Note: This post was submitted to Student Caffé by Lexi Carr. We would like to thank her for her submission and credit her as the author of this blog post.
It's no secret—college is expensive. Between tuition, books, clothes, and food, not to mention the other worthwhile expenditures college kids find, the price of attending college is notoriously high.
Fortunately, there are plenty of steps every college student, no matter their year in school or their age, can take to save money. And although “going cheap” may seem like a bummer, having less stress about money will allow you to fully enjoy the college experience. Here are a few tips.
1. Buy your textbooks at a discount.
One surprisingly expensive part of going to college that many students don’t expect is buying textbooks. Textbook prices can range from tens to hundreds of dollars. Students may also be required to pay additional course fees, like those that cover the cost of art supplies or access to digital programs required for the course.
When students receive their required textbook list, their first reaction is to head to the campus bookstore. However, campus bookstores are known to mark up prices higher than resale values; they want to make a profit after all. Students who elect to buy all of their books on campus may end up spending much more than they anticipate.
Luckily, there are a couple of quick ways to save money on textbooks. Many textbooks can be found at non-campus bookstores, like Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Chegg. These stores often sell textbooks in paperback, hardcover, and eBook formats. And both campus bookstores and third parties often offer used books for a lower price.
If you don’t plan on keeping your textbooks beyond the end of the semester, another option is to rent them. Both campus stores and many online booksellers offer the option to rent textbooks for semesters at a time for a fraction of the purchasing cost. At the end of the semester, you simply send them back. If you’re late, though, you may have to pay the full cost of the book.
2. Don’t buy all new items for your dorm room.
The price of decorating dorm rooms is another cost that students may not budget for or even consider. When heading to college, many students feel like going all out and buying new items to personalize their dorms is the only way to make their space feel like home. However, this can easily cost a hefty chunk of change.
Avoid spending money by accepting that new items (aside from bedding, since dorm beds are often not a standard size) are not necessary. Instead of buying new posters, pillows, and lamps, consider bringing your favorite decorations from home. This will give your dorm room a more familiar feel than leaving it undecorated or buying everything brand new—it really doesn’t seem worth the price when you realize that you’ll only use your dorm stuff for four years anyway.
Many colleges also have nearby secondhand stores where past students have donated their old belongings. Or, you may find that there’s a campus Buy/Sell/Trade site where you can list items for sale and browse what other students are offering. If you aren’t the creative type and can’t find the items you’re looking for used or cheap, there are tons of great resources for creative dorm decorating on the internet. It doesn’t have to break the bank.
3. Get a job.
It may seem like a no brainer, but many college students save money by getting a part-time job. If you’re on a fixed income from loans or another form of aid, a job can help create a little extra spending money. It’s also a great opportunity to gain experience and learn new skills to put on your résumé.
There are a variety of great jobs for college students available. If you’re able to work evenings and nights, consider working at a restaurant. If you’d rather work weekends, apply for a position at a nearby retail store. Before venturing off campus, though, check with the career center to learn about jobs that are available on campus. You’ll save time if you don’t have to commute, and you may get lucky enough to find a position related to your major.
The trick to working in college is to find somewhere that will provide you with skills that will be useful after graduation. And, of course, find somewhere that suits your interests to make the most out of your experience.
4. Change your diet.
Food, they say, is the essence of life. According to some studies, eating properly is even the trick to succeeding in college. Unfortunately, paying for this essential item is not always an easy task. Meal plans are expensive, and dining dollars go quickly on campus, no matter how you try to ration them. Students who try to save money on food eat up eating lots of ramen, mac and cheese, cereal, and rice—not exactly a balanced diet.
Fortunately, students are not doomed to a life full of noodle cups. There are tons of cheap and delicious meals that students can master. Take advantage of grocery store club cards (they’re offered at major chains like Kroger and Safeway), use the ibotta app to get rebates on everyday grocery items, and avoid getting premade food (not only is it less healthy, it’s often more expensive than cooking yourself). Shop for foods that you can easily match with others, like rice and beans, and foods that can be cooked in a microwave.
If you know that you can spend your dining dollars on meals instead of to-go coffee, or you know that being left to fend for yourself will result in you either starving or eating extremely unhealthily, take advantage of your college’s meal plan options. Depending on your school, you may be able to get on a plan where you prepay for two or three full meals a day. Payment for meal plans is typically due with tuition, so you need to be able to shoulder the upfront cost. Knowing that you have a guaranteed meal, though, can help keep snacking costs down.
5. Evaluate your housing options.
Depending on the school, many students find that it may be cheaper to live off campus than on. However, every college is different, so don’t make any assumptions. If your school is in a large town, like San Francisco, you may find that apartments are expensive even if you have roommates. If you’re attending school in a less populated area, you may get lucky. Read over apartment listings and compare what you get on campus and off. Remember, when you live off campus, you’ll have to pay for utilities.
If you live on campus, you won’t have to pay for transportation, saving you a ton of money. Many major universities are connected to public transit, so getting around town is easy, whether there’s a bus system or you have to take the metro. Some campuses even partner with local rapid transit to give discounts to students. And if you’re on campus, you can take full advantage of the meal plan and almost eliminate grocery costs.
Other times, living off campus is the better choice. If you’re going to college in the same town where you grew up, living with your parents will save you thousands each year. Even if you’re in an apartment, having a roommate (or two) can cut down on costs. Rent may be cheaper further away from the campus, which could be a great choice if you already have a car (but you probably have to pay to park too!). Do your research before committing either way.
6. Invest in cheap transportation.
Where you live will affect how you get around.
If you live far from campus, you’ll need a way to get to class and work (if you have a job). Consider buying a cheap, used car if there aren’t any convenient public transit options.
Living on campus, on the other hand, solves your transportation problems. To get to class, walk, bike, or ride your scooter or skateboard.
No matter where you live, it’s probably useful in the long run to take advantage of local public transportation, like buses and trains. Some colleges (like the University of Texas at Austin) offer free shuttle services to and from campus. Investing in a bike, too, could pay off in the long run if you live close enough to campus to make the ride. Even if you don’t, most buses have bike racks, so pedal halfway and hitch a ride on the bus for the rest.
College is expensive. That’s a fact. But with these tips—which don’t require you to cut down too much—you can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year.