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How to prioritize saving money in college

    College can be a time of transition, growth, and financial independence for many students.  

    However, financial pressures can be high during this time for many. Just some of the expenses that students are likely to encounter? Tuition, academic and extracurricular fees, housing, and daily living costs. This may make it difficult to set a strategy around budgeting and saving for short and long-term financial goals.

    That being said, it might be possible to prioritize saving money in college in various ways. Continue reading as we explore tips and strategies that could help make saving a part of your daily life.

    How much money does the average college student save while in college?

    People interested in prioritizing saving during college might wonder how much the average college student saves to use that number as a goal.

    Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to know exactly how much money the average college student saves while in college. What’s publicly available is the average amount of student loan debt that the average college student walks away with. Per the U.S. Department of Education, the typical undergraduate student with loans graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt as of August 2022.

    As hard as it may feel to save in college, there are ways to make saving each month as much of a priority as possible.

    Effective ways to save money in college

    If you’re aiming to save money during your college years, there are several strategies you could use without necessarily having to compromise on your social and academic life. Some are bigger — requiring legwork — and others are small tips you can add to your everyday life to cut back where you can. Consider picking and choosing a few that work for you and your circumstances if you want to prioritize saving. 

    1. Figure out how much money you will (or already are) spending as a college student

    An important step in figuring out how to save is to figure out how much money you’ll have going out (or already have going out) as a college student.

    To do this, consider tuition and fees, books and supplies, living expenses, and transportation when calculating your school's total cost of attendance.

    To get an idea of what these costs could be, first, look at your school's listed cost of attendance to get an idea of the amount of money it usually costs to attend your college for a year. Most schools list these costs on their websites, or you could contact your school’s financial aid office. If you’re actively enrolled, you might have concrete numbers available to you. 

    Beyond looking at typical expenses for your school, you can examine what else you might be spending on, like how much you typically spend on food, if you have a gym membership, how much you spend on clothes, etc.

    Understanding how much money you’ll likely spend could help you plan for financial goals and create a budget for ongoing expenses.

    2. Create a budget and stick to it

    Creating a budget can be one of the most critical steps when saving money. This can involve tracking your expenses and income and determining where to cut back on unnecessary spending.

    After spending time figuring out what your expenses are, list all your expenses as completely as possible. This could include the below, as well as other costs that are unique to you:

    • Rent
    • Utilities
    • Tuition expenses
    • Food
    • Textbooks
    • Academic fees
    • Travel or transportation expenses
    • Social activities

    Afterward, figure out which sources of money will be available to you to cover these expenses, such as financial aid, federal grants, scholarships, income from a job, freelance work, help from parents, or your savings.

    By listing what you’ll have coming in and going out, you can begin to make a reasonable budget. Using a budgeting tool can be a great way to stay organized and track your finances.

    3. Consider making saving a part of your budget

    One way that people prioritize saving money – even small amounts – is to add the amount they want to save to their monthly budget. Rather than hoping that you’ll save money at the end of the month, this proactive approach can help you make sure that you save a certain amount.

    People do this in various ways: simply adding it as a line item to their budget or setting up an automatic transfer from their checking account to a savings account each month.

    4. Cut down on unnecessary expenses

    It can be challenging to reduce the amount of money you’re spending on set expenses, but you could also be spending on unnecessary expenses – some of which you may want to consider cutting.

    For example, if you usually purchase a $5 coffee every morning, you might be able to save money by making coffee at home. Another example is if you have a lot of streaming service subscriptions that aren’t necessary for your day-to-day. You could consider cutting one or several of them.

    5. Save money on textbooks

    One way you might be able to save money during your college years is to find ways to cut back on expected expenses – like textbooks. Textbooks can be a significant expense for college students. However, there are several ways to save money on them. Below are a few examples:

    • Rent textbooks instead of buying new ones
    • Buy used textbooks
    • Look online for available PDFs or e-books of assigned reading materials
    • Consider reaching out to classmates who’ve taken the same course to see if they used the same book and to see if you can borrow it

    6. Use student discounts

    Many businesses offer student discounts – from restaurants to gyms. Utilize student discounts whenever they’re available. Always carry your student ID with you, as many places will require proof that you’re a student to utilize their discounts.

