How to Save Money in College: 10 Tips from College Students
No matter your financial situation, controlling your spending while you’re in college can be challenging. Here’s a roundup of tips from CollegeData students on how to stick to a budget, spend wisely, and even start saving for your future.
Whether “money management” for you means coordinating loans, scholarships, and any income from a part-time job, or you’re managing savings or spending money provided by your parents, good money skills are important to develop. More than 20 percent of respondents to CollegeData’s Transition to College Survey said money management and budgeting were skills they wish they had mastered before starting college.
To help you become more financially savvy, we’ve compiled the following budgeting tips from real colleges students.* We hope these tips will inspire you to spend more wisely, develop and stick to a budget, and save money for your future goals.
Limit Dining Out
When asked what they spend the most money on in college (aside from tuition, books, and room and board), eating out — including takeout, restaurants, and food delivery services — was mentioned most often by both students living at home and on campus.
- “I know campus food can get boring but going out to eat adds up really quickly and usually includes additional transportation costs too.” – Marcus, UCLA
To save money, students mentioned limiting their dining out to once per week or just a couple times a month, cooking food at home, and sticking to their college meal plan if they have one.
- “I had to stop going to my favorite restaurant and limit it to once a month. Another habit was not going out every weekend! Sometimes it’s okay to stay in your dorm and just relax.”– Jailin, Survey Respondent
- “Sometimes you have to express to your friends and roommates that you need to sit this one out because of money. If they’re your friends, they will understand.” – Diana, Survey Respondent
- “To spend less on groceries, I make a meal plan at the beginning of the week and get ingredients that I can use to make multiple meals rather than spending money on takeout.” – Julia, SUNY University at Albany
Watch Out for Snacks and Drinks
Eating between meals also caused these students to overspend. Snacks and drinks purchased on and off campus, especially coffee drinks, consumed a lot of their cash. Here are some ways students spent less in this area.
- “Last semester, I used all the money from my dining plan a month or two before the semester ended, so this semester I decided to buy snacks and such in bulk from grocery stores and I spent a lot less!” – Amira, University of Tennessee
- “I’ve gotten ingredients like creamers and syrup along with flavored coffee to make making coffee at home more fun and more affordable than getting coffee out.“– Julia, SUNY University of Albany
- “I stopped drinking. While I was never a big drinker, going out for drinks less definitely helped me cut back on extra spending." – Mackenzie, Survey Respondent
- “Invest in a good water bottle.” – Olivia, Survey Respondent
Consider How You Get Around
Transportation costs can change each term and depend on a number of factors, including whether you live on or off campus, how often you need to travel to and from campus, and how far you may be living from home and how often you travel there and back.
Owning a car can be super expensive – especially when you factor in gas, maintenance, car payments, parking fees, and insurance. The cost of ride services, such as Lyft and Uber, can also add up quickly. It can be less expensive to use public transportation or transportation provided by your university, if available, or to switch to human-powered transportation, such as a bicycle, scooter, skateboard, or even walking. Some of the students we surveyed said that adopting these less-expensive modes of transportation helped them save money.
- “I often took public transit to get to places rather than ride share services.” – David, Survey Respondent
- “I purchased a monthly bus pass that saved me good amount of money over my first year.” – Digant, Survey Respondent
- “I walked a lot more.” — Rebecca, Survey Respondent
Start a Savings Account
Saving is one of the best money habits you can form at a young age. However, saving money isn’t always easy for cash-strapped college students. Even so, setting aside a small amount of money in a savings account each week or month can help you develop a habit of saving – and this is more important in the long run than how much you actually save.
- “I literally put cash away in a little safe I bought off of Amazon and swore to myself not to touch it unless absolutely necessary.” – Tayler, Survey Respondent.
Having a savings goal also helped some of our survey respondents save money. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends writing down your savings goal (such as a new laptop) and the amount of money needed to achieve it, and figuring out where you can cut your spending (or increase your income) and how much you need to save each week or month.
- “I want to pay off the balance in my upcoming fall tuition statement and finance a study abroad experience at some point in my college career. I plan on achieving these by working during college, remaining frugal and applying for scholarships and grants.” — Dominick, University of Notre Dame
One savings goal might be to establish an emergency fund to cover unforeseen expenses, such as medical bills, car repairs, or surprise college costs such as additional classes or books.
