College is notorious as a trial-by-fire in frugal living. Between tuition, rent, books, and others, expenses are plentiful—while income is limited at best. You can bring in some money with college side hustles or part-time jobs, but in general you won’t have the time or energy (or qualifications) to devote to a higher-paying job.
Luckily, using your college years to become a frugality wizard will help you develop habits that set you up for a great financial future. Use the strategies below to pare down your expenses and save money as a college student.
#1 – Try Living Off-Campus
Dorm life comes with a few appeals, like having extra built-in “college experience” activities and being within walking distance to classes and the gym. But it also has its downsides: cramped space, less privacy, more rules—and the price tag. Paying near $1,000 a month to share a bedroom is less than ideal.
If your college doesn’t require living on campus, shop around the local housing market. If you’re new to renting, check this student renting guide. Often, students will live in the dorms during freshman year, then find a house or apartment to share with friends in subsequent years. Alternatively, many people will rent out rooms or basement apartments in their houses; these can cost half as much as living in a dorm would, while still giving you the room and space you need to study.
Check sites like Trulia, Zillow, Roomster, and your local Craigslist, in addition to asking around and looking for “For Rent” signs. Usually, college towns have a decent off-campus housing market that won’t place you too far away from campus, which helps minimize inconveniences. My apartment was close enough that I could bike to campus (or take the bus in winter), which saved me from needing to buy a parking permit and didn’t add a significant commute.
Before you commit to a housing choice, make sure to factor in all costs so you can make a true comparison. For instance, if utilities are charged separately, ask the landlord what the average costs are. If you could live without a car in the dorms and would need one to live off campus, think about associated costs like registration, insurance, and parking. I’m pretty confident that it will almost always wind up being cheaper even with the extra considerations, but the markets are different everywhere, so do your due diligence.
#2 – Save on Textbooks
Textbooks can come as a huge expense, especially when you buy them fresh off the shelf at the college bookstore. By buying used, you can save a significant amount on your textbooks. Check sites like Amazon, CampusBooks, HalfPriceBooks, Chegg, and eBay. In some cases, you can even download the textbook and work with a digital copy.
Before buying used, make sure you don’t specifically need access to some online resource that comes with the textbook (e.g. WebAssign, MyEconLab, so on). You might be able to buy access separately, but you might need a special “redemption key” that only comes with new textbooks. In these cases, you’ll usually just have to bite the bullet.
Use this advice with caution, but I’ve noticed that textbooks often don’t differ much between editions—often, it’s just rearranged a little. If the 12th edition is $100 and you can find an 11th edition for $10, you might decide it’s worth it to work with the older copy. Comparing the chapter names and page numbers in the table of contents should give you an idea of how much has changed.
When the semester is over, you can also make a little money back by reselling your textbooks. There are other people in your shoes who’ll be happy to take them off your hands and save some money themselves.
#3 – Skip the Meal Plan and Learn to Cook
College meal plans are almost always ridiculously overpriced. Data indicates that the average cost for a full meal plan is $4500 for an eight-month academic year, factoring out to nearly $20 a day. While dining halls are convenient, it’s hard to justify the cost when you can slash hundreds off your food budget by going the DIY route. Think of it as getting paid $500+ per month to grocery shop and learn to cook, which is a valuable skill in itself.
By “learn to cook,” I don’t mean “throw a block of instant ramen in a saucepan,” although college me was certainly guilty of stocking up on five Maruchan packets for a dollar from time to time. (Tip: if you do fall back on ramen, add some frozen peas and carrots to make it slightly less nutritionally void.) While it’s fine to keep around a few convenience meals, I’d avoid frozen dinners in general too, since they usually aren’t that cheap and won’t do your health any favors.
My biggest hack (and something I wish I’d done sooner) is investing in a slow cooker or the slightly pricier Instant Pot. When you’re strapped for time, they’re fantastic tools to turn out healthy meals with very little effort. It’s as simple as googling recipes, prepping ingredients, setting the timer, and letting it do its thing while you go to class or study.
