Updated: Mar 31
In my last article of the series, Student or Worker?, I introduced you to one of the most crucial aspects of moving to another country: your budget. Fortunately, I didn’t find myself in the situation where even just buying the wrong product at the supermarket was going to take a toll on my finances. However, I know many students who have to think carefully about every cent they spend, even on groceries. And although I could be noticing less which brand of tofu is the cheapest but still edible, I try to be savvy and find the offers. This second part of the series Moving To The UK: The Ultimate Guide will be focusing on how much you can expect to spend on your first few days, a list of the items you need and how to improve your shopping strategy when on a budget.
After I arrived in Southampton from Gatwick Airport in Septmeber 2018, I knew I had to roll up my sleeves and start “building” my home in the UK. I left my luggage in the room I rented and went to find the necessary to start. Looking at those days, I was not prepared at all for what I had to do: buy textiles, duvets, pillows, storage boxes, cookware and tableware. It might not seem a lot, but for a student who has recently arrived and has no car or friends that could give me a lift, it felt almost impossible.
I kept my composure and I took a bus to IKEA. It’s the most obvious choice, and to be honest it’s affordable for the majority of the things that you need for the first few days. I suggest everyone who just moved to make a checklist of all the items you need and then adventure into the shop. IKEA’s website has a cart in which you can save every object that you have to buy and either print it or just screenshot it on your phone. If you can print it, every item can be cancelled from your list after putting it into the trolley, allowing you to be sure you got everything. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of items you need. Just remember that you are setting up your life in another country and need almost everything that you can expect to find back home.
I spent almost two hours inside the shop, but I exited the doors with all the essentials. To make an estimate, I spent approximately £200. Luckily, I had brought my set of towels from home, so I didn’t have to add those as well. In any case, if you don’t already own them, add another £50 pounds to the total.
My top tip: try narrowing down your shopping list as much as possible. You need to be able to sleep comfortably and wash yourself, so no cutting on beddings and towels, but you can wait before you buy fancy cutlery or kitchenware such as cooking utensils. Chances are, your first night you will eat something bought from the closest minimarket. I made the mistake of wanting to have every single item on the first day, disregarding the fact that there are a number of cheaper stores – like Poundland, or Homesense– where you can find everyday articles for a few pounds. If these shops are not in your town, research in advance where you can buy those pieces.
On the second day after my arrival, I decided that it was time to buy groceries. I didn’t know which shops were the most affordable or the most well-stocked, so I went to the supermarket that was the closest to my house: Sainsbury’s. Starting from scratch, you have to think of the essentials again. As an Italian student, I wanted to be able to recreate as much as possible what I was used to back home. Here’s a quite comprehensive general list of what you might need:
· Spices, condiments (oil, vinegar, salt), tomato sauce;
· Pasta, rice and bread;
· Canned food, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, corn, etc.;
· Vegetables and fruit;
· Cereals, oatmeal, biscuits, or any other breakfast option that you like;
· Eggs, dairies and milk, or a vegan alternative if you prefer;
· Meat and fish, or a vegan/vegetarian option such as tofu and seitan;
· Tea and coffee;
· Sugar or natural sweetener, flour, raising agents and yeast.
It all depends on your preferences, so you might want to add or eliminate something from this list. However, it’s a good starting point if you feel you’re struggling to get everything organised. Moreover, you will need cleaning and hygiene products:
· Shampoo, conditioner and body soap;
· Toothpaste and toothbrush;
· Toilet paper, kitchen roll, tissues;
· Kitchen sponges, dish soap, degreaser, sanitizer;
· Cling film, foil and parchment paper;
· Bathroom cleaner;
· Floor cleaner;
· Washing liquid or pods.
Considering all that I mentioned, you can spend between £100 and £150. Again, it depends on your preferences and how much effort you put into saving money by buying cheaper options. Your total may also vary if you’re vegan or vegetarian. You might spend as much as a meat-eater, if you decide to buy lots of pre-cooked food, such as fake meatballs, sausages, nuggets and everything that’s supposed to be similar to meat. On the contrary, if you prepare your own meals, you spend far less. The same applies to meat-eaters. Depending on the cut of meat or type of fish that you chose, your total may fluctuate.