- “I had to take a class one semester that was only offered online, and it was an extra $200. I had to take the extra money out of my savings account, but it was okay because I had a lot of money saved up.” – Olivia, Florida State University
Get a part-time job
If you have the time to do so, working during college can provide extra income for college expenses and/or for building your savings. If working during school isn’t an option, consider taking on seasonal work during school breaks and over the summer.
- “I saved money by getting a job. What helped me to stick to my budget was just saving half of my paycheck every time I got paid."– Lora, Survey Respondent
- “I worked to save money for my study abroad experience. This included working over the summer and during the semester and also being careful with my money by setting some off-limits in a savings account. I found this strategy to be helpful as I still had what I needed but also didn’t overspend.” – Julia, University of Albany
In addition to the paycheck, working during college can help you improve your time management skills, develop your network, explore a career field, and gain important professional skills.
Stifle Impulse Spending
If you are trying to stick to a budget, you don’t want to make unplanned purchases. But we’ve all been guilty of impulse buying at one time or another — especially during “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” or any flash sale. This is where understanding the difference between “needs” and “wants” can be helpful.
A “need” as defined in economic terms is anything required for your survival – water, food, and shelter are basic human needs. But needs vary from person to person. “Wants” are things you desire because they improve your enjoyment or quality of life. White chocolate mocha lattes, video games, or trendy beauty and fashion items are examples of wants. A computer may be a need during college, but the latest Apple laptop might be considered a want.
- “When purchasing things, I tried to ask myself is this something I really need, and will I care if I don’t have it a week from now?” – Analisa, Survey Respondent
- “Every time I thought about spending money, I sat on the thought for one day. This helped reduce impulse buying."– Benjamin, Survey Respondent
Some students said they appreciated having a low limit set on their credit cards, which also helped them avoid impulse purchases.
Use Student Discounts
Take advantage of your student ID card — it can make you eligible for student discounts on a wide range of products and services, including technology, subscriptions, transportation, dining and entertainment, clothing and more. Even saving a few dollars here and there can really add up – especially if you make a point to put the money you save into a savings account.
- “I used every student discount known to man, including discounts for streaming services, subscriptions, shoes, clothes, and electronics. The app Student Beans showed me where I could use student discounts.” – Rayael, University of North Carolina-Charlotte
- “Download Unidays! Unidays is an app that provides student discounts for brands ranging from Dr. Martens to HP to Grammarly!” — Marcus, UCLA
Track Your Spending
More than half of the students surveyed (58 percent) admitted that they didn’t use a formal budget during freshman year. But some students said that they tracked their spending in other ways.
- “I used my bank’s app and read monthly statements to monitor my spending. I would try to make sure my withdrawals were lower than my deposits every month. If they were not, I would categorize my purchases into essential and non-essential categories and limit my spending on non-essentials.” — Gabby, Xavier University
- “I formed an Excel spreadsheet to track my expenses, savings goals, and ways to make more money. I also spent less on clothes and bought containers to take food from the dining halls for later.” — Pruett, Survey Respondent
- “I like to keep a note of every transaction I make on my phone just so that I know how much I’m spending each month. This lets me know when I need to stop spending so I don’t go over my limit for that month.” – Marcus, UCLA
Use Your College’s Resources
Colleges often offer a variety of free or low-cost resources, activities, and services for students. Thrifty students seek out and take advantage of these resources to not only help them save money but to also connect with their campus community.
- “Take advantage of campus events! There is always someone giving away free stuff whether it's school supplies, food, or even clothes. Using these resources can decrease the amount of money you have to spend in the future.” – Marcus, UCLA
- “Use all your resources at your college, like school computers and free WIFI, and the school pantry if you can’t afford to buy groceries.” — Rayael, University of North Carolina-Charlotte
At some colleges, additional financial support in the form of small loans and grants may be available to help cover unexpected expenses and basic necessities.
- “I asked for assistance often. I received emergency funding [from my college] to repair my cracked phone screen. There were many opportunities for financial aid and scholarships when it came to participating in activities and events. Apply! Apply! Apply even if you might not think you qualify.” – Ivy, Yale University
We hope these tips from college students will help increase your awareness of your own spending habits and improve your financial well-being now and in the future. How well you manage your money now can set up lifelong habits that will benefit you long after you graduate.
*Advice provided by students surveyed in 2023 Transition to College Survey and students featured in CollegeData’s Road to College Student Stories.