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College is an incredibly exciting time in your life. You're out of high school, on a brand new campus, and finally taking cool classes in a major that you picked out yourself — goodbye, AP Calculus, and hello, "Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity". But there's no denying that it's easy to start racking up a bill thanks to newfound expenses like textbooks, tuition, eating out, and fun activities with your friends. That's why we tapped an expert to help you identify some easy ways to save money in college (and some things to watch out for, too).
Yes, it's possible to save money in college — even if you're paying your tuition by yourself, taking on loans, or aren't able to get a part-time job due to a heavy course load. Look to student discounts, free Facebook groups, a realistic budget, and some honesty, to help you on your way to a nice little nest egg (a.k.a. a sum of money you've saved up) in no time.
And don't worry, drafting up a budget doesn't mean that you're signing yourself up for a life without fun. Raya Reaves, finance coach and founder of City Girl Savings, believes that one of the most important aspects of budgeting is "making sure that you can enjoy your life in moderation." Reaves explains, "Enjoy yourself a little bit, but make sure you save something. Even if it's as little as $5 a month, put something into savings that you don't touch. Before you know it, after four years of college, that savings account will be significant and that'll be such a great stepping stone moving into the post-college world."
Grab a snack, take a seat, and open a fresh page of your notebook, because we're about to break down some easy hacks and thoughtful ways to save money in college that you might not have thought of before.
1) Choose your college wisely, if possible
Small changes add up — buying a single $5 coffee a day rather than two $5 coffees a day leaves you with $1825 left over at the end of the year. But the biggest impact on your savings will come from changing your highest expenses, and as a college student, your tuition is likely costing you thousands per month. Investing in a college degree is worth it, don’t get us wrong — but choosing your college wisely, whether that means going to your second choice school because they offered you a full scholarship or spending a year at community college to cut down on costs, can make a huge difference.
Understandably, there are exceptions — maybe you're attending a school because your siblings are also attending, or your parents teach at the local college, or you're picking a niche major that is only offered at specific schools. Whatever it looks like for you to minimize your student debt and maximize your scholarships, along with choosing an affordable program, will set you up for future financial success.
2) Create a personalized budget
If the word "budget" immediately conjures a sense of fear and foreboding (okay, kidding, but money scaries are a real thing!) we're here to help change that. Raya Reaves breaks down budgeting into three simple categories: what is coming in, what is going out, and what is left. If the leftover amount is positive, you can hit the ground running with your savings goals. If the leftover amount is negative, it's time to take a look at reducing your spending — because you're spending money you technically do not have.
"I use a spreadsheet [to track my budget] and I always start with my income," Reaves explains. "Then, I write down my known expenses. Then I think, "Am I working towards any specific goals? Do I have a trip coming up? Do I have a busy birthday month?" Allocate money to those things." Reaves assigns every single dollar to a budget category, so that she knows where all of her money needs to go throughout the month. "It's about basically getting myself down to zero and then just making sure I track my spending throughout the month to ensure that I actually stuck to those numbers."
When it comes to divvying up your paychecks, a standard way of breaking down your budget is the 50/30/20 rule, popularized by Elizabeth Warren — 50% goes towards needs (think food, gas, textbooks, necessary toiletries, etc), 30% goes towards wants (eating out with friends, buying holiday gifts, maybe some new clothing or makeup), and 20% would ideally go towards savings. But if you don't currently have an income, look at the past three months of spending and see how much you spend on average for categories like food, clothes, school supplies, entertainment, etc. Then, based on your necessities and wants, set a realistic monthly limit for each category and try your best to stick to it by tracking your spending throughout the upcoming month.
3) Decide what's uniquely worth spending on for you
The 50/30/20 rule is great, but like snowflakes or fingerprints, budgets are unique to each person. How do you figure out what's worth spending on?
