Student overdrafts: everything you need to know
We're not gonna deny it – one of the best things about being a student has got to be the free overdraft you're entitled to! But are you making the most of it?
Ask anyone who's been to university what the biggest perk of being a student is, and it's highly likely they'll mention their student bank account overdraft!
In our annual National Student Money Survey, 49% of students said they use their student overdraft as a source of income and 52% said they turn to banks when they're in need of emergency cash.
But while there's no denying the perks of a 0% student overdraft, it's important you know exactly how it works, the potential pitfalls, and how you'll (eventually!) pay it back - we've got you covered.
What’s on this page?
What is an overdraft?
An overdraft is when the bank lets you spend more money than you actually 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. In this scenario, 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 you need to know about:
- 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 (during the time you're a student, at least).
- 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 a fair whack when this happens, so it's important to avoid doing this as much as you can!
Which banks have the best 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.
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. 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 automatically).
Student overdraft features
- 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.
- A guaranteed minimum amount, usually increasing each year – Some high street banks offer an overdraft of 'up to' £3,000, but how much you actually get depends on your credit rating and what uni year you’re in.
- 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 zeroes, remember you'll have to pay this back eventually. So, in reality, a bigger overdraft means more debt.
What to know before applying for an overdraft
It's no wonder new students get excited about the extra £££ in their account – but it's worth remembering that this money isn't completely risk-free!
Here are a few important things to bear in mind about student overdrafts:
An overdraft isn't free money
An 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 an overdraft is great to have as a backup, you don't 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?
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.
While it's unlikely that 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 every email or letter the bank sends you!
If your overdraft is cancelled, contact your bank immediately to agree on a repayment plan.
You'll be charged if you go over your limit
If you exceed your overdraft limit, you'll have entered into an unauthorised overdraft – at which point you'll either face a penalty 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 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 guide to student bank accounts includes a breakdown of the unplanned overdraft fees charged by each bank.
Your credit rating matters
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.
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, are you really going to be able to repay 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
Dipping 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 charged.
Some banks cap the amount they can charge you, but generally, you can be looking at the following unarranged overdraft fees:
- 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.
However, the good news is that reforms are coming which will drastically reduce the amount you can be charged for using an unarranged overdraft. As of April 2020, charges will be slashed, so borrowing £100 in an unarranged overdraft will cost you 20p instead of £5 a day.
Here are some things you can do to avoid overdraft charges on your account:
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. If the bank makes the payment on your behalf (meaning you go over your overdraft limit) you're likely to be charged a fee. Or, if the bank stops the payment from going through, you could end up paying an admin charge to the company you failed to pay, plus a returned item fee to your bank.
Use a prepaid card for spending money
These cards are linked up to your phone 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've permitted yourself to.
This way, you'll have much better control of what goes in and out of your account on a daily basis.
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 an overview of where all your money is going.
In fact, according to the FCA, you're 24% less likely to incur overdraft charges if you use mobile banking with text alerts!
Get Facebook alerts
As well as using your bank's 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 services in our guide to automatic savings bots and apps.
Paying off your student overdraft
After graduating, you’ll be eligible for a graduate bank account.
Graduate bank accounts are designed as 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 graduate bank accounts work
Graduate bank accounts still come with a 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 tapers 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 three.
While 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 just 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.