What are the best tips for saving money as a university student?

I will be attending university this coming semester and am planning on maintaining a sustainable financial situation right now, but would like any good tips or suggestions to saving money as a student.

  • 2
    The question assumes that you have some sort of regular income, right?
    – JohnFx
    Feb 21, 2011 at 15:55
  • 1
    You might want to make this a community wiki question as there might not be one "right" answer. Typically, this community asks that questions be phrased in a way that can be answered definitively.
    – JAGAnalyst
    May 17, 2013 at 20:30
  • Doesn't this depend a lot on which country the student is based on? For eg. Books may be a big expense in some countries and may not be in others.
    – user93353
    May 21, 2013 at 4:09

13 Answers 13


Here's a few:

  • If your plan results in carrying $100k in student debt at the end, you need a new plan.
  • Don't drink unless someone else is paying, or if you're buying a special.
  • Don't live beyond your means.
  • 2
    +1 for don't drink unless someone else is paying. Made my day! Feb 24, 2011 at 10:04

Two points. Someone has mentioned "don't do the starbucks coffee" thing... Try not to pay for fast food, either. They might not like you having cooking equipment in your dorm, but things like sandwiches and cereal don't require that (and often there is a common kitchen). Did you know oatmeal is so cheap it's basically free? Also dirt cheap and ridiculously nutritious: beans, lentils. There's certainly the "ramen noodles" stereotype but even beyond that, if you can learn how to cook a few decent things for yourself, you can do quite well. Oh, did I mention rice?

On a related note, skip the bottled water and the sodas. (Especially the sodas, which can do you little good.) Snack on vegetables (carrots, celery, etc). They're not always cheaper than the cheapest of the cheap snacks that exist, but they're actually good for you. A big bag of carrots will give you a lot to munch and is reasonably cost-effective. Besides, I know you need more of them in your diet. Really.

Finally, consider a summer job / internship. Not only will it earn you money now, but it might land you a much nicer job straight out of college, saving you years of earning less. (This goes triple for anyone studying computer science/engineering, by the way!!!) If that doesn't work out, consider summer-session classes. Sometimes they can work out cheaper than the regular kind.


When buying textbooks, make sure to compare the local bookstore to online prices. Also check out places to sell textbooks online, like Amazon.


Spend less.

As @jldugger said, shop around for textbooks. Make sure to look for used books: you can sometimes save a lot of money there.

Be smart about food money. I could go to our on-campus grill and get a sandwich and a salad for lunch. If I packed both with toppings, the salad could be a 2nd meal for the same day. If you have the option, get a meal plan that is just 1 meal a day, and eat a lot that meal.

Don't do the starbucks "pay several dollars for a coffee each day" thing. Small-ish regular expenses add up quickly.

Quit smoking (if applicable).

Ditch your car if possible. Some colleges are in cities with good public transportation or are small enough that a bike will do. Cars are very expensive.

Try to find free activities to do in your free time. Usually college towns are great places to find free fun. Pick-up sports, student concerts/art shows, playing board/card/video games.

Make sure to track how you're spending money to look for areas where you could be spending less. There are plenty of tools available to help with this.

Some on-campus jobs involve sitting around and occasionally doing something: IE working the checkout desk at the library. A job like this (if you can find one) can effectively pay you for doing our homework.

One other very important college-related financial tip is to not take out more loans than you can afford. I've heard a good rule of thumb is not take our more loans than you expect to earn your first year after graduating. Look up average starting salaries for the career you realistically expect to have after you graduate. If you would need to borrow much more than that to get your degree, rethink your plans. Being a slave to a bank for years is a crappy way to spend your life.


There are many ways to temper the dollar burden of an education. Your question has very little information, so I am going to assume the following: You are attending a University in the United States, you are paying for school with a combination of loans, scholarships, gifts, and your own income, and that you are a typical (socially) 18-22 year old male/female.


  • Public school is cheaper than private school. Obviously, this isn't blanket advice intended to cover situations where you're going to a prestigious private school, i.e. ivy league, or cal tech, or MIT, etc. All it is meant to say is that, at face value, Big Public Non-Religious University is significantly cheaper than Small Private Religious University.
  • Consider a so called "regional university" or whatever your state calls them, rather than a research university. Using my home state as an example, consider attending Western Washington University instead of the University of Washington. Western/Central/Eastern 2010 tuition is ~$6156, UW/WSU 2010 tuition is ~$8596. Obviously, if you're studying something like Engineering, you can't get that at Western, and need to go to UW/WSU, but I challenge someone to quantify the difference in say, a History degree, from Western vs. UW.
  • Consider tiering your education, i.e. do 2 years at a smaller public regional school before moving to a bigger research university. Most degree programs (but not all) are or can be condensed into 2 years. Learning calculus, biology, physics, and chemistry at a smaller regional school is the SAME calculus, biology, physics, and chemistry you will learn at a bigger research university, and the credits WILL transfer 1:1 except in rare circumstances.
  • Graduate in 4 years. 4 years of tuition is cheaper than 5 years of tuition.
  • Take a full credit load. Usually tuition rates are quoted at (Quarter schools, for example) 12 credits per quarter. However, more tuition isn't charged until say, 18 credits per quarter is exceeded. I.e. 12 credits and 18 credits, costs the same. I don't know the typical credit adjustment for semester schools, sorry, University I went to was quarter based.
  • Scholarships. Scholarships. Scholarships. Don't be shy applying for these. Also, consider greatly the major you choose. For instance, at the UW, roughly 33% to 40% of engineering students were paying 0 tuition due to the abundance of scholarships available within the college of engineering as a whole, and within the specific degree program. I doubt (but I do not know) this level of scholarships were available to departments outside of the college of engineering.


