There’s a lot to be excited about when you’re in college: you have more freedom, your professors treat you like an adult, your classes are actually interesting, and you’re making new friends. But college can also be stressful—and not only because of your class load. Money can be tight when you’re in college, which can bring on a lot of stress for students.
If college tuition wasn’t already expensive enough, there are additional costs to consider too. You now have to dole out for things like rent, food, and other living expenses, not to mention textbooks, parking stickers, and all the other nickel-and-dime things you didn’t plan for. It’s never too late to start managing your finances though. You have enough to worry about without stressing over money. Get ready to shed that stress and enjoy your time in college with these money-saving tips.
1. Create a budget and stick to it
Before you blow your student loan refund check, get an idea of how far it’s going to go. When you take the time to set up a budget—no matter how simple—you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of your financial situation, which will help you make better spending decisions. You can create a budget yourself in a notebook or spreadsheet, or there’s an app for that. Try downloading a highly rated finance app; it will help you see where you’re spending and where you need to cut back. Albert, Qapital, and Mint are popular apps that help you set and reach goals and can even help you work toward monetary gains in the future.
Use your budgeting app to review what you’ve been spending the most money on, from grocery shopping to takeout to your cell phone bill. If your purchases are frivolous and you need to spend that money on other things, redistribute that cash elsewhere. You have to make a commitment to your future self by following your budget responsibly now. Eating at restaurants three times in one week is a recipe for ketchup-covered ramen next month. Be sure you allocate your funds to cover your bills and living needs so you don’t fall into a debt spiral.
2. Look for free events
But you want to have fun, you say? No worries—there’s tons of fun to be had in college for free! There are the usual campus-sponsored events, but there are also event marketing things you can attend where marketers give you free stuff. You might even get hired to be a brand ambassador and host these gigs.
A lot of free student events have food and drinks (also free). Take advantage of them! It’s usually better than dining hall chicken strips. Plus, you can use the money you budgeted for food that night on something else or, even better, sock it away. To find out about free events, check your university’s community events web page. Keep up with university-associated social media accounts as well as accounts for businesses that serve the student population.
If your college is in a city, there will be free events around town too. Pick up that free indie paper at the coffee shop or check the events page in the Sunday newspaper. Keep your eye out for flyers in the windows of places you frequent. If you’re in a more rural area, check events pages for your local state and national parks, and periodically look at the events section of the local Chamber of Commerce website. Don’t forget that student organizations run fundraising events all the time, so be on the lookout for those types of events to support.
3. Get a part-time job
A part-time job solves two problems: financial peace and future work. Having paid job experience on your résumé when you graduate is a plus. Your part-time job may offer you opportunities related to your degree later on as well. Budget your part-time income too so you have some leftover to save. Remember that you’ll have expenses when you leave college in addition to your student loan payments. Get a head start on that now by keeping a little of what you make.
If you’re worried about juggling classes and a part-time job, look for opportunities on or near campus. A lot of businesses near colleges work with students and might be more flexible with scheduling. Even if you only work a few hours a week, the money you rake in will help you stay on budget and work toward a nest egg.
4. Avoid the campus bookstore
Why pay full price or more for a textbook you’ll only use for a few months? Why pay for a book you can check out from the local library? Or get as a 99-cent e-book? You don’t need a $20 copy of The Killer Angels from the campus store; they often ramp up the prices of books, supplies, and campus keepsakes.
Why not get your books online? Or even borrow them from another student? All of the students who bought The Killer Angels last year now have a book that’s worth far less than what they bought it for. And textbooks can be found online for half the price of the college bookstore—sometimes as much as 90% off on Amazon or Chegg. You can even get books for free, or you may be able to rent your book to earn some money.
If you can’t find the current edition cheap or free, get the previous edition. You can find out about any recent updates and note them in your older copy. If in doubt, ask your professor if you absolutely must have the edition listed on the syllabus. If nothing else, remember this: there is no need to pay money for a classic that is in the public domain. The library may have it; if they don’t, they can get it. Or you can usually find the full text online.
5. Set up a savings account
We’ve been talking about saving money; now let’s talk about how. If you try to keep the money you’ve saved as a surplus in your checking account, you’ll be tempted to spend it. Use your budget app or plan to determine how much you can put into a dedicated savings program. Even if you use tools within your budgeting app to invest small amounts in trading, you should still have a savings account. As safe as many investment programs might be, you need a secure amount of savings stashed away. Just $5 a week will add up before you know it. And you’ll feel better knowing you have something set aside in case of an emergency. Stay out of it as much as possible though. There’s no point in having it if you dip into it regularly.
Be sure to do your research on banks and which ones offer the most benefits, not only in programs but also in proven security and availability. The local bank in your college town might not be a good choice if you’re moving across the country as soon as you toss your cap.
6. Start building credit
Just like with savings, it’s never too early to start establishing credit. You’ll need a credit history to buy a car, rent an apartment, or get on that payment plan at IKEA. It shouldn’t be hard to find a credit card that will accept you with no or low credit. But do yourself a favor and don’t get the one at your favorite store—you will be tempted to use it far too often. A lot of credit card companies prey on college students who don’t understand their fees and interest rates. You can get in a lot of financial trouble quickly if you don’t understand the particulars and choose a high-interest rate credit card with expensive late fees. Research credit cards before you sign up. Choose a card that you will use sparingly.
If you’re like most college students, you’ll already be in debt when you graduate. Don’t add more debt to that with credit charges for things that are ephemeral like Tuesday night wing specials or expensive sunglasses that you'll lose at the beach anyway. A good practice is to earmark your real money for groceries or gas and then use your credit card for those things. When the bill comes, use the allocated funds to pay it. If you pay off your balance completely each month, you will build strong credit. Most card companies will also reward you with cash back and other incentives.
Related: Examining Your Financial Health
7. Stop impulse buying
One of the most significant benefits of college life is learning to build relationships. Yes, you want to have lots of fun—but you can keep the fun going by avoiding impulse spending or splurging. If you’ve budgeted $40 for the month on entertainment and you spend it all in one night, you’ll be spending the other three Fridays alone with your Little Debbies. It can be tempting to go out with friends regularly and spend money on food and drinks or go shopping or blow all your money on concert tickets. But the reality is, cutting back on your spending (or impulse buying) isn’t going to detract much from your college experience.
Make some traditions with your college pals. Have a weekly potluck. Everyone is learning to cook and share new cuisines, so make a thing of it. If you’re still in the dorms, meet in the dining hall with a specific purpose in mind—other than eating—like a mock think tank, philosophy club, or even your own college start-up. When you’re tempted to buy something, take a step back. If you’re in a store, leave it where it is for a moment and walk away. If you still remember what it was when you’re ready to check out, ask yourself how much use you’d get out of it for the money (how many times you’ll use it divided by the price). You might also consider alternatives like getting a cheap shampoo so you can buy the good conditioner guilt-free.
Related: 8 Ways to Save Better as a Student
We’ve all looked at our wallets and wondered where our money went. We swear this thing only cost 10 bucks, and that thing was just a dollar. You might think that cutting back on your expenses won’t make a difference, but it will. It will add up quickly even if you don’t see the change as it’s happening—the opposite of the mysteriously leaky wallet.
Save yourself some money by finding scholarships with our Scholarship Search tool!