Reaves breaks it down into three sections — the total amount you have, the amount you'll need for expenses, and the amount left over. "At minimum, if we know we make a thousand dollars a month, we cannot overspend a thousand dollars. Once we have our normal monthly expenses taken out of the picture, let's say we are left with $400. Well now you get to ask yourself, "How much do I want to save?'" Reaves explains. "Let's say $200 is left over after that — that's my spending money and I can go have fun with it and not worry about anything because everything else was covered."
And how do you decide what "fun" things are truly worth spending on? It looks different for everyone. Reaves shares that for her, personally, it's iced coffees and lash extensions. "My nails may not be done. My hair, I'll do it myself. But [coffee and extensions] are things that matter to me. But it took time for me to realize that. I only have X amount of money — what is gonna bring me the most joy, as opposed to what others are doing? That is the direction I'm gonna move in. That's what you spend your money on."
4) Consider living at home
If you're someone who has dreamed of decorating your dorm room and spending late nights on campus getting pizza and chatting with your friends, this suggestion might not be what you wanted to hear. And being a commuter isn't for everyone. But if you live nearby and could easily drive back and forth between campus and your parent's home, this one switch can save you thousands of dollars that could go towards renting your first adult apartment when you graduate.
The decision to live on or off campus is a personal one. Maybe you would prefer to live on campus for the sake of your mental health or physical safety, and that's okay, too. But if you wouldn't mind living at home, you might be able to save $11,557 - $12,857 (the average costs for a year of on-campus room and board for public and private institutions, according to EducationData.org) in a single year. That's a whole lotta dough!
5) Pick free activities
Buying tickets to shows, games, movies, and concerts can add up — keep in mind some cheaper swaps that are a little more wallet-friendly.
Take advantage of the endless opportunities that your college campus offers to students for free. Often, times schools will have movie nights, art exhibitions, film screenings, on-campus concerts, or showcases happening that you can swing by for free entertainment. Your RA might be organizing get-to-know-you events for your floor like pizza lunches, themed nights, or other bonding activities. Or, do some Googling and check for cool events happening nearby to get to know your college town better. Nearby parks to picnic at, local open mic nights, or indie concerts are all great options.
6) Be transparent with your friends
We get it — it might be hard to say "sorry, I can't join" if a group of friends invites you out to a super fun concert or fancy dinner. But Reaves suggests sticking to honesty when you offer alternative suggestions that are equally as fun. "Come to the table with alternatives and see how that works — saying, "Let's go to the park and just relax" or "We could do a picnic!" as a more affordable solution," offered Reaves, who recommends transparency when communicating your budget boundaries. "Say, "Hey, I have a savings goal this month, I'm really trying to hit it. Are there other activities we could do? Maybe we could just spend time on the quad today." And see how they respond."
Saying yes and showing up for your friends is important — but you also don't want to let your future self down by spending a ton of money that you don't have. "If you come to the table with alternatives and they are denied, then just recognize you did your part and it's okay to step back a little bit," affirmed Reaves.
7) Make a "want" list
Sometimes saving money is about finding practical ways to avoid those spur-of-the-moment purchases that add up over time — whether it's hitting "Checkout" on an impulsive cart full of TikTok products you didn't need or leaving Target with a bunch of random purchases when you had only intended to grab one thing.
An easy way to recalibrate your mindset towards hasty spending decisions is to create a "want" list. Each time you're thinking about purchasing an item, write it down on your want list (or spreadsheet) and then wait one week. If you revisit your cart in a week and still can justify the purchase, go ahead and spend some of your hard-earned money on it! If a week has gone by and you realize that you can totally live without it, you just saved yourself a chunk of change that can now be tucked away into your savings account.
8) Utilize your dining hall
If unlimited access to your campus dining halls is a resource you purchased, don't forget to use it. Instead of buying fast food, take advantage of the months of dining plan food you've already paid for.
Suggest grabbing an on-campus meal when you catch up with a friend rather than hitting an expensive restaurant each time. Or grab prepackaged foods like yogurt and bagels the night before so you won't be tempted to drop $15 on a morning Starbucks run.
