Truth #1: College is meant to be fun! Truth #2: Too much fun can totally ruin your finances! Fortunately, there are several ways for you to preserve your finances without limiting your fun to the point that college becomes a bore! Here’s a look at some great ways to manage your money, and have fun at the same time!
Know Your Funding
The first major way you’ll save money in college is by knowing what money you have to begin with. A lot of college students use their Work Study positions as a personal Entertainment Fund. That’s all well and good if all your college expenses– from tuition to the outfits you’ll need big presentations– are already paid for. But there’s nothing worse than spending all your cash on fun and games, only to have a professor spring a new required reading or class trip you now don’t have the money for. Figure out how much of your earned money, and savings, you can put towards paying off any outstanding school balances, if it’s worth it to use your job payment that way (which it almost always is, even if you’re not making hundreds), and what you can stand to put to more personal use, like checking out that new Blockbuster your friends want to see this weekend!
Set an Allowance
A great way to keep yourself from spending more than you can afford to in college is to set an allowance. Whether it’s setting aside just twenty dollars for a weekly entertainment and recreation fund, or splitting your paycheck in half to pay for necessities and luxuries, figure out how much you can allow yourself to spend without putting yourself in the hole. It may sound weird to set an allowance for yourself, but even some major banks are starting special programs for college students that only allow account users to charge certain amounts to their accounts. Setting your boundaries yourself helps you both keep track of your money, pick and choose what you really want to spend it on, and make sure you’re not spending more than you can really afford to. And don’t cut yourself too much slack; if you overspend your allowance one week or month, cut back on your allowance the next time! It might help to have a trusted friend keep you accountable by reminding you you’re on a “fixed income” when you’re talking about going out to dinner again!
Learn to Say No
When I was in college, friends were constantly suggesting day trips, dinner outings, and other fun activities I just couldn’t afford. Unfortunately, I had not mastered the art of saying “No” to them; on several occasions I spent money I knew could have been put to better use on trips that were fun but costly. Learning to say no to your friends, and yourself, helps you to keep from spending more than you should just because you can. Friends will always want to spend time with you, and may not think about the fact that you’re pressed for cash if they can afford to do whatever it is they’re suggesting! On some occasions that I said no to activities, some friends mistook my inability to afford those activities for an unwillingness to hang out with them. Though it’s not your job to explain to your friends that you either don’t have the money to do certain things or are trying to put your money to better use, it’s also good to let them know that as much as you like hanging out with them you like taking care of your finances a lot, too!
Pick the Right Meal Plan
This suggestion seems a little out of place in the midst of the rest, but trust me when I say picking the wrong meal plan can be costly when it comes to paying the college bill. Let’s say you have one meal plan that’s $2000 for unlimited access to the cafeteria and includes $100 flexible spending dollars for meals in other on-campus restaurants or cafes; you have another meal plan for $1500 that offers just 10 meals a week in the cafeteria and $600 in flexible spending. If you’re a student who always has time for a meal in the cafeteria, the first meal plan is a better deal because you get all the meals you want in the cafeteria with a little money on the side you can use for movie night snacks or the occasional quick snack between classes. If, on the other hand, you’re never around during the cafeteria’s meal hours (many have set hours for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), the second plan is better for you because with the first plan you’d wind up with more meals than you’d ever use and no way to eat! Look at your class schedule to see when you can eat, and compare that to the times different places on campus are open for you to eat. Check your work schedule, too. You’d be amazed at how much you can shave off a tuition bill by picking a cheaper meal plan without starving yourself! And make sure you use your meal plan; if you opt for a plan that offers unlimited meals in the cafeteria, don’t let friends convince you to eat off-campus every other night!
Living Expenses -vs- Livin’ Expenses
This is basically to say: know the difference between what you want and what you need. Sure, that new iPod might be really cool, and can hold your entire three week collection of music. But is it really more important than getting the supplies you’ll need for your Chemistry and Computer Science classes? Probably not. Don’t waste money on things you want when there are plenty of things you need to spend your money on! That includes trips to amusement parks that could have been trips to the museum to research for your Art History class, or renting that multi-disc classic version of Pride and Prejudice starring your future husband Colin Firth when you could have been watching the version of Romeo and Juliet your professor recommended as a great external resource for your English class.
