A Complete Guide for Students on How to Save Money in College

Nicolas Cesare  | 

The average cost of tuition has tripled in the past 30 years. In the meantime, wages have remained stagnant, making it more difficult for parents and guardians to contribute to their kids’ college funds. Rising tuition and low wages make the days of working a summer job and letting that income propel you through the school year sound like a fantasy.

If you want to get through college financially unscathed, you’re going to need to break out every trick in the book. Here’s what you can do to save money in college.

Buy Used Textbooks

This isn’t the first time that someone has told students to buy used textbooks instead of new and it certainly won’t be the last. Buying used textbooks can surprisingly save you a large amount of money. Textbooks may be more expensive than anticipated.  Buying them used, or even renting them whenever you’re able to, can help ensure you save money by not spending it unnecessarily.

You can rent and/or buy your used textbooks either at your campus bookstore or online. Different websites such as Amazon.com and Chegg.com offer many textbooks for rent. However, some textbooks require that you purchase them brand new — either because they require a source code or workbook pages — so you will want to verify this with each textbook, instead of assuming you can rent each one or that each one will have a used option available.

Don’t Forget Your Student ID Card

Your student ID card, typically issued before you start school, can be extremely beneficial when you’re trying to save money. Not only does it allow you to access multiple campus facilities, but it can also be used for student discounts at local stores, restaurants, and other places around town. Your student ID can also get you discounts on tech products such as software programs and laptops, which are tools needed to help students succeed in class.

Get a Student Credit Card

Using a student credit card for your purchases can be a great way to save money. With a cashback rewards program, you’ll be able to get rewards on all of the purchases you make each month.

As a student, you’ll want a card with no annual fee and no minimum spending limit. An annual fee is hard to justify if you aren’t spending enough to offset that fee with your rewards and meeting a minimum spending limit will be difficult on a student budget. Cashback rewards are great for students because you can use that money anywhere, whether you need it for rent, groceries, or school supplies.

Since you won’t have as much stable income as a working professional, it’s very important that you pay off your balance each month to avoid interest rates and late fees. If you use your credit card responsibly, you can save money in college and have a high credit score by the time you graduate.

However, it is important to keep in mind that a credit card may not be the best idea if you do not have an additional source of income that will allow you to make each payment on time. Not making your monthly payment or not meeting the minimum payment can result in your credit score decreasing and ruin the chances of you applying for another loan in the future.

Limit the Amount of Times You Eat Out

It may seem like ordering from the dollar menu isn’t that expensive, but when you do it multiple times a week, it can add up, and fast. Instead of eating out, utilize the campus cafeteria or go grocery shopping. To vamp up your grocery shopping list, you can even research recipes for meals that you typically buy when you eat out. Not only is this a cheaper alternative, but it can be healthier as well.

Start Budgeting in School

Figure out how much money you can get away with spending each month. While doing this, factor in your reliable income if you are working while in college, using student loans to pay for living expenses, and earning other income, such as contributions from your family. Spread this money out over the school year to see what your monthly spending should be.

Once you’ve got this number, think about how you can break up the different kinds of spending that you do in order to stay within your budget. Unavoidable items like rent and groceries should be prioritized, while things like going out to eat or buying concert tickets should be the first to get cut if you’re over budget. Creating a personal budget while you’re in school will help you save money in college, but it will also help you develop good financial habits that will be useful at any age.

Be Careful About Your Debt

In 2018, about 65% of graduating seniors left school with student loan debt. For many students, it seems like taking out some student loans is unavoidable these days. However, this doesn’t mean that you should open the floodgates when it comes to taking on debt in college.

When it comes to student loans, stick to federal loans. These will typically have better interest rates and more forgiving repayment options than student loans from private lenders.

The amount you can receive in federal student loans is calculated based on how much you should have to spend to get through the school year, including non-education expenses like housing and groceries. If you find that the loans you’re getting aren’t enough to cover your costs, then it’s a good idea to go over your budget once again.

Above all, don’t fall for predatory lending schemes like payday loans. These types of loans are designed to take advantage of people in tough financial situations, but becoming the victim of a predatory loan can damage your credit score for years to come.

Graduate Early If You Can

The longer you stay in school, the more time you’re going to spend paying tuition without earning a strong income. If you can graduate early, then you will be able to save yourself months or even years worth of college spending. Graduating early will also give you a headstart on your career, which can make it easier to pay off your student loans or even help you retire early down the road.

College doesn’t have to be the most stressful time of your life. Budget responsibly in school, use a credit card wisely to get cashback and don’t go overboard with student debt. Follow these tips to save in college so that you can have the best experience possible.


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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.