College is pricey, but the number of student expenses that are easily avoidable might surprise you. Certain things taken for granted as fundamental parts of college life are more expensive – and less important – than they seem. Check out these cheap alternatives to traditional college expenditures.
1. Ditch the meal plan
Meal plans are a waste of money, period. Prices vary widely, but an average 3-meal-per-day plan costs upwards of $2000 per semester. If you only do one thing to save money as a student, make it this: learn to cook as early as possible. It’s cheaper, healthier and less wasteful.
You don’t need to be Ina Garten to eat satisfying meals on the cheap. Ask your parents for tutorials on some of your favorite meals or check out the deluge of cooking blogs and YouTube channels that offer foolproof guides to simple recipes. A few basic casseroles and microwaveable meals will go a long way, and preparing big, reheatable dishes will ultimately take less time than making multiple trips to the dining hall every day. Of course not all dorms are equipped with sufficient kitchens, especially those designated for freshmen, which brings us to the next tip…
2. Think twice about dorm life
The dorm experience is touted as an indispensible social experience and necessary transition period into independent adult life. It’s also one of the biggest non-tuition expenses a student will face.
It’s true that some schools require freshmen to live on-campus, a policy for which good arguments can be made. Beyond your first year or two of school, though, ask if your dorm mates would be on board with sharing an apartment off campus. Depending on where you go to school, there’s a good chance that an apartment with roommates may be cheaper than dorm living, even with utilities.
And while leaving the nest is a much-anticipated rite of passage, students who live within commuting distance from campus can save thousands of dollars by living at home with their parents.
3. Green transportation is cheap transportation
If you’re living on campus, do not keep a car on the premises unless it’s absolutely necessary. An on-campus parking permit can cost around $300-$450 per semester, on top of which you’ll be paying for gas and insurance. Forgo the car in lieu of a bike, bus or rail system.
Many schools offer regular shuttle service to downtown areas and shopping outlets. If you go to school in an urban area, take the opportunity to get comfortable using public transportation. Monthly passes are a good investment if you get a part-time job or plan to take many off-campus trips.
Bikes are such a natural fit with on-campus living that several schools have introduced bike-sharing programs and even given bikes to students for free! A bike will get you to your classes quickly, is a great way to explore a new city, and can be purchased for under a couple hundred dollars. Consider the heart-healthy benefits of cycling an extra perk.
If you go to school in a big city and absolutely must get out of town for a weekend, see if your area is served by short-term rental services like Zipcar or ride sharing programs like Lyft. If your college town is more isolated, look into organizing a carpool system where students with cars offer rides in exchange for gas money.
4. Avoid buying new textbooks
Avoid your school’s bookstore altogether, if possible. If you need a custom textbook only available through your school, rent or buy used whenever you have the option. For any other materials: go online!
Websites like Amazon and Half.com let students sell gently used books at deeply discounted prices. For example, new and used copies of Modern Philosophy by Ariew cost $48 and $36, respectively, from a school bookstore; meanwhile, a “Very Good” condition used copy is available for $14.99 on Half.com.
In many cases you can get away with buying a textbook’s previous edition, especially literary course materials. There’s no good reason to buy a brand new reprint of Ulysses when a dog-eared copy is available for $0.75.
5. You don’t need to buy a computer…no, seriously
If you share a home computer with your family, you may think you’ll need to invest in a laptop or tablet before leaving for college. If tuition is already stretching your budget to the max, forgoing the purchase of your own mobile device can free up some much-needed cash for other expenditures.
Just about every campus with a library makes computers available to its students, many of which are accessible 24 hours a day. These will typically be equipped with a word processor, Internet browser and other programs that cover most students’ basic needs. As a bonus, I guarantee you’ll have an easier time studying in a quiet corner of the library than on your dorm couch simultaneously binge-watching Law and Order: SVU.
Some schools also provide high-speed printers and grant students an annual or quarterly printing allowance. Even a library’s pay-per-print system may be more cost-effective than investing in a printer and ink cartridges. Unless you expect your printing needs to exceed your school’s allowance, think twice before buying your own printer.
6. Take advantage of sweet student perks
Think of your student ID as membership in a club that helps you save money everywhere. The institutions that offer student discounts are too numerous to list, but public transportation, cinemas, restaurants, museums and stores of all kinds are among your biggest opportunities to save. Even discounts of 10% or 20% are worth taking advantage of, and events like special museum exhibits are often free with a student ID.
Even bigger – if slightly less exciting – savings are available courtesy of the IRS. When you (or your parents, if you’re still a dependent) file your taxes each year, don’t forget to claim every education credit and deduction you’re entitled to. You could save thousands as a result.
Student image courtesy of Shutterstock.