9 Freshman Shopping Tips to Cut College Costs

Strapped for cash as a freshman? If not now, you will be soon. That goes double for your parents, who are likely footing a portion of the bill — from tuition to room and board to all the living essentials you'll need when you move into the dorm. To make the transition from high school to college just a little easier on the wallet for both you and your obligatory benefactors, here are a few ways to cut costs as you head into the first year of university.

1. Don't Buy What You Already Own

At the beginning of every school year, students get a list of suggested (and some mandatory) supplies that they'll need for the year. The good news for you is that you've been in school for 12 years now, and you probably already have more than a few things on the freshman list. That means you don't need to spring for new items if the ones you already own are in good condition.

"The extensive list of recommended dorm room essentials will make your head spin and your wallet disappear," money-saving expert Andrea Woroch quips. "While some suggested items like 'bedding to fit an extra long twin mattress' are necessities, items like towels, hangers, and pillows can likely be packed from home."

Also, use common sense and identify items you can cross off the list indefinitely, like a drying rack for laundry (you can hang your clothes around the room) and any stand-alone device that's also in your phone: alarm clock, camera, calculator, MP3, etc.

2. Split Big-Ticket Costs With Your Roommate(s)

If you want a few conveniences of home in your dorm room — like a fridge or microwave — considering going halfsies with your roommate(s). Contact your roommates ahead of time to discuss those big-ticket purchases that will be shared among everyone, and how to effectively split the cost. Consider downloading a bill-splitting app to simplify this process. (See also: 5 Modern Ways to Split the Bill)

3. Stock Up on Penny Deals

"When it comes to basic school supplies like pens, notebooks, folders, and sticky notes, it's best to search for penny deals offered during the back-to-school shopping rush and watch for rotating discounts every week," Woroch suggests.

I've seen these types of deals at several popular retailers lately, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Staples, though they're not limited to these stores. Hit them at the right time and you'll walk away with much of what you'll need for classes — pens, pencils, notebooks, and more — for just few bucks. You also can access circulars online or via the Flipp app for quick comparison.

4. Treat Your Old Wardrobe Like It's Brand-new

Everybody loves to go back-to-school clothing shopping. Heck, I'm 35-years-old and I still use this time of year as an excuse to freshen up my wardrobe. If you're on a tight budget, however, consider that your existing wardrobe will be brand-new to everyone at college since nobody has ever seen you before. If you must add a few new pieces to your closet, shop end-of-season sales, clearance sections, or pop into a few secondhand shops (some of which can be found online today).

5. Eat Where It's Free or Discounted

When I was in college, my friends and I had a propensity for buying late-night pizza or bingeing on junk food in our rooms all hours of the day. The problem with this strategy (besides its quick contribution to your Freshman 15) is that it costs a lot of money.

To trim some of this expense, eat most of your meals in your cafeteria and take small items back to your room for later, like fruit, bagels, chips, or fixings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Or, if you're super stealthy, bring an empty food storage container and confiscate heartier meals, like chicken fingers, salads, and your other favorites to scarf down when the cafeteria is closed. If you do plan to go out to eat, identify nights that are easy on your wallet, including half-price apps at happy hour, student nights, and special dish night, like 25-cent wing night or the like.

6. Rent Your Textbooks Instead of Buying Them

Before you buy your textbooks outright, I want you to ask yourself one question: What will you do with that book when the course is over? Your answer is nothing — except sell it back for a mere fraction of the price you originally paid. And that's if you can even sell it back at all. Publishers are really great at "updating" textbooks and discontinuing previous editions so that the school can require you to purchase the latest version. Because what're you going to do, drop out of school? Uh huh — they've got you right where they want you.

Alas, two can play that game. Woroch explains.

"It's no surprise that textbooks represent the biggest line item in your college budget," she says. "The National Association of College Stores (NACS) estimates the average student spends $655 on these study essentials every year. To save big bucks, skip the overpriced campus store and head straight to an online textbook rental site such as Chegg and Campus Book Rentals to save over 70%. To ensure you're not slapped with any fees at the end of the semester, keep the book in pristine condition and avoiding highlighting or marking up the margins."

7. Go Grocery Shopping in Groups

Need to stock up on groceries? Get a group together — which is especially helpful for those who don't have vehicles on campus — and charge a couple bucks per person for gas. At the store, buy the things you'd like for yourself, but go in equally for items that may be shared by the group, like cereal, coffee, chips, and ramen.

8. Use Your Student ID Everywhere You Go

One of the best parts of being a student is using the student discount wherever it's available. I kept my student ID for years after college, and that granted me savings on clothing, movies, food, electronics, and more for years well past its prime. Of course, you should take advantage of it while you're in college, too. As a general rule of thumb, before you purchase anything anywhere, ask if they offer a student discount. Many establishments do, and that simple question will keep more money in your pocket.

9. Search for Open Box or Refurbished Electronics

In a recent survey, the National Retail Federation found that many colleges and universities require incoming and current students to bring their own computers, so a new laptop is likely on the top of your shopping needs. Instead of investing in the newest and most expensive model, search for open box or refurbished options. Best Buy typically has open box items set up on their salesroom floor, while online vendors such as Newegg have webpages dedicated to these lower-priced options with discounts on open box laptops ranging from 10% to 40%. Apple also offers refurbished MacBooks and iPads, so always check these options before you buy.

Are you heading into your freshman year of college, or have a kid who's starting their freshman year? How are you saving on supplies and other essentials? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

So you are encouraging students to steal? Whole meals from the cafeteria? Yes, such places have lots of food, but they also planned it according to a certain number of dine-in eaters. And you're also taking profits from people who offer student-discounts, even though you are no longer eligible?

Interesting commentary on what you've learned in life. Sounds like someone who shoplifts at Walmart and whines, "Everybody does it, and the big rip-off corporations can handle the little losses." No, everybody doesn't do it, and people like that hurt the honest rest of us.