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The Cost of College: 5 Frugal Tips for Students

By Kara Masterson

Unless you’re blessed with a scholarship, college costs can be quite stressful. Fortunately, there are many ways to plug financial drains. Here are a few aspects of student life where you can save money big time.

Textbooks

Textbooks are one of the most expensive parts of being a student. Many professionals recommend not buying new books in order to reduce your college expenses. Instead, try to find alternatives. Start by ensuring that books mentioned in the course description are actually required. Some professors may not use them, announcing this the first day of class. If you’d like to know in advance, email your instructors. Also, attend classes before buying books, in case you decide to drop any courses. After confirming necessary books, see if your school library has them on reserve.

Checking books out from a library saves you the cost of renting them, and you can usually check them out for a month or more at a time. Alternatively, the local public library may have some. If you can get your books from a library, you can scan the chapters you’ll be using onto a USB drive or your computer (just be sure not to share them with others to avoid breaking any copyright laws).If you can’t find your books at a library then another possibility to consider is renting from online sources like Amazon. Most of these sites have set loan periods, but some let you specify.

If you can’t borrow or rent a book, you’ll have to buy them. Buying is almost always going to be more expensive than renting, but it doesn’t have to be. Look for used options, or electronic versions. Those are both likely to be cheaper than a hardcopy of a book. If you have to buy new and physical, then try to see if your school will repurchase them at the end of the semester.

Cell Phone Service

A cell phone is a bit of a must-have, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. The first step to savings is critiquing your current bill. Distinguish unnecessary bells and whistles from must-have services. Are you paying for unlimited data? Many people think they need unlimited data, but don’t end up using much of it since they have WiFi at home, work, and school. Figure out what’s really essential, and cut out the rest.

Sometimes you can even save money by switching to a different cell phone service. If you’re using one of the big 4, consider switching to a non-traditional option like Flash Wireless or someone similar instead of a traditional carrier. One non-traditional option is a prepaid service - also known as a month-to-month plan. With this type of plan you can switch carriers at any time, without the penalty fee of a contract plan. Most prepaid carriers don’t check credit, which can be advantageous if your credit history isn’t ideal (or doesn’t exist). Determine the best talk, text, and data allotments for your needs, and pay in advance. Then, each month, recharge your account for the amount you wish to spend.

The alternative to a pay-as-you go plan is a contract plan. A contract requires you to guarantee to your provider that you will keep using their service for a set amount of time, and in exchange they give you benefits. Sometimes these benefits mean free phones, or lower rates. Whatever they are, it’s worth weighing the pros and cons of different contract plans with pay-as-you go plans before making a decision.

Food

No matter what your situation is in life, you’ve got to eat. When you’re at school you have a few different options for food. If you’re living in on campus housing, you may have the option to buy a meal plan. While these meal plans aren’t designed to save you money, they can definitely save you time. For a college student, time can be money. If you don’t have to spend time cooking your own meals at home, you can spend that time working to earn a bit more money, or doing your homework. It makes them an option worth considering.

If you’re really strapped for cash though, you may want to skip the meal plan. You can spend less money by buying your own food at a grocery store and preparing your own meals.  Be sure to look for coupons and discounts. Being smart when you shop for food will add up to significant savings. Don’t cave in to the temptation to eat nothing but Ramen either. It might be cheap, but it won’t sustain you for long before your body begins to wear down from lack of nutrients. Don’t resort to fast food either – even if it seems cheap at the time you buy it, it will become expensive quickly.

If you’re a commuter, pack healthy meals, avoiding the high prices of food at your student union. Are you living in a dorm with a kitchen or off-campus with roommates? If so, consider splitting food expenses, and rotate cooking with your friends. Stock fresh foods rather than processed meals. For discounted bulk foods and non-perishables, buy a warehouse club membership, such as Sam’s Club, Costco, or BJ’s. At Sam’s Club, get a collegiate membership. Online signup lowers your cost with a $25 e-gift card!

Money

The first rule of saving money is to think before you act. Before making purchases, ask yourself “Do I really need this?” The answer will help you curb expenses, by distinguishing necessities from mere desires. Pay all bills on time, sidestepping late fees and interest rates. It can also help to compare financial institutions to see if you could save more money by banking somewhere else. Do an online comparison of banks offering free savings and checking accounts. Make sure that the bank you use provides:

  • Free checks
  • Low administrative fees
  • Free online banking services
  • No minimum balances
  • Convenient ATM locations
  • Free, unlimited ATM use

It’s also important to avoid any overdraft fees. If you can, don’t allow your bank to pull more out of your checking account than you have. It’s better for your finances to have your card declined than to pay extra in fees.

In the world today you will probably have a credit card as well. The best practice for living on a budget is to avoid using your credit cards at all, but that can be difficult if you’re paying bills or making purchases online.  If you do use your credit cards, try to form the habit of not spending more than you have in your bank, and scheduling a payment to your credit card as soon as you use it. These practices will help you avoid overspending, which would lead to interest charges and monthly minimum payments. Two things that will hurt your budget.

College Jobs

As part of a financial aid package, a work-study program can offset some college expenses. You’ll earn at least minimum wage, and be able to study at the same time. To apply to a program like this, all you need to do is to fill out your FAFSA. On average, it takes just 30 minutes. Apply early, since funds are granted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Even if you don’t qualify for work-study, you can work while you’re at school. Try to keep your job to part-time if you can, so it doesn’t interfere with your studies. Look around for on-campus jobs as a TA or a janitor before going off-campus. While they may not pay as well as some off-campus options, they’ll make it much easier to juggle work and school together. To find opportunities, visit your college Human Resources Department, Career Center, and campus job board. As with the work study, apply as early in the semester as you can – preferably before it starts.

Are you psyched to start saving money? Then put these skills to work! Every situation is different, so don’t worry if you can’t apply all of the tips presented here. The important thing is to find ways to limit your spending, while increasing your income. Remember, be savvy with spending and you’ll tame financial stress!

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