indicatorAdvice for Albertans during the COVID-19 pandemic

How to make ends meet as a student during COVID-19

By ATB Financial 14 May 2020 6 min read

Student studying on their laptop at home.

Student life can feel like a weird in-between phase at the best of times, and it recently got even more stressful for Canadian students when COVID-19 hit. While some working post-secondary students may qualify for the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), many others students will not.

If you’re a recent grad who planned on starting your new life, a student who lost a summer internship, or an employed student (or soon-to-be student) facing reduced hours as a result of coronavirus, you could probably use some support right about now.

Let’s talk about the COVID-19 student relief programs that may be available to you, and the strategies and information you’ll need to make smart financial decisions in the coming months.

Immediate assistance: CESB and CERB

CESB vs. CERB


First, check your eligibility for immediate financial assistance—either in the form of the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) or CERB.

CESB is a benefit designed for students who are not eligible to receive CERB or Employment Insurance.

CERB is a benefit for those who have become unemployed, lost income, or are unable to work due to circumstances created by COVID-19.

Eligibility CESB CERB
Payment Eligible post-secondary students will receive a $1,250 monthly benefit and post-secondary students who have dependents or a permanent disability will receive $2,000. Eligible applicants will receive a $2,000 monthly benefit.
Qualifications To qualify for CESB, you must be currently: attending a post-secondary institution, or registered to begin attending a post-secondary institution before February 1, 2021, or a recent post-secondary graduate who graduated no earlier than December 2019, and are either unable to work or unable to find work due to COVID-19 but are actively looking. To qualify for CERB, you must: be 15 years of age or older, have earned at least $5,000 in 2019 (or in the previous 12 months before applying), have stopped working due to circumstances created by COVID-19 (or are eligible for Employment Insurance or sick benefits), and have not quit you job voluntarily.
Applications During the monthly periods for which you apply for the benefit, you must earn less than $1,000 per month (before taxes). You can apply for CESB for up to four four-week periods. Applications opened Friday, May 15. During the monthly periods for which you apply for the benefit, you must earn less than $1,000 per month. You can apply for CERB for up to six four-week periods.Learn how to apply.

According to the Government of Canada, CESB is only available to "permanent residents, Canadian citizens, eligible Indigenous, or protected persons", which means that international students are not currently eligible. CERB is available to any eligible person residing in Canada with a valid Social Insurance Number (SIN), which means employed international students may be able to apply.

You can only apply for one of these relief programs. If you meet the eligibility requirements for both CESB and CERB, apply for CERB.

Lost jobs and summer internships

Many students have lost employment and internship opportunities for the summer of 2020. If you’re one of those now looking for work experience or a summer job, there are a couple of programs you should check out.

  • The Student Work Placement Program will help up to 20,000 post-secondary students across Canada get paid work experience related to their field of study. Participate by either applying directly to a student work placement, or by checking to see if your school is able to help you find a work placement within the program.
  • You can also gain relevant experience (and a line for your resumé!) by volunteering with the Canada Student Service Grant “I Want to Help” program. This program redefines “national service” by organizing students to serve their own communities in practical ways during the pandemic. The CSSG will provide participating students with up to $5,000 toward their education expenses in the fall. Learn how to apply.

Should I apply for CESB if I am looking for a job?

Yes, you should still apply. If you are able to work, you must be actively looking for a position in order to be eligible. If you do end up finding a summer job, you can continue to earn CESB income if your monthly salary is less than $1,000 in the months of May through August. Keep in mind that if your monthly salary exceeds $1,000 (before taxes) a month, you will have to stop receiving any CESB or CERB payments.

A summer job can be a great experience and great for your resumé. It’s hard to find jobs (which is why the government is creating these temporary programs) but you’ll likely make more money and gain new skills and connections if you’re able to secure a summer position.

Pandemic budgeting for students

Whether you’re working or receiving financial assistance from CESB or CERB, you might be wondering how to prepare for the longer term financial effects of the pandemic. Maybe you’re worried about how you’ll afford tuition or living expenses in the fall, or how your loss of income will impact your ability to make student loan payments.

One way to alleviate stress down the road is to start budgeting now. Even if your resources are limited, a little planning can go a long way toward preventing an even tighter financial situation in the future. Sitting down to take stock of how much money you have and where it should be going isn’t just another way to fill the time while you’re in isolation, it’s a foundation of good money management (which is even more important during times like these).

Start by filling out our basic budgeting worksheet. You’ll probably want to revisit and revise your budget at the end of the summer, but for now, just try to form a clear picture of your current financial situation.

Here are a few ways COVID-19 changes how you should be thinking about budgeting:

  • The taxability of relief payments. Much like CERB, CESB is taxable and will need to be reported on next year’s income tax return. This means that you should be either putting away at least 15 per cent of your relief payments to put toward next year’s tax bill, or simply making installment payments on your 2020 taxes.
  • Developing better saving habits. You may find yourself spending less money now that restaurants, bars, stores and recreational facilities are closed. If you’re able to, try redirecting these funds into a savings or investment account for future needs or financial goals.
  • The importance of having an emergency fund. The sudden and dramatic impact of the spread of the COVID-19 makes it clear how important it is to have an emergency fund to draw on in the case of an emergency, accident or loss. Even if the worst thing that happens is a surprise trip to the vet or mechanic, knowing that you have a backup plan can do a lot to reduce your stress—both financial and psychological—and keep you in a stable and secure position.
  • The changing role student loans might play in your plan to finance your education. When you’re working out a budget for the spring and summer, keep in mind that Canada Student Loan repayments have been suspended until the end of September 2020. However, the long-term effects of lost income and opportunities may mean that if you’re going back to school, you’ll need to take out larger student loans than you had been planning to. Luckily, changes to the Canada Student Loan Program should allow more students to qualify for loans and grants, and be eligible for greater amounts. For more information, visit the official government of Canada page.

If you want to know more about the support available to recent graduates or students impacted by COVID-19, visit The Government of Canada’s site for a comprehensive list.

Apply for CESB.

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