College is expensive. In the 2020-21 academic year, tuition and fees averaged $38,185 for students at private universities — that’s $152,740 for all four years!
The cost of public colleges for out-of-state students wasn’t much lower, with annual tuition and fees averaging $22,698.
The price tag is a bit smaller for in-state students at public schools (an average of $10,388), but all of these figures have kept climbing every year and show no signs of slowing down.
These numbers don’t include all the other necessary expenses of college life, such as room and board, books, supplies, clothing, and entertainment. At the same time, it’s difficult for college students to earn a lot during these years, given the demands of school.
Plenty of options exist for financing your time in college, including scholarships, loans, and part-time work. But even if you started to save for college early, trimming your expenses while you’re in college can mean owing less in loan repayments (and interest) down the line — and avoiding credit card debt.
Saving Money as a College Student
Luckily, once you adopt a money-conscious mindset, you’ll likely find there are many ways to save money in college. And building the habit of budgeting now can serve you well as you move on to life in the real world. Here are some tips for how to save money in college:
1. Take Advantage of Student Discounts
Lots of businesses and service providers offer special deals to students. You can buy clothing, shoes, and furniture for your dorm or apartment for less at certain retailers with a valid student ID.
Entertainment is another area where you can save. Some movie theaters offer discounts at some locations or on certain days. Some museums and sports events offer discounted access to students, as well. You may also find discounts on certain music and video streaming sites. And you can save on travel with discounts at certain car rental and car insurance companies, as well as on trains and buses.
2. Buy Your Books (and Other Necessities) Used
If you don’t need that new book smell, renting or buying used textbooks is a classic way to save money in college. You can find used books at many campus bookstores or certain online retailers.
Used books often come at a fraction of the price of a brand new book, and many are in perfectly good condition. Plus once you’re done, you can try to resell the book.
You can save by buying other items secondhand as well. You might try looking for used clothing and furniture at thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, flea markets, or on sites like Craigslist, OfferUp, or even Facebook Marketplace.
3. Cook Meals at Home
Food eats up a big chunk of most people’s budgets — in normal times, Americans spend about 10% of their disposable income on food, and an increasing share of that has gone to restaurant meals.
College students with limited cooking skills and small kitchen spaces may be tempted to eat out for every meal. But restaurant tabs can add up quickly.
Shopping wisely for your own ingredients and making simple meals at home can help you save a lot of money — and leftovers from one home-cooked meal can be lunch the next day!
4. Serve as an R.A.
Becoming a resident assistant can not only be rewarding but also help you cut down on living expenses. R.A.s are a sort of big brother or sister in dorms, organizing social events, advising younger students, enforcing rules, and mediating disagreements. Many R.A.s receive free or discounted housing and meals, and some also get a stipend.
5. Cut Out the Extras
One of the best tips to save money in college is to look for areas in your budget where you can trim by choosing a less expensive option.
If you frequent coffee shops, for example, perhaps you can brew your own java a few days a week, or find a less fancy option with free refills.
Instead of always going out to bars with friends, maybe you can take turns hosting wine and cheese nights at your homes. If you belong to a fancy gym, search for lower-cost options on campus, join a sports league or do your running outdoors.
Instead of a spring break trip to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, consider camping, hanging out at the local swimming pool, or volunteering. Don’t be afraid to get creative!
6. Pay Your Bills on Time
When you pay all of your bills by the due date, you can avoid unnecessary fees and help keep interest from piling up. If you’re worried about forgetting, you may be able to set autopay through your credit card, the service provider itself, or your bank.
Staying on top of bills not only avoids added costs but may also help keep your credit report in good shape. That could help you qualify for better terms on loans and credit cards down the line.
7. Take Advantage of Family Discounts
You may have left home, but maybe don’t cut the cord completely just yet. Many phone and car insurance plans are cheaper if you sign up with family members, rather than as an individual. If your family is on board, this can be one of the easiest ways to go about saving money in college.
If you’re under 26-years-old, you should be eligible to stay on your parents’ health insurance plan, which may be less expensive than purchasing your own. And you might also see if your parents will unofficially keep you on various “family plans” by sharing their logins for things like video streaming services.
8. Sign up for Cash Back Credit Cards
If you’ve decided to use a credit card, you might as well earn some cashback while you’re at it. As long as you pay your bill in full each month to avoid fees and interest, you may benefit from a reward credit card. You could earn points that can be applied as a statement credit, sent to you in check form, or put toward merchandise or gift cards.
When signing up for a cashback credit card, look for one with a low or no annual fee that offers the highest amount of cashback possible. And remember, any benefits will likely evaporate if you do not pay your balance in full every single month.
