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How to save money in college

Courtesy of Kristina Ellis

College can be a lot of things—fun, exciting, challenging, exhausting, rewarding—but “cheap” doesn’t usually make the list. And if you’re in college right now, or you will be soon, I want you to be able to save as much money as humanly possible so you can cash flow your degree and graduate with a future that does not include making student loan payments (yes, that really is possible). Here’s the good news: You don’t have to work a full-time job or eat ramen noodles 24/7 in order to graduate debt-free. There are plenty of simple, practical ways you can save big on college expenses.  

How to Save Money on Housing in College

You have to live, right? But when you’re a college student, housing can mean anything from a small apartment you share with roommates to a luxury dorm with a hot tub and a view of the city skyline. Let’s keep this budget-friendly.

Live at home if you can

Okay, y’all. I get it. You’re probably ready to get out of the house and bask in your new freedom, and living at home might be the last thing you want to do. And obviously, living at home won’t be an option for everyone. But just think about not having to pay thousands of dollars per year on rent, utility bills or food. All that extra money in your bank account will be totally worth it.

Compare the costs of living on versus off campus

Renting an apartment isn’t always going to be cheaper than living on campus, and living on campus isn’t always going to be cheaper than renting. You have to look at all the options available at your school and in the surrounding area to see what’s most affordable.

Find a roommate

If you rent an apartment, having a roommate (or two or three) will cut your expenses way down. Make sure your landlord has approved each individual roommate, and that they all sign the lease so you won’t be left hanging financially if one of them moves out.

How to Save Money on Food

Food—another one of those things you can’t live without. But you can live without daily avocado toast. You just have to be wise about your food choices.

Split food costs with roommates

You can save a ton if you go in on groceries, especially if you buy in bulk. You could even grocery shop and cook together to get some solid roommate bonding time.

Be strategic about eating out 

It’s okay to go out with your friends every once in a while, but when you’re constantly getting waffles at 2 a.m. on impulse, it really starts to add up. Budget the amount of money you can spend on eating out every month.

Be smart about your meal plan

Meal plan costs can vary depending on your school––cheaper ones can be about $1,000 per semester, but some can be three times that (or more). Some colleges might make you get a meal plan for your freshman year, so if you have to have one, make sure you actually use it. But if you don’t have to have one, meal prepping and making food from scratch are your new best friends.

How to Save Money on Tuition and Supplies

This is one of the biggest and most intimidating categories for college students. But don’t stress, y’all––I got you.

Buy used books

It’s crazy how much you can save just by getting your textbooks from Amazon or a used bookstore instead of the campus bookstore. You probably won’t find all your required reading at those cheaper places, but even if you do have to use the campus bookstore, they’ll usually give you the option to rent instead of buy. Go with renting.

Take classes at a community college first

You can save a lot on tuition by getting all your general education requirements out of the way at a community college before heading to your school of choice, because the price difference is insane. A year of tuition at a private is school is, on average, more than nine times the cost of a year of tuition at a community college.

Go to an in-state school

The average tuition at a public, in-state school is $9,349 per year, and the average tuition at a public, out-of-state school is $27,023 per year.1 That’s a yearly difference of more than $17,000! If it’s an out-of-state private college, the tuition skyrockets even more.

Apply for scholarships

It’s kind of a no-brainer: If you find scholarships, you won’t have to worry as much about tuition costs (and some scholarships even cover your books, food and housing). Back when I was headed to college, my family wasn’t able to help me with funds, so I treated applying for scholarships like a part-time job—and it seriously paid off. I know it’s a lot of hard work, but I promise it will make a huge difference.

How to Save Money on Transportation

Not everyone remembers to factor this into their college budget, especially if they know they’re going to be living on campus and walking a lot. But the truth is, you’ll need to get to places off campus at some point, so it’s smart to think about this stuff ahead of time.

Ride a bike

Nobody likes spending money on gas. With bikes, you don’t have to. Enough said.

Use public transportation

This could be anything from the bus system to subways to rideshare services. Depending on how often you use public transportation, you might want to buy passes instead of individual tickets––it costs more up front, but it will help you save in the long run.

Bonus Money-Saving Tips in College

And because I really want you to graduate with cash in your bank account, I’m going to give you a couple extra tips:

Have a part-time job or side hustle

Don’t underestimate the effect that a few babysitting or dog-walking jobs per week can have on your savings. For a steadier income, a part-time job (no more than 15–20 hours per week) is a great idea too.

Find all the student discounts and coupons you can

We’re talking Groupon. We’re talking Yelp. We’re talking all the restaurants, museums and movie theaters in your area that give discounts to college students. Wherever you go, don’t be afraid to flash that student ID and ask if there are any deals available!

Stay away from debt

If you really want to save money and build a solid foundation for your future, don’t have debt of any kind. No student loans, no credit cards—nothing. They will only weigh you down, and keep you from hitting your financial goals.

Those are just a few of my tips for saving money in college. Remember, making the right plan for your future starts with understanding all your options!

Kristina Ellis
After winning $500K in scholarships and graduating from her dream school with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, Kristina Ellis set out to help students create their own plan to earn a debt-free education. She’s the bestselling author of Confessions of a Scholarship Winner and How to Graduate Debt-Free. She is a featured expert in the 2021 documentary Borrowed Future: How Student Loans Are Killing the American Dream. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets, such as Fox & Friends, The Katie Couric Show, CBN, USA Today, Reuters, Seventeen, and Money. As a Ramsey Personality, Kristina helps thousands of families nationwide navigate the complex waters of college finance and graduate debt-free.

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