by Mahao Mahao
The quality of life for the majority of students at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) and other local tertiary institutions is hugely premised on the mileage that can be covered by the stipend provided by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS).
In the era of spiralling costs, student life is turning into a nightmare for some of those who solely depend on the NMDS to keep the wolves from their doors.
This calls for absolute diligence on the part of students to expertly manage daily expenses to the next pay day without having to resort to the notoriously unscrupulous loan sharks.
We live in the age when a ten maloti banknote has long lost its mileage; the era when even working adults have to think twice before indulging in the spontaneity of entertaining entire families with over-priced restaurant meals or starting the engine as soon as friends make a call. The biting fuel prices have put paid to those aimless impromptu trips.
Students therefore, have to adapt their survival skills during times when their cash is stretched to the very limit by the costly times they live in; coupled, of course, with lifestyles fueled by their insatiable appetite for the latest clothing labels, beauty products and cellphone brands.
A slightly more mature approach to financial management can go far in assisting students to mitigate against those habits that leave them cash-strapped in a matter of days.
We studied at NUL when the Automated Teller Machine (ATM) was just making in-roads into our local financial institutions in the 90s; during the good old times of the bank book, which once a year was credited with some interest for those who deserved it. The ATM was viewed with a lot of suspicion by many of us when it first came onto the scene.
How could we entrust a machine with our money after all?
The convenience of the ATM has come with many banking expenses. In fact the era of free banking has long been relegated to history. While it gives us the convenience which far surpasses that of the bank book – which only allowed services to be accessed during the banks’ opening hours – this has come at a heavy price.
It may not be as costly as some habits like heavy drinking (which also erodes some students’ cash), smoking and regular hair and nail care but still it demands its own share of cash. Some of them have this spontaneous tendency of withdrawing even insignificant amounts just because the ATM machine is within easy access.
The cellphone is an even bigger consumer of students’ already meagre funds. During our student days, the first students to own cellphones did so in our final year.
Many of us completed without ownership of this technological wonder that could communicate without telephone poles and wires. But left unwatched, it can wreak serious havoc in students’ finances.
The large amount of “please call me” messages that many of us frequently receive is proof of the sometimes unmanageable expenses in trying to satisfy a cellphone’s unquenchable appetite; more like attempting to fill up a bottomless pit.
As more and more young people gladly embrace unprecedented levels of materialism which lures them like a magnet towards the most expensive technological devices and fashion labels, students have to own bags and bags of money to satisfy this penchant for expensive lifestyles.
It does not help that they live in an era when so many attractive products compete for the few banknotes and coins in their wallets.
Those who studied at NUL before us constantly boast of how their general quality of life was even better. They were provided with lunch and also had a tea break during the day! This lessened the pressure on their finances; they simply had to worry about toiletries and other essentials.
All the above examples of mounting expenses are in the context where prices of almost everything have escalated beyond the reach of many of our people.
Caution in spending would stand many students in good stead and cushion them against the rampaging forces of high prices and inflation.
Today’s student, no doubt, has to be mentally and psychologically strong to withstand pressure from peers to be seen to belong through ownership of unnecessarily expensive material possessions.
They need to carefully rationalise everything they spend money on instead of simply jumping onto the bandwagon of extravagant lifestyles; some of which are a direct influence of those students from well-off families: the cheese boys and girls.
This precautionary attitude requires a strong personality to implement. Those who just go with the flow of negative influence from friends will always struggle to get to the next monthly stipend.
Sadly, attempting to fulfill these costly lifestyles for some students has resulted in some becoming regular clients of loan sharks who are notorious for exorbitant interests.
Those who have had to resort to these sharks know just how difficult it can be to end the cycle of borrowing; the wheel of indebtedness just keeps turning and, in the process, eats away the peace of mind that students should have to fully focus on their studies.
Many students, unfortunately, reach tertiary level with very little – if any at all – knowledge of basic budgeting and financial management; further compounding matters when they have to independently handle their finances.
Some are probably overwhelmed by the new-found freedom to manage their own finances and think they can spend limitlessly.
Others may have spent years in the care of hovering helicopter parents or at boarding school hence missing out on the opportunity to make financial decisions.
For quite a sizeable number of students at NUL, the Manpower stipend is their only shield against hunger.
Some also have to stretch it – meagre as it is – to siblings and unemployed parents back home which calls for even higher levels of austerity on their part.
Receipt of this stipend for some students is an immediate reminder of the outstanding school fees for younger brothers and sisters.
One student once told me of her irresponsible father who has a job but since getting married to a new younger wife, has completely abandoned his financial obligations to his three children, the youngest still only in secondary.
The sister has to resort to other industrious means to assist the younger brother to complete his secondary education.
Those students who sometimes temporarily lose focus of the main goal that brought them to NUL, and end up with a baby, soon discover that the presence of an extra mouth to feed has further compounded their financial struggles.
What may have been just a little hump of hardship quickly escalates into a mountain of costs that can no longer be contained.
Mahao Mahao is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the National University of Lesotho