Money Saving Tips For College Students

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 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.

Student Loans

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:

Other “Back to School” Series Articles from The Money Writers:

Additional Resources


  1. Like you said, this is an important time in these kids’ lives, and it will definitely set the tone for their future. The number one thing I would stress here is the saving. Make it a habit and try to learn about investing. You may hate it and find it stupid/boring (I did when I was in college), but it will help set you free at some point. And the earlier you start, the more money you’ll make. Major in whatever you want (though I would say finance, go for the big bucks dann-o) but read up on investing and personal finance on your own — it’s one of those things you can actually teach yourself.

  2. If you cannot afford to attend a particular four year college without substantial student loans, don’t go there. Consider a less expensive in-state school or, if necessary, start at a local community college and then transfer. Learn from the mistakes made by others.

  3. Excellent advice, as always! Especially about the credit card sharks. I’ll actually go so far as to say credit cards are evil. 🙂

    I seriously wish I paid better attention to my finances during college. Students, take heed!

    Stumbled, bro.

  4. Great post! I’m attending a state school now and its a crunch at times, but I’m working through it. One comment though, at least at my school, it is much more expensive to live on campus in a dorm compared to getting a house or an apartment w/ roommates.

  5. Remember also all the new/used textbook sites online. We have been getting my daughter’s textbooks, some new, for at least half price online 🙂

    Great off-to-college post!

  6. I was the cheapest college student ever! I actually hating splitting the bill with roommates, because no one was as cheap as me. 🙂 It was a fantastic time to be frugal; I don’t think I missed out on much.

    If it’s that time in your life, enjoy being able to spend the afternoon laying in the grass or sitting by a fountain, doing nothing but reading or chatting in torn jeans and flip-flops. It’s also the one time when riding the bus is cool and most people on the bus are attractive. Priceless!

  7. School dorms are definitely not the way to go to be cheap. The meal plan is required (and thus a rip off) and it will make you fat! the choices at my school weren’t the healthiest. On the other hand dorms give new students a great opportunity to meet new people, instant study buddies, and zero cost transportation to school. I found it was super easy to be thrifty. Being a starving student is totally hip now. Tons of club events with free food, school sponsored events, free gym access, and more. My biggest expenditures (after rent) were the books I couldn’t borrow or find used. Sometimes $300 a book. Youch!

  8. You head the nail on the head with the credit cards. I think credit card companies need to stop the free t-shirt garbage and instead, inform and educate students on how dangerous credit cards can be.

    If only the companies would educate a student before they signed up…

  9. I agree in most cases with this post.. but frugal often means researching the details and sometimes they fall off the generalizations. Read up and then research young adults! (A skill you shall be honing in college, no doubt!)

    The least expensive school for me at the time of undergrad was the private school. I would have spent much more money going to a SUNY school. My undergrad school did not make me max out my stafford loans like the state school would have. I was in the top 5% of my high school class but there were no perks for it in my state. Perhaps the affordability of a state school depends on the state you’re from?

    My college’s meal plan was very expensive. I was able to get off of it my senior year, and I saved $3000 without getting fat. No chump change there.. a big deal!

  10. Roommate phone advice in case it’s not obvious… turn off long distance on the phone and make everyone use their own calling card.

    This also avoids the situations where it truly was not any of the roommates that made the call, but a random friend/acquaintance/girlfriend/boyfriend.