How To Save Money In College

College is a time to try new things, new classes, meet new people, expand your horizons and learn more about who you are.

It is also a time to learn how to budget and manage money. If you’re a college-bound first-year freshman, it also might be the first time you’ve ever managed your own money.

Unfortunately, easy access to student loans can sometimes keep you disconnected from the amount you’re actually spending. Even if a parent pays your college bills, it’s easy to be removed from actively making financial decisions, including budgeting and paying bills.

The best way to save money during college is to be actively involved in managing your money and be careful about your spending.

What to Consider Before You Start Saving

Though you may take your role as the broke college student seriously (made tomato soup out of ketchup packets and hot water yet?), there’s a fine line between being frugal and being a pinchpenny.

Whether you have money coming in from scholarships, loans or family, it’s important to start by considering all of your assets (but don’t let yourself starve in the process).

How to Save Money in College

First, look closely at your budget. Start with the biggest items first: tuition, housing, transportation and food.

Then, look at your remaining living expenses and see where you can make wiser, less expensive choices.

Save Money In College
Average Estimated Full-Time Undergraduate Budgets (Enrollment-Weighted) by Sector, 2018-19 Source:

Step 1: Consider College-Specific Costs

If you’re wondering how to pay for college, you should carefully choose the college you attend in order to save money. It’s possible to overpay for your degree and end up saddled with student loan debt.

Carefully compare schools and degree programs and analyze the school’s estimated costs versus its graduates’ average incomes.

Often, community colleges near large universities are set up as feeder schools and those can also help you save money.

Once you’ve started school:

  • Map out your class choices very carefully for all eight semesters.
  • Think very carefully about your major and work with your academic counselor to map your progress. It is best to meet with them at the beginning of every semester to help make sure you are on track and clue you into courses that are not offered every semester.
  • Schools often charge the same amount for 12 credits as for 15 credits, so if you can manage the course load and take an extra class, you may be able to save on the cost of that class, complete your degree early, or add in a minor or second major without adding much cost.
  • Many classes can double dip and count as credit toward both your major and minor if they are in a similar area (history and international studies, for example) so you may be able to add a minor by only taking a couple of extra classes.
  • Complete your degree in four years.

If you decide you hate your major halfway through your four years of school and can’t stomach one more biology lab, consider changing it to another major that is still somewhat close to your original major.

Semesters of extra classes you don’t need can add tens of thousands of dollars to your tuition bill.

Step 2: Look to Save on Books and Supplies

No, you don’t need a sleek, lightweight, brand new notepad to take to class with you. A lot of students go old school and take handwritten notes (plus, handwritten notes won’t break when dropped or crash if there is a power surge).

If possible, buy all of your books used. You may be able to find some of your textbooks at the school or public library and renew them multiple times to get through the semester.

Sites like Chegg, Amazon and can find used textbooks cheaper than your university bookstore. You can also sell back books when you are done with them and get back some of that cash to use for the next semester.  

Step 3: Live Up to the College Student Standards

There’s a reason why middle-aged people may have already advised you to “live like a college student.” It’s great advice.

Sure, there are really nice off-campus apartment complexes with pools throughout your college town, but really, they’re a waste of money.

Compare prices for residence halls on campus and less-flashy off-campus apartments. See which is cheaper and also compare food costs (since living in a residence hall might mean you’ll eat on campus instead of cooking).

If you are able and willing to cook your own meals, live in a cheap apartment with a few friends and cook meals at home. It might mean you’ll save a lot of dough.

On the other hand, if you can’t or won’t cook (ordering pizza every night adds up!) a dorm and a meal plan might be the best way to keep you fed and happy.

Step 4: Budget Like You Mean It

Making a budget and learning to stick to it is an important life lesson that can only be taught by actually doing it.

Work with your family to come up with a reasonable monthly budget. Include most of your own bills, even if your mom and dad are footing the bill and “paying” you monthly. Add in a small amount of fun money for concerts, parties, trips to the beach over spring break, movies and other entertainment, but keep it reasonable.

There are several great budgeting apps like Mint or Goodbudget that can make creating and keeping up with your budget a breeze.

Learning to manage money and make it last through until the next payday teaches responsibility, strategic thinking and problem-solving skills. Hitch a ride with a friend instead of driving yourself, skip bar-hopping and stay home and study instead.

Check out money-saving apps like Hooked to find deals on restaurants and bars near you and use Groupon and Living Social for discounts on all kinds of entertainment and restaurants.

Find free, cheap entertainment, utilize your student discount as often as possible and take on the responsibility of paying your cellphone bill. It will forever engrain a degree of thriftiness into your psyche and never again will you blow your whole paycheck on Beyoncé tickets and a new pair of jeans.

Step 5: Set Money Aside

Don’t forget to put some money aside to cover future unforeseen or planned expenses. Sock away money in a savings account and think long-term to develop a key component of budgeting health and you’ll avoid going into debt over an emergency.

Not spending your money and saving it actually costs you less money over time because when you need to use that money to pay for something, you’ll have it and won’t have to dig out a credit card.

Set up automatic monthly deposits from your checking account to your savings account or check out automatic savings apps like Dobot and Digit.

Final Thoughts

Choose the right college, take courses strategically, save on books and materials and choose the right budget apps and accounts. Live cheaply, cut entertainment and food costs.

Teach yourself principles of personal finance, which will stick with you forever. Hone a sense of fiscal discipline so you graduate with a head full of knowledge and some cents in your pocket.