Although some college scholarships cover living expenses, many don’t. That leaves undergrads (or in many cases, their parents) to foot the bill for day-to-day expenses like textbooks, food, and a little fun every once in a while.
Needless to say, living on a tight budget is a lot easier if you track your spending carefully. Take 20-year-old Jon Cunningham, a junior studying finance and economics at Bluffton University. “Whenever I buy something, I enter it into an Excel sheet and [add] the date, place, price, and category of the item,” he says. “That way I can look back and see when I bought something, how much I’ve been spending in a certain period or on a certain category, and know what I should cut down on to balance better.” he explains. Cunningham says he uses budgeting tools like Mint.com to track his account balances and online transactions.
Here are a few other money saving and budgeting tips for college students, from college students.
Buying all your textbooks at the campus bookstore is fast and easy, but it ain’t cheap. Gabi Gesch, 22, a senior at University of Minnesota TC, uses her job at the campus bookstore to score discounts on textbooks and other items.
But for even bigger savings, you may have to think beyond the bookstore.
Cunningham estimates that he saved more than $400 last semester by buying used and international textbooks on eBay (try to find the correct edition, though, or the page numbers and some of the contents could have changed). Then he recovers much of that money by reselling his old textbooks on eBay.
Another option is to search sites like Chegg.com and CampusBook.com, which let you rent textbooks for the semester instead of buying. Scott Gamm, 18, a freshman at NYU’s Stern School of Business and founder of personal finance blog HelpSaveMyDollars.com, says he saved about $300 by renting his textbooks.
Between midnight pizzas and birthday dinners and lattes between classes, college students can blow a lot of money on food if they aren’t careful. “If you have a meal plan for the school’s dining hall, stick to that,” suggests Gamm. If you’re tired of your own dining hall, see if you can swap guest meals with a friend or check out another dining hall on campus to change things up.
Gesch has also found that some off-campus restaurants offer a discount with her student ID (never hurts to ask). On top of that, CampusDibs.com and Dealquad.com are group-buying sites that offer deals to students on select college campuses, while Restaurant.com sells discounted restaurant gift certificates to anyone.
Some movie theaters offer student rates, while live theaters typically offer student rush tickets the day of the show. Gamm may have an advantage attending school in NYC because of all the movie screenings and museums offering free admission one night a week, but he encourages all students to check with their school’s Student Life department: many offer free entertainment events.
You don’t need to venture far from your dorm to find a fun study break. Cunningham says he and his friends host movie nights in their dorm instead of going out to the movies. They’ll get a movie from Redbox or Netflix and have people bring snacks. “This allows my friends and I to have a fun night hanging out with each other, but still keeping the cost to almost nothing at all per person,” he says.
Other Saving Tips & Tricks
Of course, the savings don’t end there. The students we talked to found creative ways to stretch their available cash. Cunningham works in his school’s technology center, so he’ll barter computer help for haircuts from other students. “My freshman year my RA would get his hair cut from a fellow student and in exchange he would wash her dishes,” he explains.
Cunningham also recently embarked on a quest to receive $1,000 worth of freebies. He’s constantly on the lookout for free stuff and follows lots of freebie sites on Facebook so he can claim his free sample or item ASAP. He also shares those freebies with friends on his blog, Fresh Squeezed Savings.
Many schools give free or discounted room and board to upperclassmen chosen to serve as resident assistants (but this could impact your financial aid package, so be sure to check with your financial aid office first).
And here’s a tip that students and non-students can both use: “If you plan to buy anything online and you see a space to enter in a promotional code, don’t leave that box blank!” says Gamm. “Use PromotionalCodes.com which has money saving codes for just about everything.”
Minimizing the impact of daily expenses is smart for two reasons. First, it means you’ll graduate with less debt. Second, it’s good practice for living within your means once you enter the “real world.” Living on an entry-level salary will seem a while lot easier if you’ve been watching your spending as a student.
Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.