College tuition and housing is expensive enough on its own. But then you start adding up all of the other college costs, both in and out of the classroom, and things can become quite overwhelming. Fortunately, there are ways to save significant money on expenses if you do some planning and look for out-of-the-box ways to save. (See also: 40+ College Resources for Parents and Students)
1. Buy Textbooks Used
News alert: Brand new college textbooks are really, really expensive. Fortunately, the ease of shopping online has created an excellent way to buy gently used textbooks at a steep discount. We're talking over 75% off the retail price of new books and savings in the range of $1,000 over the course of an academic year. A few excellent online resources worth exploring include Chegg, eCampus.com, AbeBooks.com, BigWords.com, and even Barnes & Noble has entered the used textbook field. (See also: 20 Places to Buy or Rent Textbooks)
You can also sell back used textbooks for a pretty decent return, so be sure to take care of the books as condition is a huge factor when determining how much you'll get back at the end of the semester. If you don't want to buy your books, you can also look into renting them for the semester and saving a good chunk of change in the process. A few resources worth exploring include TextbookRentals, BookRenter, and Amazon.
2. Ask About Student Discounts
When buying items like clothing, shoes, backpacks, and laptops in preparation for the upcoming school year, it would really benefit you to ask about student discounts. A few examples of discounts available include 20% off your order at Banana Republic, 15% off at J. Crew, and even 10% off at your local Goodwill. When it comes to buying tech, Best Buy,Apple Store, and Dell all have student-specific online programs that offer significant discounts. Apple, for example, is currently offering $200 off a new MacBook and up to $20 off an iPad.
Typically, all you need to get the discount is your student ID. If you're a freshman and don't have an ID yet, just bring along your registration letter, or something similar, to prove your student status. Make it a healthy habit to always ask about student discounts when shopping anywhere. Also, be sure to ask when dining out as many restaurants offer unadvertised discounts to students.
3. Find Free or Cheap Transportation
Many colleges and universities team up with local bus authorities to offer free bus rides for students. Many incoming students are not made aware of this. Speaking from my own experience, I was a sophomore in college before I realized I could ride the local bus for free. Once you get on campus, ask around about this possibly free, or highly discounted, transportation method. Not only will you save on gas, but you'll avoid all of the other costs that come with maintaining a vehicle while in school.
4. Call Your Roommate to Avoid Duplicate Purchases
I'll never forget showing up on campus and meeting my first college roommate. It turned out we had quite a bit in common, including ownership of a microwave, mini-fridge, and 27" tube TV. If only I had called him ahead of time to see what stuff he was bringing, it would have saved me significant money. After all, no dorm room ever built has enough room for all your stuff and it's silly not to share. Lesson learned the hard way. Always communicate with your future roommate and determine what items you actually need to buy.
5. Choose the Meal Plan That Works for You
I can remember a friend during my college days who paid for three meals a day (21 meals a week) in the school cafeteria but typically only went 10-15 times per week. At the time, I figured we was blowing close to $50 a week on uneaten meals, not including the money he spent eating out and at the grocery store. Always consider your eating habits when deciding on the right meal plan for you. For example, if you tend to skip breakfast and grab a bagel on the way out the door, you'll want to adjust your meal plan accordingly. Also, if you like throwing a sandwich together for a light lunch and have classes scheduled during lunch hours, you'll want to adjust your plan as well. Bottom line, don't blindly sign up for a meal plan without considering how much of the plan you'll actually use.
6. Research the Best Cell Phone Plan
You can also save significant money by researching the best cell phone plan that meets your specific needs. Simply adding another line to a family plan is not always going to give you the best deal. Or perhaps you're in a situation where that is not even an option. If you tend to use very few talk minutes (100 or less per month), you should consider a T-Mobile prepaid plan. For a very affordable $30 a month, you get unlimited web and text, 5GB data at 4G speeds, and 100 talk minutes. I have this no-contract plan and absolutely love it.
If you're a big talker and texter, but don't necessarily need high-speed data because of free college Wi-Fi, consider Cricket Wireless. For only $25 per month, you get unlimited talk and text, all with no annual contract. If you need a data plan, you can upgrade to 2.5 GB for an additional $15 per month. You can either buy a phone directly from Cricket, or save money by scoring a deal on an unlocked used smartphone on eBay.
7. Set up the Right Student Checking Account
Never blindly accept the bank or checking account recommended by your school. In many cases, they're loaded with hidden fees and often times the college or university receives a kickback for promoting the bank, making it a biased recommendation. It's important to do some independent research and find the right checking account for you. Look for student checking accounts that have no fees for debit transactions, branches near campus so you avoid out-of-network ATM charges, and no monthly fees when a reasonable account balance is maintained.
Also, if you're comfortable doing your banking via your smartphone, consider using an online mobile bank like Capital One 360. The lack of physical branches is more than made up for by the lack of fees along with a decent interest rate. No overdraft fees, no minimum monthly balance required, and all completely FDIC insured. Are you worried about not being able to get quick access to cash? Don't be, as Capital One has over 2000 ATMs in addition to 38,000 fee-free ATMs account users can use. (See also: Best Online Checking Accounts)
By doing your due diligence and researching frugal ways to save on college costs, you can definitely lower your stress level when it comes time to pay your monthly bills. After all, balancing college life and your studies can be stressful enough without worrying about finances too.