Learning how to save money in college is a skill many students have trouble mastering, and it’s not exactly something you typically learn before you finish high school. However, managing and saving your money in college or university is extremely important.
Dealing with student debt and living on a student budget is tough and a major source for anxiety or stress at any level. Taking steps to save money while you’re in school can also help set you up for a more stable financial future. It’s all about building those money-saving habits as soon as you can and spending wisely!
Read this ultimate guide with 25 tips for learning how to save money in college and make your student budget work for you without sacrificing more than you need to. You’d be surprised how big a difference even the smallest change can make.
1. Apply For Scholarships, Grants, and Bursaries
One of the biggest ways you can learn how to save money in college starts with your tuition. Landing a scholarship or a grant can really help lighten your financial load because it will cover at least a large portion of your tuition.
It’s important to remember, though, that each type of scholarship is different and you’re still going to have a lot of expenses to cover outside of your awarded money. Therefore, you shouldn’t apply for anything with the expectation that you’re getting a completely free ride.
There are plenty of places to search for available scholarships and grants that you may qualify for. Sometimes you’ll need to be chosen by a committee for performance in a certain field or extracurricular activity, but other times you just have to apply (usually by writing an essay or
). Be sure to search websites like
for any options that might be suitable or available in your area.
While you’re applying for scholarships, check out our blog on
for some helpful tips you can use to make your application stand out from the rest.
2. Track Your Income and Expenses and Create a Budget
Keeping track of your income and expenses is an important step in creating the budget you have to work with. It will also help you visualize and see exactly where you’re spending your money, which will give you a better idea of the areas you can make cuts. While doing this might seem like a tedious task, it makes a major difference when you can actually see where all of your money is going and where you’re spending too much.
When creating your student budget, break down your expenses by priority. Determine what you need and what you want – those are two very different things. List out everything you spend money on. Items like rent, tuition, housing fees, Internet bills, and textbooks should be at the top of your list. These items you can’t really avoid paying, so they have to be your big priorities. Then, you can start adding in the fun stuff to determine which of those fun things you can afford to keep doing, and which you should cut.
It’s helpful to use a spreadsheet like Google Sheets to help you with your budgeting and income/expense tracking. This way, you can lay everything out in a column and examine money in versus money out in a straightforward way.
3. Don’t Buy Textbooks Brand New
Textbooks are a big money sucker, but they are necessary to get the grades you need to pass with flying colours. Therefore, a key tip every student should know when learning how to save money in college is reducing your textbook costs, and it starts with not buying them brand new from your school’s bookstore.
University and college bookstores are notorious for selling textbooks and even photocopied article collections at sky-high prices. Depending on how many courses you’re taking and what program you’re in, you could be looking at thousands of dollars each year just in course materials. On top of that, textbooks are a requirement for your classes and you can’t just avoid using one if you plan on getting top marks. There are a few options for buying textbooks cheaper than your school’s store, so don’t make this your first stop.
Firstly, you can opt to buy them used. Some university bookstores will re-sell used copies at a cheaper price, run buy-and-sell events at the beginning and end of each semester. You could also try networking with students in upper years or who are just finishing the classes you’re taking next so you can arrange to buy their used copies they don’t need anymore. Sometimes students will sell their used textbooks on marketplace sites like
, so be sure to check there.
Another option you can try is searching for your textbooks online. Often, you can find textbooks on
. A lot of these websites offer ebook versions as well, which tend to be cheaper and can be downloaded immediately if you need the book quickly.
You also have one other option you can try – split the cost of a textbook with your classmate. If you choose this route, it means you’ll have to share the book, so make sure you communicate a plan to go back and forth or stagger out your study sessions so you both don’t need the book at the same time. This option is perfect when you live with roommates who are taking the same courses as you.
4. Stop Taking Out Money at ATMs
Every time you use an ATM that isn’t at your bank you have to pay a fee, and that fee varies depending on which bank owns that particular ATM machine. When you’re already out for the night and need some quick cash, paying the $2 or $3 ATM charge might not seem like a big deal at the time. But when you start doing this every time you go out, those small charges add up really fast.
