Save Money as a College Student: 5 Ways to Tackle Your Biggest Expenses

college budget
Visha Angelova under Creative Commons

It’s no surprise that college comes with a high price tag: the average cost of tuition and fees at private schools is now $31,231, reports Bloomberg — and there’s no Black Friday sale on college degrees.

In just four years, you can burn a massive hole in your wallet and rack up tons of student loan debt. Making the most of student discounts is crucial, but often doesn’t make enough of a dent in your overall spending.

What’s a student to do? Rein in your budget by tackling its highest-cost elements — dining, accommodation and tuition — and by thinking outside of the college bubble, venturing away from the convenient amenities of campus.

Here are five ways to save money on college expenses, strategies I used myself to save thousands of dollars.

1. Graduate Early

Tuition costs are unavoidable, you may say. But what if you could graduate from your four-year university in three or even two and a half years? Your savings on those few semesters of tuition could make for a down payment on your first house!

How much this strategy could help you save is dependent on how early you graduate, your school’s fees and cost of living in the area, but I saved five figures by graduating early.

It’s not for everyone, as some students benefit tremendously from four years of college. But if you feel equipped to graduate early and your university permits it, go for it! Graduating early was not only personally and financially rewarding, but put me on the path to future financial stability. It can be difficult to visualize the distant future as a college student, but a head start on earning boosts your income and savings potential over a lifetime.

Many universities, particularly public institutions, accept Advanced Placement test scores or CLEP exams as college credit. Between these credits, heavier semester course loads, or even summer credits from approved community college courses, you may be able to realistically earn enough credits to graduate early. Discuss your degree requirements and options with your college advisor to see if it might work for you.

2. Use Your Dining Points Efficiently

Many universities offer dining plans that include a point system. At the end of the semester or year, even students who could win an eating competition find that they haven’t used all of their allotted dining points.

Instead of forfeiting your unused dining points (and the hard-earned cash you spent on them), investigate lesser-known ways to use up your remaining balance.

For example, my university let students use dining points to make purchases from other campus-affiliated vendors, not just the dining hall. Among the purchases I made with my leftover dining points were a hoard of batteries and a tea kettle! Use your points to stock up on items such as non-perishable foods, stationery and toiletries.

3. Move Out of the Dorm

Living in a dorm is an exhilarating (though at times nerve-wracking) hallmark of the college experience. But if your university offers flexibility in your choice of accommodation, moving out of the dorm and into an apartment can help you save thousands of dollars.

Look beyond the safe haven of your campus to the independence of an off-campus apartment — especially one with a roommate with whom you can share utilities, Internet and other monthly bills. When I compared the cost and space of a dorm versus an apartment, the apartment was a clear winner for me. Moving out of my dorm wound up saving me several thousand dollars over the course of my college years, even while living in expensive San Francisco.

4. Rent a Living Room

Maximize your rent savings by looking beyond one- or two-bedroom apartments to a living room. No, I’m not recommending you rent out someone’s welcome mat or live under a dusty desk — simply hunt Craigslist or other apartment listing sites to find a clean and spacious living area where you can live comfortably.

Living rooms are often as large as bedrooms, but can allow you to negotiate a lower monthly rate with your roommate due to the perception that a living room affords less privacy. But add a room divider and voila, your unconventional decision provides not only privacy but more cash at your disposal for other expenses. It might not be a traditional saving strategy, but it’s certainly an option for frugal students.

5. Buy Only Secondhand

Shopping for your own furniture is a blast, until you see the bill. Buying lamps, a desk or even mini-fridge brand-new costs more than you’d think!

Scour Craigslist for desks, couches, lamps and even mattresses. With a little due diligence, you can weed out illegitimate ads and hone in on fantastic bargains. I found a new mattress plus a bed frame with French drawers for less than $100!

When you move out of your apartment or graduate and leave the city, use Craigslist to sell your furniture to other students. If you maintain it in good condition, you might even recoup your initial investment in full.

Your Turn: As a college student, how do you (or did you) save money?

Manasa Reddigari is a content developer and owner of Scribmint. She has a passion for the web and a minimalist approach to personal finance that she enjoys sharing with others.

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