We’ve all heard the mantra, “live like a college student,” and probably had negative feelings about it. However, the statement doesn’t have to mean eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and scrounging under your car seats for coins. You can save money in college by simply being mindful, resourceful, and smart with your choices.
Remember, so much of the path to financial success is having the awareness of where your money is going. And the earlier in life you start, the bigger the impact it will have later on. As the costs of college continue to rise, the idea of saving money in college might sound preposterous—but it’s totally attainable. The more cash you can save, the more prepared and confident you’ll be entering the real world.
Here are some ideas to eliminate many of college’s biggest expenses:
1. Attend an In-State School
This single decision can save you tens of thousands of dollars! According to the College Board, the average tuition at a public, in-state school is $10,950 per year, while the average tuition at a public, out-of-state school is $28,240 per year.
That’s an annual difference of more than $17,000 and a four-year difference of over $69,000. Out-of-state, private college rates are even higher.
You can see how this choice alone is probably the most vital financial decision you could possibly make in order to massively reduce the bill of your higher education.
2. Live at Home (if you can)
Yes, I know many students will cringe at this idea and I understand the desire for freedom and to get away from your family.
Assuming you are attending a university within driving distance, living at home is one of the best ways to save money in college. Why, might you ask? In some cases the cost of living ends up being higher than the cost of tuition.
Even if your parents charge you a nominal rent, it should still be less expensive than trying to live on or off campus. Although you’ll have some commuting expenses, you should still experience significant cost savings.
3. Work while in college
This is another suggestion that has differing opinions. Some students are adamant about not working and solely focusing on their studies. And that might come from a noble place, a desire to focus solely on academics. But the truth is that working during your college years is essential for potentially lowering or avoiding student loan debt.
In fact, here are some stats from the Georgetown University Center on Education:
- 40% of undergraduates and 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week while enrolled
- 25% of all working learners are simultaneously employed full-time and enrolled in college full-time.
- Out of the ~14 million working learners, 19% have children!
Not only does gainful employment provide you with incoming cash, but it also teaches you invaluable life skills such as budgeting, problem solving, time management, planning/scheduling, and networking.
Why is working in college on a list of ways to save money in college you might ask? Because if you’re working, you’re not out spending money—you’re earning and hopefully saving it.
4. Ditch Your Car
If you decide to live on or near campus, you can probably get by without a car during your college career. That too will save you quite a bit of money.
If you already have a car, consider selling it and funneling that money towards your education. The costs of car ownership are escalating and can’t be ignored. According to AAA, the average annual cost to own and operate a new car in 2022 is $10,724, or $894 a month. That’s a lot of money!
If you’re one of the lucky ones who manages to graduate within four years, avoiding a vehicle expense comes to a savings of nearly $43,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Now consider that 64% of students take longer than four years to graduate and you’ll realize even more savings!
Today’s society offers numerous ways to commute:
- Trekking to and around campus
- Walking, biking, skateboarding
- Carpooling, bumming rides
- Logging into classes remotely where possible
- Using campus shuttles or apartment provided shuttles
- Public transport options
Rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft are also viable ways to get around when you need to venture off campus. Even paying $500 per month in Uber rides is cheaper than $800 per month in car costs. Being smart about what you’re paying for transportation is a great way to save money in college.
5. Maximize Campus and University Amenities
Take a deep dive and research what your school’s activity and athletic fees cover. You might be pleasantly surprised!
For example, there’s no need to pony up $50+ a month for a gym membership if your college has a workout facility you can use for free – “free” meaning you’ve already paid for it through your tuition and fees.
Many campuses also have museums, movie/game nights, concerts, and other social events for minimal or no cost. Don’t forget about the library, which is often one of the most underappreciated and overlooked buildings on campus. In addition to books, college libraries provide computers, printers, videos, software, and more. This is all available to students at no additional charge. The library can become a valuable asset and save you significant funds over the long haul.
Additionally, several collegiate athletic events offer free (or discounted) game tickets to students. Taking advantage of free activities is frugal, not cheap, and can save you hundreds per month.
6. Embrace Cord Cutting and Eliminate Cable
As an active college student, ask yourself, How often am I going to actually be in my apartment/dorm room watching TV? So, is it necessary to cough up $100+ a month for 300 channels you’ll never watch? Cutting your cable could easily save you $1,200+ a year, or more.
Explore cheaper alternatives like Netflix, Hulu, and a HDTV antenna (provides local channels for free, minus the initial cost of the antenna). Purchasing an HDTV antenna could give you access to around 70 over-the-air channels (depending on where you live) that are available to watch for free and in fabulous high definition!
Also, smart TVs come equipped with a tremendous amount of free streaming content. One more thing to consider, sharing a subscription with your roommates and splitting the cost will save you more money, too.
7. Take Advantage of Student Discounts
Your student ID might be more valuable than you think, so don’t leave home without it! Many places offer student discounts at a variety of restaurants, shops, movie theaters, theme parks, and more.
Discounts are available on everything from clothing to computers and cheap cell plans for those with a valid student ID. For example, Apple and Adobe offer reduced prices on tech, while hundreds of name brands give price breaks on clothing. Some of the streaming services like Hulu offer a student discount as well. Before you pay full price, ask if there’s a student discount.
8. Learn to Cook Simple Meals
Limiting your restaurant intake can also serve as a big savings – and improve your health! If you purchased your school’s meal plan, use it.
Student discounts aside, the cost of eating out can balloon quickly. What if you invested in a good coffee maker instead of spending money every morning on lattes?
Most of the time it’s cheaper to cook than it is to go out and buy premade food. While a dinner for $15 may sound cheap, it adds up over time. You can probably cook the same meal (and prep for future meals) for less than half the price.
Cooking isn’t difficult, but it does take some time, practice, and patience. Getting started with easy meals like crockpot recipes can be really beneficial. Then you can show off your new skills by hosting potlucks with your roommates and friends to share food.
9. Attend Campus Events Offering Free Food
What’s the number one way to lure starving students to a campus event? You guessed it, free food! Be on the lookout for signs, posters, and promotions around your university. Additionally, events will be announced on the school’s website, social media channels, and student email listservs. These announcements usually promote free food to draw students.
You may feel like a scavenger for doing this, but if you consider the soaring cost of food, the money you’ll be saving, plus the fact that you’ve probably already paid for this through your tuition and activity fees, it’s a no-brainer. If you search consistently, you can probably find a free lunch most days.
Learning something new, making new friends and saving money in college = win/win/win!
10. Earn Your Degree in Four Years or Less
Perhaps one of the best ways to save money in college is to create a feasible plan and timeline for your matriculation toward a degree. Earning a bachelor’s degree in four years, as opposed to five or six, can save you thousands.
Contrary to popular belief, college is not the time to find yourself—it’s way too expensive to take that route. You should be attending college with intentionality and finishing as fast as possible. Ensuring that you’re taking the proper classes and progressing to earn your degree on time (or early) is a great way to save money. Every extra class and semester will cost you time and money.
Better yet, if you can earn college credit while still in high school, do it! By knocking out several classes or credits early, you might have the opportunity to graduate early and save some serious dough.
The Bottom Line:
College serves as the ideal training ground to allow you to develop the skills of minimalism, frugality, and resourcefulness.
You may feel like you are sacrificing a great deal, but you are also preparing for life. If you can save money in college, make a point to invest it instead of just spending more. If you do that you can be on track to become financially independent in your 30s or 40s.