Harrowing reality of financially strained students: 'Emotionally burnt out' and surviving on rice as cost of living skyrockets

Students are struggling to eat and working multiple jobs to make ends meet as the cost of living continues its relentless ascent. 

Increasing prices have been well documented and most people are acutely aware of how much more their mortgage and grocery bills are at the moment. 

But while it's stressful and frustrating for financially stable Kiwis, for people in a more precarious position it can be downright dire. 

Earlier this month Newshub revealed the lengths elderly New Zealanders are going to to survive. 

But another group is also feeling the effects of increasing costs particularly hard, university students. 

For most people, their university years are punctuated by partying, a lot of socialising and eating two-minute noodles to save money. There's a comforting solidarity in the "poor student" trope. 

But as prices rise students aren't simply turning to two-minute noodles to cope, some are barely able to afford food at all and others are under so much financial pressure they want to give up.

Wellington law student Katherine Blow, 22, is one of them. Blow is emotionally burnt out and exhausted. Instead of focusing on her degree, she spends most of her time stressing about how to pay her bills. 

When she first started studying before COVID-19, things were different. She could afford all the basics and had enough extra to socialise.
But now the cost of basics is so out of control she's had to cut down to part-time study so she can work more. 

Blow said it's taking a toll and she doesn't know if she will even manage to finish her degree if things get much worse. 

"I think to myself once a day, 'I am so sick of studying'. I have this year and next year but I can't wait to not study and it's all to do with finances," she told Newshub. 

"The amount of times I have sat down and thought, 'What can I cut from [my budget]?' And then very quickly realise, 'No I actually have to allocate this much each week for bills and there is no way to avoid buying groceries or budgeting less for power and internet'."

Her grocery bill alone has increased by $30 in the past two years and she can't even get the basics without blowing her budget. 

"I was looking at my previous budget and I think when I started flatting in 2020, I started off budgeting $40 a week for groceries and now it's gone up to $70 because it's just so expensive," she told Newshub. 

Katherine Blow is emotionally burnt out from constantly worrying about money.
Katherine Blow is emotionally burnt out from constantly worrying about money. Photo credit: Supplied.

She's exhausted and "emotionally burnt out" from constantly worrying about how to pay her bills. 

"It was really badly affecting me last year because instead of trying to focus on studying or doing readings, I was constantly refreshing and checking my bank account. That was my way of coping."

She's not the only student struggling to get by as costs rise. Pasifika president of Massey University Students' Association Aniva-Storm Feau, 26, recently finished studying. While she's now in a full-time role advocating for students, just last year she was working two jobs while studying just so she could afford her rent and food. 

She said the exhaustion and burnout made her feel like a "zombie" and meant it was impossible to thrive or succeed at anything she was doing. 

Her schedule was jam-packed. She started her job at 3am and worked until 12pm. Then she headed to university to study until she started her second job as a nanny at 3pm. That finished at 6pm giving her just enough time to go home, do some more study and go to sleep before she had to do it all again. 

"After a while, you just end up like a zombie. You're not able to have a social life. You're not able to actually give your body the rest that it needs. You're not actually able to flourish in any of the jobs or the studying. You're kind of just there to be there, rather than there to succeed. 

"It's a constant survival mode and I think, especially with the cost of living, it's just pushing more and more students into that."

As costs continue to rise Feau said she's hearing from an increasing number of students who can barely afford to eat. 

"It's getting to the point where people aren't able to give up anything else that's not essential. So people are having to give up essential things like food, housing and their studies.

"We have students who have to work over 80-hour weeks just to be able to eat and not even eat properly."

Feau said demand for hardship grants is also increasing and some students are being forced to give up their studies completely. 

"It's pretty evident things are becoming more unaffordable. Pasifika examples would be hardship grants that we offer to our students when they're in financial hardship, [we] have had a lot more applications than usual," she said. 

It's an issue Jake Law is all too familiar with. Law, 30, spent last year studying before moving into a full-time role as the General President of Massey University Students Association this year. He told Newshub the cost of living is having a major impact on students. 

Increasing costs combined with readily available jobs mean student numbers are dropping. 

"Students aren't enrolling as much as they used to. Part of that is because we have very low unemployment… But it's also because the cost of living crisis means people don't have the luxury to go into full-time or even part-time study anymore," he said. 

"A lot of people are under pressure to pay rent, pay for food, pay the bills. So they are choosing work over study."

Cost of living surging 

The cost of living is top of mind for many New Zealanders with stubbornly high inflation pushing up the price of nearly everything. 

In an effort to tame inflation, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has hiked interest rates. But it's not just homeowners who are feeling the effects. Trade Me data shows rents are the highest they've ever been, sitting at $600 a week in February.

Food prices have also seen mammoth increases  - up 12.1 percent this March when compared with the same month last year. 

The increase in the price of everything has created a perfect storm for students and while the Government has boosted the student allowance, it's not enough to offset the increase in costs. 

On April 1 the Government significantly increased Superannuation, main benefits and student supports as part of a "bread and butter support" package. 

While the package was heavily focused on beneficiaries and Supperanuitants, it also meant tertiary students who receive a student allowance or student loan got roughly $20 extra each payment. 

But New Zealand Union of Students' Associations (NZUSA) national president Ellen Dixon said it's not enough. 

"We are having reports of students who are unable to afford basic foodstuffs, petrol and general stress and anxiety concerning payment for rent and healthcare," Dixon said. 

"The Government's response to the cost-of-living crisis for students has been insufficient, and continues to not address underlying issues of unaffordability for low socio-economic communities during a period of significant and ongoing economic instability."

Dixon said education is a "public good and human right" and no one should have to choose between it and eating. 

She said the education sector is in desperate need of an overhaul to better support students. 

"Student associations across the nation continue to provide support to hardship grants and food banks for students in need, but this is not a solution.  

"We need to readdress the current relationship we have with student debt and other forms of debt in this country, and no longer see education through the singular neoliberal lens of a privatised, commercial endeavour. 

"We want an education system that upholds the taxpayer while bringing dignity to students everywhere," she said. 

Minister of Education Jan Tinetti told Newshub the Government has several measures in place to make studying more affordable. 

Education Minister Jan Tinetti.
Education Minister Jan Tinetti. Photo credit: Newshub

Minister Tinetti said the recent increases to student allowances come after a $25-a-week increase in 2022 and a $50 increase in 2018.

She said the Government also introduced the first-year free policy and funded apprenticeships to make sure studying and training are "available to everyone". 

She added other supports are also available including hardship and technology funds. 

The Government has also implemented several measures aimed at improving life for renters - which many students are - including the healthy homes standards, limiting how often rent can be increased, banning landlords from seeking bids, banning letting fees and abolishing 'no cause' terminations.

"We are focused on improving rental affordability and the supply of homes, as well as lifting people's incomes by raising the minimum wage every year and increasing the Accommodation Supplement in 2018," she said. 

“The Government is also taking a range of actions to make life easier for students, who like many the world over are facing increases to the cost of living. 

"We’ve made public transport half price, we are making sure fuel is cheaper, taking action to ensure supermarkets are selling food at a fair price, and providing a short-term payment to 2.1 million Kiwis, including students, to help people pay for the basics this winter." 

But it's not enough for Blow who is still struggling to afford the bare necessities.