How to Save Money at College

how to save money at college

College is expensive. I'm not just talking about the tuition, textbooks, and room and board. I'm talking about the cost of living in general while on campus. With the average college student spending almost 40% of his/her income on college-related expenses, it's no wonder many students struggle financially. 

There are many ways to stretch your dollars from simple to exotic, and in this article, I'll teach you how to save money at college. 

Table of Contents

Apply For Scholarships

The first recommendation I have for any college student is to apply for scholarships. Although they may take time and effort, they can pay off hugely by reducing your out-of-pocket college costs and student loans! A scholarship is also great for filling in the gaps in any financial aid that you may qualify for.

There are scholarships available for almost anything you can think of, and they are available all year round, not just in the summer and fall.

Take some time to look at websites like Fastweb,, and hundreds of others to find a full list of potential scholarships that you would qualify for.

Make a Budget

This one may sound obvious, but it is arguably the most important thing you can do to save money while in college. Figure out exactly how much income you will be getting each month and write down all of your expenses—rent, bills, tuition, food, gas, entertainment, etc. Categorize where all of your money will go and refer to it each time you make a purchase. 

This will keep you on a strict budget and keep you from spending large amounts of money on unnecessary purchases. Additionally, make sure you have money saved for rent and necessary bills before you spend any other money on eating out, going to a movie, or purchasing unnecessary items like clothes. 

There are numerous budgeting apps to get on your phone to help you keep track of your spending. For example, Mint is a free app that connects all of your financial accounts all on a single platform. The app will show you where your money is coming from, where it is going and help you set savings plan goals and pay bills on time. 

Another option is Personal Capital. This less-in-depth platform is better suited for investing. If you are interested in sticking to a budget and investing some money at the same time, consider trying Personal Capital. 

Use My Cash Back Stacking System

Cash Back Stacking book

In my book Cash Back Stacking, I lay out an easy-to-use system for combing ways to save money shopping online and in stores.

I will even show you how to save extra money grocery shopping.

Depending on how you use the system, it can even serve as an automatic savings account. I use my savings to buy Christmas gifts for my family.

Buy the book today, use the system as described, and the extra money your save will more than cover the cost of the book within 30 days or less. For reals.

Be Smart With Your Credit Cards

Having a credit card in college is a good idea. It allows you to begin to build credit and gets you ready for the real world. However, you have to be smart. Only use your credit card on small purchases that you can pay off each month. Additionally, do not sign up for a card with an extremely high-interest rate. 

Stay on top of your credit card and avoid late fees and debt. Create a strict credit-building plan and stick to it. Your credit score will thank you.

Be Smart With Your Housing Choices

Getting an apartment downtown with your friends may seem like the ultimate college dream, but when you are paying so much for schooling, you need the cheapest housing you can find. If possible, live at home with your parents while you are going to school. 

save money while at college
Looks about right.

This may sound like a lame idea, but if you are in tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt at graduation, you will be glad you waited to get your own place!

Another cheap option is living on campus in the dorms. These are much less expensive than finding an apartment of your own and often come with things like dining hall dollars and more. 

This is also a great way to immerse yourself in the college experience and make new friends. Renting out vacant rooms in homes is another cheaper option that you can look into when securing housing for college. 

Be Smart With Your Food Choices

Cooking your own meals is much more cost-effective than eating out all the time, and it's healthier too! Learn some easy recipes or get delicious frozen meals from stores like Trader Joe's. Learning how to cook at home will save you money and teach you a valuable skill to use throughout your life.

If you do decide to eat out on occasion, keep track of where the best discounts and promotions are happening. Keep track of happy hours near campus and places with the best student discounts. When taco Tuesday rolls around, make sure you know where to get the 99 cent fish tacos! 

how to save money in college
Hopefully you'll eat better than I did.

There are a surprising amount of places with discounted foods and drinks in any given college town. Finding the best places is fun and will help you save money while going to college.

If you live with roommates, consider doing group buys with them at stores like Sam's Club. This can be a fun way (if you like hanging out with your roomies) to save money on food.

Additionally, don’t pass up a free meal! There are usually tons of events happening on campus that offer some kind of grazing opportunity (hey, free pizza is free pizza!) Look for promotional signs posted around campus or on-campus social media pages. Getting a free lunch a few days a week can help you cut food costs and may even introduce you to some interesting clubs and subjects.

A weekly meal plan can help you avoid those times when you are starving and there's nothing in your place to eat. If you are like me, the temptation to just order the pizza in this situation will be too much to overcome.

Look Into College Banking

Many universities have their own credit union branches and many banks that offer student credit cards. They often have no fees and allow you to get rebates and rewards on your day-to-day spending. This is an excellent way to begin to build your credit without worrying about accruing more debt. 

Additionally, you will want to open a free checking account if you do not have one already. Many banks will waive fees for students.  A free checking account will allow you to save your money somewhere safe, like a college savings account, and manage it easily. 

Live Without a Car

Despite what you may think, living without a car in college is doable, and will save you quite a bit of money. You will likely be spending the majority of your time on campus, and there are ample transportation methods available to navigate college campuses, such as campus buses, bikes, and, yes, even your feet. 

Sell your car and use the money for tuition and housing expenses. You can use ride share apps like Uber or Lyft when you need to get places off of campus, and you can even use things like Zipcar when you need to rent a car for longer amounts of time. 

Purchase Used Textbooks

Textbooks were a major unforeseen expense of my college education. Call me naive, but I purchased new books during my first few semesters.