To get the most bang for your buck, stock up on cheap, healthy bulk foods to serve as the base of your meals. My personal favorites:
- Lentils (soup, shepherd’s pie, mujaddara)
- Black beans (burritos, soup, simple beans and rice)
- Chickpeas (curry, hummus, falafel, roasted as a snack)
- Brown rice, quinoa or farro (healthy grain base for many dishes)
- Oats (for oatmeal)
- Potatoes (mashed, roasted)
- Pasta & tomato sauce (I prefer wheat or veggie pasta over white)
- Peanut butter (for PBJ or with apples/bananas)
- Whole wheat flour (pancakes, bread—which is surprisingly easy to make)
- Frozen fruit and protein powder (smoothies)
- Frozen veggies (use with just about any recipe)
- Seasonings (game-changer! Build up a good arsenal and learn to use them)
It’s a non-exhaustive list, but those are the main things I keep around and supplement with fresh/perishable groceries as needed. Finding recipes is as simple as searching “ingredient name + recipe (+ crockpot if you’re using one)” and picking whatever looks good. Meal-prepping a large batch all at once gives you leftovers to reheat throughout the week.
#4 – Buy Secondhand Whenever You Can
Secondhand chic can be a great look for broke students! Build your college wardrobe by hitting up thrift stores or browsing secondhand apps like Poshmark. From jeans to winter coats, you can score a lot of good-quality brand-name items without paying brand-name prices.
Many thrift stores carry more than clothes, too. Often, they have cheap furniture and decor for anything you need to furnish yourself. You won’t always win interior design awards for it, but you’ll have furniture that’s sturdy and can get you through college.
You can also look at online resources like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, LetGo, or your local Buy Nothing group chapter. Check the free sections from time to time; often, people will post good-quality items that they simply don’t need anymore. Drop by garage, yard, and estate sales too—these are great opportunities to find items that are still working but that people simply don’t need or use. You can find things like appliances or quality-of-life items here at super cheap prices.
The key takeaway with this point is that you should hardly ever buy new. On top of the financial savings, it’s just wasteful to constantly buy new products while older working items just end up being thrown out. In an era of plastic-filled oceans and emission-spewing factories, it’s sort of hard to justify that when you don’t have to. (Soapbox over.)
#5 – Seek Out Scholarship Opportunities
You might think of scholarships as something you can only earn during the college application process. While it’s true that many of them target high-school seniors, there are also plenty of scholarships you can earn as a current college student. (And you might not have much competition, since for some reason these are one of college’s best-kept secrets.)
Websites like Scholarships.com, Fastweb, and BigFuture can be a big help in terms of finding scholarships, grants, and other opportunities that you may not have been aware of. In addition to third-party competitions, you can also check your college’s website or the department your major is in to see if they’re offering any. Make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity that you can find. This is easy and free money.
#6 – Take Cheap Summer and Winter Classes
It’s possible to save an entire semester (or more) of tuition by using your breaks efficiently. Check what classes are offered at your local community college; you may be able to knock out a bunch of gen-ed classes and cheaply transfer the credits to your main school. Usually, these classes will be at an accelerated pace over a shorter period of time (e.g. three-hour classes twice a week for eight weeks). Winter classes are more uncommon (and are often online) but are even more intense, requiring 6-8 hours of work a day for a month or less.
I highly recommend trying to do your foreign language credits this way if those are required as a gen-ed for you. In my experience, the more intense schedule provides a more immersive experience that lets the language stay fresh in your mind.
While these won’t help current college students, high-schoolers can explore CLEP exams to demonstrate proficiency in a subject and earn college credit early, or dual enrollment to get a jump on college. Or, even do a full year or two at a cheap community college before transferring into a four-year university.
#7 – Make Your Free Time Actually Free
If you’re looking for ways to spend your precious free time, opt for the cheap or free activities. The nice thing about college is that you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other people looking for the same thing, so opportunities abound. Join a club or two related to your interests, play intramural sports, find nearby hiking trails or bike paths, have a Cards Against Humanity night with friends, etc. For more ideas, check out these 22 free things to do on the weekend.
Since college is traditionally a transitional period between the teenage years and adulthood, use it to your advantage. Saving money wherever you can, doing side hustles to bring in extra funds, and building a solid future career plan will make those student loans feel a little less insurmountable.
Kate is a writer and editor who runs her content and editorial businesses remotely while globetrotting as a digital nomad. So far, her laptop has accompanied her to New Zealand, Asia, and around the U.S. (mostly thanks to credit card points). Years of research and ghostwriting on personal finance led her to the FI community and co-founding DollarSanity. In addition to traveling and outdoor adventure, Kate is passionate about financial literacy, compound interest, and pristine grammar.