I Had Fun In College and Didn’t Go Broke

I loved college. I worked hard and played hard, but didn’t go broke in the process. Of course, like most college students, I worried about money, but I managed to stretch every single dollar that came across my path.

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Before I explain how I escaped college with only student loans for debt, let me give you a little background of my financial situation at the time.

I grew up in a single-parent household without a lot of money. Our family struggled financially for as long as I could remember– as my mom would say: “We didn’t have a pot to piss in!” But, our financial situation was actually a blessing in disguise when it came time for me to apply for college.

In high school, I was a big dork. I graduated in the top 5% of my class, did well on my SATs, and participated in tons of super dorky extracurricular activities, like band and yearbook. Basically, I looked good on paper and got accepted to a lot of top schools. But, as you can imagine, trying to afford a tuition of $35,000 per year was absolutely impossible for my family. Luckily, many of these schools came through big time with generous financial aid packages. Money talks, so I ended up at Union College.

It was great that Union covered most of my tuition costs, but I still had plenty of other expenses (i.e. books, supplies, clothing, fun, beer, etc.). In my senior year, I was also responsible for paying my own rent in my off-campus apartment (I had 8 roommates!) and buying groceries since I was no longer on the college meal plan. Obviously, money was always on my mind.

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Ok, so now that you know about my financial situation, here’s what worked for me in college (and still today):

  • resisted getting a credit card. Credit cards used to scare me, so I resisted getting one as long as possible. During my junior year of college, however, I spent a semester abroad in York, England. I worked all summer at two jobs to save money for my trip, but even still, I ran out toward the end of the semester. Basically, I had NO money, applied for my first credit card after reading a Citi Double Cash review. My semester abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I didn’t want to miss out on traveling and experiencing a new country. Thankfully, the limit on the credit card was set to $500, so I was able to dig myself out of debt before the end of the school year.
  • I always had a part-time job. In college, grad school, and even working full-time at my first job, I always had a part-time job. Sometimes, I even had two at a time! I always thought working would get in the way of my school work, but it never really did. Of course, it wasn’t a cakewalk, but I learned how to be more efficient with my time. In grad school, I worked at a health club for extra income, but it also meant that I could use the facilities for free and thus save money on a membership.
  • I always had a full-time summer job. I worked at least one job during the summer and squirreled away every dime for the upcoming academic year. I also made a budget at the beginning of each summer to give me an idea of how much I needed to save before going back to school in the fall. This definitely helped keep me on track!
  • I got my money’s worth at the dining halls. When I was on a meal plan at college, I always grabbed extra food to take with me for later, like whole fruit, bagels, and packets of peanut butter and instant oatmeal. I’d even fill my water bottle with milk (for coffee) or juice (to mix with vodka 😉 ). That way, I could save my money on buying snacks or groceries for my dorm room.
  • I saved for big purchases. I love designer jeans, but I didn’t have $150 to drop on a pair. (I still don’t!) Instead of going out and charging a new pair of jeans on my credit card, I put away a little bit of money each week until I had enough to buy them. Sometimes, I only saved $5 or $10 a week, but every dollar got me closer to my goal.
  • I made my own coffee, lunches, and snacks. It’s crazy how much money I saved by not buying a cup of coffee or my lunch everyday on campus. When I lived off-campus during my senior year, I almost always made my own coffee and packed my lunch or went home to eat.
  • I only brought cash to the bar. I only brought a certain amount of cash out with me, so I couldn’t rack-up a high bar tab over the course of the night. Plus, it limited the amount of booze that I consumed!
  • I used a $20 rule. In college, I rarely spent more than $20 on anything. I kid you not. If I wanted to buy something that cost more than $20, I’d give myself a day or two to think about it. If I still really wanted to buy it after 48 hours, I would, but a lot of the time, I’d change my mind. Keeping this rule in mind definitely kept me out of debt!
  • I “paid” my car payment weekly. My mom helped me buy a car in my senior year of college. Instead of having my car payment sneak up on me at the end of the month, I divided the amount by four and automatically transfered that amount from my checking to my savings account every week. If the money wasn’t in my checking account, I couldn’t spend it on other things– and I always made my payments on time.