You will notice that, with every week that goes by, you will become more aware of what you need. In terms of weekly groceries, the shopping total can be anywhere between £20 to £40, depending also on the items that you need to re-buy after your first big stop at the supermarket. On a week where I only have to buy groceries, I tend to spend somewhere around £20, going to £30 when I finish hygiene or cleaning products. I would expect someone that eats meat to spend approximately £10 more.
My top tip: try cooking your own meals. You might be extremely busy or one of those people who simply doesn’t like cooking, but if you make it fun and suited for your preferences, it becomes easier to get into the habit of doing it. It also costs you less in the long run, especially if you buy in bulk, and you always know the ingredients that you’re adding.
There are some key tactics that you can use from the beginning to spend less and improve the quality of your shopping.
Differentiate your shopping
The same item can be cheaper in a shop compared to the other. For example, cleaning products are usually more economical if bought at Poundland, Aldi or Lidl compared to Sainsbury’s. However, I wouldn’t suggest buying groceries in Poundland, as the choice is far less vast compared to bigger retailers.
Buy cheaper canned food
Generally, the quality of canned food is the same if you compare the different companies. You might notice that they are overpriced in some shops, but I would say that a reasonable price/quality ratio for long expiry date foods is anywhere between £0.35 and £0.50. More than that and it’s too much, especially if you think that many brands buy the raw product from the same seller.
Buy at international markets or supermarket section.
Most shops have an international food section, where a lot of products are selling for cheaper compared to the supermarket’s brand. Some of these products are canned food, such as pulses, spices and nuts. Generally, the brand KTC has really competitive prices and sells all the items you need not only for Asian cuisine, but also for western food. Moreover, check out international food markets. If you’re trying to find peculiar items that you might not get in mainstream supermarkets, check out the closest Chinese or Middle Eastern shop. They have a variety of products that come from their specific region, and food is usually tastier!
Choose the supermarket that suits your needs
It might seem obvious, but not all companies are the same. Aldi has really cheap prices, but it tends to be limited on the quantity of products. It’s a good shop if you have to buy cupboard goods, but the quality and types of vegetables and fruit tend to be on the lower side of the spectrum. Moreover, it has a small number of vegetarian/vegan items. Lidl is my go-to choice in Italy and it doesn’t disappoint me in the UK either. Cupboard and canned goods are one of the best in my opinion, and almost each week there’s a theme. By this I mean that, if this week is Italian Food week, you can expect to find a wide range of Italian products.
The same applies for every other “specialty” week. Some shops have bakeries as well and their products are delicious. The quality of fruit and vegetables fluctuates a lot, which is the only defect I can find. Sainsbury’s is generally good in every aspect, although it is definitely more expensive than the other shops. You can find pretty much everything that you need, and fruit and vegetables are the best compared to the supermarkets I mentioned earlier. There are many other shops, but these are the ones that I tend to gravitate towards.
Go to local farmer’s markets
The University of Southampton organises one each Monday. It’s a win-win situation. You can comfortably get out of a lecture and get your groceries at the same time. Towards the end of the day, products are sold for cheaper and there are lots of deals – buy one, get one for free or 3 for 2. The quality of the items is satisfactory overall and they are fresh, which is always an added bonus. Check if there’s one in your town and have a look around.
I really hope that this second article of the series has helped you understand how much money you need during your first days in the UK. This guide is meant to be a way to be more organised and feel like someone has your back, especially if you’re one of those people that want to get things straight in their mind in advance. Make a list of the expenses and plan at least £300 between homeware and groceries. But what about the money you need for rent? Look out for the next post to find out.
Disclaimer: the comments I made are based on my experience and they are personal. I was not sponsored by any of the brands I mentioned.