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Save Money While in College

This article was written by in Featured, Personal Finance. 11 comments.


Higher education has its benefits, both financial and not. A bachelor’s degree helps ensure lifetime earnings will be greater than someone with just a high school diploma. Aside from the financial benefit, the cognitive skills used in tackling tough academics are useful inside and outside of a career.

Nevertheless, college students often start careers at a financial disadvantage. All that is involved with academics — going to classes, studying, researching, and perhaps being an unpaid intern in the field of study — take away from precious time that could be spent earning money. Besides missed earnings, it’s common to start a career out of college with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

It helps to start thinking about personal finance while in college. I didn’t. After college, it took a few years of working for low pay at a non-profit organization to realize I wasn’t making any progress. It would have been decades before I’d be able to afford to buy a house, for example. I worked during some of my breaks from college, but I can’t say with any certainty what happened to that income.

The best thing one can do is attend a college where costs are low and receive as many scholarships as possible to cover tuition costs. With state budgets in crisis, many colleges will have to increase the cost of attending — perhaps bigger increases than families have been accustomed to. Here are some ideas for saving money in college, partially negating the effect of graduating with crippling debt.

1. Open the right bank accounts. Making better choices when dealing with banks won’t make you rich, particularly in today’s interest rate environment. No college student should leave home without a high-yield online savings account and a free student checking account. A student’s best bet is to have a checking account at a bank that offers convenient branches both in the parents’ town and near campus. This allows parents to deposit checks easily if necessary while students can withdraw funds as needed without a hassle. With a job on campus, income can be automatically deposited. Many banks offer student accounts with no fees and no minimum balances.

2. Avoid the campus bookstore for text books. The text book industry is a bit of a racket. Schools encourage professors to require the latest edition of text books, and some text books release a new edition every year. Most of the information inside doesn’t change however, so you may be able to succeed in the class with an older version of the text. This opens you up to buying used text books, borrowing text books from friends or strangers who took the course previously, and swapping text books online. Not only that, but when you own text books and are finished with the course, you have opportunities to sell the text books to other students through popular avenues like Amazon.com.

3. Open the right credit card. Credit cards can be dangerous tools, especially in the hands of a young adult with little experience with spending. If an emergency arises while a student is away from home, having the right credit card and the right approach can be the difference between paying the minimum to resolve the issue and falling deep into a cycle of debt. When I was a freshman in college, during orientation my classmates and I were bombarded by salespeople tempting us with free gifts (tee-shirts, Frisbees, etc.) to encourage us to sign up for credit card offers. I would imagine most do not stop to read the terms and conditions of these offers, and those who do may not have a good comparison tool. Find which best student credit cards don’t charge fees.

4. Take advantage of the dining plan. When a student lives on campus, schools often require her to pay for a dining plan. Dining plans help to make sure students eat relatively healthy foods consistently — though this approach isn’t completely effective. Nonetheless, dining plans are often included in tuition bills, separating the concept of eating from paying to eat. It’s easy in this situation to forget that you’ve pre-paid for a certain number of meals per week, and with many meal plans, you lose any meals you don’t eat. College meal plans can waste money, depending on an individual’s dining habits, so it’s important to pay close attention and make the full use of what the student or parents are paying for.

5. Live off campus. Boarding costs can be expensive. Colleges compete for the best living experiences for students, and that means they spare no expense in outfitting the dorms. My former college was on the forefront of internet connectivity. When I went to school, every dorm was wired for ethernet. This was not very common at the time, particularly considering there were only 2,738 websites on the internet when I entered college, and being on the internet generally meant reading news on Usenet or chatting with other Unix-connected students. Universities that pay for these amenities just add them to the cost of living on campus, yet most dorms don’t have kitchen, so living off campus can be a more cost-effective option. By living off campus, you can avoid costs for things you might not need while you can save money buy buying groceries and cooking rather than buying every meal pre-made.

