Money-Saving Hacks for College Students

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Ways to Save on Books, Food, Tech & More

Often, the biggest stressor in the life of a college student is figuring out how to pay for daily living expenses. Creating a budget and sticking to it is hard, especially if resources are limited. However, with a little research and creativity, students can do more than just get by – even with very limited funds. Below, find real-life, cost-saving hacks students can use to help take the worry out of day-to-day college life.

Saving on the Basics: Cheap Housing & Food

Whether students are just settling in to their first year of college, or still struggling to make ends meet after a few semesters, the following hacks can help turn the burden of paying for basic needs into easy living.

  • Living

    • Find a roommate, or several. Even those who prefer to live alone can find a shared housing situation that works, with like-minded housemates.
    • Live with family. Some students have the option of living for free with parents or other family members, or renting a room for dirt cheap.
    • Ask around to find a good deal on rent. A friend of a friend, boss or acquaintance may be willing to offer cheaper rent to a familiar tenant rather than a stranger.
    • Shop around for apartments in suburban areas or less hip/popular neighborhoods where prices are lower, and sign a lease to keep rent from being raised.
    • On the flip side, living as close to campus as possible can be great for the budget. Walking or bicycling to school can save a ton of money – and also provide health benefits.
    • With rent skyrocketing, try living in a senior center. Check with your college to see if they have connections withsenior centers that also provide inexpensive or free housing to college students.
    • For students willing to take on extra responsibilities, being a resident advisor or finding an apartment management gig is a great way to go, with perks like free or discounted rent.
    • Look around for alternative housing. RVs, tiny houses, mobile homes, mother-in-law or basement apartments work great for students. Low maintenance and low rent is a win-win!
    • Budget and track spending religiously, though not always easy. Mint, Dave Ramsey, and online banking budget tools are excellent resources for creating a workable budget. And best of all, many are free.
    • Supplement income with a side-hustle. Try tutoring, freelance writing,online surveys, secret shopping or participating in aresearch study or focus group.
    • A paid internship can kill two birds with one stone, by providing income while earning credits towards a degree. Some colleges also offer on-campus jobs with tuition waivers.
    • Apply for scholarships and grants that can be used for living expenses in addition to covering tuition. Talk to school advisors and research online to find these.
    • Use local onlineBuy Nothinggroups,craigslist,Facebook Marketplace, and local thrift stores to find furniture, fun décor, clothing and other odds and ends for free, or super cheap.
    • Shop at discount and dollar stores for basic items. Findcompanies online that offer free samplesof food, toiletries and other household supplies.
    • Sell some non-essential items. Several easy-to-use apps like OfferUp and letgo can make the process quicker and easier.

  • Food

    • Cook and eat at home as much as possible. If no kitchen, get a rice cooker, microwave, hotplate or crockpot, which is great for making a bunch of food for the week.
    • Most schools have microwaves, so bring lunch and heat it up later. Insulated lunch bags with icepacks are a must have for college students (check that dollar store!).
    • Set aside time each week to prep food, and make grab-and-go foods ahead of time, like cut fruit, breakfast sandwiches, burritos and pb&j sandwiches.
    • Buy only what you need to minimize waste. Shop the bulk bins at the grocery store, and just buy small amounts of spices, dried goods, beans, etc.
    • Purchase large, easily split-able packages with other students to divvy up later. Costco and Sam’s Club are popular choices for finding deals, and you can go in on a membership with others.
    • Think cheap for snacks and treats. Shop at dollar stores, discount stores such as Grocery Outlet and Big Lots! for cheap deals on name-brand items.
    • Seek out close-to-expiring and discontinued food at the supermarket. This is a great way to eat fancy things on a budget.
    • Sign up for a semester-based cafeteria meal plan, with three meals a day included, which will help to keep the food budget low.
    • No one will judge if you occasionally raid the free condiments at school. Crackers, cream cheese packets, peanut butter, spices, condiment packages, etc. can all come in handy later.
    • Stock up on, then upgrade ramen instant noodles. Add veggies, spices, meat or tofu to make it more appealing, and eat it out of a fancy bowl.
    • If you must go out, look for the best happy hour food with the best deals, or use a two-for-one restaurant coupon and split the bill in half with a friend.
    • Sign up for local restaurantbirthday freebiesand rewards programs. Diligently using rewards cards can earn you discounted or free meals, desserts and appetizers.
    • Use punch cards to earn free food and drinks. Take a minute to do the survey on fast food receipts to earn more free food. Order off the dollar menu.
    • Find and userestaurant discounts through AAA, or other such organizations. In addition, AAA members can save on travel and entertainment.
    • California and Oregon students in certain areas can save 30-50 percent on produce by using the delivery service Imperfect Produce. Check in your area to see if any options like this exist.
    • Work part-time at a restaurant. Most restaurants offer a shift meal to their employees, either for free or very cheap, and a discount during non-working hours.
    • Work in a grocery store. Many stores send employees home with free samples and slightly damaged or soon-to-expire foods for free.
    • For those really struggling, food banks and food pantries are an excellent resource. Low-income students may also qualify forgovernment SNAP benefits.
    • Break the habit of using credit cards for daily living expenses. Interest rates can really add up and this debt can stick around long after college.

