How to Save Money in College

[My buddy Fiona, a.k.a The Millennial Money Woman is a financial ninja! She graduated college debt-free by working 50-plus hour weeks (on top of her regular class and study work) and earned a Master of Science degree in Personal Financial Planning. She’s also a CFP®, and now helps others take control of their financial lives and achieve financial freedom early in life!

All you college students out there — or parents sending their kids off to college — check out Fiona’s tips below to save money as a student!]

10 Ways to Save Money in College

I know everyone says that college will be the best 4 years of your life… but I think they’re wrong. 

In my opinion, your years in college will be hard-working, money-saving years in order for you to build the best years in your life. Period.

So how do you set the foundation in college to build the best years in your life?

The first tip is simply don’t get into debt.

Now that being said, I know how hard it can be for the regular college student to graduate without debt. These days 7 out of 10 kids need a student loan because college costs so much money (believe me, I’ve been there – done that). 

So let’s say you’re not the lucky college kid who either has super-wealthy parents to pay your tuition or who got a free ride scholarship. What now?

Below are my top 10 tips to save money in college – and the best part? 

I’ve actually used each and every money saving tip below, so I can tell you these cool college life secrets actually work!

Let’s check it out:

1. Save Money With Meal Prep & Food Budgeting

Have you ever heard of the Freshman 15?

If you haven’t – it refers to the additional pounds of weight an incoming college student typically adds on in their first year of studying.

Why do they put on so much weight?

Because colleges typically require students in their first year to purchase a meal plan. And students have at it!

To be very honest – I also was one of those students who fell victim to the scrumptious foods served by the university campus. I ate everything. And yes, I gained weight.

But here’s the bad part: If you fall victim to the freshman-15 in your first year – and start practicing fairly unhealthy eating habits – how will those habits translate to your second year in college? 

And that’s where they get you: In your second year in college, typically students still want to eat out at any time, anywhere on campus. 

And that can be costly – especially if you are on a curtailed version of your meal plan.

In plain English: You may have to pay a lot more per meal in your second year in college versus your first year – and eating out can seriously add to your living expenses.

So how do you avoid spending so much money on food?

Here’s what I did: I meal prepped every single Sunday night for the entire week. 

Every Sunday, I invited my college friends over and we literally made a small dinner party where everyone helped me cook this gigantic meal for the week. 

  • I divided my food up based on lunch and dinner meals
  • Each portion was labeled 
  • Each meal I placed in the freezer and I took out the meal the day before

Is it a lot of work? Sure.

Was it boring and not very exciting to eat at home every day? Unquestionably.

But did it save me money? Absolutely. In fact – at my college, meal prepping saved me around $12 to $14 a day. That’s $84 to $98 a week.

Had I not meal prepped my week, my savings account would have been screaming at me for spending too much money on going out to eat. Start good spending habits early!

2. Buy a Bike to Save on Transportation Costs in College

My college campus was gigantic – it actually had over 40,000 students attending. That’s right – 40,000. 

So many students decided to purchase a car. I decided to buy a bike.

Why?

Check out the benefits of purchasing a bike while at college below:

  • Saved money on commutes
  • Low cost (my bike cost me $115)
  • No annual parking fee (cars cost over $360 per year for parking)
  • No car maintenance costs
  • I got the exercise I needed to cut down on my freshman-15

Now, in the cases I needed to travel home from college (which was about 50 miles away from campus) or simply travel outside of the campus bounds, I did the following:

  • Car pooled with friends
  • Used a car taxing platform such as Uber or Lyft
  • Rented a car for the day – which cost me $15 per day 

To be honest though, I rarely used a car while at college. Everything I needed was right on campus. 

Pro Tip: Try to make friends with someone who has a car and seems to be willing to give you a lift every now and then. Trust me – it works.

3. Save on Textbooks by Renting or Sharing With Friends

Textbooks are such a rip off in college (in my humble opinion). 

I actually didn’t know about this tip until it was too late. 

Here’s my story: I went to an economics class and on my first day, the professor let us know that we would have to buy her book from the bookstore. That same day, I went to the campus bookstore and purchased her economics book. Brand new. Big mistake.

That was $850 that I will never get back. And to make matters worse? I only used that economics book once. Ouch.

So how can you avoid spending a ridiculous amount of money on 1 book – like I did?

  • At the start of class, try to figure out who the responsible kids are 
  • Approach them and ask if they are planning to purchase the class book
  • If yes, proposed that you go to the bookstore and split the cost of the book – by renting the textbook not by buying

After I learned my cruel lesson, I applied the tips above and they worked like clockwork because no student wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a textbook. 

The key here is this: Make sure you consider renting and not buying a textbook. Truth be told, I didn’t even know we had the option to rent until I fell trap to purchasing the $850 textbook. 

