As parents prepare to wave their children off to university, we asked Abby Young-Powell to share a simple guide to student finance, for parents. Abby is a freelance journalist and was previously a deputy editor of Guardian Students.

For many students, university is the first time they will have to manage their own expenses, rent and bills. The transition into university life is likely to be smoother with a good understanding of money management, but not all are equally prepared.

So, what can parents do to help? Here’s what you need to know about student finance, before the children head off to university.

There is an unofficial parental contribution written into student maintenance loans

For British students, the amount parents or guardians earn has already been quietly written into student finance. The amount of money your son or daughter gets as a student maintenance loan for living costs will depend on your family income. A relatively higher income may mean a lower maintenance loan. Not all students will get the same amount but most students need a similar amount to make it through each term.

Martin Lewis, from Money Saving Expert, says many parents are unaware that their children may receive less than the full maintenance loan and that the amount often isn’t enough to cover their living expenses.

Parents don’t have to top up their son or daughter’s student loan if they don’t feel able to, he says. “But one important thing I suggest is [for families] to have a conversation about it.”

You may be able to contribute financially to make up the difference between what your child receives as a loan and what they need - the full amount granted as a loan to certain children is £11,672. To find out how much your child will be offered, if you’re from England, take a look at the Government’s student finance calculator.

Other options are for students to work during their studies or to access bursaries. Fiona Scott, whose daughter Sammy is in her first year of university, says she initially thought Sammy would get a larger loan amount. “It was a shock to us,” she says. The family decided they would top up the loan through a combination of Sammy working and her parents contributing. “We worked out she’d work 12 hours a week and we’d supplement the rest,” Scott says.

Help your son or daughter to set a budget

The student loan has to stretch to the end of term. The advice of parents who have been there is to help your son or daughter to set a budget before term starts.

“We talked about budgeting and about things like having a separate bills account,” says Olivia Albaradura. Her daughter went away to university just last year. “And disposable income was in a different account. I think that has been something [my daughter] is glad she did.”

Don’t forget to include social activities in the budget, too. “I did tell her to budget for fun as well,” Olivia says. “I think that’s important.”

Watch out for hidden costs

It’s a good idea to ask course tutors about any extra payments. “I wish I’d known that everything costs money, compared to when I was at uni,” says Fiona. For example, you may be asked to contribute towards course materials and books, foreign trips, field trips and even entrance to freshers week. “Sammy’s doing an art course and people forget she’s got to buy her art materials,” says Fiona. “You tend to forget those finer details.”

To avoid any nasty shocks, Fiona recommends asking lots of questions on university open days. You can also contact course tutors and departments to find out about foreign trips. Plus read university websites, or even speak to current students using social media, to see if they can answer some of your questions.

There can also be small costs that add up, such as the cost of doing laundry, Fiona points out. Remind your children to factor these into the budget.

If they’re struggling, support is available

Even when you and your daughter or son do all the preparation you can, unexpected financial difficulties can emerge. If this happens, encourage your son or daughter to contact the university should they need help. Most universities have hardship funds and bursaries, and not everything is advertised.

There may be help available from the university, Olivia says. If not, parents may be able to offer additional financial support. “I’ve always told [my daughter] to tell me if she’s in trouble,” she says. “She’s called me a few times when she hasn’t had food and I’ve had a Tesco delivery sent to her house.” A university welfare and support officer can also talk through their finances and the options available to them.

It can be nerve-racking when your son or daughter goes away to university for the first time. But if you do a bit of preparation as a family and discuss the student loan, create a budget and research what financial support may be available from the university, then the transition can be much easier, for both you and them.

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