9) Be smart with your textbooks
If this is your first time buying college textbooks, you might find yourself shocked by how expensive some of them are. $150 for a Math 101 textbook?! Not exactly budget-friendly.
You'll be relieved to know that it's pretty standard to buy your textbooks used, whether that's through your college bookstore or a Facebook group where upperclassmen sell their textbooks to new students for cheap. If you're truly strapped for cash, you might even be able to find PDF versions of your textbook uploaded online by doing a quick Google search. Just make sure you're reading the correct version listed in your class syllabus because some publishers create yearly editions that have minor differences in page numbering.
10) Check out free Facebook groups
Though you probably scroll through Instagram and TikTok more often than you scroll through Facebook, consider checking to see if your college has unofficial Facebook groups where students can swap, share, and sell resources.
Maybe a grad student is offering discounted tutoring, or maybe a senior is giving away furniture and dorm decor for free before moving to a different state. These groups are the perfect resource to help you snag free furniture, sell your old textbooks, and even get notified about free showcases and events on campus. You could even see if your city or town has "Buy Nothing" Facebook groups where people give items away for free.
11) Sign up for frequent customer loyalty programs
If you're a college student, there's a good chance you're somewhat of a creature of habit — you walk the same routes to class, you have your favorite couches right by the power outlets in the library, and you grab your morning cappuccino from the same cute little coffee shop right by the lecture hall your 8 AM takes place in. Why not ask if the coffee shop has a rewards card? Taking 15 seconds to inquire could score you a free drink every 2 weeks.
Saving $5.75 bi-weekly with a free coffee reward may not seem like it would help your future self out in a significant way, but it adds up to $150 a year that you're saving just by taking advantage of a rewards program at a place you already frequent.
12) Know your limits with credit cards
Getting that shiny first credit card can feel like you've unlocked a big chunk of spending power. And yes, credit cards are important and powerful, but not to empower you to shop harder — they're great tools to increase your credit score and help you in the future when you want to buy a home, lease a car, or rent an apartment.
Not only do you want to stay out of credit card debt (because debt is significantly harder to free yourself from than it is to accidentally fall into) but you also want to start working on your credit score. Reaves shares that she'd tell her college self, "Know your numbers and your credit limits, making sure you don't forget about credit and building it, especially from the onset." We recommend sticking to 30% utilization or less to avoid seeing your score go down, and 10% utilization or less to see your credit score improve. That means that if you have a $1000 credit card limit, you don't want to spend more than $300 on it before paying it off. You'll save money in the long run by being vigilant about how much you're swiping that card, and by gifting your future, older self a strong credit score.
Reaves also notes that if you're looking to build your credit score without a credit card, you could utilize a tool like Self Financial's Credit Builder, which gives you a loan specifically for the purpose of paying back in regular installments. Those consistent payments will help increase your credit score, and once you "pay off" the loan, you'll get all of your money refunded back to you.
13) Use your college ID to get discounts
You probably already carry your student ID around with you as a keycard to swipe into your dorm or other campus buildings. Since you have that identification card, it doesn't hurt to ask local shops and businesses if they have a student discount to help you save that little extra bit of money. We also recommend using a site like Unidays or Student Beans to find online student discounts.
And when it comes to buying new tech or signing up for subscription services, oftentimes companies will give student rates that you'll automatically be eligible for thanks to your .edu email address.
Here are some student discounts that you can take advantage of:
Amazon Prime Student for $7.49/month after a 6-month free trial
Spotify Premium Student with Hulu and SHOWTIME for $4.99/month
Grubhub+ Student Membership for select universities
Calm for Amazon Prime Students for $8.99/year
Apple education pricing for various products
14) Put the correct amount into savings
Hold up — isn't the "correct" amount to save different for every person? Yes, it does vary from person to person. However, it's healthy to know what your "correct" amount of savings is — meaning you're saving as much as reasonably possible, without putting too much into a savings account that you'll end up needing to withdraw from in the short term.