Here are a few different ways you can avoid using ATMs and save yourself the extra money when you need cash:
● Use the ATM machines at your own bank
● Get cash back when you’re at the grocery store (or other stores that offer it)
● Search out and switch to a bank that doesn’t charge ATM fees (or reimburses them)
● Save any cash gifts or extra cash from a night out for the next one instead of putting them in the bank or using them on something you could pay with a card for
● Use credit cards if your debit card has a monthly transaction limit
● If you use online banking, see if your app has an ATM locator that will help you find machines your branch operates
If you do have to use an ATM, take out more cash than you need and save the rest. The ATM fees don’t vary depending on the amount you withdraw, so if you’re going to have to pay that fee you may as well try to only pay it once.
5. Use Rebate Apps
A rebate is a cash back reward system where you get a certain percentage or amount of your purchase back when you show proof or purchase of specific things. Basically it works the same way as a coupon, but instead of giving you the discount on the item, you just get some of the money back later.
Usually, all you have to do is buy the specified brand or product, upload a picture of your receipt, and then the app will review and confirm. They’ll send you money via PayPal or mailed check when you decide you’re ready to cash out. Some apps will also give you your payout in gift cards that you can spend at your favourite places. It won’t be a ton of money back right away, but since you were already going to buy these things, it’s a great way to benefit without going out of your way. When you use rebate apps for your everyday purchases that you were going to make anyway, you can essentially get free money if you collect it over time.
Here are some great rebate apps that are free to use for your errands, grocery shopping, and other purchases:
(If you live in Canada)
(If you are in the USA or UK)
Like any coupon system, make sure you read the fine print of any offer before you decide to purchase and redeem it!
6. Stop Impulse Buying
Impulse buying is one of those bad habits even the best of us have fallen into from time to time. You’re browsing a store and you see something you just have to have, and happen to have the means to pay for it, so you decide to treat yourself. Then you’re short on cash the rest of the week, but you have this amazing new item or experience. Is it worth it, though?
An impulse buy could be anything from sneaking in a few chocolate bars at the checkout line to splurging on a pair of boots that catch your eye when you walk past a store window. While it might seem innocent to spend an extra few dollars here and there, when you regularly give in to impulse buying you could end up spending thousands of dollars per year.
If you see something that isn’t a necessity that you feel you really want, put it back and walk away or put it on hold if you can. Then, think about it for a few days, a week, or even a month. Give yourself whatever amount of time you need to rationalize that purchase. After that time, if you’re still pining for that item, you can choose to go back and get it. If you decide it’s not worth the effort to go back to buy it, you really didn’t need it that badly anyway.
7. Use Cash Instead of Debit Whenever You Can
It’s so easy to swipe your debit card everywhere you go and worry about the money later, but when you actually physically see that money leaving your wallet it can have a deeper impact on your spending habits.
Have you ever been given a crisp new $50 bill for a birthday, holiday, or graduation present and tried to hold on to it for as long as possible without breaking it? If you have, you likely remember the feeling of hesitation you have when you spend a larger bill. Well, that same hesitation can be applied any time you spend cash instead of quickly swiping or tapping your card.
It’s much easier to force yourself to rationalize whether you really need something if you can physically touch the money. It’s also a lot easier to stick to a predetermined budget when you bring only that physical amount of cash; this way, you have no choice but to only spend what you budgeted for and not a dollar more.
If you’re going to use this method, make sure you follow the tips we outlined above to avoid using ATMs and getting charged extra fees!
8. Make a Grocery List (And Stick to it)
When you live in the dorms and have a student meal plan, you don’t need to worry about groceries (but you will still have to budget to pay for your meal plan). However, if you live in off-campus housing or apartment style residences, this one’s for you.
One of the most effective ways to make sure you stay on budget while you’re in college is bringing a list to the grocery store and only buying the items on that list. This way, you can avoid getting caught in the last-minute impulse buys when you see snacks on sale or something else you don’t need catches your eye. Those small impulse buys can add up, even if it feels like it’s only a few extra things.
Make the list at home ahead of time when you can see what’s in your kitchen. Sometimes we think we’re out of something and buy it only to come home and find out we had an extra sitting in the pantry the whole time. Take a photo of the inside of your fridge if you have to.
While we’re on the topic of grocery shopping, here’s an extra tip: don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. You’ll end up buying way more than you planned to, and it likely won’t be healthy either.
9. Take Your Student Card Everywhere For Discounts
There are so many places that offer student discounts, but not everyone advertises them. In almost every college town across North America, you can get a discount when you show your student card in establishments like retail stores, fast food joints, restaurants, and more. Sometimes the discount isn’t too big, but it can save you the sales tax – and it’s better than paying the full price.
