Frugal Tips for College Students

by A Guest Writer · 13 comments

in Guest Posts

retro_classroomThis is a guest post from Lucie, of Unconventional Origins.

The phrase “college student” brings to mind a particular word – broke (the same still applies to other more impressive student labels, like “grad student” and “law student”). As a parent, there are a lot of things you don’t want to be, and one is financially struggling. So as a student-parent, you have to get creative.

Why you have to get creative with your money

You are a parent, but a lot of the realities of student life still apply to you. Even if you are lucky and are raising your child with a partner, time you spend in class and on your studies is time you aren’t working. You have all the obstacles any student has when it comes to managing your money, combined with the new obstacles of supporting a family. Sure, when you are a lone student it’s okay if you make it through finals on a diet of coffee and ramen, and dinner through the rest of the semester can be summed up as “.99 cent Margarita night,” but as parents we cannot expect our children to make it on 19 cent noodles.

Luckily for us student-parents, we can use some of the old tricks when it comes to saving money and stretching a dollar.  But we also have to take our children into consideration, which means being willing to spend more money in some areas (food) while cutting money in areas that might be considered essential to the average student (beer).

Frugal tips for all students:

  • Make a budget. This is especially important if you live off a once a semester loan disbursement. There are plenty of resources to help you with making a budget – I suggest checking out Dave Ramsey if you want to get serious about making a budget. For further reading on things to take into consideration when making our budget check out Kelly’s post on the hidden costs of going back to school.
  • Buy used books. I cannot stress this enough. As a law student, if I bought all my books new, I would spend between $600 and $700 a semester. Not pretty. You can browse for used books in your university’s bookstore, or better yet check out Amazon for super-cheap used options. The person who owned the book before might have had a thing for orange highlighters and writing notes in the columns, but it is still worth the money saved.
  • Take advantage of the school exercise facilities. A gym membership can cost over $50 a month. Sure, the great outdoors are free of charge but it is hard to motivate for exercising when it is ten degrees outside. The school gym is the best of both worlds – indoors and free. Your university might also have a natatorium where you can swim laps, and check the bulletin boards around the gym for super cheap yoga and martial arts classes.
  • Take advantage of the school library. If you cannot afford a computer, or if you have a computer and cannot afford to pay for internet services, head over to campus and take advantage of their student computer section. This works best if you live close to campus.
  • Take advantage of your student ID. In my fair city this guarantees me free bus rides, discounts at the movies, and admittance to certain events (plays, speakers, etc.) at a reduced rate. You would be surprised the places that give you a discount for the hard work you do as a student – JCrew, for example, offers a 15% off discount in their stores with a student ID.
  • Pack your own lunch. I cannot stress this enough. Even if you eat relatively cheap (as I did as an undergraduate, off the Wendy’s dollar menu) you are still spending three to five dollars a day. This is $15 to $25 a week, or anywhere from $780 to $1,500 a year.
  • Make your own coffee. The same logic and math that applies to making your lunch applies to bringing your own coffee. Especially if you are like me and you have a latte habit.

Frugal tips for student-parents:

  • Rethink Ramen. Sometimes we only have one serving of a meal to save as leftovers. When money is tight, SLB (the fiancé) and I will make the cheap option for ourselves (yes, sometimes this means Ramen) and Reesy (the almost-one-year-old) gets the leftovers (i.e. real food). This is a win-win: Reesy gets a good meal and we stretch our groceries one more day.
  • Look into university sponsored day care. Not all universities offer this, but some do, and it can be considerably cheaper than what you would pay otherwise.
  • Buy your books used, and sell them back. As a (childless) undergraduate I kept some of my more interesting books. But as a student-parent, this is no time to be building your book collection, not when you can trade your books for cash at the end of the semester. There is an exception to this rule – if you paid $150 dollars for a book only to be informed that next semester a new edition is being used so they can give you $3 for it, feel free to keep that book. Your righteous indignation is worth more than the $3.
  • Look for scholarships for parents – this is especially true if you are a single parent. We know us parents, especially the ones doing it alone, deserve some credit for all that hard work. And there are people out there who agree with us.
  • Consider going to school part-time and year round. This has numerous benefits. If you elect to go to school part time you can have more flexibility to work (a paycheck is a very reassuring thing). If you are lucky enough to have a partner, you can also skip the job and try to arrange your schedule so one of you is always home, making child care costs unnecessary. Daycare can be outrageously expensive, and the money you save can in some cases be more than you might make a week at your job. If you take one to two classes in during the summer term you can accelerate your path to graduation in spite of your part-time status. The only thing to keep in mind is that if you, like so many students, rely in part on student loans for certain costs (for example, rent) that you will receive less loan money is you are enrolled in school part-time.
  • Be content to live like a parent, not a student. I am on the younger side for a parent, and I am pretty much the only one of my friends at school who has children. It can be difficult when everyone is planning on celebrating finals by going out for drinks, or when people plan to get together and go see a movie. Spending money going out to bars or the movies are not things we can afford to budget in, so that means I typically miss out on doing things with my friends from school. Even though that bothers me sometimes, it is the right decision for my family. Try to wait until people have parties at their homes or there are other school sponsored events where you can socialize for free.

