Who else wants something for nothing? How to manage your college budget on a shoestring

Piggy Bank

Piggy Bank (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Ahhh, frugality…the bane of student life. Not only do you need to find money for those pricey textbooks, you still need to eat! The good news is that it is possible to survive on a shoestring budget and still enjoy your university years. Think it’s impossible? Think again! Just try out a few of these tips and tricks, learn how easy it is to get something for nothing, and put your college budget calculator to use. Before you know it, you’ll figure out how to survive college…with penny-pinching skills that would make Scrooge envious.

“A budget tells us what we can’t afford, but it doesn’t keep us from buying it.”—William Feather

In order to stay on top of your finances, a budget is a must! The problem that most of us have, though, is that we all have great expectations in the beginning—and then we fall out of habit near the end of, say, the second day. The trick is to have a handy tool that keeps you on budget and that helps you track your spending daily.

A great resource is Moolanomy‘s “26 College Budget Calculators for Students: Budget Now to Reduce Your Debt,” posted on August 11, 2009. This website offers a number of different budget options, from getting started to deciding whether to purchase a campus dining plan. The best part? Most of these spreadsheets don’t cost a dime! There is even a free download from Microsoft Office Excel—”My college budget.”

So take the first step to ensuring your financial future. Create a realistic budget, and get a good idea of exactly how much money you have to spend each week.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”—Plato

Unfortunately, creating a budget is much easier than sticking to one. We’ve all been there: It’s Tuesday and you are doing great. And then you pass by the local coffee shop and get a whiff of a heavenly smelling latte. You don’t mean to do it, but you can’t help yourself. $5.00 later you realize that you just spent your lunch money on a small coffee that will have your stomach crying for food within the hour.

Face it; college students don’t blow their budgets on large purchases. You aren’t buying thousand dollar chairs and hundred dollar pens (and if you are, you really need to check the return policy!). It’s the little things that push you over the financial edge, which begs the question: how can I actually stick to my budget? This truly is the most difficult part. You must have restraint, motivation and the drive to search for deals and bargains. A great way is to clip coupons and take advantage of local deals (like large pizza Wednesday and buy one, get one free sandwich Friday).

Being a college student does offer some great, money-saving privileges. As a rule of thumb, most universities offer the following free services to students:

  • Internet access—if not in each individual dorm room, in the library (and isn’t this more conducive for studying anyway?)
  • Rec center—drop that pricey gym membership and use the campus center for free, and if your university doesn’t have a gym, head to the local park and walk for exercise
  • Cultural centers and museums—instead of dishing out handfuls of cash for cover bands, enjoy a few nights of culture at campus-sponsored festivals or art shows
  • Transportation—ditch your car and save on gas money and parking fees
  • Student discount card—you probably have access to a discount card and, even though this won’t let you into the movies for free, it can give you the chance to save a great deal on your purchases

Another way to save money is to split high cost items with roommates. An article posted on Surviving College by Jamie on July 14, 2011, “Split It: 5 Things You Can Share with Your Roomie,” lists a number of cost-saving ideas. From a “Costco Membership” to sharing “Textbooks,” this article explains how working together can help multiple people stay on budget!

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” – Benjamin Franklin

On top of splitting costs, you must cut out unnecessary expenses and set a strict, and I mean strict, budget for the week. If you think this is impossible, check out Mattie Kahn’s post on December 11, 2011, forRefinery29, titled, “Town & Gown: Living On $40 A Week.”

In her post, Kahn describes how she lived an entire week on only “$43.07.” Kahn explains, “I didn’t exactly paint the town red; I didn’t succumb to any ‘small, original, with toppings’ from Pinkberry. But every cent of it was an adventure.”

Now, it’s time to start your adventure. Begin with honestly writing down every purchase you make this week. Then, cut your spending in half—and do everything in your power to stick to this new budget. You may be surprised at how much you can save. You may be even more surprised at how much you can do!

Do you have a great budget story to share? We’d love to hear it!

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