These days, the average college graduate leaves school with over $28,000 in student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. But even with the costs of college tuition on the rise, there are plenty of ways to come in well below average when it comes to student loan debt. And it’s not just about choosing a cheaper school!
Students can, and often do, use student loans to fund basic living expenses while they’re in college. This can add up to loads of additional debt — debt that you’ll someday have to repay. So one way to reduce your overall debt load, or just to save more money in college, is to learn to live on the cheap. Here are some ways how.
1. It Starts With Location
If you haven’t yet decided where to go to school, don’t just look at a school’s tuition and fees when calculating college costs. Also look at cost of living in the college towns you’re considering. Obviously living in an expensive city like New York City will drive up your living expenses, so choose a college or university in a lower-cost area. Some of the best universities in the U.S. happen to be in the areas with the lowest cost of living.
When looking at cost of living, check out factors like rent, the cost of groceries, and the cost of public transportation. If you’ll need to drive to your school each semester, don’t forget to factor in the cost of parking. You may find that a more expensive education is worthwhile if it’s in a much cheaper location.
2. Shop Around for a Room
While some schools require freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, many don’t care where you live. If you can live off campus, it’s often cheaper to do so. You’ll just need to shop around for housing.
Sharing a small apartment with roommates is a time-honored college tradition, and can help you save some serious cash. You could also consider renting a single room from a local homeowner, which can be much cheaper than renting even a studio apartment.
Or consider less conventional options, such as living with an elderly adult who needs help around the house. You may be able to live rent-free in exchange for companionship, running basic errands, and tackling housework.
3. Choose the Right Meal Plan
These days, most colleges offer a variety of meal plans at several price points. If you’ll be on campus for long days, purchasing a meal plan can make sense. However, the costs vary widely from one college to the next, so do your homework here.
If you do decide to purchase a meal plan, be sure to choose one that suits your actual needs. For instance, you may only have three long days a week on campus with one semester’s schedule. So you’ll just need enough meals to cover lunch during those days. Or if your school offers a really cheap meal plan, you might opt to eat most of your meals in the cafeteria while living on campus.
What you don’t want to do is to purchase a larger meal plan than you’ll actually use. Be sure to use up whatever cafeteria meals you’ve purchased, or you’re just wasting money.
4. Cook Your Own Meals
For most full-time students, a mix of an on-campus meal plan and independent meals is the best option. You don’t have to live on unhealthy Ramen noodles to save money while you’re in college, but you should learn to cook for yourself on the cheap.
Breakfast options like hardboiled eggs are easy to make in a hot pot. Or you could make basic meals of canned or frozen veggies in the microwave. The key is to use basic ingredients that are preserved cheaply, since they’re cheaper than fresh. Learning to cook your own meals, even with limited equipment in a dorm room, can save you cash.
5. Buy Must-Have Books & Supplies on the Cheap
You’ll likely need a laptop or desktop computer to complete your assignments for some classes, but you don’t need to drop $2,000 on a brand- new gaming computer. Instead, opt for a used desktop or a cheaper laptop for $500 or less. And take care of your tech so that you only need to buy one computer for your whole college career.
As for books, be sure to buy used as often as possible. And look into less conventional options, such as e-books or book rentals. All these strategies can save you some serious money on the textbooks you need for classes.
6. Go for Used Clothes & Furniture
Don’t go straight to retailers for brand new furniture for your apartment or dorm room. Instead, consider shopping on online classifieds or local swap sites. You can likely get sturdier pieces for next-to-nothing.
As for clothes, try to buy used whenever you can. Check out your local consignment shops and Goodwill, and get familiar with what’s out there. Then, build shopping time into your monthly schedule so that you can pick up what you need where it’s cheapest.
7. Get Familiar With Student Discounts
In a college town, lots of local businesses tend to offer discounts for students with an ID. Even larger retailers offer student discounts. These can be great for when you need a decent outfit for job interviews, or when you want to splurge on a meal out with friends. Keep a list handy of local stores and restaurants that offer student discounts so you’ll always be ready to save.
8. Use Budget-Tracking Software
Tracking your expenses each month is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t overspend. Online budget tracking options like Mint.com and YNAB are great even for college students with limited expenses. Get into the habit of tracking every dollar now, and you won’t have to worry about bad financial habits later in life. (You can see how your current debts are affecting your credit by viewing your free credit report on Credit.com.)
9. Get the Right Job
If you’re concerned about saving money during college, chances are you’re planning to work part-time. Many students do, and it’s a great way to build experience and have some cash on hand for everyday expenses.
But beyond getting a job, you could get a job that will help you save more money. For instance, restaurants often let their employees have one meal in-house for free during a shift. This could save you money on food. Likewise, retailers offer employee discounts that could be helpful in keeping your outfits up-to-date on the cheap. Or you could work at a bookstore that offers employee discounts on textbooks and other supplies you need for class.