I'm cheap. Always have been. Among my most extravagant purchases in college were textbooks and two-ply toilet paper. Even then, I sought out the free stuff in campus bathrooms as much as possible.
It was easy to respect my broke-college-student budget, especially when it came to entertainment. Tuition was so steep that I didn't have to spend much money once I'd settled into the dorms. There were a hundred things to do on my campus, and I'd already paid for them when I took out my loans. I had a gym membership for four years, and I could scavenge for free food any time I pretended to be interested in joining a club. Every semester, my school had a fireworks show, film screenings, music headliners, and a handful of student plays. Occasionally, there were bouncy castles and puppy pens.
My alma mater is great at providing entertainment and activities, but this isn't unusual. Most colleges, yours included, want their students to have a good time. If you're on a budget, take advantage of college-sponsored parties and events. They're a luxury and a privilege that you won't have after graduation.
That being said, college events can start to feel repetitive by spring semester. Upperclassmen have it worse, each event like a bad déjà vu or track on a broken record. School traditions repeat year after year.
Have you come down with a case of spring fever? Are you itching to bust off campus? Want to do something new without breaking the bank?
Have no fear! You can get creative. Check out these ways to enjoy yourself this spring without throwing money to the wind:
Pick your own produce. Spring is here, and the world is thawing. By May, in some states, strawberries are growing on their vines, ready to be picked. Check out a pick-your-own produce farm —also called a U-pick farm—near campus. Be sure to look up your state’s growing season before you go. Typically, you pay for what you pick, no more. Get off campus for an afternoon and eat fresher food than what you would find in the dining hall.
Geocache. Geocaching advertises itself as the world’s largest treasure hunt. Once you make a free account, you have access to a map that shows you the coordinates of each nearby treasure. To find a geocache, you need a GPS, a built-in feature on smartphones these days. You probably don’t need a car to get started. It’s likely that you’ve unknowingly walked past geocaches on campus or in your neighborhood every day.
Host a viewing party. March, April, and May are big months for TV. Most network TV shows are wrapping up with mid-season finales, and summer shows are premiering. Invite your friends over for a themed viewing party, and don’t forget to reserve the communal television set if you live in the dorms. Snacks are a must; costumes are optional. Ready for Game of Thrones? If there’s one thing the Lannisters are good at (besides avenging their dead relatives), it’s drinking wine. You might decide to follow in suit. Eat lemon cakes, too—Sansa’s favorite. If you prefer less gore and more love, ask your friends to come over for a viewing-cum-cocktail party for The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Even though you don’t have a limo to step out of, you can still wear your old prom dress or suit. Give your friends a rose when they arrive and a ring pop when they leave. If you buy both items at the supermarket, this swag should cost less than $3 a person.
Make ice cream sundaes. Celebrate the warm weather with a cold treat. Ask each friend or hallmate to pitch in. Buy ice cream, cones, bananas, hot fudge, caramel, peanuts (allergy permitting), sprinkles, and cherries.
Take over trivia. Show off what you’ve been learning in the classroom or on your own time this past semester. Head to trivia at a bar or restaurant off campus. Most trivia leagues accept teams of six players or fewer. Be sure to cover your bases when you’re inviting friends. Common trivia categories include sports, science, pop culture, language, music, and current events. Trivia is often free to play, but you’ll need to suck it up and buy a drink or a meal while you’re there. There’s incentive to win, too: The top three teams—and the team with the most creative team name—often earn a free food item, gift cards, or cash.
Hike. It’s good for your body, mind, and wallet. Bring the essentials. You’ll need plenty of water, a first aid kit, and a phone just in case. Plan to enjoy the day with a picnic lunch and a Frisbee.
Play your favorite childhood backyard games. Most campuses have green space. If yours doesn’t, find a nearby park where you can play flashlight tag. Recreate recess with games like capture the flag, red rover, four square, dodgeball, kickball, and wiffle ball. If you play on campus, you just might find that other students will come join you. Meet people, blow off some steam, and have fun while you exercise.
Host a murder mystery party. You’ve seen them on TV, but now is your chance to host a murder mystery party in real life (with a fake murder, of course). The easiest way to do this is to buy a kit for the specified number of people who’d like to participate. They run at about $40, but you might be able to find used pre-boxed games from How To Host a Murder or Murder A’La Carte for cheaper on Amazon. Have your friends pitch in and come dressed in character. Find or reserve a location on campus where you can play for free (an old classroom, an events room in the dining hall, a parlor in the fancy dorm, etc.). Murder mystery kits usually come with a theme. They’re set on cruises, in old manors, or at high school dances. Serve up food that matches the theme. If you’d like to play but aren’t keen on the “murder” aspect, you can also find kits that delve into other mysteries.
Tie-dye a t-shirt.So maybe tie-dye hasn’t been in fashion since your last year at summer camp, but it’s still fun to do. You can buy a tie-dye kit for less than $20, and you probably already have an old white t-shirt. If not, pick both things up at Target, Kmart, Walmart, or a craft store.
Volunteer at the local animal shelter. Or, you know, volunteer there year-round. Dogs and cats will always need a home, so stop in for walks and cuddles.
Eat at food trucks. Farmer’s markets are starting back up, and food trucks are out and about. Enjoy! Because they have fewer overhead costs than sit-down restaurants, food trucks can offer cheaper eats. Scout out a park bench or sit on a picnic blanket, perfect spots for your spring feast.
Watch baseball or softball. ‘Tis the season to enjoy the national pastime. Watch your college’s team or spring for tickets to see the minor or major leagues. Buy yourself some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. You know the drill.
Run a 5k. Have a blast walking, jogging, or running a 5k. Your college might offer a fun run, but you can also look off campus. The Color Run douses its participants in colorful powder at the end of each kilometer. The Warrior Dash is not just a 5k; it’s an obstacle course. Look out for their events in your area.
Horse racing. Most horse racing tracks are opening up for their spring meets, and you can buy cheap tickets at the door. You don’t have to gamble if it’s not your thing, but you can still enjoy the spectacle. Wear a big hat and cheer as your horse races toward the finish line. If there isn’t a track near you, throw a Kentucky Derby party in your dorm. Catch the race the first Saturday in May. Drink Mint Juleps (or nonalcoholic sweet tea), eat finger sandwiches, and craft your Derby hat out of tape and newspaper.
Take a spring or summer break trip. Travel doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Think of nearby destinations that don’t require air travel. If you’re taking a road trip, the more people involved means the less you each have to pay for gas (but it does mean less leg room in the car). Skimp on lodging by camping or Couchsurfing. Put your entertainment money toward a music festival. Bonnaroo, Coachella, Firefly, and many others offer cheap car camping deals.
As the weather gets nicer this semester, enjoy yourself without blowing all your work-study cash. Trust me—it can be done, especially if you skimp on your toilet paper costs.