6. Get student discounts. I held onto my student identification as long as I could to see if I could get discount admission to events and movies. Students are blessed with discounts for all types of expenses. Student discounts are worthwhile, and near campus, almost every business is wise to advertise a benefit for students. Sometimes, however, student discounts are not advertised, and business rely on word of mouth. Just ask for a discount if you’re not sure. Students qualify for discounts on computer software, equipment, hair cuts, theater performances, and even car insurance.

7. Get a job. I’m not a fan of spending a significant amount of time focusing on something other than studies during college years, but finding ways to earn an income has some benefits.

  • With a job during college, you’ll have a head start against your peers, especially if your job is within the industry you’re likely to seek for a career.
  • Getting experience juggling many priorities can help prepare you for life after college, even if it means having less time to focus on academics.
  • Having a growing bank account in college will provide you with some experience dealing with finances that, if positive, will improve your relationship with money after college.

A job that worked well for me was working in the school’s music library and media center. It was quiet, so I could do work for my classes while also performing my job.

One goal for the four (or more) years of college is to survive financially. Many former students I know graduated with thousands of dollars of credit card debt, including me, thanks to inattention to money. College is the time for students to show they can begin to function as responsible adults in society, and while many adults also suffer from poor money management skills, there is an opportunity to set the bar higher. If nothing else, simply paying attention and understanding expenses will put a student at the head of the class.

Photo: regexman

Published or updated July 5, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Francisco

8. Go to college in a less expensive town. You’ll do much, much, much better economically in the short term if you have to pay to live in Columbus or Austin rather than New York or Boston.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,373 (Platinum)

Good suggestion!

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avatar qixx ♦1,817 (Half-Dollar)

Tied to the less expensive town is usually the less expensive school. 8b. Go to a less expensive school. It is easier to pay tuition at most state schools than ivy league schools. This means less time needed to work to cover tuition and less student loan debt and possibly more savings in your bank account.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦906 (Dime)

francisco brings up an interesting point that I didn’t think about. Would college tuition at NYU or UCLA be much higher than at an Ohio State University based on location?

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avatar Francisco

It probably depends on the school and state schools for in-state residents, but no matter what, rent or room and board in the middle of Ohio is going to be better than the West Village.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

Good post, but I disagree with #3 and #4. I really think credit cards should be avoided whenever possible. I graduated from college with a substantial amount of credit card debt which took several years to pay off. My soon-to-be college sophomore is working 11-hour days this summer to save money for the upcoming school year. Her dad and I will help with tuition and such, but she’s earning the rest. I am encouraging her to avoid credit cards like the plague. There will be plenty of time for that later.

Regarding the school dining plan: it doesn’t ensure healthier eating by students. Some of the meals served in my kid’s dining hall were plain crap and cost a small fortune. She ate healthier meals at Subway. IMHO, the dining plan is a bigger rip-off than textbooks or the ubiquitous “fees” that the students pay each semester. Just sayin’…

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦2,454 (Dollar)

An on-campus job, especially related even peripherally to your field of study, will save you commute times (assuming you live on or near campus). Such jobs are generally flexible depending on your hours. Even if all you’re doing is answering the phone, you’re still in the department, learning about what’s going on and maybe, if you’re lucky, learning about research or grant opportunities.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

Great tips but I would not get a credit card if there was any way to prevent it. I went to college later and I did miss a lot of the college experience. I also did not learn a whole lot more in a financial way.

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avatar Money Beagle

I always worked when I was in college. I was a tour guide, a computer lab rat, and an RA. Never more than two at a time but even so, that was pocket money so that I never ever had to be in debt for stupid things.

I went to college before selling things on the internet was an option, so unfortunately, I got ripped off by the campus bookstore. Ugh.

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avatar skylog ♦368 (Nickel)

some great ideas from both you and fellow readers. the college bookstore is the greatest racket out there, well, one of them. it blows my mind how they can sell a new text for 100.00, buy it back for 20.00 and sell it used for 80.00. i am glad to see how this has changed over the last few years with all the online options and local exchanges that have come to be.

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avatar Kevin

Textbooks have gotten better, mostly due to online competition. My general rule of thumb is to rent the textbooks that are for general education classes and buy used textbooks for classes related to your major. retextbook.com is free and allows you to compare prices for your book easily, definitely saved me some money.

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