    7. Find free social activities and take advantage of them

    Having fun during college doesn’t always have to involve spending money. Look for free events on or near campus, take advantage of your college or university's grounds to hang out with friends, and participate in extracurriculars that your college or university might subsidize. Social activities aren’t a set expense, so this is an area of your budget to save on potentially.

    8. Look for ways to generate income

    There are ways to generate income while you’re in college, and figuring out which is best for you comes down to thinking about how much time you might have to spare. There are options to consider, like being a tutor, pet-sitter, getting a part-time job in a restaurant, or starting a small business. It’s also worth exploring opportunities on campus, such as becoming a teaching or research assistant (if available) or other paid opportunities.

    9. Limit how much you eat out

    Going out to dinner with friends is great, but consider tracking the number of times you plan to eat out per week or month and cook or take advantage of your meal plan. Eating out can end up being one of those expenses that creeps up on you and eats into your potential to save.

    10. Find ways to save money on housing (if you can)

    When deciding where to live, compare on-campus and off-campus prices. Even if off-campus housing is cheaper, consider if you’ll have commuting expenses or will need to park your car on campus. Also, consider the cost of a meal plan, as some on-campus housing options may require you to purchase a meal plan.

    One potential option for upper-level students to save money on housing is to become a Resident Assistant (RA). RAs cultivate a community for other student residents and may offer counseling or plan events in exchange for room and board. They also may earn a food or living stipend. This isn’t for everyone and requires work, but it can be an option to explore.

    11. Make full use of your school's amenities

    When you attend college, your tuition likely covers more than just classes. For instance, it may also cover or offer reduced prices for campus resources such as your campus gym or health centers. Consider making use of what you can.

    12. Apply for as many scholarships and grants as you can

    Scholarships and grants are funding for college that doesn’t need to be repaid in most cases. You may be eligible to receive scholarships and grants based on need, merit, or additional factors. Search online, at school, within your community, and other organizations you may be a part of to find scholarships you may be eligible to apply for. You can generally apply for as many scholarships and grants as you want.

    13. Consider graduating early if it makes sense for you

    Graduating early can possibly translate into significant savings. Not only will it mean you could potentially shave off a semester or a year of college tuition, but it could also mean you’ll enter the workforce faster. This doesn’t make sense for every student, but it could be something to consider if you’re looking for ways to cut costs and prioritize saving while in college.

    14. Take classes at a community college while enrolled in another college or university

    Community classes can sometimes be cheaper than four-year college or university classes. One potential way to save money if you’re attending a four-year college or university is to take some credits at a community college and transfer those credits to your home school. If you’re considering this, check with your home school for its credit transfer policy.

    15. Share what you can

    Being near a lot of friends means that you can potentially share a lot of items rather than just buying everything you need. Think about trying this if you can! Things like cooking equipment, gadgets, and even some clothes can be shared.

    16. Consider not bringing a car to campus

    Having a car can come with many potential expenses, including car insurance and parking (if you have to pay for it). For many college students, a car isn’t a total necessity and might be a budget line item to cut.

    17. Practice no-spend weeks when you want to supercharge saving

    If you want to supercharge how much you save at any   given time, consider practicing a no-spend week. What does that mean? Besides your set expenses like housing, food, and other bills, don’t spend any money. When many of your expenses have often been prepaid in college, this can be a great exercise to save.

    18. Sell what you can to add to your savings

    If you’re looking for a quick way to add to your savings pot, consider selling things you no longer need, be it clothes, gadgets, or knickknacks. You can look into using reputable online marketplaces to do this or even have a garage sale for friends and family.

    19. Fill out the FAFSA® each year

    The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) determines what federal student aid you may be eligible for. You’ll need to file this each year you plan to enroll in a college or university to be eligible to receive this aid. Even if you didn't qualify in the past, it may still be worth filling it out to see if your and your family's financial situation merits aid.

    20. Skip spring break or other expensive trips

    While peer pressure can sometimes get the best of you during college, having a great experience doesn’t have to involve going on a pricey spring break trip or other trips. There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing saving.

    Final thoughts

    Saving money as a student requires discipline, strategic planning, and a little bit of creativity. By remembering to create a budget based on your living expenses and daily habits, cutting back on unnecessary wants, and establishing long-term savings goals, you may be able to prioritize your finances and forge a pathway to setting yourself up for financial success in the future.