How to save money this school year

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Parents know that the late summer and the start of the school year can put a dent in your wallet; whether it’s spending on new clothes, supplies or additional groceries each month — expenses start to get steep.

According to the National Retail Foundation, families with kids in elementary through high school were expected to spend an average of nearly $700 on school supplies this fall. Those with a young adult in college have it even worse — the same study estimates that they spend around $975 before heading back to class.  

For students themselves — thanks to the cost of student loans — each little expense in college can feel like a raindrop in a river of debt. Our own study on student loans determined that 31% of Americans have student loan debt, a number that’s still the rise. The Federal Reserve reported that about 69% of students from the Class of 2018 had to take out student loans, with an average debt amount just shy of $30,000.

There’s no doubt that the school year can be a pricey time. Luckily, there are credit cards and some savvy tricks out there that can discount your prices and earn rewards on your spending. While we may not find you a card that’ll cut costs as much as splitting a college textbook with a couple classmates, a little extra help and a few tips might be useful when spending this semester.

Saving on school shopping with credit cards

Each credit card is going to offer different rewards on your spending, so knowing where you shop the most can help you decide on the kind of card you want. 

Flat-rate cash back cards

Parents of families with more than one student headed back to the classroom may find interest in certain cash back cards. Anyone who finds themselves spending a lot in various places, a flat-rate cash back card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited or Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card card will earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase. 

Tiered rewards cards

School year spending can surely up a family’s budget on groceries, gas and other expenses, so take a glance at some cards that have higher rewards rates for certain categories. With the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, you’ll earn 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs — but it’s got even more to offer. You can also select from several categories to earn 3% cash back on your purchases: travel, gas, dining, online shopping, drug stores and home improvement/furnishing (up to a $2,500 cap per quarter in combined 2% and 3% categories, then 1%). Given this flexible rewards structure, card-holding parents and students have ways to save at the pump, when buying supplies, even on online spending, and furniture for moving into a new apartment. 

Low introductory APR cards

Another type of card to consider to help save on initially steep university costs are 0% intro APR cards. Starting college comes with some large purchases like laptops, furnishing a new place, school supplies and textbooks. If you’re concerned at all about charging these expenses to your credit card and not being able to pay off the balance at the end of the month, consider a 0% intro APR card. One well-rounded candidate is the HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card, which features a 12-month welcome period with 0% intro APR on both balance transfers and purchases (after that, a variable APR of 14.99 to 24.99% applies) as well as 3% cash back on all your purchases (up to an annual limit of $10,000, then 1.5% after that). This option means a year to spread out the costs of these initial purchases and still offers an excellent cash back rewards rate that makes it a great day-to-day card. 

Ways to save as a student

College can be a place filled with incredible new friendships, learning experiences, fun and hopefully a little bit of growing up, but it’s important for college students not to let pre-adulthood paradise distract them from their financial obligations. 

It can take some time to get adjusted to managing expenses from student loans, textbooks, rent, food and some costly weekend (or weeknight) festivities. Let’s go over some tips — some more obvious than others — we’ve learned to avoid overspending at school. 

  1. Utilize what’s offered exclusively to students: College towns are often filled with places offering student discounts, so explore the spots that incentivize students. Some places offer savings or a points system for groceries, meals, furniture and more. College campuses often have affordable food plans, a free (or reduced rate) gym and free activities like intramural sports, movie nights, music events and other club activities, giving you ways to enjoy your college experience while saving some money.
  2. Explore your options when buying textbooksThe price of college textbooks can be absurd, so finding a friend or classmate who has taken the course previously could save some money. Buying or renting a used textbook is almost always the smartest way to prepare for the semester, but an online copy can also be an affordable option. Consider selling used textbooks at the end of the semester to recoup some of the expense.
  3. Take the time to plan out expenses: Whether you end up living alone, with friends or with that one weird roommate you’ll talk about for the rest of your life, paying expenses like rent and utilities is a somewhat-new experience for everyone. Make sure you know what your monthly expense obligations are, when they’re due and (if you’re splitting them) who’s responsible for paying what. Avoiding late fees on your bills is essential to saving and keeping your costs down. 
  4. Cut the things you don’t need: Staying organized in college can be difficult, but it’s a good time to start budgeting your real-life expenses to save some money. Figuring out your necessities when it comes to grocery shopping can save you a sizable amount of money over time, so keep an eye out for food you consistently let go to waste. Your school supplies can also accumulate to large costs over time, so know your learning habits and only get the materials you need.
    Review monthly recurring expenses — there are likely some you could get rid of. Things like internet are necessary to get all your work done (unless you’re a library-regular), but that doesn’t mean you can’t do away with things like cable packages if you decide it’s not needed. Streaming services, club dues and other expenses might also be hitting your account monthly, so explore what you can do to save. 
  5. Look into summer programs: Your tuition each semester is certainly a substantial cost, but many universities and community colleges offer more affordable classes to take during May or over the summer. This can save you a lot of money over time by catching you up on classes, expediting your graduation date and making the most of the year-round apartment or townhouse lease you’re paying. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover how many other students stick around for courses over break, so taking a class or two could lead to other great college experiences.