For high school grads entering a four-year college for the first time, living on a tight budget can be an introductory taste of the “real world.”
For perhaps the first time, you’ll have real bills to pay and a limited cash flow — since your main focus will be on schoolwork. You may be wondering how college students pay rent, cover school expenses, and still have enough left over to afford a social life (not to mention eating meals that don’t involve instant ramen).
Take a look at some frugal student strategies to survive your first years on your own.
It’s definitely not as much fun as a party, but getting in the habit of budgeting will save you lots of financial headaches, both now and in the future. Ideally, you’ll have a set amount of money per month to work with, whether it’s income from a part-time job, money you’ve already saved in a bank account, or a monthly stipend that your parents provide.
Track your expenses.
Apps like Mint offer you a great way to track how much you typically spend, not to mention what you’re paying for. Its graphic aids will help keep you accountable; you’ll be able to see — more or less at a glance — whether you need to cut back in a given category.
For example, if your food bills are really high, make a plan to cook and pack your own meals more often. And think about how many bottles of water or cups of coffee you buy in a week. Investing in a reusable bottle or a few bags of beans and a durable French press can save you a lot of money in the long run.
Your goal should be to have some money left over for fun after your bills are paid (while also building up a cushion in case of emergencies). If you’re coming up short, some trimming may be in order.
For more ideas, check these other apps to help you manage your college expenses.
Spend less money.
Some expenses, like paying the rent, are fixed. It’s the other ones that you have some control over. If you see that your monthly budget is getting low, don’t waste cash on cabs or gas if you don’t absolutely need to. Walk, bike, take public transportation, or carpool instead.
Here are some other great ways to cut costs:
- Imitate your parents, and plan your shopping around grocery sales and coupons.
- Piggyback off a family member’s streaming subscription so you don't have to pay for cable. Of course, you shouldn’t violate any terms of service, but even the most basic Netflix streaming plan allows for two simultaneous users.
- Take advantage of your library’s resources. It may be more convenient to stream movies on your computer, but most college libraries have extensive DVD collections. You’ll almost always have access to cheap printing and scanning services, too.
- Find alternative ways to get your books. First, consider buying or renting used textbooks – and those you’ve purchased can be sold at the end of the semester. Or, if you can manage to be quicker than your classmates, check out the texts you’ll need from the library as soon as you get your syllabus.
- Go to more campus events, like lectures, workshops, or panel discussions. Sure, you’ll learn a few things, but there might also be free pizza.
Make more money.
The other way to fortify your budget is to earn more. If you’re not currently working, consider taking on a part-time job on or near campus. You could also do some tutoring for peers or local high school students, give guitar or piano lessons, babysit, or pick up some other side work as needed (plus, a gig at a restaurant, deli, or bakery means more free food).
You should also check in with your school’s career center to ask about paid internships available to students. This would be a great arrangement, since you’d be gaining valuable career experience while making some extra spending money. In addition, you could ask whether any offices or organizations at the school (or even community groups in the area) offer scholarships. You may have to write an essay or two, but many departments have extra funds that aren’t well-publicized.
Another option for earning small amounts of money (with a low time commitment) is to keep an eye on community bulletin boards where research departments post notices seeking study or survey participants. Lots of psychology students in particular are given stipends by their departments to conduct research, and many will compensate you for your time.
Take advantage of your college connections.
You’d be surprised at all of the local retailers, movie theaters, museums, and coffee shops that offer student discounts, not to mention all of the free options available on your own campus (fitness center, career coaching, and concerts, just to name a few). You may be equally surprised how few students take advantage of all of these services and deals. Don’t miss out on a chance to pay less — just whip out your student ID and ask.
Resist temptation and future regret.
Sure, it would be nice to buy awesome furniture or trendy clothes every few weeks, but that’s hard to do on a college student’s budget if you have rent to pay. The worst thing you can do is start buying things on credit. Luckily, you can find hidden treasures at secondhand stores, garage sales, and Craigslist, if you’re willing to dig a little. Better yet, find creative ways to repurpose some of the stuff you (or your parents) already have.
Rely on your roommates.
If you’re renting an apartment as a college student, there’s a good chance you have a roommate or two. You can share some expenses like utilities, plus you’ll be able to draw up a meal chart and ask each roommate to be responsible for cooking one dinner per week.
By monitoring your budget, spending cautiously, and hunting for bargains, it is possible to survive financially as a college student. Be sure to stick with the plan above, and you’ll earn an A in College Finance 101.