Student friends laughing in city

Comparing popular cities

Find out how to calculate the cost of living in popular student cities

When you're choosing where to study, the cost of living is one of the factors that will likely influence your decision after you've shortlisted courses and universities.

This can vary from location to location. And although it can be tricky to find living costs for every student city in the UK, there are a few resources you can use to find a uni that suits your lifestyle and budget.

Comparing the cost of living in popular cities

Once you've shortlisted your universities, the following sites will help you understand your university living costs at each if you choose to study there.

Natwest Student Living Index

The Natwest Student Living Index is an annual report of the most affordable cities for students. In 2020, Natwest asked 2,806 students in 29 university cities how much they spend on food, rent and their social life.

Natwest works out the most affordable cities by finding students' average total expenses (including rent, food and social activities) and dividing this by their average monthly income (including their loans, bursaries and income from part-time work).

According to Natwest's 2020 index:

  • The top 3 most affordable cities for students on the South Coast of England are Exeter, Portsmouth and Brighton
  • London is the least affordable city for students and students in London spend the most on a night out
  • All Scottish student cities have a high cost of living compared to the rest of the UK
  • Students in Oxford and Newcastle spend the most money on alcohol each month – even though students in Durham spend the most time socialising
  • Students in Aberdeen and Poole spend the most money on household bills each month
  • The average monthly rent for students in Portsmouth is £422.10 – £294.80 cheaper than London, £109.50 cheaper than Brighton and £10.40 cheaper than Exeter

Numbeo

Numbeo breaks down the cost of individual items in all cities across the UK. Its website has loads of data that can look overwhelming, but it's a great way to compare the cost of living in popular student cities.

How to use Numbeo

Using the Natwest Student Living Index, we know that students spend most of their budget on:

  • supermarket shopping
  • going out
  • eating out
  • clothes, shoes and accessories

So the best way to use Numbeo is to compare the cost of these top student spends across popular cities. This helps you focus on what you need to know from all the data on Numbeo.

Also, Natwest doesn't break down all individual living costs in their report. For example, according to Natwest, students in the UK spend an average of £81.60 on food shopping, toiletries and household items – but it doesn't break this down by city. Using food prices recorded on Numbeo, you can see you could spend even less than the average of £81.60, as most food prices are below the UK average.

Numbeo has data for over 9,500 cities worldwide. To help you compare the cost of living in popular student cities, here's the Numbeo data for Portsmouth compared to London, Manchester, Bath, Southampton and Brighton.

*All Numbeo figures below correct as of date of publish on 7 August 2020.

The cost of living in popular student cities 

As the capital city of the UK, London isn't going to be the cheapest student city to move to. However, the maximum maintenance loan you can receive for being an undergraduate in London is higher than it is if you move to a uni outside London, and it's a popular choice for students.

If you compare Portsmouth with London, you'll find that:

  • Milk, rice, eggs, chicken and alcohol from a supermarket are all cheaper in Portsmouth, although fresh vegetables and fruit are cheaper in supermarkets in London
  • A 3-course meal for 2 in a mid-range restaurant is 15% cheaper in Portsmouth and a regular cappuccino is 11% cheaper
  • Your household bills will be almost half the cost in Portsmouth than they would be in London
  • Branded clothing is more expensive to buy in-store in London than it is in Portsmouth

Manchester is a growing student city and is the most affordable university city according to the Natwest Student Living Index. Similarly, Numbeo reports that you need £140.9 more per year to live in Portsmouth at the same standard of living you'd get in Manchester.

But when you look at the top spends for students in Numbeo when comparing Portsmouth and Manchester, you'll find that:

  • Rice, eggs, beef and alcohol from a supermarket are all cheaper in Portsmouth
  • A beer in a restaurant is cheaper in Portsmouth and a regular cappuccino is 4% cheaper
  • Your household bills will be around 30% cheaper in Portsmouth than they would be in Manchester
  • Clothing in high street stores is slightly cheaper

Bath is a popular university city and high in league tables. According to Numbeo, you'd need around £500 more a year to live to the same standards you would in Portsmouth.

When you look at the top spends for students in Numbeo when comparing Portsmouth and Bath, you'll find that:

  • Milk, bread, eggs, meat, most vegetables and alcohol from a supermarket are all cheaper in Portsmouth – meat is more than 23% cheaper in Portsmouth
  • A 3-course meal for 2 in a mid-range restaurant is 15% cheaper in Portsmouth and a regular cappuccino is 3% cheaper
  • Your household bills will be more than half the cost in Portsmouth than they would be in Bath – 60% cheaper
  • Clothing in high street stores is 22% cheaper in Portsmouth but branded clothing might be slightly more expensive than in Bath

If you're looking to study on the South Coast, Southampton could be another option for you. Southampton is the 25th affordable university city according to Natwest but at first glance on Numbeo, Southampton appears cheaper than Portsmouth.

When you look at the top spends for students in Numbeo when comparing Portsmouth and Southampton, you'll find that:

  • Bread, eggs, beef and water from a supermarket are all cheaper in Portsmouth
  • A draught beer and a bottle of water in a restaurant are both cheaper in Portsmouth than in Southampton
  • Your household bills will be around 32% cheaper in Portsmouth than they would be in Southampton
  • Clothing in high street stores and branded clothing is all cheaper to buy in Portsmouth

Brighton is the 3rd most affordable university city on the South Coast according to Natwest.

When you look at the top spends for students in Numbeo when comparing Portsmouth and Brighton, you'll find that:

  • Milk, bread, rice, eggs and meat from a supermarket are all cheaper in Portsmouth
  • A 3-course meal for 2 in a mid-range restaurant is 15% cheaper in Portsmouth, and all drinks in a restaurant are cheaper, including domestic beers, regular cappuccinos and water
  • Your household bills will be more than half the cost in Portsmouth than they would be in Brighton
  • Branded clothing and high street clothe shopping is cheaper in Portsmouth

Final tips

When researching universities, it's important to consider factors other than the most affordable city. Some cities cost as little as £50–£100 a year more than others, which is just 96p–£1.92 a week.

You'll also want to consider things like:

  • student support services
  • transport links home
  • work experience and placement opportunities
  • career prospects
  • nightlife

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