Cash-Strapped College Part 2: Once you’re there


This is the second of a three-part series. Find the first post here.

Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to college and secured enough scholarships, loans and savings to enroll. Now you get to explore the large and exciting (and parent—free) world that is college life. Chances are this will be your first time living away from your parents and it’s probable that you’ve never managed your own expenses before. With all the freedom that college offers, it can be easy to forget that you don’t always have the finances to explore all of that freedom. 


By this point hopefully you’ve sat down with your parents, or at least had a serious discussion with yourself, and created a monthly budget. It’s important to not only plan for your known expenses but to have enough wiggle room to accommodate unforeseen expenses like car repairs, replacing stolen property or even late night pizza for your “study group.” With that in mind, it is important to cut corners where you can because every penny you save is a penny you don’t have to borrow and pay back later at 12% interest.


Here is your guide to pinching your pennies at college.

BANKING: If you need to start a new account make sure you shop around for a bank that is student friendly. Look for low interest rates and minimal fees/penalties like minimum balance restrictions, over draft fees, ATM fees etc. Be sure to keep close tabs on your balance too, as overdraft/insufficient funds charges add up quickly and can have lasting repercussions if they occur too frequently. If you have a smart phone, look into mobile banking apps like to keep you up to date.


CHANGE: Don’t be afraid to pocket loose change you see lying around, and save yours any time you break a dollar. Save all of your spare change in a jar at home—it adds up faster than you think. Every time the jar is full, pick up some paper coin rolls from the bank, fill them and drop a deposit them in your account. Avoid the coin counting machines you see at supermarkets as they often charge unnecessary fees.


ALCOHOL: This one is for those juniors and seniors who are of legal drinking age: do not buy drinks at the bar. Bar drinks are expensive and add up quickly over a night out. Instead, buy your beer and liquor at the market and in large quantities. The larger the bottle the less you spend per drink. Always choose a house party over a night of bar hopping; you’ll save money, and odds are, have more laid-back fun. If you do go out to bars, pre-game before you leave (as long as you aren’t driving) and leave your credit cards at home. Instead, bring enough cash to cover the number of drinks you can afford, lest you find yourself $60 down, offering to buy drinks for a complete stranger who told you a funny joke. If all else fails, start brewing your own beer. The learning curve is steep but the result is cheap beer that doesn’t taste like cheap beer.


TEXTBOOKS: From best to worst option, here is how to get your textbooks. (Also, please reference my previous article on buying textbooks! It is, after all, my specialty).

  1. Use reserve copies at the library or borrow from a dependable classmate
  2. Buy a used copy directly from another student who took the class before you
  3. Buy a used copy from an online retailer
  4. Buy a new copy from an online retailer
  5. Buy a used copy from your campus bookstore
  6. Rent the book from an online retailer
  7. Buy a new copy from your campus bookstore

With any luck, you will never have to move past #3 in order to secure a textbook. If you can do that for your entire college career you will likely save between $100 and $500 a year. 


FOOD: Avoid eating out at restaurants at all costs. This can be particularly difficult late at night so having a reserve of snacks and quick/easy meals can spare you a Taco Bell run that you’ll regret the next day. Avoid shopping at high—end grocers like Whole Foods; you’ll have plenty of time for gourmet food when you’re rich and successful. Remember, there is no shame in clipping coupons when using just a handful each month can save enough for a night out at the bars. 

In addition, don’t buy bottled water. Get yourself a reliable metal water bottle and fill it up at home or drinking fountains around campus. Lastly, for the coffee junkies like me, remember to brew your own and invest in a tight sealing thermos mug. A daily latte can add up to $20 a week, that’s $80 a month that you could use for other purchases. 

COMPUTERS: Getting a new computer before going off to college is a tradition in America, and retailers depend on the back to school crowd. Be sure to shop with retailers, online or off, that offer student discounts. Look for bundles that throw in printers, carrying cases or software for free. Before you buy a laptop, make sure you really consider whether you need that mobility or not. If you think you can get by with taking pen and paper notes in class, then go for a desktop instead. They aren’t as sleek as laptops but you can get a lot more computer for your money. When it comes to printers, ink is extremely expensive. Always print on the lowest quality level that you find acceptable.  When your cartridge is empty look for a service that will refill them rather than buying new ones.

ENTERTAINMENT: Dodge the cable bill by using your computer as your entertainment center by using Netflix or Hulu to get movies and TV shows. Find out if your town has a “second run” theater which usually shows independent movies and mainstream movies a few months after their normal release, but at a much cheaper price. Make your own entertainment, you’d be surprised how much fun you can have for free if you get a good group together and bring a board game/football/basketball/bikes/movie/etc. J.D. Roth, a blogger for suggests to avoid hanging out with big spenders. Whether they have deep pockets or are swimming in debt, “hanging out with them can lead you to spend more than you can afford.”

EARN SOME CASH: Working full time while going to school can seriously wear you down. But earning a few extra bucks on the side can really help out. Try to get a part time job on the side; waiting tables is a great way to earn some quick cash. You can also volunteer for medical/psychological studies or focus groups and be a guinea pig for your schools grad students. If you have your summers free, try to work as many hours as possible and put it all in the bank. In addition to securing some extra spending money for the upcoming school year, it can be a good way to avoid your parents while you’re living at home again.

For some more tips, check out these two resources:

Surviving College Life

Do you have any great tips? Leave them in the comments!

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