The Virtue of Being Thrifty: How to Spend Your Money Wisely in College

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College is expensive. You may have a generous scholarship and financial aid package, but it still makes good financial sense to save money where you can. In our book, the “Freshman Survival Guide,” we caution new college students to “live like a monk” for the first month of college. In case you didn’t know, monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In the monastery, they play out differently, but for the new college student trying to live on a budget, that means: Don’t blow all your money.

Before classes begin, you can start forming better budget habits. Here are some simple strategies for cutting costs and spending wisely during your freshman year.

Be a savvy shopper before you go

When the seasonal aisles at Target shift from summer to back-to-school, some of us go a little overboard. Excitement (or anxiety) about starting college can turn into overspending before you can say, “closet organizer.” While it’s great to feel well-equipped for your new venture, keep in mind that not everything has to be brand new. That snazzy bed-in-a-bag comforter set might seem like a must-have item but honestly, when homesickness hits (and it will) you might prefer the favorite and familiar. Look at your shopping list with a critical eye and think about which items you already own. Talk to your roommate(s) ahead of time to avoid wasting money on duplicate items you can share. (Who needs three coffee pots?) Finally, talk to some experienced peers and find out what they actually needed in their dorm room and which items never came out of the box. 

Buy books cheaper

As long as you’re careful to get the right edition (some profs will care, others won’t—make sure you check with them first), you can save a lot of money buying your books online, renting them, borrowing digital editions, or buying them at a local used bookstore. and are good resources to use.

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Look for entertainment on campus first

If you’re looking for an evening’s entertainment, most campuses have multiple free events each week—concerts, talks, art shows—and they’re often accompanied by free food. On-campus social events will almost always be less expensive than going out to a local bar or club. Be an entertainment cheapskate as a rule, then when you really feel the need to get off campus you’ll have a little extra money to treat yourself. It’s not only fun, but can be a good boost for your mental health as well. This feedback came from a sophomore in Middlebury College:

One of the things that helped me survive the tough first few months of freshman year was the ability to go off-campus for a meal or some other activity. When I was feeling very homesick, enjoying a good meal or going to see a movie off campus picked up my spirits. The important message here is not learning not to spend but learning to spend wisely.

Check your balance

If you haven’t already, get your bank’s mobile app on your phone. Make it part of your morning routine to check your account balance. There’s nothing worse than using your debit card only to find out you’re down to zero or you’ve overdrawn your account. You should always have a little cash in your account in case of an emergency. Think of that amount as your artificial $0 balance and don’t touch it. 

RELATED: Standing Up to Stress: How to Avoid Getting Crushed by College Anxiety

Be cautious about credit

Getting a credit card feels appealing and “adult,” but it’s generally not a good idea to use it unless an emergency happens. One credit card, for emergencies, or to use in a disciplined way can help you build your credit. But it’s easy to mess up your credit score and the rest of your finances if you‘re not careful.

Use your meal plan and stick to a food/drink budget

Eating out isn’t cheap. So, if your meal plan is paid for, use it and save your money for something else. It’s also wise to pay attention to the food and drink you consume outside of mealtime. Even if you only get Starbucks a few times a week or hit the vending machine in the afternoon for a Coke, you can easily rack up from $20 to $150 a month or more, depending on how fancy you like your latte. Set a budget that’s reasonable for your caffeine needs and stick to it. And alcohol, even the inexpensive stuff, will also eat into your budget. There are lots of good reasons to not drink or to drink less. Your wallet is one of them.

You’ll probably see big spenders flashing their cash the first few weeks of school, but resist the urge to follow suit. Be a miser for a month and see where that gets you. There will be college sweatshirts at the bookstore for the next four years; you can pick one up anytime. Once you’ve been on campus for a bit you’ll start to figure out what’s worth sinking a little cash into and what’s just not worth it. A little frugality early on will literally pay off later. Remember the old saying, “A penny saved can pay for coffee during finals week.”

The new edition of “The Freshman Survival Guide” is available online and in stores now. Download our free condensed version here to give to your favorite freshman-to-be. 

Special offer: Receive 52% off bulk orders (minimum of 25), non-returnable, when you email and mention the code “FSG19.”