Living frugally as a student-parent isn’t easy, but it is very doable. You just have to get a little creative with your money (and it helps to always come equipped with a good sense of humor, for those times when your baby spits up on that book you were hoping to see back at the end of the semester).

How do you students and student-parents out there get creative with your money?

Lucie is a new mother (and soon-to-be-step-mom) who blogs about redefining perceptions of the American family at Unconventional Origins. She writes about life as a member of an interracial blended family as well as other hot topics, family issues, and creative ideas for around the home. Lucie lives in a small apartment that is big on personality with her fiancé and three sons. She is a full-time law student who loves baking, coffee, and pretending to be an interior designer. If you enjoyed this post check her out and consider adding Unconventional Origins to your reader!


1 Quadelle December 19, 2008

The suggestions above are all great. 🙂

To save on childcare:

– whenever possible take classes that run when your partner is not working, so they are able to mind the kids

– ask friends to babysit for free – if you have several good friends who know the kids well you can avoid overusing any one person, and you will be surprised at how willing they are to help

– do a babysitting swap with another family – if they cover you for x classes then you have their kids for a weekend (easier to write off one weekend from study than lose multiple little times, and couples always appreciate a whole weekend – or even a whole night – away from their kids)

– make babysitting easy for others, especially if they're doing it for free and don't have kids themselves (e.g. a detailed list of things the kids like, meals and snacks already made, specific instructions about bedtime routines, taking the kids to them instead of them coming to you, etc.)

– take kids with you to college when feasible (e.g. I was allowed to bring my newborns to class, and they are welcome at supervision sessions as well – but only do this if you clear it first!)

Other things:

– Gratefully accept all hand-me-downs. Now is not the time to be blowing money on clothes for anyone in the family if it can be avoided.

– Go to networking functions such as faculty end-of-year parties. It might cost a little (mostly just time, precious time!), but making potential connections for future employment is worth it.

– Start a study group. It's making connections (which is good for networking, but also good for just feeling more a part of things), and it can save time (sharing research / resources / ideas). If babysitting is an issue, host it.

I'm always interested in more suggestions on this topic!

2 Megan December 19, 2008

This post is so great, I really appreciate it. I’m going back to school in the spring to get a nursing degree and now that I’m a parent I’ve been so worried about how I’ll be able to juggle it all and not send us into the poor house. These suggestions are so helpful and it’s reassuring to know that other moms are charging down this path, too. Thank you!!

Megan´s last blog post..Give-Away Day Winner

3 Lucie @ Unconvention December 19, 2008

Quadelle – GREAT suggestions. All the things you suggested really help. I always schedule my classes around when the fiance will be home, and it has made such a huge difference. We have had NO childcare costs as of yet and my son turns one on Sunday! We are also lucky that we have friends arguing about who gets to babysit (for free, of course) – but grandma always gets first dibs.

Hand me downs are also crucial – they save us sooooo much money! And of course study groups help on the student end – if you get a few people to split up the work, it can save you weeks of time.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment!

<abbr>Lucie @ Unconventional Origins´s last blog post..Guest Post at Almost Frugal</abbr>

4 Christopher, Louisville December 19, 2008

Lu, I saved about $300 this semester by finding friends who don’t typically sell their books, but who were happy to loan them to me for the semester. I snagged 3 of my 5 texts for the semester that way.

Christopher, Louisville´s last blog post..Put on your big girl panties and quit your crying!

5 Kelly December 19, 2008

I think that my favorite tip is the last- be content to live as a parent, not a student. I was single, footloose and fancy-free when I was last in school. Now, with three kids and a small class of only 18 students, I have to admit that it sometimes hurts to feel on the outside. But they go out with each other after class, and I can't go with them, or rather, choose not to.

