7 Tips for Surviving on a College Budget

We’ve all heard of the starving artist stereotype, which is as frowned upon as it is glorified in pop culture. In contrast, many college students are portrayed as wealthy, regardless of the sacrifices they or their family members made to afford a college education.

The reverse couldn’t be more true. Even with the help of grants and student loans, many students struggle to make ends meet, while tackling the already large obstacle of absorbing tertiary level knowledge and making it through classes and finals.

We’ve been there and we understand. So here are a few tips to help you cover the important stuff like rent and tuition, while still making time for the occasional run to Chipotle.

1 – Budget

The number one reason college students struggle on a college budget is because they have no budget at all. It was easier when you lived with mom and dad, or had a nice full-time job that paid a decent salary.

However, once in college, the amount of spending money available usually decreases significantly. Have a budget in place that helps you not just plan out how to spend your money, but helps you keep track of it.

Like most other things in modern day life, you’ll be glad to know there’s an app for that. Make the process a little easier by utilizing technology. Some of the best budgeting apps currently experiencing rave reviews include Mint Budgeting App, Pocket Guard, and You Need a Budget. 

2 – Stay on Top of your Schoolwork

This is one of the best ways to ensure you’re not spending unnecessary money. College is an investment. What’s the point of struggling to pay back a $60,000 student loan with no degree to help get you the job you need to pay it?

Resitting classes and exams are also expensive, as virtually every school charges by credit and not a flat semester rate. Keep in mind also that the lower the passing rate for a particular class, the higher the credits usually are, and thus the more expensive they are to resit. Aim to get it done the first time. Every time.

If you do fail, brush it off and make sure you get it right the second time around. If you realize you’ve bitten off way more than you can chew, don’t be afraid to switch to an easier major. The job won’t be much easier. You will want to work in a field you actually enjoy.

3 – Use your College Student Status as a Coupon

This is easiest and best if your college is in a more developed area. However, even when it isn’t, many businesses try to grow their customer base by giving special discounts to students.

Usually your college will have a list of the businesses which provide their students with discounts. If this didn’t come with a pamphlet or your college handbook, request a list from the office. Student discounts usually come from local supermarkets, gyms, and book stores.

Once you figure out who gives the discount, ensure the discount actually proves cheaper than the other alternatives, as this may just be a marketing ploy. A business can easily claim to discount a service from $50 to $40, while most other businesses in the area charge only $35. Keep this in mind when shopping around.

If you enter a store near your college that doesn’t provide a college discount, ask anyway. You just might get lucky, and after a few other people have asked, the manager might just change his mind.

4 – Buy in Bulk

The first time you do this, you will need two things to get this done: storage and more money than you would usually spend on groceries per month. Buying in bulk is always cheaper, especially from companies who specialize in providing products in larger quantities, like Sams Club or Costco. Invest in a membership if you can, or piggyback off family and friends who did.

Otherwise, buying in bulk from places like Kroger’s and Wal-Mart may also help to lower your food bill over a longer period of time. The bigger packages usually give you more food per dollar than the smaller ones. Always go for the larger packages as long as you know for sure that you can finish the food before the expiration date.

As a side note, other inexpensive options for buying food, apartment and stationery items include ALDI and the Dollar Store.

5 – Bring Your Lunch

Making a home-cooked meal is usually cheaper than eating out, and almost always more healthy. Even if you’re not the best chef, making something as easy as a tuna sandwich, a burrito, or a chicken salad goes a long way to help you stretch your money.

While it’s fine to eat out every now and then with friends, try to limit this as much as possible. When you eat out, you’re not just paying for food. You’re also paying for rent, utility bills, labor, and some manager’s bonus. When you eat at home, the only person you need to worry about rewarding is yourself.

6 – Shop at Thrift Stores

We all dream of the amazing first apartment we will have the second we break away from home and move out on our own. But before you get carried away with furnishing your dorm with IKEA pieces, and your closet with a whole new wardrobe from the mall, consider thrifting instead.

