How to Pinch Pennies and Save Money While in School

How to Pinch Pennies in College and Save Money in School

Jon Schulte /

Note: This post was submitted to Student Caffé by Sam Casteris. Sam Casteris is an avid traveler, a lifelong lover of education, and a strong proponent of financial literacy. She is a regular contributor to Transfer Ways and Fresh U, where she writes tips for students and student transfers. Follow along with her work here. We would like to thank her for her submission and credit her as the author of this blog post. 

Aside from acing your midterms on astoundingly little sleep, the gold medal of collegiate accomplishments is cutting costs in any way possible. Sure, your undergraduate experience will give you a wealth of knowledge in more ways than one, but the true golden ticket will assuredly be your student discount. Here’s some advice:

Buy used books, or rent them.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I never bought the books for most of my classes. Often times a professor will assign textbooks and only use a few selections from each or express that one of the books listed on the syllabus will be “optional reading,” meaning it will not or will rarely be cited. Instead of buying ahead of time, scour your school’s library for available copies of selected texts and search the internet for free PDF versions of assigned readings.

Me, I waited until two weeks into the class to buy the book, because by then I’d know whether I actually needed it. If I did, my next step was an intensive internet search for PDFs. Begin with a Google search: “The name of the book + filetype:pdf.” This will show you a list of results that match the name of your book in PDF format. There are also a number of Facebook groups that cater to students who need textbooks and have little funding. Check your school’s buy-sell-trade group, too.

If none of those options work, though, never, ever buy a new textbook. Chances are you will not read the entire book from cover to cover, and you won’t need to take notes inside the book as long as you have a notebook. You will have a handful of required texts for each class, with each new book featuring a very hefty price tag. If you must, rent your textbooks or buy them used. When the semester is finished, return them to your college’s bookstore. They won’t give you much return on your initial investment, but if you bought used, you won’t have lost out on nearly as much money as you would have if you bought new.

Buy school supplies at refurbished prices.

Need a new laptop for school? Check websites that offer used, refurbished electronics, and include local Craigslist findings before thinking about buying something new. Keep in mind, though, that companies like Dell, Apple, and Adobe offer student discounts for certain products. Before buying anything, used or new, compare multiple products from multiple retailers. You may find that you’ll get a free printer if you buy a new computer, making it a better deal than buying just a computer that’s been used.

Look for tech deals associated with your student status, and scour your school’s website for free software, too. At my alma mater, there was an entire website dedicated to free software for students: Microsoft Suite, Adobe Suite, video editing software, you name it.

The same rule applies for clothing, though they’re not technically “school supplies.” Buy used instead of buying new. Thrift and consignment stores will offer a variety of clothing appropriate for that internship or research position you’ve been eyeing.

Use your meal plan.

Purchase a meal plan that fits your needs. Identify when and how often you eat on campus to choose the right plan for you. Aligning your meal plan with your class schedule will help you fall into a healthy routine and estimate how many meals per semester you will need. Plenty of dining halls offer a variety of healthy food options to satisfy the number of students rotating through the cafeteria daily. Especially for students living on campus without access to a full kitchen, a dining plan will cut costs on dining out and lessen the stress of having to grocery shop and plan meals in advance.

Seek out deals and steals.

Use coupons—physical or those you find on the ibotta app—and sign up for a rewards card with the local grocery store. Check for daily and weekly deals and get creative with your snacks (and meals).

As a general rule of thumb, don’t run to the grocery store when you’re hungry. This will prompt overspending on things you don’t need. I once spent $60 on sweet chipotle jerky when I shopped while hungry. I had fantastic snacks for a while, but I probably should have planned to live out my jerky cravings in a more economical way.

In order to dilute the possibility for overspending at the grocery store, keep a list of planned meals. Create a shopping budget for groceries and stick to it. If you must eat out, check for discounts. Groupon offers plenty, especially for new and up-and-coming restaurants.

Groupon is also a great tool for cheap date nights or staycations with friends. In addition, use free Chrome extensions like Wikibuy to search for deals online and use Google alerts for updates on affordable entertainment whenever possible.

Take advantage of campus amenities.

Use the school library when you need to study or when you’re looking to rent materials for class. Certain schools will also offer miscellaneous items like camera and video equipment, iPads, laptops, and outdoor recreational gear for rent. Talk to a representative from your university’s resource center (or the library, or the gym) to find out what specifically your school has to offer.

This can also include a variety of perks ranging from discounted partnerships with local businesses to student ride sharing when planning a weekend trip at home. These are freebies to take advantage of, like working out at your school’s gym instead of buying a private membership, using your school’s bike sharing option, or taking free computer courses through your school’s IT department in an effort to bulk up your résumé.

Opt for roommates.

Roommates have become a fact of life. With rising rent prices, it’s difficult to afford your own place even if you have a full-time job. Most students don’t. If you’re not going to live on campus and are apartment shopping on your own, it would be best to search for a roommate (or two!) to cut down your living expenses. On the plus side, having a roommate is having a built-in companion and dinner buddy. On the down side, though, it’s not just rent you’re paying for. Utilities, groceries, and parking can add up quickly, especially with multiple people using all of the same resources. Be mindful about setting boundaries for your Netflix password—or get a joint account and split the cost!

If you can’t find a friend or potential classmate, living with your parents is a great way to save costs on housing, provided they live in your college town.

Find the free food.

Free food and student events go hand in hand. Attend university events where there are free meals and snacks galore. Go to the sorority fundraisers with free cupcakes. Sit in on the pro bono lecture offering free pizza. Sign up for any and every event offering a hot meal. These events are a great way to get involved on campus and to make friends, not to mention that food is the number one way to break the ice. Outside of student events, working in food service often includes a free staff meal, or at least take home freebies at the end of a shift.

What’s your best advice for saving money on campus?

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