College can be an expensive time – especially for a student! Here are our best tips for surviving as a college student on a budget.
College Student Budget
Right now, students everywhere are planning to start or go back to college.
It’s an exciting time! Although it’s been over six years since I graduated from college, I remember all the different emotions I would feel as I started a new semester – especially as I left home for the first time to start as a college freshman.
I think one of my favorite parts of getting ready for college was buying everything for my new dorm.
It was so fun picking out new bedding, a lamp, and items for the kitchen.
I lived in Heritage Halls at BYU, which were apartment-style dorms (they demolished all the ones I lived in a few years ago – the new ones are quite the upgrade from what I had!).
I lived with five other girls, and my freshman year holds some of my most dear memories of college.
However, buying everything I needed for that first apartment wasn’t exactly cheap.
Here are some tips on how to save money on the items you buy before you even head to college!
Originally posted in August 2013; Updated August 2019.
Determine Your Budget
Before you do anything, decide how much you can spend.
I’ve found it’s much harder realizing you don’t have enough money for what you want to buy, rather than deciding in the beginning how much money you actually do have.
That way, you can know exactly how much you can spend, which will help you know where to shop.
I would also suggest writing out a list of all your expenses.
It would be a good idea to separate these into one time expenses (such as a laptop) versus ones that you will need on a regular basis, such as gas and transportation.
I would recommend using a free budget planning website/app such as Mint.com to help keep you on track!
Here are some common expenses:
- Room and Board
- Textbooks and school supplies
- Dorm/Apartment Items – make sure you check with your college to see what is provided and what you may need to buy yourself.
- Groceries (if you aren’t on a college meal plan)
- Laptop and Printer
- Gas and transportation costs
- Eating out
- Entertainment and Activities
- Medical insurance
You need to look at your bank account and see what money you have available to you as well. This will help you determine whether or not you will need to get a job right away or not.
I got a job the first semester of my freshman year, and I worked all throughout college. It wasn’t always easy, but it was a necessity – I was able to avoid getting into credit card debt, and I gained valuable work experience that only benefited me.
Wants versus Needs
You need a bedspread. However, you don’t really need one that costs $300.
It’s important to determine what you actually need versus just want.
If you can’t afford a computer, consider looking into renting one. I know at BYU, you could rent a laptop for about 20-30 dollars a month, and a desktop for even less.
There are obviously things you need, and you shouldn’t get the cheapest thing ever, because you will want the things you to last the duration of your time in college.
But deciding whether or not something is completely necessary can help save lots of money.
Save the Money You Can
It’s no fun feeling like you are constantly just trying to make it by – but this is the reality for many college students.
I know that there were many times I just didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet each month, but I got creative.
I worked as a “ChaCha Guide” and took surveys online in addition to my own campus job.
Emergencies happen all the time – even in college – and these often involve $$. Doing whatever you can to build a 10% cushion on top of your monthly budget can help make those times a little less stressful.
Talk With Future Roommates
One of the most helpful things one of my freshman roommates did was send out a document that listed everything that we needed for our apartment.
From there, we all signed up for what we wanted to bring.
This made it so we didn’t end up all bringing baking dishes, and no one bringing silverware.
It also helped us come stocked with essentials (paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies etc.) so we didn’t have to spend that money right away when we got there, and worry about finding a store to buy it at.
We didn’t have Google Documents (at least, not that I knew of) back when I started college, but now, this would be a perfect place to start this list.
Just email it out to roommates ahead of time, and everyone can update it as they go.
And, just in an effort to be helpful, I’ve created a document that you can make a copy of with all of the things an apartment could possibly need.
Feel free to make a copy of it and send it out! It can be easily tweaked, depending on what kind of apartment you will be in and what is already available in the apartment.
Use Cash When You Can
A lot of college students get into trouble when they first get a credit card – don’t let that happen to you!
A credit card does not equal free money. Whatever you spend, you have to pay back – with interest if not paid on time.
I am not against credit cards – they can be a great way to build up credit. But you have to be responsible enough to only use them when you can pay them off, or in case of an emergency.
It’s a lot harder to spend cash frivolously, so try a cash-based budget. It might help!
Find Free Food
There is almost always free food to be found on campus – at clubs, from promotional things that are going on, etc. Keep your eyes peeled for anyone that might be offering free food for something.
Be sure to read this post about the best college eating hacks.
Coupon/Cash Back Apps
I’m a big fan of apps where you can scan your receipts and get cashback for your purchases.
This is a GREAT way for college students to save a little bit of extra money on the necessity of life that is food.
Here are some of my favorite ways to make and save money with your smartphone.
Take Advantage of Student Status
Just by being a student and having a student email address, you can get access to TONS of discounts on electronics, software, food, clothing, and more.
There are so many that I can’t list them all here, but definitely check out our ultimate list of college student discounts to see where you might be able to save some money just for being a student!
Check out Dorm/Apartment Room Layout (including square feet!)
I think that most schools will make a layout of an apartment/dorm available online.
Don’t just rely on pictures — I’ve found that pictures tend to make rooms look bigger than they actually are.
Pay attention to the square feet as well. You don’t want to think you have room for a big Papasan chair (or something of the like) only to get there and realize it doesn’t fit.
This can help you also visually decide how much stuff you should bring (though, I highly recommend bringing as little as possible!
Review Dorm Guidelines
BYU provided a list of suggested items to bring, and I’m sure most other schools are similar.
Pay particular attention to the type of sheets they recommend.
I’ve heard that a lot of universities have long twin beds, so you can’t just buy any old twin sheets.
The guidelines and suggestions may also tell you if the apartment is equipped with things like a microwave.
I had some friends who lived in the traditional dorms, and they brought a microwave, because those rooms didn’t have one, and it was nice not to have to run to the common area to use one.
You also want to make sure you don’t accidentally bring a prohibited item! If you have any questions and can’t figure out the answer online, be sure to call your housing place before you go.
Look for Freebies
I went to a school that always had tons of free things going on – both at the school and in the community.
Subscribe to local pages and your school’s activity calendar to see what’s going on. You never know what you might find!
Also, be on the lookout for surveys or focus groups. Some of these aren’t legit, but there are companies that will pay you for just answering some questions and participating in a focus group for about an hour. Sometimes they even feed you!
And if you like surveys – check out this post – Legitimate Survey Sites.
Find Scholarship Opportunities
Scholarships can be tricky to come by, but they are available. Once you decide on the program you want to go into, there are often scholarships you can look into directly through your program.
There are scholarship websites online….just make sure they are legit. I found there were a lot of scams when I was applying for scholarships.
If you live with other people, all bills for Internet, electric, etc. should be divided evenly. In the places that I lived, these were automatically divided by the property management company.
However, if there are other bills that don’t have to with your apartment (such as a cell phone bill), if you can share it with someone else to save…then do it!
Have you found any ways to save money as a college student? Be sure to comment below!
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Katie is a Colorado-native, BYU graduated, and most importantly, wife to one and mother to three beautiful boys. She is passionate about sharing her experiences with others – especially about pregnancy, breastfeeding, cooking, and crafts. She is currently training to be a Certified Lactation Educator. She loves spending time with her family and helping others find joy in family life.