When it comes to furnishing a college dorm or apartment, shopping thrift can save you a lot of money, while still providing high quality items. Even for clothes, brands like Old Navy, Aeropostale, and Gucci are not uncommon sightings at thrift stores, especially big chains like Goodwill.

Remember to clean everything you buy from thrift stores before using or wearing, as stores do not always take on this responsibility themselves – even when they say they do.

7 – Save Before you Get There

Prevention trumps cure every time. If you haven’t started college yet and you’re just looking for advice, or you’re a parent looking for tips on how to prepare your kids to weather college, start saving as early as possible. If you’re already there, start saving anyway.

Parents should consider setting up a trust fund for their child. Even if it doesn’t amount to enough to make it through college, it will be enough to count as emergency funds, should they have need of it, which they most likely will. An emergency could be something as serious as a trip to the hospital, as expensive as a new computer, or as necessary as making up the rent.

If you’re working or have other means of obtaining an income, set up an automatic savings plan that allows your bank to filter some money away into a college fund for future use. Remember: the more the merrier, but any amount helps.

Don’t neglect to take advantage of any scholarships, grants, or other forms of financial aid that may be available to you, as well.

What other methods have you guys used to survive on a college budget? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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About the Author

Alexis Chateau is the Founder of College Mate and Managing Director at Alexis Chateau PR. She is an activist, writer, and explorer. Follow her stories of trial and triumph at www.alexischateau.com.

***Photo Credit: Gavin Schaefer

33 Comments Add yours

  1. I like that you have a comprehensive and thorough list of tips. My list would’ve simply been one word. Ramen….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha. Thank you. Ramen is on a whole other list actually. You can check it out here: https://collegemate.org/2016/09/05/top-10-go-to-foods-for-college-students/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. regularfaith says:

    Great article. One tip to all people college students included is learn what money is for and how to use it responsibly. Learn to live on what you have and stay away from credit cards.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. regularfaith says:

        No problem. It is advice I wish I had before I went to college.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m trying to fill that gap for other students.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your article made me smile. So real. I find this article that you may appreciate, too. This kid made shopping for electronics also real: http://www.gogetmikey.com/best-tablets-for-college-students-on-budget.html

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, and thanks for sharing that. 🙂


  4. One of my college food favorites is definitely parmesan couscous pasta. It is as cheap (or cheaper) than ramen, and in my opinion it has more flavor. Hope that helps you college kids out there!

    I can definitely relate to point one as well. During my freshman year of college, I played on a sports team, had no job, and had no budget. About halfway through the semester, I became sick with the flu and realized I was SO poor that I couldn’t even afford flu medicine at the local CVS. By my next semester, I was working three jobs and living the college life of plenty, but it took a horrible experience (that was truly demeaning and awakening) for me to do that. I told myself I never wanted to be in a similar position again.

    So, if you can learn from my mistakes and follow the (incredibly wise) tips in the above post without having to go through what I did, then you will be in a much better spot.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow! Thank you John – for reading, sharing your experiences, and endorsing our tips. We are sorry you had to learn the hard way, but I think so many of us did, that you’re definitely not alone.

      Should you ever feel inspired to shoot us a post, or post ideas, do reach out and let us know.

      Thanks again and have a great weekend!


    1. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  5. Heather says:

    These are great tips! Establishing a habit of budgeting early on will help you throughout your life! Can I encourage you to look at it as a new way of life. You won’t out-grow or out-earn the need for a budget. Check out this post for other unruly budget categories and tips to tame them. http://www.ajourneyofprogress.com/2017/01/02/5-unruly-budget-categories-tame/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Heather! Budgeting is indeed an important way of life. Even celebrities go broke when they fail to live by that rule.

      I was unable to get past the pop up on your blog. It was basically a “sign up for a newsletter or never read my blog” situation. You might wanna fix that.

      All the best!


      1. Heather says:

        Oh dear! You can usually click right out of that window, but I’ll definitely take a look. Thanks so much!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yeah, the exit button was there but it wasn’t working. Good luck!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing!


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