If you live in Canada, do yourself a favour and get an
. Some banks and credit card companies offer free membership, or you can pay $10 to buy one from a participating store. Flashing your SPC card at a participating location (and there are hundreds of them) can get you a discount of up to 30% off. Some locations might accept only an SPC card and not a student card, or vice versa. This way, your bases are covered and you can get as many student discounts as possible.
10. Cut Back on Your Take-Out Habits
All those Skip the Dishes orders and take-out meals aren’t doing your wallet or your body any favours. Delivery apps in particular are notorious for adding up fees – a New York Times study found that using popular delivery apps for take-out meals can cost up to 91% more than ordering directly from the restaurant. That’s a major chunk of your budget. Delivery fees can creep up on you even when you don’t use an app, too.
The amount of money you spend eating take-out for one meal could buy you at least a few days’ worth of dinners at the grocery store if you plan it out properly. Buying groceries and cooking at home can save you a ton of money, and help you stay healthy (which leads to better school performance). There’s a misconception that eating healthy foods is more expensive, but the good news is you don’t have to sit around eating ramen and hot pockets for the entire semester.
Check out these extra tips
on buying groceries on a student budget to learn more about balancing your wallet and your body.
Need some recipe inspiration? Check out our list of
cheap and easy student dinners
you can try. Not only are they delicious, but they’re perfect for study fuel as well.
11. Make Your Coffee at Home
This tip is in almost every article on how to save money in college, and it’s something you commonly hear from older generations who didn’t grow up with easy access to drive thrus and Starbucks stores on every block. It might sound judgemental when your parents or grandparents tell you to cut out your Starbucks habit, but they do have a point.
Depending on what type of coffee you buy, you’re looking at a cost of about 20 cents per cup brewing at home compared to the $3-$5 you’d spend at a coffee shop. If you buy a cup a day from Monday to Friday, that’s $1 a week for home brew and $15 a week for store-bought coffee if your usual order costs $3 (and many orders cost much more than that). That adds up really fast each month.
You can pick up a cheap coffee maker for as low as $20, or check out a local thrift shop to see if there’s a second hand one available. It doesn’t need to be fancy as long as you have something to give you your daily java boost. Many college dorms also allow you to have a small coffee maker in your room, or a single-serve pod based machine, but double check with your residence rules before you buy.
12. Buy Generic or Store Brands Instead of Name Brands
How attached are you to the brands you buy? Enough to let them eat into your budget every month? At the grocery store, switching from name brands to store brands can save you a lot of money because you’re not paying for that big brand logo.
Sure, sometimes store brands do taste a little different for certain things. However, there are plenty of great store brands out there that have great quality products for a lot less of the cost. For example, do you really care if you’re buying generic cooking spray if it’s a dollar cheaper and you can’t taste it anyway? Probably not.
Often, many store brands offer almost the exact same product as name brands, but it’s just in different packaging. They are all just as safe to eat as well. Don’t fall victim to marketing tactics and save yourself some money at the grocery store.
13. Make Discount or Dollar Stores Your First Stop For Supplies
Today’s Dollar Stores are not the junk piles they used to be. You can find some great everyday items in a Dollar Store for a fraction of the cost at a grocery store or pharmacy, and even some name brand stuff like laundry detergent and dish soap. It’s also a great place to go for school supplies, decorations, and more.
Hit up the Dollar Store first to get as many things on your list as you can find. It’s worth making the extra trip to save a few dollars here and there. If you can, try to stick to the Dollar stores that sell everything for under $1. Some stores actually charge more than a dollar for some things, which you may not realize until you get to the checkout counter.
14. Don’t Bring a Car to College
There are some valid reasons why someone might need to bring their car to school with them, but the reality is that having a vehicle will not help you learn how to save money in college. In fact, it’ll end up costing you more than you think.
Sure, there are many ways you can rationalize having your car with you. It gives you the flexibility to go anywhere you want when you need to, and if you’re playing on a sports team it’ll give you reliable transportation to practices and games. If you work a
, it’s also easier to get to your shift on time with your own car. However, bringing your vehicle to school comes with a whole range of extra expenses that will weigh down your budget. You’re looking at gas, car insurance, car payments if applicable, and oil changes, as well as any unexpected expenses like tires, repairs, and maintenance. On top of that, most schools charge parking fees or require you to get a parking pass, which can get pretty expensive depending on which school you attend.
Not to mention the other social costs – there’s a high chance you’ll get stuck driving people around or being the designated driver all the time.
