By Roshni Chowdhry, head of customer experience at SafetyNet
Of the 17 million Americans currently enrolled in college, 74 percent qualify as what we used to call "nontraditional" students:
- One in five is 30 years or older.
- About half don't rely on their parents for money.
- One quarter are caring for a child.
- 47 percent attend college part time at some point.
- 25 percent took a year off between high school and college.
- 44 percent have parents without a bachelor's degree.
In other words, if you're a college student today, there's a good chance you're not the Hollywood stereotype of an 18-year-old on your own for the first time. Still, whether it's your first year of independence or not, college tuition is a major added expense. This makes managing your finances well while you pursue higher education extremely important.
Here are five strategies for saving money as a college student.
1.Track your expenses and make a budget.
The first step toward saving money is knowing exactly what you have coming in and going out every month. Tallying your income should be pretty easy, as most people don't have many sources. For college students, they might receive income from steady jobs, part-time work, and student loan money (though that usually goes out the minute it comes in).
The harder part is tracking what you spend every month. Rent, utilities, and tuition are quite straightforward, but it takes some time to track everything else (groceries, clothing, entertainment, books, subscriptions, etc.).
Once you have a clear picture of your finances, you can create a budget with the goal of spending less than you make. The good news is that there are many apps, like Mint, that can help you create and stick to a budget. A quick Google search will lead you to reviews so you can choose an app that meets your needs.
2. Get creative to save on essentials.
In college, finding innovative ways to save money can help you stay within the confines of a tight budget. Here are a few money-saving hacks that can help reduce your monthly spend:
- Choose cooking over eating out. Even fast-food meals or a daily coffee can break a budget, given how much less expensive the alternative is. If you're not much of a cook, see if your school offers cooking classes – or request that the activities committee add one. Over your lifetime, cooking is a skill that can improve your health and save you tens of thousands of dollars.
- Learn to love cheap health foods. Contrary to popular myths, many healthy foods are also budget-friendly – in fact, many fruits and veggies cost less than 40 cents per serving. The key to loving the center of the cheap/healthy Venn Diagram? Brush up those cooking skills to turn ingredients into masterpieces.
- Choose low-cost clothing options. Thrift stores are a great way to save money on clothes, and shopping with friends can double as cheap entertainment. If there isn't a good thrift option near you, consider setting up a clothing swap with friends (or, heck, the whole campus).
- Live with roommates. One of the best ways to reduce fixed expenses like rent and utilities is to share them. Plus, when you live with friends, you'll probably enjoy cooking at home more. Double win!
- Don't buy new books. Books are a must for college students but buying used can save you as much as a third of the cost. You may also consider checking books out from the library if you don't need them for long.
- Look for unconventional ways to save. Message boards are a great way to find gently used goods for a low price, and many campuses maintain their own. If you're lucky, your school may even have something like the University of Minnesota's ReUse Program, which sells everything from lab equipment to bikes for steep discounts. Remember: campus populations tend to be very mobile, so many people are highly motivated to get rid of barely used items if you're willing to look around.
3. Get a credit card and pay it off regularly.
Using a credit card is an easy way to start building your credit, which can help save you money down the road when you apply for a car loan or mortgage by boosting your credit score. You can check your credit score and read your credit report for free within minutes by joining MoneyTips. One big caveat here: only spend what you can pay off at the end of the month. And always pay your full balance at the end of the month.
If you don't think you can do that, it's probably best to skip getting a credit card for now. Overspending can lead to a cycle of debt that definitely won't help you save money.
4. Go cash-only at the bar.
Love it or hate it, drinking is expensive – and often a part of college life. While the best way to save money on alcohol is to avoid it completely, that's not a path for everyone. To ensure that drinking doesn't take over your budget, bring only cash to the bar. Once you start drinking, it's a little too easy to justify another round when you're paying with a card, thanks to the well-known judgment-impairing effects of booze.
For fun nights that lead to minimal financial "hangovers," stick to cash when you're out and don't take more money than you've budgeted for.
5. Start saving, even if it's only a little.
If your college budget is tight already, it may sound crazy to insist on saving, but hear me out. The goal here is not just to build up an emergency fund (which is always a good idea). More than that, saving now will help you build the habit of putting away money for your future. Once you've established that routine, it's easy to keep it going when you leave school and bring in more money.
Even setting aside five dollars a week is better than nothing. If possible, I recommend setting up linked checking and savings accounts and making an automatic deposit from checking to savings at regular time intervals. This will let you slowly build up a cushion with minimal effort.
A Financial Lesson Worth Learning
These days, the average student graduates from college with almost $40,000 in educational debt. That's a lot of money no matter how you slice it up, but paying it down will be much easier if you graduate with strong financial behaviors in place. So even if you don't have a lot of money to work with right now, your student years are a great time to build those habits.
Roshni Chowdhry is the head of customer experience at SafetyNet, a mission driven insurance program that provides an instant lump-sum payment to workers after an unexpected income loss following a layoff, illness, or injury.