How to Save Money in College




About: I love to tinker with just about anything but some favorites are woodworking and other crafty things. I also enjoy repurposing otherwise useless things like old electronics and old tools and trying to see w...

With tuition prices skyrocketing I'm sure all of us are trying to find ways to save some money while away at school. Not that I'm an expert or anything, but I've found a few ways to save money while at school that I'll share.

Not that all of these things apply specifically to college life - most can be applied to "normal" life so may be worth reading.

If you've something to contribute, please post a reply and I'll add it to the list. This is more of a work in progress as I find new ways to save money at odd intervals.

Step 1: Transportation

Not like you won't being doing enough of this between classes, but walking to other places is a great way to save money. Gas is hovering around $3.80 a gallon as I write this whereas walking only costs as much as the food you run on. If you live in a city where everything is fairly close together, you can most likely get away with walking for 95% of your travel.

Public Transportation
Most (if not all) forms of mass transit within cities (buses, subways, etc.) give student discounts. If you use mass transit frequently enough, buy a monthly pass. There might even be a bus or train that runs between your school and your hometown. I can take the Coach bus home from college for $1.25 one way (about a 40 mile drive).

You can also buy a bicycle (or salvage one, if you're savvy enough). Costs for that are only maintenance-related and I don't know a university that doesn't have a bike rack outside every campus building.

Motor Vehicle
If you have to use a motorized vehicle, try to limit it to something small like a moped or a motorcycle. Not only do they get great mileage but most colleges offer discounted (or free!) parking for such vehicles. If you have to use a car, try to carpool. And, if possible, drive a car that gets good mileage (I know, if you're as broke as me you probably can't afford one!)

Step 2: Housing

Most people don't enjoy dorm living (as compared to an apartment). However, it might actually be less costly to live in a dormitory, depending on your situation. Some colleges require you to live on-campus for so many years anyway. Also, most colleges have Resident Assistant/Advisor positions available which you can most likely sign up for after your freshman year. As payment for being an RA you will probably get free housing and food.

Depending on where/how you want to live, you can probably spend less living in an apartment than in the dorms. For example, in Milwaukee (where I go to school), most of my friends pay about $400 a month for rent. Dorms cost roughly $500-$800 a month when you figure it all out, so you can see the advantage of an apartment.

If you're within driving range of your school, you might consider commuting. Yes, you'd have to drive to school every day but you can avoid housing and food costs by living at home.

Step 3: Food

Meal Plans
Many colleges offer a meal plan for dorm living, usually with different levels. You know how you eat better than anyone else so choose accordingly. Yes, it'll probably cost more than making food yourself, but that frees up time in your day to do other things.

If you do have to cook (no meal plan options, or you're off-campus) try to spend as little as possible on food. This might sound ridiculously obvious but I know plenty of people who spend more than they have to. For example, you can buy non-name brand items for a good discount off of the better known brands and the taste is usually comparable. Also, instead of buying pre-made meals, learn to cook and make your own. Once you're good enough at cooking you'll enjoy what you make more than pre-made stuff anyway.

improbable1 suggested using a Nalgene or similar bottle and carrying a bottle full of tap water with you instead of buying the bottled stuff. I have to agree on this one.

Ordering Out
There's really no way to cut this cost except not to do it. Sometimes you just need takeout.

Campus Events
Be on the lookout for campus events with free food. My college usually has quite a few per quarter and it's hard to argue with free. Stock up if you can.

Depending on how much you drink, alcohol can be a significant expense. The obvious answer is not to drink, but, of course, this is not always possible ;-)

Someone was kind enough to tell me about Eating on $3 a Day, another Instructable.

Step 4: Laundry

If there's one thing I hate more than doing laundry it's paying to do laundry. I've found a few tips to decrease the cost and frequency, however.

Do you really need to wash the pair of pants you wore for one day? Probably not. In fact, you can probably get away with wearing them three or more times before they start getting funky. Same goes to shirts you wear over an undershirt or hooded sweatshirts. Socks and underwear you'll probably want to wash after one use though ;-)

Wear sandals
If it's warm enough, avoid using socks entirely by wearing sandals. Then watch your foot turn into a huge callus...