  • Do not eat at campus eateries if you are super serious about saving money. This will run you $6-10 a meal for a full meal. You can eat significantly cheaper than this by bringing a lunch in a sack. Avoid snacks like: soda, candy, coffee, etc.
  • All the cool people you will meet will want to go out to restaurants from time to time. Be aware of the significant financial cost associated with this guilty pleasure. If you are absolutely penny pinching, do not go. As being social is 100% important to any college education, if you must partake, don't go to 5 course meals. Alcohol makes dinner expensive.
  • Learn to cook. Seriously. Learn to make large meals that you can freeze, or than you can eat 4 days in a row. Variety and good cooking is the key to making 4 days of the same meal not make you go crazy.

Alcohol and Social Activities

  • Booze is expensive. Drinking at a bar is much more expensive than drinking at someone's house. Drinking 3 nights a week is more expensive than drinking 1 night a week. If you are going imbibe alcohol, do it responsibly, do it in moderation, and do it cheaply.
  • If attending BYOB parties with your friends, consider a "I'll make delicious food and feed people if you guys buy me beer" approach. Often times your friends will graciously give you booze, and chip a few dollars in, for food and being cooked for AND think they got the sweet end of the deal. $20 of food and an hour of your time is significantly cheaper than $40 for alcohol.
  • College students will want to do things like: spring breaks, trips to europe, vegas, etc. Obviously these are expensive. I may be a stick in the mud here, but you don't need a summer trip to Switzerland. You'll live.
  • Football tickets. Cost a lot of money. If you don't really want to go, don't.
  • Girlfriends/boyfriends can be expensive. Find a girlfriend/boyfriend who isn't expensive and is as cheap as you are. Match made in heaven.


  • Amazon marketplace (or equivalent) is your friend. Find out what book is being used early and buy it early. I did my first Bachelors before Amazon Marketplace, and my 2nd Bachelors after. I paid significantly less money the 2nd time. Often times, you can get the same books for 30-50% of the cost, if you accept a little wear or a paperback version. Other times, you might only save a bit, and have to pay 85% of the cost. Either way, it is essentially guaranteed to be cheaper than your campus bookstore.
  • If you don't want your book anymore when you are done, sell it.


  • Live a decent way away from the university. Many homes around major regional universities are slumlords' dreams. I.e. they take a 4 bedroom house, remodel it to contain 11 bedrooms 11 "closets", 4 bathrooms, and rent them all out at egregious costs because they are "close" to the university.
  • A 4 bedroom house 3 miles from a university will be less expensive than a 4 bedroom house 5 blocks from the university.
  • Be a good roommate. The key to living cheap is finding good roommates and not living alone, the key to finding good roommates is being a good roommate yourself. Consistent, good roommates throughout your university experience will be a blessing, both socially and to your pocketbook.
  • Do not live on campus. I actually advocate spending 1 year on campus for the social aspect, unless of course you're financially strapped. It will cost a significant premium over renting a house/apartment, and will invariably require a meal plan, which is also expensive.
  • Do not use your car unless you have to. $1/gallon gas is never coming back. Most major universities in major metro areas have some sort of public transportation deal. Use it. This bit of advice is highly highly subject to the specifics of where your school is. Some places, say Seattle, you can get by EASILY with no vehicle. Some other places, say Pullman, Washington, you'd be insane to not have a Vehicle. Long story short, if you bring your car, do not use it unless absolutely necessary. Consider modifications to your insurance during school.
  • Live light. I.e. you don't need a big screen TV, let a different roommate get that. You don't need a foozeball table, let a different roommate get that. You don't need a couch, let a different roomie get that.

