5 Simple Ways To Cut Expenses in College Without Cutting the Fun

It’s not a secret that the cost of college is incredibly high. U.S. News and World Report slices up the cost of college in several ways, pointing out that in-state tuition and fees alone average more than $11,000 per year for a four-year public university. Much of that is financed through student loans.

On top of that, many students use loans for additional financial help to pay for expenses like food, housing, textbooks and other costs, further adding to the enormous post-graduation debt that many students face (averaging over $30,000 just for undergraduate studies, according to U.S. News).

Obviously, if you borrow less money, that burden becomes smaller, but it’s easier said than done. Beyond simply choosing a less expensive school and making sure to complete your studies efficiently, most of the steps you can take to minimize college expenses come from making smart choices along the way, even little ones.

It doesn’t have to be miserable, either. Use frugal hedonism as a model. The idea isn’t to be miserable while living cheap, but use low cost as a creative constraint, particularly socially. This works very well in college, since being social is a huge part of the experience.

Remember one simple rule above all else: If you avoid spending money now, you have more in your checking account when you decide how much to borrow next year, which reduces your student loans after you graduate. It all comes down to little choices.

In this article

    Take advantage of student benefits

    If you need something, start by looking at on-campus services. Is there a student health facility that you can use if you’re ill? Are there ways to borrow items that you might need or want? Are there support or special interest groups that can help you with a situation? Whenever you have a need or are considering using a service, start by seeing what’s available to you simply because you’re a student. Your online student directory is a great place to start.

    Also, consider leaning in when it comes to on-campus organizations, particularly ones related to your field of study. On-campus organizations are an incredible value. They’re not only a way to connect with self-motivated people in your field (who you’ll likely have classes with and see regularly), they provide lots of opportunities for opening the door to things like internships and special programs. What about saving money, though? These organizations also tend to have a lot of “freebies” — free food, giveaways, events and other things that can directly help with costs.

    Share expenses with friends

    Many of the expenses of college can be significantly reduced if you simply share them with friends. And by sharing those expenses, you open yourself up to some of the rich social experiences that make college a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    For starters, consider sharing an apartment for a year with roommates. This will drastically reduce the per-person cost of housing, keeping your bills low.

    Buy groceries together so you can bulk-buy some things, particularly household supplies like toilet paper. In my college days, my roommates and I would go on a warehouse club trip about once a month, pick up stuff we’d all use, and split the cost equally, saving us all a bunch of money.

    Meal plan together so meals can be made on a rotating basis. Again, in my own college days, we would rotate making meals that were big enough for everyone and stick the leftovers in containers in the fridge, where people could just grab one when they got home. You could make enough food for 5–10 individual meals for $10, and if you were only responsible for a couple of those a week, that’s $20 for food for the week, and it was convenient because most days, there was a meal waiting for you in the fridge or in the slow cooker when you got there.

    Carefully compare on-campus and off-campus prices

    As noted above, you can significantly reduce the costs of off-campus living if you share a lot of costs, but there are big advantages to on-campus living as well, mostly in that there are fewer obstacles to your studies. Your food’s prepared for you and you can reach much of campus on foot at any time.

    Is it more expensive, though? It varies from college to college and situation to situation. If you’re unsure about choosing on-campus living or off-campus living, it’s worth spending time carefully evaluating the costs.

    Off-campus is probably cheaper IF you have lots of roommates and share expenses. Compare them very carefully before making the leap. If you do stay on campus, take maximum advantage of what you get for your dollars. Which option will get you through the year with the least expense? What if you have a roommate? Two roommates?

    If you conclude that living on campus is better financially, get lots of value out of it. Don’t skip meals that are covered with your meal plan and simply grab to-go food. Explore any extra services that come with your on-campus housing plan, like social events and other events that may come with freebies.

    Avoid carrying a credit card

    For college students, credit cards can be a big temptation. They offer an easy way to buy things immediately when students don’t have cash in hand, plus they can help build your credit history and sometimes offer rewards, too. However, they usually end up creating more problems than they’re worth.

    Here’s a simple rule to follow: Don’t carry a credit card around with you for unplanned expenses. It’s not a bad idea to have one, but don’t have it with you when you might be tempted to use it on something frivolous. Use it only for carefully planned purchases, and view it as a tool for building credit.

    The last thing you want to do is to leave school with a large credit card bill on top of student loans, so avoid that at all costs, even if it’s tempting to use a card.

    Buy your textbooks used, and start with your social network

    Textbooks tend to be a huge expense for most students, especially in an era where many textbooks are online. Rather than simply going through your list of classes and buying whatever’s recommended, go to the first meeting of your class and find out what’s really going on with textbooks. Do you have to buy or rent an online textbook? If not, do you have to buy a new textbook? Are there ways to share textbooks?

    Avoid buying new textbooks or expensive online books unless there’s literally no other option. If your class uses a printed book and it’s been available for a while, see if you can find it used.

    Find out if anyone in your social circle had the class last semester and can lend the book to you or sell it to you for cheap. This is a situation where being in a campus organization related to your major can help. If that doesn’t work, look at services like Chegg that rent and sell used textbooks.

    When you actually have a physical book, use it well, but maximize its value by taking notes outside of the book rather than highlighting or jotting in the margins. This will improve resale value at the end of the class.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.