entering the big bad world of regular fee-charging overdrafts. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end!

How it works

Graduate bank accounts still come with 0% overdraft (waheeey!), and you’ll normally be eligible to hold onto this account for three years following graduation.

BUT whereas you saw your overdraft limit increasing each year with your student overdraft, the limit tappers backwards with a graduate account, in the hope that you’ll gradually pay it off year by year.

For example, a bank might give you a £3,000 0% overdraft, which will then go down to £2,000 in year two, then £1,000 in year 3.

Whilst some student bank accounts will automatically transfer you to a graduate account when you graduate, never assume this will happen as if it doesn’t you could start getting charged interest on your overdraft.

As always, it’s also worth doing your research into graduate bank accounts too in case there’s a better deal elsewhere – and we’ve got just the guide to help you with that!

Your student overdraft is what you make of it: use it wisely and you’ll enjoy some extra cash with no worries; abuse it, and you could be suffering the consequences for years to come.

Struggling to get your bank balance out of the red? Check out our ultimate guide to student debt for more tips on how to get your finances back into shape.