Income (I don't have as much advice here, someone else will need to chime in)

  • Working while you go to school is hard, but not impossible. Many jobs you get on campus (i.e. the library, washing labware in a lab, etc.) will be low paying, low hours, and low value added.
  • If you are studying a technical discipline, get an internship ASAP. Snaking a internship between freshmen and soph years is hard, same with between soph and jr year, but if you have no internship between Jr and Sr year, you are behind the curve. If you are doing an engineering discipline, heavily consider a CO-OP assignment between junior and senior years. These usually last 6 to 9 months instead of a summer and add a year to your age when you graduate (but not a year to your tuition), but, engineering co-ops routinely pay $18 to $24 per hour, and routinely turn into jobs when you graduate. I'd estimate 50% to 75% of my class who had offers after graduation had them (and took them) through the company they interned or co-op'd with.
  • Work your BUTT off at any internship/co-op you get. Meet as many people as possible there.
  • Think outside of the box with regards to jobs. If you see a posting for a college graduate job, but the job description looks like something you could do, apply and make an argument in your cover letter. It WILL get read. In an effort to drop our billable rate, we hired two college juniors from a local university to do jobs we normally get college graduates to do. They get to do the more simple technical stuff, learn valuable experience, they get to make a good wage, they get to work as much as they want when they want, our billing rate goes down, the client sees us as cheaper. It is win/win/and win.

Young folks and students are more likely to be overdrawn on accounts, which is ridiculously expensive. Use a program like GNUcash to anticipate all your expenses. You can enter future dated transactions, and it will show you future minimum balances. Negative future minimum balances are of course, the thing you need to worry about.

This is especially important as you'll have a mix of large upfront costs (tuition, books), large upfront receivables (student loans, grants), recurring expenses (food, rent, beer), and perhaps recurring income from a part time job. Software helps you record all the nuances to this system so that you can see how much the typical 'friday night fun' will bankrupt you.


Try to cash flow as much as you can. You can work and go to school, if you replace playing beer pong with a job you'll be in a lot better off at graduation, grade wise and debt wise.

Make a budget, for each month and for each semester, plan cut cost accordingly.

Used books, sometimes even the next to recent version.

Read this book for more info Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents


Hm, surprised nobody has mentioned tech gadgets yet.

I'm surprised how many undergrads run around with the latest iPhone, iPad, MacBook, of course all with unlimited data etc.

There's just no reason to drop $1500 on a laptop and to pay $50 a month for a cell phone plan.


Get a decent job while at university - it will make all the difference. And calculate your budget and don't spend more than your budget allows

Worked for me. That was the time when I had the greatest disposable income - all gone downhill since :-)


Textbooks - Don't buy them unless you need it for assignments. You can probably borrow it a few times from people if you need it. They're a huge expense and I've found to be usually unnecessary. If you absolutely need a book, check the library first, and if you can't get it, rent it from Amazon or something like that. I've saved a lot from not buying textbooks and I've lost some money buying books for a class and never using it.

On Campus Job - It's something to do, and it's usually a pretty easy way to get some money. I'd suggest finding something where you can do homework at the same time as working. As time goes on, try to get an internship somewhere because that usually will result in more money.

  • Keep track of how much you make and spend
  • Don't waste money on stuff you don't need
  • Living off campus might be cheaper, but it depends
  • Try for scholarships in your major's department

I'm a college student entering my senior year, and I've found that not spending money on things you don't need is the best way to save. At the same time, I believe you should have fun in college, and it's okay to spend some money as long as you have it. Never let your bank account go below a certain amount, and realize that you'll have to control yourself sometimes. Also, if you plan on partying, you're going to spend a significant amount of money on it, and I'd suggest being budget conscience of this when you think about your money.

Overall, you'll lose a lot of money in college, but as long as you're going for a useful major, you'll be fine after college. Try to save money wherever you can, but have fun too. Usually, there's a lot of fun and cool events that are at a significantly reduced price or even free, which is a way of saving some money too and still having fun.


Savings - Once you've got the expenses buckled down with the other advice here, get into the habit of saving. Even if you can only start with $5 a month, do that. From there, if you get a pay bump at your current job, put the entirety of that increase into savings (so you're living off the same amount that you were before the raise). If you get a raise via a new job (which tends to be much more significant), put half of the difference into savings (so you're living on more than before and reaping the benefits of the upward mobility, while still putting a fair bit into savings). Automate this, too -- set up your direct deposit or set a recurring transfer on your bank account to move the money. Out of sight, out of mind.

Bank Accounts - Make sure you get accounts that don't cost you money. There are plenty out there that don't cost anything to have the account open. For the savings accounts, don't settle for the pittance Chase and their ilk give. ~2% is currently the going rate, make use of that.

Automate Billpay (With Safeguards) - I'm a fan of automation, because automation means there are no missed payments. Budget what you need for your bills and pay them into a "bill pay" account or section (however you do your budgeting) so you know you always have the amount you need. Then set them up on autopay. This is especially useful for the fixed-rate bills. Keep a list of your bills and how much they are, and check in regularly to make sure you aren't getting any surprise expenses.


Do not stay on a campus based university. You are trapped and everything is expensive. Go to a city based university where more choice of pricing on food and accommodation is available, as well as more jobs.


I'm in the exact same position! Starting college next year and I'm looking for ways to save. I've been told by upperclassmen friends to use http://libgen.io/ to find free textbooks online. Also, meal prep is a great way to save money (if you're not tied down to a school dining plan).

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