Use cold water
If you use cold water when washing, not only will your clothes not shrink, but you can also mix colors with whites without too much fear of having color bleed. Unless you're religious about your clothes I'd suggest this. That way you can use only one washer instead of two if it all fits in one.

Athletics laundry
If you play a school-sanctioned sport, chances are they have some sort of laundry system at your recreational facility. If you play a sport you'll probably figure out sooner or later if this is the case. If so, use it to do some of your normal laundry! Usually the employees are students and they don't care what they throw in the washers. I've put jeans on my laundry bag and they've still washed them.

Air Dry
I just saw another Instructable about building a clothesline in your room, which only costs you money once and will end up paying for itself soon. Find it here.

Step 5: Studies

Recycle Paper
Chances are that you go to a school with a public printer. Chances are that plenty of people use that printer and forget to retrieve what they printed. This usually gets offloaded to a bin nearby. A friend of mine takes the misprints, three-hole punches them, and uses them for class notes in a binder. Not only is it a free notebook, but it saves that paper from going completely to waste.

I usually buy a five-subject notebook at the beginning of the year and use one section for each of my classes. I take sparse enough notes where this notebook can last me the entire school year. If you do take this route, make sure to get one that's durable enough (plastic cover, metal binding with a cloth binding cover, and plastic dividers. Also, if you have pages left at the end of the year, tear them out for later notes/scratchpaper. However, if you take copious notes, you're probably going to want something different.

Writing Utensils
One word: Refills. Buy refillable mechanical pencils and pens instead of buying the cheapie disposables. (Chances are you can probably find some cheap free ones at campus events, career fairs, and the like). I somehow managed to keep one (ONE) mechanical pencil all through high school and up until the beginning of sophomore year of college before it broke. Also, not only do the mechanicals last longer, but they're just better utensils in general. Quality is key.

Step 6: Other

If you can, mooch off your parents. Chances are if they haven't seen you in a while they won't be averse to buying you some lunch or doing your laundry. They probably miss having you around and having to take care of you (can't promise this though).

Hair Cuts
Earlier this school year I bought a set of hair clippers (a good Wahl set will set you back about $40). My reasoning is that I can pay $15 every couple months (or more) for a haircut, or I can have one of my friends give me one for free. And I also cut my friends' hair if they want. The clippers pay for themselves with like three uses on yourself - a good investment in my book.



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    36 Discussions


    5 years ago

    Laundry- wash in cold, but you needless soap than you think and it's pricey. Then put all you can into a dryer. Commercial dryers run super hot and you want clothes damp. Put it all on hangers to finish, or a line. Stuff lasts longer. And never dry jeans! They shrink a lot. Part drying is fine, but they fit better and last longer air dried. Only wash jeans when they're dirty too.


    8 years ago on Step 6

    Some colleges offer ludicriously cheap hair cuts done by student/trainee hairdressers. It takes longer but is fully supervised the whole time. Note: you don't have to be a student at the college to take advantage of this. Also note: some of these departments also need 'models' for manicures, massages, facials, etc... cheap bliss!


    8 years ago on Step 3

    If you buy food in buk, it's often very much cheaper per portion. At the same time, buy small freezer-boxes or keep foil takeaway trays and lids. Cook up a huuuge amount of food and freeze the portions (date and label the boxes). Instant ready-meals, at a fraction of the cost, and to a taste that's all yours. Yum!


    8 years ago on Step 3

    To save on alcohol you can make your own beer, wine or whatever other kind of alcohol is legal to make yourself where you live.