Most schools offer free bus passes with your tuition fees, so you’re already paying for that anyway. You may as well take advantage of a no-cost option, and you can always take an Uber or Lyft if you need to go somewhere outside of your bus route or later at night.
15. Get Your Friends on Board With Free Social Activities
Hanging out with your friends and having an active social life is a big deal in college. However, going out all the time requires you to drop a lot of money if you’re constantly hanging out at places like bars or clubs, movie theatres, bowling alleys, sports games, or other entertainment venues. Those activities are fun once in a while, but they’re eating up your budget more than you realize.
When the weather permits, convince your friends to take in free outdoor activities. You can save money and get some fresh air, which helps your mental and physical health as well as your school productivity. Go on a hike, bring a blanket to the park for a group picnic, try geocaching around town, throw a ball around, or spend the day walking around exploring your city. If the weather doesn’t hold up, you can always try some of these
rainy day activities
for free indoor fun time.
Your campus likely offers tons of great amenities and activities, like movie nights, clubs, and fitness classes that won’t cost you anything up front, so take advantage of those as well. Volunteering through school organizations is another wonderful thing you can do with friends for free, and will give you some excellent karma points at the same time.
16. Limit Your Credit Card Spending
Having a credit card is a great way to start building your credit as a student and learning about finances in a practical way. It’s also nice to have for extra peace of mind knowing you have options in case there’s an emergency.
However, be very careful if you choose to have one. It’s easy to get yourself into credit card debt if you aren’t cautious about interest rates and fees. Limit your spending to only what you can pay off right away, and then pay it as soon as possible. Don’t let your card get maxed out and make your payments on time so you can avoid debt and build good credit. Challenge yourself to keep the balance at $0 for as long as possible. Your future self will thank you!
Be realistic and practical with this one – if you’re a known impulse buyer, leave the credit card behind or store it somewhere safe where you can access it only when you absolutely need it. Then you won’t fall victim to the temptation when you’re out and about.
17. Start a Side Hustle
As an alternative to learning how to save money in college, you can always try learning to make extra cash with a side hustle. Of course, this depends on how much free time you have and what type of resources are available to you.
Here are some side hustle ideas you could try that work well with a student schedule:
● Drive for a delivery or rideshare app (if you have a car)
● Become an influencer and get paid to promote products
● Open an Etsy store
● Turn a side passion or hobby into something you can sell (like a small photography business or
● Babysit or pet sit for families in the community (you’ll have to network a little for this one)
● Become a tutor
● Sell some old stuff you don’t need anymore
For more inspiration on your side hustle, check out our blog on the
best side hustles for students
18. Use Library Resources
University and college libraries often have tons of great resources to use in addition to rows and rows of textbooks. All you have to do is go there and check it out, or ask the librarian. For example, instead of spending $80 on a printer (plus up to $50 per ink cartridge) to print out one essay a week, go print it at your school library for less than a dollar.
Libraries also have tons of other cool things you may not realize, like movies you can borrow or computers you can use for free. Some libraries have services where you can rent certain pieces of technology equipment, like tablets or headphones, for a very small amount of money. So if you need one thing for one project, you can just rent it instead of buying it for a one-time use.
19. Find Cheap Travel Deals to Visit Home
If you’re an
or you’re studying across the country, you’ll likely find that the cost of going home to visit your family and friends can add up quickly.
Here are some great websites and apps you can use to find cheap student-budget approved travel deals:
allows you to monitor flights and check for price drops, so you can wait until the price is right to book.
has a 95% accurate price predicting function that can help predict the cheapest time to book your flight, saving you up to 40% off your trip.
helps you plan out the most efficient route to get from point A to point B so you’re not delayed, wasting resources, or spending more than you need to.
lets you search from the current going rates and available options to find the cheapest flights, hotels, and car rentals.
helps you build a customized packing list based on your destination so you won’t forget anything and don’t have to go and buy anything when you get there.
helps track the best gas prices along your route to avoid overspending on gas if you’re travelling by car.
is another great website that helps you compare flight prices to find the cheapest deal to your destination.
20. Live With Roommates
Being out on your own in college is a great time to discover your own independence and learn those “adulting” skills everyone has to develop at some point in their life. As a result, you may be tempted to live on your own after your first year. However, this is a much more expensive option and you can save a lot of money by living in student housing with roommates.
