How to save money in college
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Between tuition, housing and food —saving money 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 the expenses can feel overwhelming, to the point where the idea of saving money 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 how to manage it well.
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. Reduce living expenses
The average cost of room and board at an in-state, four-year public school was $11,950 for the 2021-22 school year, according to the College Board. You’ll likely pay several thousand more at a private institution.
You may be able to save money by forgoing the dorms and getting an inexpensive apartment located near the school, if your college or university allows you to live off campus. Having a kitchen where you can prepare your own meals may be more cost effective than paying for a meal plan with the school cafeteria.
If you’re open to living at home with your family and attending a nearby college, this may save you a bundle on housing and possibly groceries. If you’re taking out loans for college, shaving room and board off your total bill could mean paying off your college debt years sooner.
2. Utilize cash back cards
One way to ensure you’re not leaving money on the table is to use a card that offers cash back or other rewards. Such programs are often available with debit cards, rewards checking accounts or credit cards.
The Venmo card, for example, is a debit card that uses money from your Venmo balance or bank account. Venmo is a peer-to-peer payment service that allows you to 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, and cash back amounts can vary by offer. Past offers have included 5 percent cash back for purchases at Wendy’s, Target and Sephora.
Rewards checking accounts operate similarly, though you’ll typically earn a low flat-rate on all spending. For instance, Quontic Bank offers a rewards checking account that earns 1.5 percent cash back on eligible purchases.
Finally, it’s also worth considering a cash back credit card. These tend to offer the most lucrative rewards, but they can also be dangerous if not managed responsibly. They’re not a good fit for students who cannot commit to paying the full balance every month or who may lack the credit history to get approved.
3. Leverage student discounts
It pays to be a savvy shopper — especially when you’re a college student on a lean budget. Retailers commonly offer discounts to students, such as:
- Spotify Premium Student: This account provides a discounted subscription to Spotify Music, along with access to Hulu and Showtime. After a one-month free trial, the cost is $4.99 a month, and you can cancel anytime.
- Amazon Prime Student: You’ll get all Prime benefits, such as textbook rental, Prime Video and free shipping. After a free six-month trial, you’ll pay $7.49 a month.
- Discounted Apple products: Apple offers discounts to students and educators on select computers and iPads.
You can also receive student discounts on various products and memberships through websites like Unidays. It currently features discounts and deals from merchants such as Apple, American Eagle, Dell, GoPro, Puma, Samsung, Uber Eats and Under Armour.
4. Keep track of your spending
Inflation is near a 40-year high, with prices rising on essentials like groceries, gas, rent, utilities, prescription drugs and personal care products. Identifying ways to save money can help take some of the bite out of inflation.
It’s hard to find areas where you can save if you don’t have a budget in place. You can make budgeting quicker and easier with a money-saving app that analyzes your spending and identifies areas where you can save money. Some apps can even automatically transfer funds to your savings account.
Popular apps to help you save money include Digit, Mint, PocketGuard, Qapital and You Need a Budget.
“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.”
Kora is a personal finance app designed specifically for students, and its money tools have been created with input from college students. Kora provides insights into your spending and gives you personalized finance tips. It can even show you a comparison of how your money skills compare to those of other students — on an anonymous basis.
The app also allows students to set financial goals, which is a good place to start when it comes to building smart savings habits. By seeing where exactly your money is going — such as music, clothing or restaurants — you can better visualize where you should cut back and save.
5. Save on school supplies and textbooks
College books can easily set you back hundreds of dollars per semester. Your course list may include required materials, but it can pay to hold off until the professor confirms you need these on the first day of class.
If you do want to buy your books before classes start, confirm with the bookstore that it will accept returned books that haven’t been removed from their packaging.
Some ways you may be able to save money on books include:
- Buy used textbooks.
- Rent textbooks.
- Check if there’s an online version that’s cheaper.
- Split the cost with a friend who’s taking the same class.
- See if the library has any of the required reading materials.
6. Get a side hustle
Many students earn money through a part-time job that they can attend after school or on weekends. However, participating in sports or other extracurricular activities may limit how much time you can devote to work. If this is the case, a flexible side hustle may be your best bet.
Some ideas for side hustles include:
- Working as a driver for DoorDash or Uber Eats
- Selling things in an online marketplace like eBay, Etsy or Amazon
- Dog walking
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.
If you don’t already have a savings account, they’re often easy to open and many don’t require much — if any — of an opening deposit. Finding an account that pays you the highest annual percentage yield (APY) will help grow your balance as quickly as possible.
While savings accounts at brick-and-mortar banks commonly earn an APY of 0.01 percent, much higher rates — of up to 3 percent — can currently be found at some online banks. To see how much you could earn just by saving, give Bankrate’s savings calculator a try.
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.
— Liz Hund wrote a previous version of this article.