  • Always ask if renting is an option before resorting to buying at a college bookstore
  • If renting is not an option, ask if buying used is an option
  • Apply all extra money you saved to pay down your student loan!

4. Ask Beauty School Students to Cut Your Hair (for Free!)

Especially for girls, cutting your hair could cost you a pretty penny. 

For example, in my case, I typically walk away from the hairdresser $30 to $40 poorer. And I cut my hair about once every 3 or 4 months. So, we are talking $120 to $160 every year in expenses just to cut my hair – without coloring or any other fanciness. 

When I realized how much money I was spending on hair maintenance, I decided it was time to check out some alternatives.

And this is what I found: My university had a beauty school and beauty students are always motivated to practice their latest and greatest hair cut tips on others… wait for it… For free!

When I found out about this trick – I think my world changed.

Sure, you never really know how your haircut comes out – it could be lop-sided or it could be totally different from what you explained to your hairdresser. But it certainly will be unique – and something you’ll likely never forget.

Even better? It will save you money – and that money saved can go pay off your student loan debt or any other debt you may carry.

5. Skip Out on Spring Break / Winter Break

Who here dreams of going out, partying with your college friends during Spring Break or Winter Break?

Although the breaks are awesome and are the perfect time for students to enjoy their young lives with other college kids – Spring Break and Winter Break can also likely have a pretty large impact on your budget.

I mean, let’s check out the costs of a Spring Break / Winter Break:

  • Travel costs
  • Hotel stay costs
  • Food costs
  • Alcohol costs (and this will probably be the largest part of your budget)
  • Miscellaneous costs

I mean, on average, college students spend roughly $1,500 to $2,000. And that’s a chunk of money that could be used toward paying off your student loans, credit card debt – or – wait for it – college classes offered during Spring Break or Winter Break!

That’s right. College classes.

And you know what – that’s what I ended up doing: Taking extra college classes during Spring Break and Winter Break because these classes are typically discounted and could help me graduate faster (which they did). 

Skip out on the fun now – use the money you save today to build your future tomorrow.

6. Make Money at College by Becoming a Library Aide 

This is probably the best choice I ever made. 

Becoming a library aide might sound super boring – but you know what? It’s actually pretty awesome – check out my reasons, below:

  • You earn money! (It’s minimum wage – but it’s still money)
  • You meet pretty interesting people (especially late at night)
  • You actually have enough time to study for your classes

And that last bullet point is what made me super excited about becoming a library aide: You are paid for essentially studying for class. 

How much better can studying get?

The best times to work as a library aide typically are during the evening hours or the early morning hours – where there is not much distraction so you have the chance to get some studying in – while getting paid. 

Again, it might not sound like the coolest part time job in the world, but it certainly gets some money flowing to your bank account.

7. Split Netflix With Your Friends

In college I was known as “The Splitter” – and not in a relationship sense.

I was known to literally split everything – without shame and without guilt. Down to the point of splitting the cost of Netflix with my 3 other roomies.

And guess what?

Although my roomies thought I was a bit crazy saving money literally wherever the opportunity presented itself, I think they appreciated it too – because in the end, I also helped them reduce monthly expenses.

We split the cost of everything from:

  • Netflix
  • Grocery purchases
  • Toilet paper
  • Taxi rides

Point being: Split as much as you can, while you can. 

Pro Tip: Even more – if you think you have to, write up a contract with your friends to make sure everyone adheres to the paper contract. Yes, you might get some raised eyebrows thrown your way, but written contracts typically are a great way to make sure everyone is held accountable. 

8. Ask for Useful Birthday and Holiday Presents

When I was a high school student, I always asked for the coolest and latest gadgets for my birthday or other holiday occasions. 

These gift requests included a cool new bedroom duvet, a nice dress for a ball, and a funky laptop cover and screen protector.

These are cool things to ask for (especially when you are 15 or 16 years old). But as you grow older, I learned that asking for more practical and useful gifts is probably going to save you a lot of money down the road.

Yes, I’ve said it: I’ve become boring.

Below are a few of my practical gift requests that have helped me save money:

  • Financial help toward my car insurance bill
  • Financial help toward a medical bill
  • Financial help toward purchasing new car tires

See? Pretty boring. 

But… these practical gift requests did help me save hundreds of dollars and still had my friends feel good about the gifts they gave me. 

Win, win!

9. Become Your Own Car Mechanic

Ok, I am not going to lie – I’m actually a pretty good car mechanic.

In fact, I learned my car mechanic skills from my dad.

Why? 

I wanted to learn how to save money and not have to spend a good $50 per oil change visit or another few hundred dollars when my brake pads started to give way.

