While college students come in all shapes and sizes (and from a myriad of backgrounds) the oft uttered axiom “poor college student” is no myth. Scrimping your pennies to pay your way through school takes sacrifice, gumption, and a fair amount of planning. Though some students may have the luxury of part-time (or even full-time) employment to ease the financial burden, college is expensive!
Many college students are learning to manage a budget for the first time, and encounter some common pitfalls as they learn how to maximize resources and spend wisely. Read on to learn some tips and tricks we’ve gathered over the years for avoiding these money wasters and maximizing your student budget funds.
1. Find flexible work. Nothing will drain your savings faster than money going out... and none coming in. Working during school can be a juggling act, but it is absolutely doable. Look for nearby options that allow flexible hours—bonus points if you’re able to work remotely. Whether you’re waiting tables, working at the college bookstore, or managing a freelance writing gig, a college job will not only provide some financial wiggle room, but provide you valuable skill-building opportunities. Post-graduation, employers will be looking not just for credentials, but experience in communication, leadership, time management and problem solving.
2. Don’t buy new textbooks. One of the biggest money traps in college is the dreaded textbook. Depending on your major and school, a semester’s worth of books from the college store can cost upwards of $1,000! But, fear not—there are ways around it. Buying or renting used textbooks is a great way to navigate your class requirements. You can check out lists like this one to find the best online textbook stores to meet your needs. Then, make sure you keep your books in good condition so you can sell them back when you’re done.
3. Avoid the food trap. Yes, eating is an essential part of staying alive—but not all food is created equal. This category can quickly eat up all your discretionary spending if you’re not careful. If you have the ability to cook or pack your own food, do it. Simple homecooked fare is so much cheaper than convenience stores, coffee carts or restaurants, and has the added benefit of being far healthier (freshman 15, anyone?) Try packing a lunch the night before classes, and bringing snacks if you’ll be on campus most of the day.
If you decide to go the student meal plan route, pick the cheapest option that best meets your specific needs, and no more. However, do the math before you invest in the meal plan. Convenience has a price, and you may find that doing a little meal planning of your own at the beginning of each week will save you far more than the school dining hall.
4. Make the most of college discounts. Need to work out? Check out your school’s fitness facilities—many are included in your student fees. Looking for a date night activity? Many campuses offer a host of discounted or even free events for students. Theatre, concerts, dances, art exhibitions, lectures and sporting events galore can be found by checking out your college event calendar. Have a large document to print? Take advantage of on-campus printing facilities whenever possible. Students often receive an allotted number of pages included in their student fees, and printer ink isn’t cheap. Find a full list of your student discounts and offerings on your school’s website, and then take advantage of them.
5. Ditch the parking. Transportation is one of the biggest money wasters you’ll encounter in school. Not only will you lose money on frequent fill ups and wear and tear, but parking on campus can be a huge hassle—and cost a pretty penny. Check to see if your school offers a free transit pass. Public transportation is an excellent way to save money, as well as offering you a set time each day to do homework on your commute. Public transit not feasible? Look into ride sharing or carpooling options… or, if you’re close enough to campus, consider biking or walking to class. You’ll save money and parking stress, and bonus points--the planet will thank you.
6. Make sensible housing choices. Look for housing options near campus (to minimize your commute), but far enough away to avoid convenience markups. If possible, try to room with at least one other student, so you can share expenses. Shoot for adequate, not exceptional housing. And, be kind to your apartment so you get your deposit back when you leave. After all, you’ll only be there to study, eat and sleep (for the most part), and every dollar counts when you’re paying thousands a semester in tuition. Consider living with your parents during school if it’s an option. Free rent is the very best kind.
7. Understand your financial aid. If you have to take out student loans to pay for school, make sure that you understand the terms up front. Try to choose loans with deferred payments, which allow you to put off making payments until after graduation (or going more than a semester without registering for classes.) Stay on top of your payments, and plan on making more than the minimum payment each month. If you’re confused about how your aid works, be sure to talk with a financial aid counselor to make a plan ahead of time.
8. Shop off-campus. As noted earlier, convenience comes at a price. Try to plan ahead when it comes to supplies, groceries, clothing, etc. Everything costs more on-campus. Stock up on necessary school supplies at the local office supply store or back to school sales at the superstore. A little planning goes a LONG way in saving you money, we promise.
9. Don’t dawdle. While college may be a great time to metaphorically “find yourself”, meandering through school while you try to figure out your life plan will cost you dearly in tuition. Focus in hard and early on your goals, and don’t take unnecessary detours. If possible, try to plan ahead by taking classes for college credit in high school or at the local community college. Talk with a student advisor before registering for classes to ensure you have a plan, and stick with it to avoid dropped class fees and paying for unnecessary courses. Aim to finish school as quickly as possible.
In closing, you may have noticed a theme—planning ahead. College is a time of intense change, expense, and, at times, pressure. To some extent, that's just part of the experience. But planning is your key to success. Make the time to create a plan BEFORE the need arises, and you'll find that managing your finances while in school is actually much more manageable than you'd think.
Article updated June 17, 2022.