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Smart Spending in College: 6 Tips to Help You Save

With endless college expenses, it’s natural to want to save every penny you can. But as any student will tell you, it’s easier said than done. After all, the average cost of attending an in-state four-year college in the US is more than $25,000 per year [1]! While scholarships and grants can ease some of the financial burdens, most students still have to pay plenty out-of-pocket.

But don’t lose hope—practicing smart spending in college can allow you to save money in school without sacrificing the quality of life.

Smart Spending to Save as a College Student

The first step to smart spending in college is building the habit of saving money. It can be challenging at first, especially if you’re used to spending all your funds on leisure.

Keep these six tips in mind throughout college to change the way you spend forever:

  1. Dine In More

If you’re a freshman living on campus, you most likely have a meal plan. Using your dining dollars as much as possible prevents unnecessary spending. You can spend these funds on eating at your school’s dining halls or getting snacks and ingredients from a grocer on campus.

Not living on campus? It may be tempting to eat out with friends and try new restaurants in college. But cooking your meals at home is often healthier and more economical. Eating out adds up quickly, so it’s best to limit this habit to once a week. Even if you’re saving only $10 per week by eating in, that’s $520 in one year!

  1. Get Discounts with Your Student ID

One of the most underrated ways to be frugal in college is by leveraging your student ID. Did you know many restaurants, movie theaters, and even retail stores offer discounts for students with ID? Some may not make it explicit but will honor student IDs if you ask.

If you’re an avid online shopper, Amazon offers free Prime membership for the first six months. After that, it only costs just under $8 per month—50% of the regular membership price. Not bad!

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  1. Create and Stick to a Budget

You must know exactly how much you spend on each category of your life to create and stick to a budget. Budgeting is the key to saving money because you can prioritize your spending and avoid unnecessary expenses.

Start by making a basic budget. List all your expenses in each category:

  • Housing
  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Tuition and fees
  • Utilities
  • Entertainment
  • Personal care

Add up how much each costs per month. Then, compare this total amount with your monthly income from scholarships, grants, and part-time jobs. The difference between these two numbers is what makes up your income deficit. If it’s too large for comfort, you may need to cut costs somewhere or find ways to increase your income.

Ideally, your budget follows the 50-30-20 rule:

  • 50% goes toward your living expenses (housing, food, healthcare, transportation)
  • 30% goes toward discretionary spending (entertainment, dining out, travel)
  • 20% goes toward savings

Pro tip: Use a budgeting app like Mint to create your budget. You can track and update as you go from your phone, helping you keep your finances organized at all times.

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  1. Don’t Go Overboard on Textbooks

The average student spends over $1,200 on textbooks during an academic year [2]. That’s quite a chunk of change for a college student not making a ton of money yet.

Fortunately, there are creative ways you can save cash on textbooks:

  • Split the cost with a classmate or roommate
  • Buy used, not new (Chegg, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace are great places to check for used books in good condition)
  • Rent textbooks for a fraction of the retail price
  • Borrow textbooks from the school library on a need-basis
  • Get an e-book version if it’s available
  1. Watch Your Credit Card Spending and Use Cash Whenever Possible

Credit cards with high limits can be dangerous to have as a college student if you have trouble limiting your spending. You’ll find that it’s easy to spend more than what you can afford with them, but all too often it can end up costing you more in the long run. Interest charges can sneak up on you!

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  1. Participate in Free or Low-Cost Activities On or Around Campus

Having fun in college doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Colleges and universities offer various events and activities that are either free or significantly discounted for students. These can include:

  • Games
  • Concerts
  • Sporting events
  • Workshops
  • Club meetings

In addition, campus recreation centers often have a wide range of affordable fitness classes and equipment available for student use. If you live off-campus, take advantage of free or low-cost community activities like museum trips or zoo visits. Don’t forget that student ID!

Smart Spending in College Makes Saving Money Second Nature

Being mindful of your spending and seeking out ways to save money will set you up for financial success. While it may take some effort to get into the habit of smart spending, the long-term benefits are well worth it. Building healthy financial habits isn’t beneficial only in college—it’ll also help you plan for bigger life purchases and (eventually!) retirement.


[1] Average Cost of College & Tuition, Education Data Initiative, Melanie Hanson

[2] Average Cost of College Textbooks, Education Data Initiative, Melanie Hanson

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