Purchasing used college textbooks rather than new ones will save you hundreds of dollars. Some textbooks can cost up to $200, but you can cut that down to $30 by purchasing used. There are tons of online used textbook stores and even several places where you can rent them. 

Ask your college bookstore if they have any rental or used options as well. You can see if there are cheaper e-book versions, although some students find e-books harder to learn from than a physical copy. 

When you have finished your classes, don't just throw your books away. You can turn around and sell them to the next batch of incoming students. Reselling your books on Amazon is a great way to get cashback and save money in college. You may find selling them on Amazon will put more in your bank account than selling the books back to your campus bookstore.

Utilize Campus Amenities

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University campuses, especially large ones, often have more amenities than you are probably aware of. Things from free fitness classes to free movie nights to a free snack closet, colleges offer a lot of things that can help you save extra money. 

Cancel your gym membership and start using the campus gym. Stop paying to eat out every meal and take advantage of those campus meal plans.

Utilize your campus library whenever you can. Check the library buy any newspaper or magazine subscriptions. My university library offered dozens of what I will call entertainment publications. The library had magazines like Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan, and Popular Mechanics.

There are numerous ways to save money by utilizing the things your college offers. These things, after all, are included in your tuition costs. 

Use Your Student ID

It will probably blow your mind how many places offer discounts to college students—shopping stores, restaurants, movie theaters, concert tickets, theme parks, and so much more. Keep your student ID on you at all times and when you make purchases, ask if they have a student discount. This will save you money and ensure that you are getting your full benefits!

Businesses that offer a discount for college students :

Split Your Subscriptions With People

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Whether it is Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or Apple Music, splitting the price of a subscription with family members, friends, or roommates could save you tons of money. Some streaming services, such as Amazon Prime and Spotify, have special student pricing that you can also qualify for when you are going to college.

Entertainment is a legitimate cost of college but try not to pay full price for it.

Check Your Cell Phone

Chances are that you might be paying more than you need to for your cell phone usage. There are services available like My Data Manager and that can analyze your phone situation and help you find a less expensive cell phone plan. 

When you can, utilize Wi-Fi. If you live on campus, your dorms will have Wi-Fi and most buildings on campus will too. Take full advantage of the school’s internet so that you have to use less data on your phone.

If you're not a data hog, you can ask your parents to keep you in the family cell phone plan.

Thrift Shop And Buy Second Hand

When I was in college, my entire apartment was decorated with items that I found at thrift shops, yard sales, or even left out to be thrown away. There are so many platforms to purchase used items, such as Offerup, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist. If you are in need of furniture, clothing, or anything else, chances are that someone is selling it for cheap. For the past 7 years I've been sitting on an office chair I got from a Craigslist *curb alert*.

When you find an item that interests you online, try to bargain with the seller to lower the price. Oftentimes people are trying to get rid of things and will take any money they can get. Make sure to never go alone to someone's home to pick up something, and always be safe!

If you are downsizing as you move to college, post your old items online to make some extra cash. Old furniture, clothes, gear, and other items that you will not be taking to your dorm with you can be sold, and the money you earn can be used to purchase items that you need or put in a savings account. 

Get A Job, Even if it is Part-Time

You may be thinking, “Hey, I want to learn how to save money at college not how to pay for it!”

Hear me out. If you are in a situation where you are borrowing for your higher education or using credit cards to pay for living expenses, then getting a part-time job and working to help pay for these things with your paycheck will save you money on monthly interest charges.

If you are a full-time student, it is a guarantee that you will be busy. Even when you are going to school full time, there is still time to have a part time job and make a steady income.

There are hundreds of flexible, decent-paying jobs that are willing to work around the schedule of a college student. Working while in school will provide you with money and allow you to learn about business and time management skills. 

If you are struggling to find a job or are unable to commute to work, look around for jobs on campus. From janitors to teachers’ aids, there are tons of positions in the college campus community that need to be filled. Ask professors and advisors for recommendations, or check to see if your school has a campus job board.

Start Paying Off Your Student Loans In College

If you have to take out student loans (which most people have to do, myself included), you do not have to wait to graduate or until your grace period ends to start making payments on them. The more you can pay off while in school, the less that you will have to pay interest down the line. Each month make a payment, no matter how small, and you will thank yourself in the end. 

Even if it is $20 a month, starting to pay your debt off now is a great way to save money in the long run and build your credit score for that home-buying goal after college.

If you will be graduating with a large amount of student or credit card debt it may be advantageous for you to seek credit counseling so this situation doesn't handicap you as you start ‘adulting'.

Get School Done on Time

The best way to save on college tuition is by not having to pay it! If you take your time in school, you will likely have to pay for more semesters, meaning much more college expenses! In your first semester of college, set up a graduation plan. It really helps if you know what degree you are going into and plan your classes accordingly. 

Keep in mind that tuition costs go up constantly.

The more you can plan now, the less stress (and money) you will have to worry about down the line. Many people have been able to complete an undergraduate degree in three years because of all the college credits that they earned while in high school. If you have not gone to college yet, consider taking AP and community college credit courses when you are in high school to save you time and money when you get into college. I wish I had done this.

Frequently Asked Questions

Final Thoughts

There you have it, my top list of tips on how to save money at college. Keep this list handy and refer back to it often when you are going to school. Remember to stay on top of your budget, have a savings goal, and keep applying for scholarships throughout your college career, not just in the beginning. 

If you are looking for more money-saving strategies or need more help with saving money in college, don't forget to check out my book Cash Back Stacking. This book will teach you all you need to know to start saving money in college now. You will thank yourself (and hopefully me) later!

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