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Law student Emma Pritchard, poses in a van as she moves her belongings into an apartment in Montreal, on Aug. 26, 2020.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

As Canadian postsecondary students embark on a fall semester clouded by uncertainty, the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has hit students unevenly, with some tied into rent agreements from last year while others use remote learning as a rare opportunity to avoid debt by living at home.

The shattered job market left many students struggling to find employment this summer, and part-time positions could be hard to find during the school year. Government financial assistance for students has helped but questions about how long the pandemic will disrupt where and how they learn have made planning difficult.

“Uncertainty is very scary,” says Emma Pritchard, an incoming law student at McGill University. “It’s definitely made me want to focus more on budgeting because we don’t know how long it will be before things could go back to normal.”

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Ms. Pritchard signed a lease for an apartment in Montreal before the pandemic hit and when subletting the space didn’t work out, she decided to move there for the school year. If she hadn’t been locked into the rental agreement, she would have likely stayed at her family home in Ottawa.

A scholarship will cover her first year of law school, but after that Ms. Pritchard will likely need to borrow money and take on student debt.

Luckily, she qualified for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for about a month before starting a full-time job in the summer.

Shannon Lee Simmons, a fee-only financial planner and founder of the New School of Finance in Toronto, says most students earn between $3,000 and $6,000 at a minimum-wage job during the summer, which is in line with what many would have been able to apply for through the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).

For students living at home and receiving benefits from government programs, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to create a surplus in savings, Ms. Simmons says.

However, for students whose plans have been upended by the pandemic – those who are locked into leases, have lost income in the past few months or whose parents are no longer able to support them financially – bigger student debt down the line is possible.

How much do you need to budget for a year of college or university? Try our Globe calculator

Ottawa’s CESB program was designed to help young adults who were shut out of CERB and Employment Insurance (EI). The program, which ends Sept. 30, provides eligible students and recent graduates with up to $5,000 between the months of May and August, or $1,250 for each four-week period. Students with dependants or a disability can apply to receive $2,000 each month.

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As of Aug. 19, 690,874 students had applied for Ottawa’s CESB aid. In the 2016-17 academic year, there were about 2.1 million people enrolled in Canada’s public universities and colleges, according to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada.

The average cost of tuition for domestic students in Canada for the 2019-20 school year was $6,463 for undergraduate students and $7,056 for graduate students, according to Statscan. Living expenses vary depending on the location of the school but one can expect to budget between $10,000 to $15,000 annually for rent, transportation, food and other expenses for the year.

Tuition prices have not budged, or in some cases have gone up, despite the fact that most college and university students will be learning online, and a smaller number through a hybrid model of online and smaller, in-person classes.

Pamoda Wijekoon, 21, was planning to move to Toronto in order to pursue her graduate degree in public policy at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. But with her courses moving online, she has decided to start her program remotely from her family home in Guelph, Ont.

She will save around $1,200 a month by living at home, most of which would have gone toward rent. During her undergraduate years, Ms. Wijekoon worked throughout the school year to help pay for her living costs, although her parents helped with tuition and part of her rent.

This summer, she qualified for EI because her two jobs during the school year were cut short and her summer job was cancelled because of COVID. Ms. Wijekoon says she plans to look for a part-time job in her hometown. “I’ll actually be able to use this year to save a lot, which will be helpful for next year.”

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According to Statscan, 54 per cent of university grads finished school with student debt in 2015; 45 per cent of total graduates owed more than $25,000 at the end of their education and the average debt owed on the day of graduation was $28,000.

It often takes graduates years to pay back student debt. Statscan data from 2015 show that only 34 per cent of bachelor graduates had fully paid back their student debt within three years of graduating. The Ontario Student Assistance Program says that new graduates take an average of nine-and-a-half years to pay back their loans.

Terry Bennett, a money coach at Mac’s Money Centre, which helps students at McMaster University manage their finances, says she’s seeing more cases of students who have saved money during the summer.

Fewer opportunities to go out and spend, living at home and programs such as CERB have put many students on stable financial standing, at least for the coming months, she says.

Ms. Bennett says that normally around this time she would have students coming in to ask questions about how they can stretch out their dollars to keep them afloat for the academic year ahead.

“I’m getting a lot more people asking me to help them manage their money more in the future,” she said of the current situation. “They’re talking a lot about what do I do with my savings, how do I make my money grow.”

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There’s less panic this year about surviving the immediate school semester, Ms. Bennett said. “They’re more concerned about using the funds that they do have really well in anticipation of next year.”

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