Three Ways to Cut Costs in College

By Kathy Sweedler, Consumer Economics Educator, University of Illinois Extension.

Typically people think of spending—not saving—while in college. It’s true that once you choose where to attend school, your tuition and fees costs are fixed. However, at many schools, tuition and fees may be less than half of your overall costs.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public four-year, in-state costs in 2015-16 for students totaled $19,189 and tuition and fees was only 46 percent of the total costs; room and board was the remaining amount. Add in other costs, such as fun, clothing, and toiletries, and tuition and fees is an even smaller percentage.

You can save money on these “other” costs while in college. Let’s look at three strategies used by college students and you can choose which one fits your lifestyle the best!

Small Items Add Up

We often pay attention to large purchases, but may not notice when we spend small amounts of money. However, small purchases that we make regularly do add up, and it can make a big difference over time. Look how much these purchases add up over a year. Do any of the following expenses resonate with you?

One snack item a day, at $1.25, is $465.25 in a year
Parking meter charges for eight hours a week ($8.00) add up $416.
Lunch out five times a week ($8.00 per lunch) costs $2,080.

Multiple these amounts times four years of college and the amount of student loans needed to cover these costs is significant. Stepping down how often you incur these costs helps. Think about what small costs you have regularly and what action you’d like to take to save money.

Big Expenses Matter

Rent, internet fees, insurance, and cell phone plans are common, big dollar items for college students. Before signing a contract for any of these items, take time to comparison shop. For example, apartment leases vary significantly in college communities depending on where the apartment is located, amenities, size and more. Decide what you specifically need (versus want), compare prices, and consider alternatives before you sign a lease.

University of Illinois’ Tenant Union’s A Quick Guide to Renting Apartments has a housing cost comparison worksheet as well as an apartment hunting checklist that are both excellent tools to help you save money. Don’t forget to also comparison shop for other big expenses.

Plan Your Discretionary/Fun Spending

College is a wonderful opportunity to try new experiences and have fun. You want to have your money last all year so that you can continue to have fun in the spring, and not run out of money in November! Plan how much money you can comfortably spend each week. Here are some tried and true student strategies:

  • Decide how much you want to spend on Friday night (or for fun during the week) and carry cash for this amount. When the cash is gone, the spending stops.
  • Keep receipts in an envelope and add up the amount each week.
  • Use a budget sheet like Making it On a College Budget, or one you customize to fit your needs.
  • Use a budgeting tool to track spending like our Track Every $ (TED) option!

Here’s a bonus saving strategy! Peer Educators from University of Illinois Extension’s Financial Wellness for College Students program have compiled 55 Ways to Save Money from their own experiences. Take a look at this list and circle 10 or more tips that you can implement! 

Whether you pay attention to small amounts, comparison shop for big items or plan your fun, you can spend less while in college and ultimately save money for yourself. Using these saving strategies will allow you to set aside money in a savings account for those unexpected costs and opportunities that are sure to arise. College is the perfect place to build your saving habits—you can do it and reap the benefits.

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