9. Frequent the Library
Instead of purchasing books, look for them at your local or on-campus library. Your library may also offer magazines and movies so you don’t have to spend money on those, either. Many public libraries now offer digital loans you can download and enjoy instantly on your favorite device.
You might also consider using the library as a free and quiet place to study instead of spending money at the local coffee shop. To make your library experience even more enjoyable, invite friends to form a study group.
10. Give Up Your Car
If you live on campus, you may not actually need a car and all its associated monthly costs (insurance, repairs, gas, and parking, to name a few). Look into free campus shuttles and public transportation to get you where you need to go.
If you need to use a taxi or rideshare service, you can comparison shop to find the cheapest option, and if you’re looking to take a longer trip, split the cost of a rental car with friends.
11. Look Into Work-Study Options
Federal Work-Study is a program for students in financial need that provides student-friendly part-time jobs to help cover school expenses. Before enrolling in college, you can ask about different work-study programs that may be available.
Bonus: You’ll benefit from the work experience when it’s time to jump into the job market!
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12. Look for Discounted Banking Products
Some banks offer college savings and checking accounts that don’t charge the same types of fees as normal accounts do. There may not be minimum balance requirement, either.
Look into different banks and what kinds of benefits they are offering to college students before making your decision.
13. Take Advantage of Free Campus Activities
Colleges often host a number of different activities for students throughout the week. There might be dances, plays and musicals, sporting events and more, all for free.
By choosing these activities instead of going off-campus, you can have fun and save money at the same time.
14. Stay Focused
Though college can be a lot of fun, you also need to keep your eye on the prize (graduation) and stay on top of your schoolwork.
Taking more than four years to graduate could blow your higher education budget and negatively impact your earning potential. Some hyper-focused students even graduate in fewer than four years!
15. Buy in Bulk
This one requires a little price sleuthing, but for nonperishable items you use a lot of, you’ll typically save money buying in bulk. This is true whether you have access to a membership at a bulk goods store like Costco or Sam’s Club, or you’re choosing between package sizes at a superstore like Target or Walmart. If you can’t use or store an enormous quantity of, e.g. toilet paper, consider going shopping with a friend and splitting the goods.
16. Turn in the FAFSA Every Year
Every year, you need to fill out your FAFSA form to qualify for financial aid. If you don’t turn it in, you could be throwing away free money.
Though the form may be confusing, it’s worth asking your parents or college counselors for help filling it out.
17. Sell Your Textbooks
Once you’ve completed your courses for the year, you can take the books you purchased and resell them to get some of your money back.
To get the best possible price, compare quotes from your campus bookstore against the going online sale rate. Websites like Bookscouter.com help you compare prices before you list your books for sale.
18. Consider Printing Expenses
You may already pay for use of on-campus printers with your student fees. Don’t spend additional money on printers, ink, and paper if it’s cheaper to utilize the printing resources at the library or other places around your campus.
19. Look Into Local Restaurant Deals
To enjoy a nice meal out while saving money, keep your eye out for deals at local restaurants. Many establishments offer happy hour specials or special discount nights.
Apps like Groupon and Yelp can offer discounts on local dining with just a few taps.
20. Find the Free Food!
You can’t get cheaper than free. Departments and organizations on campus will often offer free food like pizza and sandwiches to entice students to attend their events.
Keep an eye out for signs around campus. You could score some free dinner and you might find some interesting people or a new hobby while you’re at it!
Other Ways to Finance College
Saving can get you far. But when it comes to actually paying for college, you have a few options if you or your parents haven’t saved enough to cover the costs in full. One of the most advantageous is to land scholarships or grants that will fund all or part of your tuition.
These are available through state and federal governments, universities, non-profit organizations, and corporations, and many are tailored to students of specific backgrounds or intending to enter certain fields. You can search for some opportunities on FastWeb , FinAid , and Scholarships.com .
One of the most common ways to pay for school is to take out federal student loans. You can apply by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which will help the government and your school determine the amount of federal aid you qualify for.
Private student loans can help fill the gaps in financial aid.
Federal student loans are a likely part of the federal student aid package you receive. They come with fixed interest rates and certain benefits, such as a six-month grace period after graduation, income driven repayment plans, and options for pausing or reducing payments while you’re in school or facing an economic hardship.
It’s wise to exhaust all your federal grant and loan options before taking out private student loans, since they typically offer less flexibility and fewer borrower protections compared to Federal student loans. However, if you need to fill gaps in paying for school, you can look into private student loans from various financial institutions.
When you apply for a private student loan with SoFi, the process is straightforward and fast. You can choose from several flexible payment options, and there aren’t any fees.
Qualifying for the loan, as well as the interest rate and terms you receive, depend on your credit history (or that of your co-signer) and other factors. You can check your rates before applying — in just minutes.
SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.
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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.