The College Freshman Budget

by Maggie Wells on 6 September 2011 7 comments

Welcome to the fall semester! Whether you are on financial aid, are paying for college yourself, or have parents paying the brunt of it, your money can easily be gone long before your statistics or world civilization class will be. A little planning and corner cutting can help stretch those dollars. As a former student and current professor, here's my low-down on what you and your family might want to consider. (See also: Wise Bread's College Guide)

Textbooks

Every semester the sticker shock of books and materials seems to take both parents and students by surprise. The cost of textbooks is rising — that's not going to change for the better, but there are ways around this. For those on financial aid, know this — since the 1994 Congress changed laws governing student financial aid, America’s students have not received their financial aid checks in advance of the first day of class. This often means students are well into the first month of school before their checks arrive. The cheaper, used textbooks have since been bought out by those, ironically, not on financial aid! You need to plan for this.

Ask your instructors whether it’s okay for you to use a slightly older edition of the books you need for class. Most of the time the difference in an edition is as little as its introduction. Sometimes the instructors aren't aware that there is a new edition or older edition, or what the differences are. Using last year's edition can drop the price tag by more than $60.

Ask your instructors whether there’s a copy of the text on reserve in the library, and then go and make time to read it there. Many professors do have books on reserve.

Texts for three of the books I use for a class are entirely online available for free. Make sure you look up your texts just in case this applies. You never know! This is especially true of older textbooks, novels, etc.

Weigh all your options in buying the books: Amazon, eFollett, eBay, and your student bookstore. Sometimes an item can be high priced from one online company and totally cheap from another. Sometimes a nearby town book store can order books for you as well. If you are taking a literature class, check thrift stores near where students live, as odds are good that someone just moved and didn’t have time to take their old textbooks with them. I scored four books that I then gave away to students because other students just dropped them off at the thrift store.

Food

Now is an excellent time to go on a diet — less food, less money! All teasing aside, see if your campus has a meal card for its cafeterias. Meal plans generally can be bought in incremental amounts depending on the school and how much a student will be eating on campus. If you are on campus for three meals a day, get the bigger plan. This is one way to really strictly budget food.

If your college does have a meal card and your aunts and grandparents keep asking what you need, tell them to put money on your card. Nothing makes a student feel like he or she is more broke than not having money to eat. Eating on campus might not provide the best variety of food and can certainly be boring, but it can be economical. You don't want to be thinking about what to cook or where the cheapest meal might be when you've got midterms you should be studying for anyway. I've seen students with money left on their cards at the end of the semester barter with other students without any money left on theirs. Other meal suggestions can be found in my college student eating survival guide.

Transportation

First of all, don’t go home. I mean it. You are in college. Go home at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but not two weeks into school. You’re a big kid now, and you can manage. Those frequent trips home to do free laundry are going to cost you in gas and time. Most colleges have some deal worked out with local bus lines for free or discounted bus passes. Opt for this rather than having your car with you, or just use your own car as a last resort. Cars lead to parking tickets around campus anyhow. If you do have your car, gas cards usually don’t expire and are another great gift from the grandparents if you can convince them to send you this rather than a sweater.

College Resource Centers, Computer Labs, and Libraries

The most expensive part of being a student can be the technology, and sadly, most students do not use the resource centers, student services, and computer labs available to them for free on campus. Your tuition and fees go to pay for such services and equipment. Use them. Odds are you have your own laptop, but you can print on campus for free or low cost. Some student centers have counseling and therapy available for students — again, your tuition and fees paid for this, so why not use the services rather than pay for the same thing off campus?

Regular Bills: Frivolities and Utilities

You don’t need the mega data plan on your phone; you’re supposed to be reading, remember? Do you need 500 channels of TV? Look at your existing bills like cable and data plans on your phone, and see if you can downgrade them a little. You don’t need the distractions, and you could use the $40. Also, never talk to your professors about not being able to afford the book with a smartphone in your hand or $200 sneakers on your feet. It just won't fly.

Most utility companies have basic plans for students and low-income households. I had Lifeline on my phone through college — just the basics. Some electric companies offer a reduced energy bill program. In California, my home state, we have the CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) program through Pacific Gas and Electric that can mean $10 to $15 off your utility bills. A local community resource center or student center might have brochures for what applies to your area.

The Student ID Card

Not all schools require students to have them, but all produce some sort of ID card. Make sure to get one. This really is your ticket to all sorts of discounts around town. Look for entrance fee discounts for museums, specials in restaurants, bookstores, etc. If you are in a college town, odds are the local merchants will give you a break provided you can prove you are a student at that local college.

Financial Aid and Student Services

Whether you are on financial aid or homegrown parent aid, the trick with budgeting is to plan for the worse case scenario. Checks can be late and rules can change in the middle of the semester. Parents get divorced while young adult children are in college, and that great step parent might leave you high and dry afterwards (happened to me). Make that first check last as long as possible. I used to try and put half of it away in a savings account that I could withdraw from in a few months. It was never long enough to draw interest, but the money didn’t tempt me in my checking account. This is the best time in your life to learn how to stretch it.

This might be the first time mom and dad aren't there with you to fight your bureaucratic battles. Don't be shy! You need to be your own advocate. Go through your college handbook and familiarize yourself with where to go for health concerns, housing, utilities, financial aid, tutoring, and other students services. One of the biggest learning experiences in college is learning to navigate the system itself.

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Meg Favreau's picture

One of my biggest wastes as a college freshman was putting too many meals on my meal plan -- I quickly realized it was a lot cheaper (and easier!) to keep yogurt and cereal in my room for breakfast.

Guest's picture

Maggie,
Our son just started college, and your article definitely had some great tips to pass along. We were able to save a ton of money by renting his textbooks instead of buying them new or used. We also found a good deal online for a graphing calculator, because those are extremely expensive. Your suggestion of giving gas cards and loading meal cards as gifts was spot on. Thanks for the information.

Guest's picture
Dominique

An all time saving grace for me going into my last 2 years of college was checking textbooks out from my school's library or through Interlibrary Loan.

What students often don't realize is that lots of other colleges and public libraries may carry texts, especially if they're on general topics, that can be checked out for an entire semester. I used my school's interlibrary loan, requested the book from other campus and would renew the textbook halfway through the semester. If I was ever worried I'd have to return the book midway through the semester, I'd read ahead, take great notes and borrow the book from a friend before finals or use the textbook that was on reserve in the library.

Guest's picture
Yazmin

My university offer free printing and microwaves were easily found around campus. Till this day I cant believe how many people did not take advantage of them. We also got pretty good discounts and freebies around town if we showed our ID.

I would also make sure to ask your professors if you'll be needing the entire book - some only make you read a chapter or two and that's it. I had a couple of instances where I just photocopied the pages we needed to read. It was cheaper than buying the book.

Guest's picture
Teacher

Check out the free Prime shipping for students on Amazon. Saved me a bunch, and I can also use it for myself.

Guest's picture

Another option is to rent text books or purchase an ebook version. Unfortunately publishers have found this to be profitable and are not discounting as much as one would think. Chegg and cheaptextbooks.com are two good places to start. I remember my college days and sharing an apartment with 5 other friends to save money. We had a great time together and we split rent and food 5 ways!

Guest's picture

I really like the whole transportation bit there. I agree. Use public transportation is something I try to stress to my clients. If it is possible for them to take the bus, why not? Yes, you have to get up somewhat earlier or may get home somewhat later, but the money you spend on that bus ticket is nothing compared to the amount of money your going to spend STUCK idling in heavy traffic. Great stuff!