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How to save money in college

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Between tuition, housing and food — saving anything in college can seem impossible. Add in the more fun expenses, like social activities and spring break, and the total gets even higher.

All of this can feel overwhelming and the idea of saving might not even seem realistic. You probably won’t come out of college with a huge savings account, but you can work on building strong saving habits so that when you do have an income or earn more money, you’ll know what to do with it.

After all, the most important thing to remember when it comes to saving is that every little bit helps and the sooner you start, the better.

Here are seven tips for helping you become a money-savvy college student.

1. Live at home

With the coronavirus threat still at large, universities are increasingly making the decision to go completely online for fall 2020. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean a decrease in tuition — though some schools have lowered it or are offering additional aid — but it does present the option for students to live at home, which could be a huge money saver.

This option may not be ideal, but it could be a smart money move — especially for students who had planned to take out student loans for housing and other living expenses. This decision alone could potentially cut a number of costs that come with moving away to college like housing, groceries and commuting. And that’s just to name a few.

2. Utilize cash back cards

One of the easiest ways to ensure that you’re never leaving money on the table is to utilize a card that offers cash back. You can earn these rewards by using a debit card, a rewards checking account or a credit card.

The Venmo card, for example, is a debit card that uses money from your Venmo balance or bank account. For those unfamiliar with Venmo, it’s a peer-to-peer payment platform that allows you to easily send and receive money from friends and family — making it a popular option among college students.

At first glance, the Venmo card may just look like a convenient choice, but it also offers some nice cash back options. The retailers tend to change every so often, but as of July 2020, some of the top rewards include 5 percent cash back at pharmacies and $5 cash back on Postmates.

Rewards checking accounts operate similarly, though you will typically earn a low flat-rate on all spending. For instance, Discover offers a rewards checking account that earns 1 percent cash back on up to $3,000 in purchases. It’s nothing crazy, but it is something.

Finally, it’s also worth considering a cash back credit card. These cards tend to offer the most lucrative rewards, but they can also be dangerous if not managed responsibly. Students who can commit to paying the balance on-time and in-full each month will find a lot of value in these cards. However, if that’s not the case or if the student lacks credit history to get approved, then it’s not worth rushing into getting one. You won’t receive any rewards if you don’t pay the bills and saving a few bucks is not worth lowering your credit score.

3. Leverage student discounts

It pays to be a savvy shopper — especially when you’re a college student on a lean budget. Retailers are pretty aware of this predicament and many offer a student discount of some sort. It’s just a matter of asking or looking for them. Some of the top student discounts you don’t want to miss out on include:

  • Spotify Premium with access to Hulu and Showtime for just $4.99 a month (Saves about $22 a month)
  • Amazon Prime offers a free six-month subscription (50 percent off annual subscription)
  • Apple offers a discount to students and educators with savings up to 15 percent off on select products. Students can currently get a free pair of AirPods, a free year of Apple TV+ and six months free of Apple Music with a purchase of a new Mac.

There are also websites out there like UNiDAYS, Honey, StudentBeans and Rakuten that will do the discount searching for you. Bookmark the pages or download the browser extension so you don’t forget next time you’re checking out.

4. Keep track of your spending

It’s hard to find areas where you can save if you don’t have a budget in place. With that being said, it’s a good idea to regularly check in on your checking account or your Venmo account. But there are also apps out there that will help you create a custom budget and track spending for you.

“A key to being able to save money is also knowing where you are wasting money,” says Robert Farrington, founder and CEO of The College Investor. “The goal should be to save as much of the money as possible already earmarked for college. I recommend that you start by using an online tool to help you track your spending.”

Boro, for instance, is a personal finance app specifically designed for students. Instead of just checking your balance, the app makes it a more entertaining experience by providing students with interesting insights into their spending and personalized finance tips. For instance, when students sign up, they have to provide their university email, which allows them to see how their spending habits stack up against their peers. The use of this anonymized data is a fun way to spark conversations on the topic of finances among students.

The app also allows students to set financial goals for themselves, which is a good place to start when it comes to building smart savings habits. By seeing where exactly your money is going (ahem, Starbucks), you can better visualize where you should cut back and save.

5. Save on school supplies and textbooks

As if tuition weren’t expensive enough, there’s also the cost of books and school supplies. However, just because the syllabus says you need something, it doesn’t mean you should get it. At least not right away.

With many universities going online, there’s a good chance that more class materials will also be online. If your syllabus still lists physical items, wait until class starts to see if it’s really necessary to buy them.

If a professor still insists, here are a few ways you could save some money:

  • Buy a used copy
  • Rent your textbooks
  • Check to see if there’s an online version
  • Split the cost with a friend
  • Try the library

6. Get a side hustle

With millions of Americans facing unemployment, students may have a harder time than usual finding a part-time job. A side gig, however, may be a good alternative.

Some popular side hustles to look into:

  • If you have a car, try out driving for DoorDash or UberEats
  • Sell your stuff and skills online (Artwork, coding, etc.)
  • If you’re an animal person, try out Rover — a dog walking and pet sitting site
  • Take up tutoring

7. Open a high-yield savings account

Even if you’re only putting a few dollars into savings each month, there’s still an opportunity to grow what you have by putting your money into a high-yield savings account.

All you have to do is open an account, add money to it and voila! The bank will pay you a select interest rate to store your money. If you’re worried about not having access to your money, do not fret — high-yield savings accounts are a liquid saving option. You can move money out of the account six times per month and potentially more. Make sure to find an account that has a low, if not $0, minimum balance requirement.

To see how much you could earn just by saving, give Bankrate’s savings calculator a try.

Bottom line

Saving while in school may seem out of reach, but if you follow these tips, you should be able to save a little extra cash — even if it’s just a few dollars off online shopping.

Just remember that no matter how little, every bit helps. The important part is that you are working on developing smart saving habits now, which is the base of a strong financial future, and that’s something worth celebrating.

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Written by
Liz Hund
Creative producer
Liz Hund is a social producer at Bankrate and occasionally writes special features on-site with a social-first angle. Her writing has been featured on MSN, Business Insider and in various local publications.
Edited by
Banking editor