It's OK, and I'm happy with the way things are, but as Lucie said, it took some accepting.

6 Green Panda December 20, 2008

Wonderful post. My mom went to school with me and while it wasn’t easy, it was a great experience. My mom had me in day care part time and got her degree. Having a support system of family and friends helped.
Sometimes you can tutor someone and an class hour of babysitting with a trusted friend.

Green Panda´s last blog post..Tactics of Time Share Tours

7 Lucie @ Unconventional Origins December 20, 2008

Megan – good luck going with nursing school! My mother went back to school and became a nurse when I was in the 4th grade – it can definitely be done. Something I didn’t mention in my post is that no matter how tough things get, you are doing something to make life for you and your family better. That’s worth it!

Lucie @ Unconventional Origins´s last blog post..Guest Post at Almost Frugal

8 Emma December 20, 2008

Lucie, thanks for these tips – some of them are very useful even to a non-student parents. Especially the babysitting in shifts one, that’s a great money saver. We have accepted a lot of hand-me-downs and that was a great help, I barely had to buy anything during the first year when my baby was born. Kelly, you’ve got great guest-posters on your blog (present company excluded, he he he 🙂 )!

Emma´s last blog post..Link Love: Posts about kids (and parents) that made me think this week

9 Jerry December 22, 2008

These are great tips for students and parents alike. Most students don’t think about budgeting while in school but it’s really important. Good habits now will lead to more financial stability in the long run. Since there’s no insurance everyone will be make gobs of money out of college, knowing how you manage what you already have will pay dividends in the end.

10 Amanda December 23, 2008

Not that I would advocate more student loans, but most loans only require half time attendance to get "living expenses." So you may be able to qualify for the same amount of excess loans as with full time attendance.

<abbr>Amanda´s last blog post..Assumptions</abbr>

11 Becky December 27, 2008

This is so awesome! I am a single mom who is back in college with a ten year old I am homeschooling. I am currently unemployed, though I am trying to change that. Doing it has been a huge challenge both financially and mentally since as you mentioned many of my peers are going out having a great time most weekends. My best tips are-

-make from scratch whenever possible (We make homemade breakfast sandwiches with the toaster oven and microwave, very little effort, much cheaper and healthier)

-make stuff and freeze it

-clearance and mega sales are your friends- if you are patient you can find nearly anything on clearance

-entertainment- make use of free college concerts and cheap music fundraisers, this year we had X amount of fun money we discussed how we wanted to spend it and what we decided was a zoo membership and a DS. The kid already had one so now we can play on games. The zoo membership paid for itself in two visits. (Check for special rates our local attractions have a plus one feature which is an adult plus one person and is about half the cost of a family membership.)

-don't carry cash (this may just be a personal thing)

-Used bookstores are awesome. There is a regional chain which clearances out books and videos for 1-3 dollars. We get a few videos (on VCR tape) and we have new movies to watch.

Personally I have never had to leave my kid in paid care. Until this semester my sis watched him (she is disabled and can't work) while he did his school work. With a turn in her health he has come to class with me or gone to the school library where one of the librarians will keep an eye on him for a bit. It has worked out really well,

12 Tina December 29, 2008

I am a married student with a 2 year old. Here are my tips:

– get a roommate. We live with a single 25 year old male coworker of my husband’s. Helps a lot with the rent and utilities, and food , since they contribute $$ to the groceries.
– Take online classes. Though not cheap, they generally let me study during times that kidlet is napping and / or someone else is home to watch him.
– use drop in childcare. Ikea has up to and hour and a half, if you can study in the restaurant, many bookstores and libraries offer storytime
– there are a few chains of drop in childcare centers (a local one is kidspark please note this is not an endorsement or anything just a suggestion). The centers offer up to five hours a day and up to 15 hours a week of activities and such for about $8 an hour plus a yearly registration fee.
– use a high school or middle school student to supervise and play with kids while you are in another part of the house doing homework — you can generally pay a bit less or trade out tutoring.
– food – use smart and final stores. These are restaurant supply stores. Cheaper than costco and you don’t have the yearly fees.
– food – if you are in the northeast or midwest you can shop at Aldi’s. Cheap.

I am sure others have more suggestions. Hope these help.

13 Mike Lopata February 18, 2009

Great tips that we can use for students viewing our site. Thanks!

Mike Lopata´s last blog post..The Changing Landscape of Flagship Universities

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