Even if you aren’t lactose intolerant, a 1 kg Countdown block of cheese’s hefty price tag of $18.50 is enough to make anyone’s stomachs churn. My milk-rejecting genes must be a secret blessing from my frugal Asian ancestors who were probably just trying to save me an hour’s worth of pay every week.
Of course, cheese is just the tip of the iceberg. Increasing costs in food, fuel, rent, tuition fees, in combination with stagnant wages, has made being alive in New Zealand more and more fucking expensive. As students, the majority of us work part-time jobs that pay minimum wage (or a few pennies over) to cover the cost of our existence. Not only are most students paid the legal bare minimum, but the pandemic has made it more difficult to find part-time work. In a recent Stuff article, the New Zealand Union of Student Associations President Andrew Lessels states many of the jobs students typically work “have dried up because of Covid. Hospitality is bleeding, and we are seeing a lot of job losses across the scale” (Ruru, 2022).
Many of us also supplement our income by begging for Studylink’s meagre handouts—sitting for hours on the phone as our ears are tortured with the same five-song loop or having to re-confirm that yes, my parents have not gotten back together, every single year.
From April 1, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced that both the student allowance and living costs will increase by $25 per week. While this increase is expected to benefit 63,000 student allowance recipients and 86,000 student loan living cost borrowers, the new amount has minimal impact on the financial burden many students carry.1 Implementing a blanket increase for Studylink’s financial aid is hardly reflective or supportive of the diversity of students’ financial needs, responsibilities and backgrounds. And not everyone qualifies for student allowance entitlements or wants to take out living costs.
For young people that live away from home or are financially independent from their parents, the pressure to make ends meet is particularly significant. Candice, a recent graduate who is now living alone in Tauranga feels that the rising cost of living is not confined to Auckland. Despite working three jobs and receiving a salary, she feels that the increasing cost of food and fuel significantly impacts how she budgets every week. Over the past fortnight, Candice noticed that her grocery bill has almost doubled. To compensate for this spike, she has taken cost-reducing measures like buying cereal for breakfast instead of the nutritious, but more expensive option of eggs.
Abby, an Education student who has moved out from her family home in Auckland, says that her “overall budgeting has plummeted” due to the skyrocketing prices of fuel and food. This is particularly stressful as her “payday has stayed the same”, but her expenses have only increased. Abby also feels that “trying to pay for uni without a loan is becoming more impossible” and that it “almost feels like the government is pushing for people to take loans for students to make life easier.”
Dennis, a Design student who lives in a granny flat by their parental home, feels that buying takeaways may be a more viable option once you factor in the preparation time and the expensive cost of groceries that goes into cooking home-made meals. They now buy frozen fruit instead of fresh fruit as a cost-reducing measure. For Dennis, they feel that their situation “is much better”, in comparison to many of their friends who are forced to live paycheck to paycheck.
However, young people still living in their parental homes are not exempt from financial burden either.
JJ, who lives in a single parent household has found that their pay is not enough to bulk buy groceries. This has resulted in them having to make frequent trips to the supermarket to top up. Over time, they have also noticed that their pay covers less and less food, making “it hard as fuck to get by and just eat everyday.”
For students in courses where full time practicum and placements are mandatory—their financial struggles have not only increased with inflation, but often go unnoticed.
Jules, a third-year student nurse, says that during hospital placements, students are virtually “unable to work during the week”. During her last placement period, she recalls being rostered on for 8 hour long shifts, 5 days a week, often with early morning starts or late night finishes. On top of the full time schedule, Jules says that nursing students still needed to juggle studying 2-3 papers—making part time work on the weekend especially difficult. Fortunately, she was able to work part-time as a healthcare assistant for income. However, Jules notes that her paid work as an HCA was a much “lighter load than placement work.”
While Jules feels that placements were “easier” for her as she did not have many personal financial responsibilities—costs like paying “$20 a shift for parking” and spending “$80 in fuel to drive to the hospital every week” added up significantly. She recalls that some students studied or even slept overnight in their cars to save on parking costs.
For nursing students with children, placement periods were particularly stressful. Many of Jules’ peers who were mothers often relied on their partners for financial support and childcare due to the long and inconvenient shift times.
Given the rising cost of living, it is extremely unethical and exploitative that students on placements are not compensated for weeks of full-time work. This isn’t even about morality, it’s an issue of equity.
But regardless if your living costs are supported by Studylink, earnings from a part-time job, or even both—it’s clear that with the increasing prices of basic necessities, many students are struggling financially. Especially with barriers like full-time placements and Studylink’s eligibility requirements for financial aid, it can feel like we’ve been left to fend for ourselves.
So, if you’ve got a mate who seems like they’re stressed out because of bills, it doesn’t cost anything to lend them a supportive shoulder. While we can’t stop blocks of cheese at the supermarket from retailing for the price of your first-born child, what we can do is be there for one another.
1Stuff, 01.03.22, “Student allowance to increase by $25pw, but students still ‘just scraping by”.