It’s the beginning of the semester and, living in a college town, the first thing I notice is all of the college kids coming back to school. If you have ever been in college, you know what the beginning of the semester is like. There are lines at the bookstore, lines at the financial aid office, and cars lined up around the block to move belongings into dorms. This is a big spending season for students and parents alike; college is expensive. The unfortunate thing is that most people don’t realize until the first week of college that the term bill is just the beginning of the story. Whether you’re just starting freshman year or just coming back for another year, you could probably use some strategies for reducing the living expenses associated with college life and getting on a budget.
Collect Free Stuff
One way to make your back to college move fit with your new budget is to get things for free. The beginning of the semester is the absolute best time to get free stuff. Generally, if you live in a dorm you will get some kind of a welcome back to school basket on move-in day, so make sure you get it! It will usually have some kind of gum or mints, personal care items, and a few simple desk supplies. Once you have that, get creative! Look for free stuff at the book store, the student union, the dining hall. Go to every activity fair, orientation event, and career fair you see. By the end of your first month, you should have plenty of calendars, dry erase boards, and posters to decorate your room, and enough pens to last you through the semester.
Be on the lookout for free food too. On almost every college campus, clubs and activities have orientation or welcome meetings for which they will order pizza or get snacks. If you’re serious about living on a strict budget, you should be able to find a meeting with free food every day for the first month that you are back to school. Don’t be selfish and pretend to be interested just to get free food; however, if the goal of the meeting is to gain exposure for the group, the leaders will probably be more than glad to have you there, even if it is just for the food.
For most college students, the dining hall is a great budget option. It’s paid for before you start the year, and significantly less expensive than eating in restaurants or even fast food. Make sure that the meal plan you have fits with how often you will actually go; if you accidentally signed up for too many meals, get a refund as soon as possible when you get back to school. The check will help your budget more than the extra meals will.
For eating between meals, keep healthy and inexpensive snacks in your room. Bring snacks with you to class so that you won’t be tempted to buy something on your way there. If you are a coffee drinker, buy a small coffee pot and a travel mug. The point is, buy whatever you can at the grocery store instead of at a restaurant or a high priced campus convenience store. You can even prepare low budget meals in your dorm: check out the book A Man, A Can, A Microwave for ideas. It’s pretty amazing.
Being on a budget doesn’t mean you never get to have any fun! While you’re at all those activity fairs getting your free stuff, pick up the schedules for all of the free events on campus. There are likely to be concerts, meetings, lectures, poetry readings, and anything else you’re interested in for free on campus at some point during the semester. Make these kinds of events your first choice when deciding what to do with your friends at night.
You will probably at least sometimes want to go out and spend some money. Here’s my suggestion: budget wisely and save your money for things you will remember in ten years. That means, yes, take the train to the nearest city and go to the hippest new restaurant once, but, no, do not go to Burger King every night for something to do. Go to the concert, skip the midnight takeout. You will not regret in ten years the Chinese food you didn’t eat.
The final piece of money saving advice I’d like to offer is “Go to class!” I know it doesn’t sound like money saving advice, but going to class, studying, and getting your work done will ensure that you graduate in four years or less. That is the best money saving move you can make.