Find it for Less
What applies for buying clothes in college applies for buying just about anything else. Learn to search for the best bargains on everything you buy, from dorm decorations to appliances. Make sure you’re buying the things you really need. Is that flat screen television a necessity? Could you get away with using your parents’ spare floor lamp instead of buying a new one? Many of the common dorm necessities you’ll need can be found at thrift shops; just make sure the things you buy work before you get them home! Check out online sites that offer discounted prices, item swaps, et cetera. Does your campus have any public billboards where students and organizations post flyers? These will often be filled with advertisements from students looking to unload some unwanted goods. Check these out during the first week of school (when many students realize they’ve packed too much and can’t keep it all), at the end of the semester (when students will unload their books, class supplies, and other items), around the week students will receive notification of their acceptance to a study abroad semester (that’s usually between the last week of one semester and the start of the next), and at the end of the year (when many students want to get rid of anything from unwanted books to refrigerators and televisions they can’t take home). Trust me when I say that those campus billboards are your friends; people advertise everything from clothing-swaps to CD and DVD sales. Every once in a while when I was in college, I’d see an advertisement for the sale of a used car when a student either received a new one or had no more use for it. You’ll find just about everything you could ever want advertised on those boards.
Limit Your Address Book
Lots of college students fill their cellphone address books with contact information for just about everyone they’ve ever met. This leads to the temptation to send text messages to just about everyone you’ve ever met. Limit unnecessary spending like text messages to people you really need to get those messages to. Usually the same information students will send via text message could have been sent in an email, by way of another friend, or the classic sticky-note-to-door maneuver. Take advantage of the free services your campus offers: free calls to different dorm room extensions, email, etc. Instead of running up your cellphone bill, use these resources to save yourself some extra money during the semester. Let friends know the times you can be reached on your dorm room phone verses your cellphone. If you have free nights and weekends, try to limit your talk time to then. Save up your minutes for that long distance call to your parents every weekend. Let friends know if they’re sending you too many messages that you’re paying for. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries concerning when people can call and/or message you. Even if you’re only paying a few cents per text message, believe me, after a while those nickels and dimes can really start to stack up against you. Limit your messages to important things. (In other words, no, “I see u!” texts from across the room in the library.)
Thrift is the New Black
Isn’t it great when college savings and fashion align? Well in the case of thrift shopping, we’ve stumbled upon a dream come true! On colleges across the United States, thrift is officially the new black. It’s cool to buy used. I can’t count the number of times I heard the following exchange on my college campus: “I’m headed to Sal Val [Salvation Army].”/ “Oh, can I come?!” College students are quickly becoming the prized possessions of Good Will and Salvation Army workers across the nation! If you just have to get a new shirt or pair of jeans, trying buying a used pair from the thrift store before you fork over some hundred dollars to a place like Urban Outfitters to simulate that used, worn-out look!
Beat the Books
I once had a college professor muse, “You know, if you were really smart, and really wanted to save money on your text books, you could just check the book out of the library before we start using it. The check-out period lasts for longer than we’re even going to be using the book!” That is so true it isn’t even funny! This clearly doesn’t work for all your classes, but it doesn’t hurt to check. Find out if the library on campus, or a library close by off-campus, has any of the books you need for classes. Plan ahead so you can check those books out of the library before your class starts studying them, and you’ll save potentially hundreds of dollars on books! Another way to beat the bookstore is to find friends or fellow classmates who have the same class with the same professor at a different time, even if it’s only five minutes apart. Split the cost of your books with people taking the same class at a different time (note: it’s important to be sure you’ll actually be using the same books). You can debate who gets to keep them later; for now, you’ve cut back majorly on the cost of your text books!
“Let Us Entertain You”
Lots of college campuses campaign for your attention on the weekends; try opening your eyes and seeing what they’re offering before you go gallivanting off-campus! Many colleges have dollar or $2 movies, sports events, free dances, and even free concerts. Colleges host these events over weekends and even during the week. And it’s all usually dirt cheap! At my college, the Student Activity Board brought in some amazing performers like Rosie Thomas, Regina Spektor, and Nickel Creek for anywhere from $15 to free admission. Most of the things you’d like to go off-campus to do can be done on campus for next to nothing. Instead of running to Blockbuster to rent movies for the weekend, check if the campus library has a copy of the film you’re interested in. Why pay to go to a sports emporium when you’ve got a baseball field, tennis and basketball court, track, and more right there on campus? Find things to do on campus instead of leaving the campus and increasing your chances of spending money on things you don’t need.