    3 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 3

    That is, aake enough for just yourself, maybe a little more, but you can't "sell" it


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 3

    Neither this instructable or my comment is about making money. I do in no way suggest you should sell anything or commit any kind of felony, if that's what you think my comment is about, read it again. Also, learn the difference between saving money and making money.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 3

    Theres always room for both. Except that room is occasionally end up you up into 3x4 rooms. ;)


    10 years ago on Step 5

    As far as notebooks go, I haven't had to buy a single one for two and a half years simply by keeping an eye out for some just lying around campus or in the cafeteria's lost-n-found box longer than three days. I've seen backpacks abandoned in corners for over a week to find lots of lovely jewels inside such as new notebooks in the middle of the semester, one textbook, an mp3 player/voice recorder, on-the-ear headphones, and a few flash drives. Course...not too many people are okay with this technical form of stealing.

    4 replies

    It's not stealing if it has been abandoned for a few days. I would say atleast a week to wait before you take it.

    adamazingRock Soldier

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    I can't believe these comments have stayed here for so long without response, perhaps it's because it's so incredibly hard to stay within the "be nice" policy while responding....

    Technically, and ethically, and morally, it is stealing, because you would've taken something that doesn't belong to you, regardless of where it is, or how long it's been left there. If someone had left their car unlocked, taking it, or taking the stereo out of it would still be stealing.

    The right thing to do, instead of stealing it, would be to take the unattended backpack to the university's Lost Property or to the nearest police station. IIRC, in the UK at least, property unclaimed for a period of time becomes the property of the person who found it.

    There are any number of reasons why a bag could be left unattended. How do you know how the bag got there? Maybe the owner left it there, or maybe some other thief stole it first, took the wallet/other valuables out of it and dumped what they didn't want.

    There's a very very obvious difference between recycling discarded print-outs into a notebook and stealing notebooks/electronics from unattended backpacks. One which I would hope that most people would be able to see. A good rule-of-thumb is to stop and think for two seconds about how you'd feel if it was your property and let empathy be your guide.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    >A good rule-of-thumb is to stop and think for two seconds about how you'd feel if it was your property and let empathy be your guide.

    Id personally feel pretty stupid for letting something sit somewhere so long it became public property...


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Another thing you might add: Don't buy bottled water!! Invest in a nalgene (or similar refillable bottle) and live on tap water - it's just as good, if not better

    3 replies
    HAL 9000improbable1

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    If you really cant bear drinking your tap water (it does vary from place to place, and in some places its absolutely terrible) go to the grocery store and buy the HUGE bottles of water. i get a 1 gallon jug of Safeway Brand water for 99 cents. i use tap water for cooking, boiling for tea, etc. and drink from the purified bottle when we drink just water. my girlfriend and i aren't home that much, so the $1 lasts us about a week. water purifiers are also cheap. we got a $15 tap-type filter that works very well, and a set of 3 replacement filters was about $6. anyway as a college student i love this instructable. one way to save on rent: get somebody to split it with! i think its worth it, but if you are somebody who is not very easy to get along with, whether you realize it or not, you may not enjoy it much.

    Siren4HAL 9000

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    And for on-the-go you could get a water bobble. Changing the filters regularly cost less than buying bottles of water every day. Plus they're cute.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Yeah, I do the same thing. Having to drink 2+ liters of water a day to keep hydrated for sports would kill my wallet if I did bottled water.


    8 years ago on Step 2

    When I was living off-campus, one of the biggest one-time expenses to me seemed to be furnishing the place you're living in. Mattresses, sofas, and kitchen tables can cost a lot! However, it's really easy to get all of these items for free - you can just ask family and friends if they have something they were going to throw away soon, or you could get on the free section of to see what people are giving away for free! A lot of people post sofas, chairs and tables that are either in fairly good condition (or good enough for a college student) or are easy fixer-uppers.


    9 years ago on Step 5

    The stuff about using old Paper from the Printer is actually pretty cool. I used to take "trash"paper from my parents work for home-use (quick notes etc.). Now in digital times, this becomes rarer and rarer, but it still comes in handy pretty often

    Beauty schools charge less than licenced hair dressers, and the students are supervised by teachers that are really good at their trade


    10 years ago on Step 4

    Generally, if you wash new clothes at least once in warm/hot water any chance of color bleed will end there after as the bleed will normally only occur once.