8 Money-Saving Tricks I Learned During the First Semester of College

A student standing in a hallway at a university
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For many people, going to college is expensive, and tuition is just one reason why.

College costs also include room and board, a meal plan and textbooks. Anything extra is a perk.

When I was a in college, I was lucky enough that my parents paid for all the necessities. However, I knew I would have to get a job and save money if I wanted to pay for any additional expenses outside of the “typical college experience.”

8 Strategies to Help You Save Money While in College

I recently graduated with a double major, and I did it without sinking into any major money pits. These eight tricks — all of which I learned early in my college career — helped me.

1. Find the Free Food

On-campus clubs often spend the first few weeks of the fall semester recruiting students. While meeting new people is a perk on its own, the promise of free snacks always helps get people in the door.

Be on the lookout for flyers around campus, as this is how many organizations spread the word about meetings. Clubs hold their meetings on different days of the week, so in theory, you could plan an entire week of meals based around those meetings.

Once you see the pizza, go for it. Organizations don’t often plan to feed 100 people during their first meeting. When the pizza is gone, you’ve missed your chance.

2. The Dollar Menu Is Your Friend (Sometimes)

The dollar menu is readily available at dining establishments such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Sonic Drive-In. These will be your friends when you need emergency late-night meals after coming home from a party cramming for an exam.

While spending $2 on a burger and fries on occasion won’t kill your budget, if you’re ordering food on Ubereats every day after your 7 p.m. class because it’s more “convenient” than going to the dining hall that’s a five-minute walk away, your bank account will likely not thank you by the end of the month.

3. The Unlimited Meal Plan Is Not Always the Best Option

Although an unlimited amount of food sounds great when you’re a starving college student in need of an ice cream fix, you may be overpaying for the amount of food you’re actually consuming.

If you eat four meals a day and can get endless coffee refills, the unlimited plan might be a great way to save money. However, if you don’t eat breakfast and you fix yourself a PB&J for lunch every day in the cafeteria, you can save a lot of money by getting a small meal plan and making food at home.

Knowing your eating habits can help you find the best value when it comes to meal plans.

4. DIY Your Food

Eating out is expensive. Save money by DIYing your meals.

I’m not saying you have to meal plan every week while in the dorms, but it’s a great idea to have some staples on hand in case you’re running late or you need a snack after the dining areas shut down for the night.

Some of these staples can include granola bars to eat while walking to class, a piece of fresh fruit before hitting the gym or even a PB&J while studying in the library.

5. Make Your Own Coffee

I know Starbucks is on your campus a la carte plan, but once the free cash runs out, you may face withdrawal from your iced coffee habit — and you may end up spending your hard-earned cash on that addiction luxury.

That one “treat yourself” drink can suck up your cash faster than you can place your order. Save yourself some time and money and just make your coffee at home.

You can even buy syrups and flavors of coffee in bulk from your local Walmart, Costco or some Starbucks locations.

6. Don’t Splurge on Dorm Decorations

Dorms are not meant to be Pinterest-perfect rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and draped canopies over beds. Dorms are places to eat, sleep and study as you try to to pass that 8 a.m. personal finance class.

The majority of the decorations and storage you purchase for your dorm will either be donated or tossed in the next couple of years. Spending a ton of money on a twin-XL comforter is not cost effective when twin-XL beds only exist in dorms.

Additionally, college decorations have a habit of disappearing every time you pack up for the year. Instead, invest in a few decorations like these, which will make your room feel like home without breaking your budget.

7. Wait to Order Your Textbooks

While you may initially think you should buy all your textbooks from the bookstore as soon as you get the list, wait until after the first few days of class before you go stand in that massive line outside the campus bookstore.  

By postponing your textbook purchase, you’ll find out if you need the latest edition or could get by with an older version, if you can buy a less-expensive version from a book-trading website or if you can just borrow the book from a friend who has already taken the class.

8. Don’t Go Out All the Time

College is a great opportunity to meet new people and try new things, but mix some of those expensive nights out at the Tourist Spot in Nearest Big City with an inexpensive game, crafting, or movie nights on campus or a fun workout in the park.

There are always free events on college campuses, so check the bulletin board and ask your resident assistant.

If you do find yourself with some extra cash to splurge on a fun activity, check Groupon or your town calendar to find the best deals in the area.

Haley Gonzalez (@haleykgonzalez) is an editorial assistant at The Penny Hoarder.