School Supplies for Cheap

A common out-of-pocket expense for college students that can add up fast are school supplies. Minimize your expense with the tips below.

  • Rent textbooks, buy digital copies of books or try to borrow a book from a friend who just finished the class you will be taking.
  • Budget and save for supplies and books ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to come up with the money at the last minute.
  • As soon as there is a hint of back-to-school in the air, shop the ads in the local Sunday newspaper paper to find the best deals on basic school supplies.
  • Buy only what’s needed, and shop dollar stores and Target dollar bins for notebooks, pencils, pens and other supplies.
  • Check the free section on craigslist, or post in a local Buy Nothing group asking for supplies. People may have unused supplies just laying around, and are often happy to help.
  • Attend college welcome back events, orientations and job fairs. There’s usually lots of free swag and goodie bags given away at these types of events. Plus, you may land a sweet part-time gig while you’re at it.
  • Use social media to earn free things. Some companies will send you free stuff in exchange for using their products and posting about it on specific social media sites.
  • Check out re-use and recycle centers geared towards students and teachers for supplies. Find companies like Mijello Art, that will send samples of paint and other art supplies.

Tech on a Dime

Students often struggle when it’s time to pay for neccessary technology. Luckily, low-cost and free technology is available – you just need to know where to look for it.

  • Some schools and programs provide free laptops, tablets and software, and for those who need to buy a device, some manufacturers offer student discounts.
  • Buy a refurbished device through Amazon or Best Buy, or ask for needed items on sites like Freecycle. Check if your city has an organization like Free Geek.
  • Use cell phone companies that offer student discounts or bundling plans for phones and home WIFI. Some companies offer free tablets or pads for signing a contract.
  • Take advantage of cheap or free online tools, technology and apps geared for students, such as Evernote, myHomework and Graphing Calculator.
  • Shop sales, especially around the holidays. It may pay to fight the Black Friday crowds to get a killer deal on computers, printers and other gear. Hate crowds? Wait for Cyber Monday and shop online instead.
  • For birthdays or holidays, ask family to pitch in towards needed technology. Suggest this, or gift cards when they ask what you want for a gift.
  • Take advantage of college-based tech resources offered through the school, and study only at places with free WIFI.
  • Take advantage of college-based tech resources offered through the school, and study only at places with free WIFI.
  • Shop sales, especially around the holidays. It may pay to fight the Black Friday crowds to get a killer deal on computers, printers and other gear. Hate crowds? Wait for Cyber Monday and shop online instead.
  • For birthdays or holidays, ask family to pitch in towards needed technology. Suggest this, or gift cards when they ask what you want for a gift.
  • Take advantage of college-based tech resources offered through the school, and study only at places with free WIFI.
  • Print, scan and fax for free. Many colleges offer on free printing and use of other on-campus technology.
  • If a bit behind on computer or study skills, sign up for free tutoring or online courses through the college, or use moocs or the local library.
  • Some companies offer free software, such as Open Office, Microsoft, Avast and Autodesk. Students may need an .edu e-mail to qualify.
  • Check out Amazon’s student discount section to earn gift cards, trade in textbooks, laptops and other devices and get deals on software, supplies and Amazon Prime membership.

Entertain Me

Part of the college experience often includes going out to local college hang-outs and spending money in the process. Use these tips to have a good time without blowing too much cash.

  • Always carry your student ID, since many events and activities offer discounted tickets or free entry to students that have their ID card.
  • Before going out, eat at home, or order something cheap like an appetizer. Plan to meet early to take advantage of the happy hour menu.
  • Matinees or late-night night movies can work well for college students’ schedules, and the cheapest tickets are offered during these times.
  • Look for free tickets to movie screenings, or check with your local library to see if they offer free movie showings.
  • Use Netflix or borrow DVDs from the local library. Getting rid of cable will cut costs, and less time will be spent on mindless TV shows.
  • Groupon offers big discounts on entertainment for things like travel, restaurants, activities and wellness, sometimes in the form of two-for-one. Go in with a friend if need be.
  • Take turns hosting get-togethers or board game nights where everyone brings food or drinks to share. Partying at home is way cheaper than going out – and tends to be safer to boot.
  • Most college campuses host a variety of student events and activities, such as concerts and sporting events, that may be free for students to attend.
  • Join a campus club or organization. This provides a good social outlet, while also giving access to free events, both social and networking.
  • Use sites like Spotify for free music and podcast downloads, stream music for free through radio stations such as Seattle’s KEXP, or borrow CDs from the local library.
  • Visit museums on free admission days, which are typically on specific days each month. Volunteer in exchange for entry to exhibits and events.
  • Get out and take advantage of local surroundings. Hiking on local trails and frisbee golf are free outdoor favorites.
  • Online gaming from the comfort of home is a popular, cheap college student past-time. Just be careful to sleep, and not spend valuable studying time in virtual worlds.
  • Fall down the internet rabbit hole that is YouTube, which can provide free entertainment for hours.

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