The graduation parties are over, and it's time to get down to business. Armed with a sense of maturity and independence, you are ready to conquer your coursework in order to snare your first dream job. But if you're like most college students, your pocketbook has nary a dollar to its name.
Whether you're a rising freshman, a dorm veteran or a parent of either, here are 21 commonsense money-saving strategies that can stretch your dollar and ease your financial strain while in college.
1. Drop the latte habit
This one is a no-brainer. Skip the white-chocolate-cinnamon-chai-latte* with extra pumps and learn to love … plain old coffee. And, of course, brew it yourself in your room (single-serve coffeemakers are quick and easy) or get your coffee as part of your meal plan. Consider this: According to a report by CBS News, the average cost for a single trip to a nationally recognized coffeehouse is $3.25. Not bad for a quick pick-me-up, right? But three trips a week add up to $42.25 a month. Even cutting back on one trip a week puts $126 back into your pocket over a typical school year of nine months. Other ideas: Instead of ordering a latte, ask for an Americano and add your own half-and-half. Or ask for a medium-size specialty drink with a large-size cup full of ice for a larger iced coffee drink at a lesser price. (*real drink!)
2. Re-evaluate the meal plan
Many college students, especially freshmen, overestimate how many meals they will eat in the dining hall. Colleges recognize this and allow students to use meal points in the many kiosks and mini-stores around campus. However, it's not uncommon for students to let points go unused. Evaluate what you actually used from day one to Christmas break, then adjust for the next semester.
3. Clip and save
Check newspapers, the backs of grocery receipts and in-store discount offers. Check out some of the videos on extreme couponing to get inspired and learn more. Check out Groupon for local specials. Even if you only shop off-campus infrequently, make sure to join any free shoppers' club for discounts. Some supermarkets feature gas savings as well.
4. Dig for discounts
Shop at discount grocers, dollar stores and online. You will find many of your necessary staples — from crackers and peanut butter to macaroni and cheese to red Solo cups — at discount stores. Many people turn to Amazon to buy in bulk and save (this could be a great roommate bonding opportunity too — order together and split the cost.)
4. Bottles for cash
Turn in your cans and glass for cash. If you live in one of the 11 states with a Bottle Bill, save the empty bottles and aluminum cans from the weekend and get cash from a retailer that collects them for recycling.
5. There are free lunches, promise
Look for free events — especially those with free food. Absolutely, frequently meal share with friends. Instead of going out for dinner, host a potluck or themed dinner with friends where everyone brings a dish. It's amazing what kind of entertaining you can do with a microwave and a small fridge.
6. Shop only while full
Frugal parents usually know best and this is no exception: Only shop for food when you have a full stomach. This will help you avoid filling your shopping cart with unnecessary items.
7. Unleash your inner Top Chef
Prepare your own meals if you are living off campus rather than buying ready-made lunches and dinners. Despite their convenience, they are costly. Plus, when you cook at home, you can double the recipe and freeze half for another time or use later in the week for another recipe. Extra chicken and fresh cooked corn may be used later for chicken enchiladas. Just add the wraps and a few spices! Think about investing in a slow cooker.
8. Buy in bulk with friends
Share the cost of commonly used items like condiments, tissues and dish soap with your roommates. Buy these items in bulk or large sizes that can last a longer time. Check if any parents have access to lower cost items through their workplace.
9. Trade on your loyalty
Be mindful of frequent buyer programs. If you hang out at a favorite diner or coffee shop, take advantage of any punch card offerings.
10. Buy local
Community farmers' markets are a great way to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and jams. Just remember to buy what you are reasonably sure you will use right away.
11. Buy generic
House brands are typically less than name brand items and smart shoppers swear by them. However, if the product isn't up to par, return it and stick with what you like. Paying less shouldn't mean compromising quality.
12. Discover Overdrive
If you aren't familiar with the Overdrive app yet, here's a vital heads up. This basic-but-incredibly-useful app allows you to check out e-books, audiobooks and videos from your local library wirelessly and easily — even the library back home, so keep your childhood card handy! Major bonus: No late fees. When your borrowing period expires, the content simply becomes unavailable.
13. Rent your textbooks
Research online discount booksellers and rental programs. Rent used books or take advantage of discount online sellers such as Chegg, Amazon's Prime Student or textbooks.com. Another handy avenue to save money is to post on a college FB group to connect with other students who are eager to sell their books for cash. Speaking of…
14. Purge your old textbooks
Sell books that you no longer need to fellow students or to bookstores. For those books deemed un-sellable, donate them to charity and get a tax deduction receipt to file with your end-of-year taxes.
15. Ditch the car
Walk, peddle or use the free campus shuttles and public transportation. Cars are costly, not only in the way of gas and maintenance, but also parking stickers and insurance. If you must keep your wheels, though, here's another option:
Coordinate trips to and from home and school with fellow students. Chip in for gas, or if you insist on having a car on campus, charge other students for transporting them home and back.
Think creatively. Inexpensive scooters are allowed on some campuses and provide a less expensive way to travel than having a car.
17. Take the bus
Discounted bus services, such as Megabus, connect most major cities and offer cheaper fares for inconvenient departure times. You'll feel great practicing fiscal responsibility by using mass transit.
18. Get thrifty
Browse secondhand stores. No kidding, you'll find some of the very things you need (and some you just want!) for a fraction of the price. Some, like Goodwill, even offer new clothing from overstocked retailers at a substantial discount. If you like the Salvation Army on Facebook, they'll notify you of weekly tag sales and specials.
19. Curb alerts
Check out online classified ads on Craigslist, eBay, OfferUp or Nextdoor for used furniture and home-related merchandise.
20. Discount ID
Use your student identification whenever possible to get a discount. Many retailers and restaurants near campus or even around your home understand the cash-strapped college student. Look for student prices on event or museum tickets, services like manicures and haircuts, and memberships.
21. Say no to unnecessary services
Don't get suckered into a college “linen service” or “rug service.” Colleges can offer the opportunity to purchase sheets, towels and carpeting. With a coupon, you probably can get a better deal (and more stylish options) at Kohl's, Target, J.C. Penney, Marshall's or T.J. Maxx.
These are all ways to save money in college. Practice these in school and you'll be ready to stretch your dollar further for years to come. Just remember the most important trio of advice here: Plan ahead, make a monthly budget and stay on budget with creative ideas meant to keep dollars in your pocket.
How did you save in college?
Graduation photo credit iStockphoto