3 Small Ways to Save Money at College

Updated on March 13, 2017
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Few things in life are free. However, Lancie's articles are, so why not start your money-saving journey with a good read?

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Introduction

The price of college tuition is infamously high. Students take out debt in the hundreds of thousands, parents save and scrimp lovingly for years to build up a fund brutally decimated all too soon, and that's before you walk into your first lecture.

As a recent graduate, I recall some of the mistakes I made very clearly. Most of them were small, but every little bit adds up. So, here are three small practical ways to save money at college.

1. Say Goodbye to Books

For my engineering degree with honours, I had to do four to five units a semester, two semesters a year, for four years. Out of all those units, I've only ever bought two textbooks, and I regret purchasing half of those.

The first lecture of a unit is critically important. It's where you get to meet your class and potential team members. It's where you get to see your professor, and suss out what he or she's going to be like. It's where you learn how may assignments you'll be doing—and may even get one, if they have a sadistic bent, but more importantly it's where you're told what you'll need.

Of the two textbooks I purchased, only one was mandatory, as in they did not give out lecture notes or sheets (and that was the one I regretted buying). Perhaps Australian universities are more easygoing about it, but 90% of my professors said outright that none of the books were necessary, despite the unit outline using the words "Mandatory" in tiny print preceding the title of some tome.

Now, that isn't to say you won't use them, for homework or assignments. But you should be able to obtain these at your library, either in print or digital form. The latter was one of my small revelations—large publishers like Elsevier will actually have numerous textbooks available for subscription holders, and as a college student it's likely that you are now one of them.

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What's that? There are only earlier editions available? Well, the fundamentals of how the world works aren't changing any time soon unless you're in computing or programming. From maths to business principles, the content is the same, with the only difference across editions being the occasional rewording and shuffling of practice questions. Why publishers release new editions is another story altogether, but suffice to say that in most cases, early editions will do just fine.

And even then most homework is recommended, not graded. If all you need is practice, any similar textbook—any one that you can get in your library—will do the job. You can still work on it, you can still refer to solutions, you can still bring it to your professor and they should be able to answer your questions.

Of course, if your homework is graded, you can still share a book with friends, or even ask your professor. They're either in it to do research or to share their passion, so you have a pretty good chance of getting a happy response. If you have a Kindle, you can rent it via Amazon—great for broadening or bridging units that you feel won't have a further place in your life.

And, you didn't hear this from me, but Googling the title of your book followed by the letters "pdf" might help, too... there are indexes such as this and Textbookly that help, too.

The point is, there are a lot of alternatives to getting gouged on books. At a lowball $100 per book in a four-unit semester, that's $800 a year that you've saved.

Loan them, get an earlier edition, buy them with friends secondhand either at bookshops or online—Facebook communities or local forums are great for this. That is, unless you have to use a unique ID or code to do your homework digitally that only comes with a new copy, in which case I extend my condolences. Maybe send a concerned letter to your professor or student guild?

How much have you spent on college books?

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2. Free Things in Quiet Corners

Free pens of a surprising quality are yours to acquire, and you don't even have to be too thick-skinned about it! Open day stalls, orientation day stalls, whenever there's a promotional thing going down on campus, there will also be pens. Throughout a semester, you really only need two good quality pens—one to write with, and one to replace the other when you invariably lose it.

But that's not all you can get. Student guilds may give out planners or diaries which last remarkably long. You might also find perfectly good binders and folders being thrown out by campus offices at the beginning/end of semester. Sure, they may be a bit dog-eared, but they'll preserve your notes just fine. Try your luck at the international student or on-campus housing offices.

On the topic of notebooks: as an aside, bigger is better. Buying a large 240 page A4 notebook worked really well for me. I used that notebook for all four units, and it wasn't even that tight of a squeeze. Cheaper than getting a separate book for every unit, easier to carry, and easier to store and refer to in the future as well. Find them at your preferred stationery store or in the defect corner of those premium designer places—I got one for around $3 (RRP $8), I think, just because it had some water damage only on the cover.

Meanwhile, haunt the faculties every now and then for free magazines and reading materials. In my experience, architecture cycles through these a lot. Very rarely will you find textbooks, but you'll get something to adorn your coffee table or dorm room floor with, which is almost as good.

Some college communities may even give out free meals! From guild breakfasts to English-practice afternoon teas, the notice boards around campus are for more than just car ads. Again, Facebook is great for keeping track of these; just be prepared to make polite conversation between bites.

Feel free to add more freebies in the comments below if you come across them.

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3. Stay Fed

If, like me, you ended up with a hodgepoge of a schedule with none of the dietary discipline, you will find yourself eating at random times across the week... if at all. Sure, the effort in the first few weeks is valiant, but as assignments collide with group meetings and jobs, it becomes all too tempting to just outright skip meals, restricted by either cost or convenience.

While we've all read about how cooking big batches of food and packing them up is the financial straight and narrow, and that rice and beans are the end-all to food budgets, the truth is that sometimes we just won't. Lack of discipline, remember? So we end up either denying hunger, or caving in, getting marked up candy bars at vending machines or buying food from on-campus outlets.

My solution: bring fruit.

My favourite is the banana, supplying plenty of energy for the body and potassium for the brain. At half the price per kilogram sometimes, apples and pears are pretty good too as the skin will give your belly something to busy itself with.

If you're willing to invest, a packet of nuts or trail mix can do wonders—despite the higher price, you only need a literal handful to take you out of your hunger zone (I lived on a combination of these for breakfast and lunch while working 8 hour shifts on campus, too). The best part is that the lack of larger, harder to digest carbohydrates means you won't get hit by that mysterious wave of sleepiness an hour or so after you eat. No guarantees against the power of your professor's droning voice, however!

Yes, packing a proper lunch is still superior. But apples only need washing, and bananas don't even need that! All the packet of nuts needs is a little tab to keep it closed, and you can even leave it in your bag so you'll never forget. This is a compromise between convenience and cost that worked for me—the biggest enemy of lifestyle planning is the ability to commit, and by keeping the hassle at a minimum, I was able to do this consistently for years.

If you like the taste of vegetables, mixing in a carrot or a stick of celery to the bunch will enrich your diet. If you want to get gourmet, make use of the microwaves on campus—there's usually one in every faculty and student guild area—to reheat frozen peas and corn, sachets of oatmeal if you absolutely need the grains, or its much cheaper (and chewier) counterpart: rolled oats. Put in water equal to double the amount of rolled oats in a cup, and microwave on high for three minutes, salt and sugar nicked from a nearby cafeteria optional.

It doesn't seem like much, but if you manage to avoid eating on campus due to hunger pangs just twice a week, for a total of $16, that's just over $60 a month that can go to your gas or phone bills. And actually eating instead of starving will help you focus in classes, earn you better grades, and a higher GPA puts greater value on the degree you're paying so much for. What's not to love?

Take the quiz to see how savvy you are with your college cash!

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Conclusion

College is said by many to be the best part of your life. Be willing to put yourself out there to new experiences, new places and new people, even if it means forking a bit more on communal pizza than you'd like.

However, there are some things that really don't warrant spending, not when they're overpriced and temporal, outright free in some cases, and simply avoidable. Try these out and if you find it useful, share it with others who need it.

Especially the book one. I'm still stinging from that.

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