Believe it or not, I can change my own car brake pads, I can change the oil in my car and I learned a few other nifty car mechanic tricks from dad (and YouTube). 

And you know what?

I saved so much money – and will forever save money because I’m never letting another car mechanic touch my car unless it’s necessary. 

Although I didn’t necessarily have a car while in college, I did have a car graduating college – and these mechanic skills have served to be invaluable by saving me a lot of cash.

10. Choose Student-Friendly Banks & Credit Cards

The last 2 factors that helped me save money in college was selecting student-friendly banks and credit cards.

Believe it or not, there are institutions out there that will want to lend a helping hand to a young college student (and recent college graduates).

However – to take full advantage of the student discount, you will have to read the fine print and make sure you don’t go over the limits.

As a student, I considered 2 different types of credit cards:

  • Discover it Student Cash Back Card
  • Discover it Student Chrome Card

Both cards have the following:

  • $0 annual fee
  • 0% intro APR on the first 6 months of purchases
  • Recommended credit score of 630 for card application
  • However – you don’t have to have a FICO history (and I had no FICO history)

In the end, I went with the Chrome Card – but both were good choices for me, personally.

As it relates to the best student discount banks, there were several to choose from:

  • Chase
  • Bank of America
  • Capital One
  • Discover
  • U.S. Bank

Just to name a few.

I decided to go with Chase because at the time, they offered a college checking account (and I think they still do) and they didn’t charge monthly fees while in college – for up to 5 years. I thought I was getting the biggest bang for my buck with Chase – and 6 years later, I’m still with them to this day.

Whichever institution or credit card you decide to choose for your personal scenario, make sure you do your research properly before committing. 

Closing Thoughts on Minimizing College Debt

In summary, there are so many different ways to save (and make) money while in college. 

I went through a regular university to study for a degree (marketing) that I never again applied in my life (since I’m a personal finance blogger). So yes, I am living proof that anyone can go to college or to university, study and graduate with a degree, and still end up being successful in a completely unrelated field.

This scenario happens all too often.

As you start your college career – whether it’s your undergraduate or your graduate career – it’s important to save as much money as possible so that when you graduate college, you won’t have to worry about debt despair. 

Trust me, dealing with student debt can get quite overwhelming. 

If you play your college cards just right, chances are you won’t be spending the best years of your life at the university system. However, it’s very likely that you’ll start practicing those healthy money habits that will build a solid financial foundation for your future – which will be the best future of your life.

Start implementing these 10 college saving tips now and your bank accounts will thank me later!

What other creative and crafty college saving tips do you have?

*****

Fiona created The Millennial Money Woman to give back and help others work towards financial freedom early in life. Check out her blog for more great info on side hustles, saving money and debt paydown strategies!

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11 Comments

  1. The Millennial Money Woman November 20, 2020 at 5:51 AM

    Hey Joel!

    Thank you so much again for having me as a guest writer.

    I hope your readers are able to use some of my tips and tricks to help them get ahead in college financially – be it graduate or undergraduate.

    Kindly,

    Fiona

    Reply
  2. JASON BROWN November 20, 2020 at 8:31 AM

    Fiona and Joel —

    This is fantastic. Great minds think alike! I just wrote an article for a local magazine on the same topic. This is such an important and relevant issue — especially with the soaring costs of colleges. In fact, I’ve been so galvanized by the student loan debt crisis it’s inspired me to write a book to share my story of earning two debt-free degrees along with other people who persevered through similar journeys.

    Keep up the great work – both of you!

    Reply
    1. The Millennial Money Woman November 20, 2020 at 1:40 PM

      Jason,

      Thank you so much for the kind words. The cost of college is absolutely staggering, and it seems that it just continues to increase with each additional year.

      I’m looking forward to reading your books.

      Cheers,

      Fiona

      Reply
  3. Megan November 20, 2020 at 10:58 AM

    Don’t forget community college! My parents weren’t in a place to help much financially with college so I did the following:
    – attended community college for 2 years while working & living at home
    – chose a public state school to finish my bachelor’s degree
    – worked all through college at McDonalds (community college and summer break), on a horse farm (community college), a pizza shop, my campus ministry office, as a painter (summer break), as a notetaker, as a driver for a student volunteer group, and as a copy editor for the student newspaper
    – did 3 18-credit semesters since at the time 15 credits and 18 credits were the same tuition rate
    – didn’t get a meal plan, since I was in an on-campus apartment and could prepare my meals (I did occasionally eat out or in the dining hall)
    – rode my bike or walked to class/work/the store when I could the first few years of college
    – didn’t get my license until I was about age 21, then drove my parents’ 1994 Chevy Cavalier to my observations and student teaching (education major)
    – ate lots of free pizza between the pizza shop & campus ministry events
    – the only spring break trip I did was a service trip to New Orleans which only cost a few hundred since we stayed at a church
    – bought used books when I could and sold them back to the bookstore if I didn’t think I’d need them (I should have sold everything back)

    I still had about $30,000 of student loans when I graduated, but it could have been a lot higher.