Housing fees and rent costs for one-bedroom rentals can skyrocket depending on the city you’re living in. For example, in Toronto, Ontario, the average price to rent a one bedroom apartment is $2,070 per month
as of 2020
. Meanwhile, the average price of a two bedroom apartment is $2,630. If you shared a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, you’d only have to pay $1,035 in rent – saving you over $1,000 a month.
Living with roommates will help you cut back on costs for other expenses, too, like your bills and grocery trips. It’ll also give you a great opportunity to expand your social circle, avoid feeling lonely or homesick, and have a support network for those more stressful exam days.
21. Find a Cheaper Phone Plan
If you’re living in North America, you’re likely paying a fortune for your phone plan. You don’t need a premium phone plan as a student unless you’re running a professional side business, and most campus buildings have WiFi, anyway.
It can be worth it to make a couple sacrifices for a more basic phone plan while you’re in college and don’t really need all the extra stuff. Do you really need 10GB of data per month when you use WiFi almost anywhere? Probably not, unless you’re constantly streaming Netflix in the park between classes. Check out companies like
(in Canada) for really affordable basic plans.
To really save some money and cut corners in your budget, you can also use a pay-as-you go plan. Yes, these still exist and can cost as low as $20 a month depending on your carrier and location.
22. Save Electricity to Cut Back on Your Hydro Bill
Off-campus housing often comes with added costs, like paying your own hydro bills. If your rent isn’t all-inclusive, you’ll have to be responsible for paying the bills, including cable/Internet, hydro, and even water. Those costs definitely add up. Cut back on your electricity use and you can not only lower those costs, but reduce your own environmental impact at the same time.
Here are some great ways you can save electricity without drastically impacting your life, and therefore cut down on your hydro bill:
● Use LED light bulbs
● Do laundry in off-peak hours
● Open your curtains during the day to let the natural light provide some heat instead of cranking up the thermostat
● Take shorter showers to reduce hot water usage
● Unplug electronics and small appliances when not in use (these use phantom power, which can suck electricity you’re not even using)
● Air dry your clothes instead of throwing everything in the dryer
● Wash your laundry in cold water
● Turn off the lights when you’re not in the room
● Wait until you have a full load of laundry to wash clothing
● Use fans instead of air conditioners when you can
23. Buy Essential Items in Bulk
Buying items in bulk can feel more expensive because it is a higher upfront cost, but it’s actually a great trick to use when you’re figuring out how to save money in college. You may feel like you’re spending a lot at a time, but you’re going to be spending less in the long run because you’re making less frequent shopping trips for those items.
If you go home frequently and your parents have a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, ask them to take you along to stock up. When that’s not an option, you can try buying club packs at the grocery store. This is a great idea for items like meat because you can portion it and freeze it until you’re ready to use it.
Get spices, baking ingredients, candy, and snacks at the Bulk Barn (or similar stores in other countries). You pay less in bulk at these stores because you aren’t paying for the packaging and labels, and can get more at once for cheaper than you would at the grocery store.
24. Protect Your Security Deposit
When you rent an apartment, you usually have to put down a security deposit that you can get back when you move out. This security deposit is there as an agreement between you and your landlord to cover expenses if the property becomes heavily damaged. When you move out, your landlord is required to give it back to you if the home is in the same shape it was when you moved in. In other words, if you don’t maintain your living space, you’ll end up losing that money.
Keeping your place in great shape is the easiest way to protect that investment and get your money back, and it’s also productive for your study time, general health and well-being, and hygiene in general. Throwing a rager might sound like a fun time, but it could cost you hundreds of dollars in your security deposit if something gets damaged.
25. Sign up to be a Resident Advisor (RA)
There are some great perks that come with signing up to be an RA for your school, and that includes reducing your housing fees (and in some cases, eliminating those fees entirely). At most universities and colleges, RAs live in the campus dorms for free or at a steep discount provided they complete the responsibilities and duties of their job.
As an RA, your job is to provide peer support to freshman students and act as a mentor for them. You are also responsible for making sure that the students on your floor are following the rules and regulations, planning events, and being available for students when you’re on duty. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a very fulfilling and rewarding experience that can also save you some housing fees at the same time.
Learning How to Save Money in College Starts With Your Grades
One of the best ways to learn how to save money in college is actually by doing your work, focusing on your studies, and passing your classes. The more you slack off, the more classes you have to re-take, which in turn leads to more money you have to spend.
If you want to avoid the risk of having to spend more money to take extra classes, let a professional help you get the grades you need right off the bat.
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