"A lot of times I see people wanting to be aggressive with their savings goals and they're putting hundreds into savings per paycheck, but when we look at their budget, that money was needed to make sure they have grocery money," explains Reaves. "Take the time to determine what you can afford to save so that we're not putting money into savings just to take it right back."
The problem with transferring money in and out of your savings account is that it sets a pattern of reaching into your savings for everyday expenses. "We don't want to build that habit," Reaves warns. "Our go-to solution shouldn't be, "Oh I'll just take from savings."' You want your savings to be safely tucked away to be accessed for emergencies and big expenses — not your weekly purchases.
Savings Goal Red Flags 🚩
1) ATM fees
Debit cards conveniently allow you to withdraw cash from any ATM. However, you're going to want to try to stick with ATMs within your bank network to avoid unnecessary fees. Call your local bank branch to confirm the exact fee amounts, but using a random street ATM might tack on an additional $2 to $5 each time you withdraw cash — simply because it's an ATM unaffiliated with your debit card and/or bank.
2) Overdraft fees
Another fee that you can easily avoid having to pay is a bank overdraft fee. If you're using your debit card to pay for something and you end up spending $150 when you only had $110 in your account, you overdraft by $40 and might get charged a fee for doing so. According to Greg McBride, Chief Financial Analyst for Bankrate.com, the average overdraft fee is $29.80 — yikes! Download your bank app to double-check the amount in your account before swiping your debit card if you're running low on funds.
3) Free trials
Those free trials that you signed up for can easily turn into a recurring fee that flies under your radar, just because you forgot to hit "cancel." The easy solution to avoiding accidentally getting charged for a service you didn't plan on continuing is to mark the must-cancel-by date on your calendar — and make sure you follow through with it. Sites like Trim or PocketGuard can help you search your bank account for recurring subscriptions that might've slipped under your radar.
Do you currently pay for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, Disney+, and other premium streaming services? Consider splitting the expenses by joining a family plan with your siblings, or sharing the streaming service load with your roommate so that one of you pays for some platforms and the other covers the rest. It's an easy fix, and you'll still have access to all of your favorite shows.
5) Not knowing your loan, tuition, and money situation
Having to take out loans to pay for your school expenses can be an intimidating process, but the best way to stay on top of your payments is to know exactly how much you owe at all times. Create a spreadsheet that keeps track of your loans, payment due dates, your yearly tuition cost after scholarships, and how much you're paying for rent or for your dorm. That way you'll be able to avoid unnecessary interest from missed payments.
And if you're experiencing anxiety or fear around checking your credit card bills or your loan payments, Reaves offers some words of advice. "It's usually never as bad as it seems. But another thing is once you know, you get to move forward accordingly. If you see that you've overspent, you're not gonna be spending for the next couple [of] weeks. No big deal. Knowing the amount puts you in control, but you gotta know first."
6) Student loan carelessness
Just so we're clear, student loans aren't free money. Whatever you take out from federal or private loans will need to be paid back after graduation, typically with interest. Reaves notes that the first rule of thumb is only to take out what you need. "Whether you're working with your parents or you're figuring it out yourself, sit down and determine, "What does my tuition cost? What are my books gonna cost? What about my room and board?" Whatever that number is, that's the amount of loans that you should take out."
It may seem like an elementary concept, but you never want to get to the place where you think to yourself, "I'm offered $50,000, let me just take it all." Reaves warns that doing so will put you in a situation where you run the risk of overspending. "It's just the natural course of things," she explains. "Get clear on exactly what you need from a loan and only take what you need. The earlier you can start saving to pay it off, the better. And if you have to work while you are in school, that's fine, too. But we have to go into this knowing what our number is. If you have to make $3,000 over the course of the semester, now you have a goal. It all comes back to knowing exactly what you need and then working from there."
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