    Reply
    1. The Millennial Money Woman November 20, 2020 at 1:47 PM

      Megan,

      Those are awesome tips as well!

      Honestly, I could have had a list of probably 80+ tips to save money in college (and another list of ways to make money in college…) but we will have to table those ideas for another time :)

      Sometimes you simply have to go to extreme lengths to save money while you’re in college. I seriously admire your hard work and dedication to lower those student costs by all means. Not many people would have this commitment in today’s world. Kudos to you.

      And yet, to think that you still emerged with $30,00 of student debt. Incredible. I really and truly believe we need to change something in our college system so that students are not burdened with debt – which can truly impact every other aspect of their lives (delaying family formation, purchasing a home, and hitting other major life milestones).

      Keep up the great work and thanks so much for the comment Megan!

      Cheers,

      Fiona

      Reply
  4. Tracy November 21, 2020 at 9:05 AM

    I’m another one who did my first two years at a community college and got as many prerequisites out of the way as possible. Then I went off to my in state tuition four year university and made sure to get the bachelors degree in two more years. I also worked at one of the libraries on campus, which was great for getting paid to study during those evening hours. Now I wanted to work at the library because my ultimate goal was to go to library school as soon as I had my bachelors which is what I did and I ended up working at the college library all four of my years there, the extra two years were during my masters program. By the time I was done with school I had an AA, a BA, and an MLIS all debt free because I worked hard and planned well with my parents’ help.

    Can everyone do this? NO! But I get so annoyed when people discount going to a 2 year college to get the prerequisites done. I had a better education in smaller class sizes for those first two years than I would have ever received at my four year school in classes of 300+ students working with a TA.

    Reply
    1. The Millennial Money Woman November 23, 2020 at 6:34 AM

      Tracy,

      I think it’s incredible what you did and how you were able to leverage your earlier years at community college into debt free education down the road.

      You’re right when you say that not everyone can do this. But I think that’s, in part, because not everyone is as determined and focused as you were, back at that young age.

      I’ve heard it so many times before as well – when I was studying in college: “These are the 4 best years of your life. Why aren’t you having more fun? Stop studying and start partying!”

      You may think I’m exaggerating here, but sadly I’m not. It seems like this mentality is pervasive in the college campuses (or at least the campus I went to).

      Sometimes, to get ahead of the game, you have to do things that the average person would not typically do (ie. – community college, studying during spring break instead of partying, working full-time while attending university, etc.).

      It’s those short-term sacrifices that really put us ahead of the long run.

      Thanks for sharing Tracy!

      Reply
  5. Papa Foxtrot November 21, 2020 at 11:16 AM

    Habitat for Humanity is a great way to use your spring break, and those events usually require little money.

    Reply
    1. The Millennial Money Woman November 23, 2020 at 6:29 AM

      I have a few close friends of mine who actually decided to go the Habitat for Humanity route – and I’ve heard nothing but the best. Without a doubt, this is a great option for those who do want to experience some form of vacation, without the unnecessary costs typically associated with spring break.

      In my situation, my college gave us the opportunity to load up on credits during Winter and Spring breaks, so I decided to simply try and get ahead of my required college classes and load up on classes during these weeks off in an effort to graduate earlier.

      That certainly helped in terms of cutting costs and cutting paying for the student rent.

      Reply
  6. KJ November 22, 2020 at 3:24 AM

    These are some really amazing tips you’ve shared…ones that should be taught in high school! Embracing these small changes (like splitting Netflix costs), definitely adds up throughout the year. I joined the military to get a ‘free’ education and it was the best decision I could have ever made. It came at the ‘cost’ of minimum real college campus experiences, in addition to other sacrifices, but hey I have zero school debt!

    Reply
    1. The Millennial Money Woman November 23, 2020 at 6:40 AM

      KJ –

      I hear you – I feel like these tips were never shared in high school. In fact, I feel like the things that would be super useful in my everyday life (like personal finance) were never taught to us in high school or college (unless you were a finance major – and perhaps not even then).

      Good for you for joining the military for a ‘free’ education. You are literally miles ahead of others who took on student debt. And although you may have sacrificed a little in terms of the real college campus experiences – I think in the long-run, the fact that you have $0 student debt is such a great way to jump-start your life.

      Imagine having to pay upwards of $800 per month (or more, in many cases) just to repay debt. You’ll likely have to put the regular life milestones on hold just for the sake of repaying your student debt.

      Good for you – and keep on going KJ!

      Cheers,

      Fiona

      Reply

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