While college students come in all shapes and sizes (and from myriad 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 will 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 on campus , or managing a freelance writing gig, a college job will not only provide some financial wiggle room but provide you with 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. Avoid the food trap. Yes, eating is an essential part of staying alive—but not all food is created equal. This budget category can quickly eat up all your discretionary spending if you’re not careful. If you can cook or pack your own food, do it. Simple home-cooked fare is so much cheaper than convenience stores, vending machines, or restaurants and has the added benefit of being far healthier ("freshman 15," anyone?) Try packing a lunch the night before classes, and bring snacks if you’ll be on campus most of the day.
4. Make the most of college discounts. Date night? Many events, museums, and restaurants offer discounts for students with a current student ID. 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. Students also can get discounts on computers and software .
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. 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 hard and early on your goals, and don’t take unnecessary detours. Talk with an 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 September 6, 2023.