With summer winding to a close many families are beginning the annual back-to-school trek with cars loaded down with dorm room goodies and eager college-bound students. College is one of the more exciting phases of young adulthood, but unfortunately it has also become one of the most expensive.
Opportunities abound on college campuses to separate you and your money. In fact, textbooks alone have killed many budgets (unless you’re like me and rented textbooks from Chegg.com). Worse yet, being a frugal college student can be potentially damaging to your social life. Here are a few money saving tips for college students to put to use their freshman year and beyond.
With rising tuition costs making a college degree as expensive as a small home, many families are turning to student loans to finance education. I’ve heard many families express that student loans are the “only option,” and when I was heading off to school I felt the same way. However, hindsight has helped to change my views on student loans, and recognize that there are other options.
First of all, loans may not be required if you opt to attend an in-state, public institution. It may not be the college you dreamed of attending as a kid, but chances are it is more than adequate in terms of the educational opportunities offered. I chose to go out of state myself, and that single decision added thousands to my tuition that could have been avoided by staying closer to home.
Room and Board
College dorms are not exactly known for four-star lodging, but are often much cheaper than off-campus housing and typically include a meal plan. Speaking of meal plans, if you are the type who just refuses to eat anything cooked in a cafeteria you may do better to skip the meal plan and load up on Ramen noodles. Just remember, there is a trade off for eating on the cheap–your health.
Unless you want to experience the “Freshman Fifteen,” or worse, I’d recommend sticking to the meal plan and eating a variety of fruits and vegetables with each meal, as a rule. Easier said than done with no less than seventeen pizza places within five miles of campus! And believe me, I made my share of late-night runs to Taco Bell!
Later in your matriculation you may find that joining up with roommates to split the costs of an off-campus apartment is cheaper than staying alone. If you go this route, be sure to fully investigate individual college housing contracts so you aren’t on the hook for a roommate who has a change of heart and goes home half way through the semester.
A Word About Credit Cards
Next to football fans, the loudest group you will find on your campus may be those soliciting credit card applications. If I should ever be in charge of a school one day (not likely) one of the first things I would do is end the agreement than allows credit card companies to sign up students on my campus in exchange for a free t-shirt. I don’t think credit cards are evil, but I do think they should be avoided in college.
Don’t fall for the “you need to build your credit” sales pitch–there will be plenty of time for that later when you have a solid job and can afford to repay your debts. Because I was strapped for cash while away at school I accepted a credit card to fund “life expenses” such as groceries, gas, and occasionally the utility bill! I left school with a free t-shirt and a pile of debt as souvenirs.
One of the perks of being around a college campus is that there are no shortages of opportunities for free or low-cost entertainment. Check out bulletin boards and websites at student unions or near the campus bookstore to stay up on the entertainment offerings around campus. Many times schools will offer free outdoor movies, or guest speakers.
When my wife (then girlfriend) and I were in college our first date was attending a motivational talk by the real life subject of the movie Rudy, Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger. As a football junkie, and a sucker for a motivational talk, this was right up my alley. I knew my wife was “the one” when she agreed to wait nearly two hours for a chance to meet “Rudy” and get my book autographed.
Keep your college ID on you when out and about your college town. Many stores and restaurants offer a nice discount to college students, especially around back to school shopping times when students are loading up on textbooks and other supplies.
Start a Savings Plan
One of my favorite lines from a great Chinese proverb reads, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.” As I sit here some thirteen years after my freshman year of college it is easy to play the “what if” game. What if I had started saving a little money all those years ago. I spent most of my college years broke, and working just to keep the lights in my apartment on and gas in my tank. At the time the last thing on my mind was trying to save money. After all, how much could I have really saved? Open a savings account (check out my review of the best online banks) and try to save 10% of any earnings, or $5 a week, or $25 a month. Don’t be overly concerned with the amount you are saving, just start saving something, consistently, to reinforce the idea that saving money is a good habit to develop at a young age.
Early Frugal Living
It is difficult when you are young to fully appreciate the benefits of living frugal. However, many special life events will likely occur in the decade after graduation. Most of you will get married, start a family and a new career, and maybe even buy your first home. Resist the temptation to saddle yourself with debt during your college years so you can enjoy these life experiences debt free.
Other “Back to School” Series Articles from The Life Skills Network:
- College Housing Contract Basics
- Back to School Savings Challenge
- 17 Good Habits for Successful Life
- Back to School Season Already? Keep the Family a Priority
Other “Back to School” Series Articles from The Money Writers:
- 10 College Money Myths
- How To Be A Frugal College Student
- College Student Money Guide: Financial Tips For Student Success
- Going Back to School? Here Are Some Tips That Helped Me
- College Student Finance Tips
- Upromise Survey: Saving For College, Getting Tougher?