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What are your tips and tricks for saving money in college and/or graduate school?

 

80 Comments

  1. I think these are great tips and a lot of them are similar to the ones I tried to keep in mind while in university! There were 2 universities in my city so I opted to attend one of them so I could live at home and save money. I also always had a part time job during the school year as well as worked full time hours in the summer. I was also really good at saving for things I really wanted but passing on the little things that I didn’t really need. Great tips!

  2. I’m a big cheapskate, so I loved this post. These are great tips! I especially like the $20 rule, I think that is something I am definitely going to implement into my spending habits! I’m currently in college and have a partial meal plan, but I do like to take as much fruit and bagels from the dining hall as possible(for breakfasts!). I guess it also helps that I’m extremely indecisive too, because I agonize over almost every purchase I make!

  3. I am lucky enough to have the financial support of my parents, but they also taught me how to SAVE. It is amazing how much every dollar really counts. Whenever I get paid, whether it’s a $500 paycheck or $50 babysitting, I always deposit at least half of it into the bank and only get ash much cash as I need. And if I get a certain amount of cash out, I vow to make it last at least 2 weeks.

    I also agree with taking food from the dining hall. I also was lucky enough to have a job at our on-campus coffeeshop, which means, in addition to my paycheck, I got–you guessed it–unlimited free drinks, bagels, and other goodies! SCORE.

  4. I would say “don’t spend the money if you don’t have it”. That is my husband and my motto. I only have student loans to pay back from college. Right now, we may not have some living room furniture in our house, but… we’re not in debt!

  5. One of the really interesting things I noticed when I did an exchange year in Virginia (I’m from Australia) is how few students work at all. In Australia, it’s the norm for teenagers to start doign casual work, eyar round, as soon as they legally can (around 15 years old). Even those of us who came from middle-class families worked, so it was really strange for me to go to a country where most students didn’t do anything but study and party. So I applaud your college self – I think having a job outside of school really helps people become more rounded and aware of financial responsibility!

  6. Even though I’ve been graduated from college for a few years these are EXCELLENT tips to stay out of debt and great advice about how to live well, have fun and be smart when you’re in college.

  7. It’s funny- you and I came from very similar backgrounds of single moms with not much money, but that had the opposite effect on me. When I got to college, I was so sick of being poor and wanted to fit in with everyone else so I opened up a ton of credit cards. I think I had 11 at one point. It took me YEARS to pay them off, but I am so glad that I am credit card debt free today =) Now, to pay off those student loans…

  8. Thank you so much for the tips Tina! I’ve been thinking about getting a credit card but after reading you I won’t or at least not this semester. I’ve just finished college and I have a part time job at uni and just got another one in an important editorial here in Lima, Peru.
    Btw, I love your blog!

  9. this is an amazing post. i feel like alot of college kids (me included) get over their heads in debt and its not good. Thanks for posting the things that helped you!

  10. Wahoo Capital District! I almost went to Union, but ended up nearby at Siena College where I am a sophomore this year. I always used to skate at the ice rink on Union’s campus! Thanks for the tips. We all definitely leave the dining hall with bags stuffed full of fruit, bagels, peanut butter, cups filled with cereal, and on rare occassions whole loaves of bread 😉 It’s hysterical every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at dinner when everyone is filling up 2 or 3 cups full of juice and soda for mixed drinks later in the night!

  11. As a college student, this was a GREAT post with awesome tips! I just moved into an apartment (instead of a dorm) and I am learning to eat what I buy. Sounds simple, but taking fruit and yogurt instead of grabbing a deli sandwich between classes cuts way down on expenses (and no food gets wasted, either.) I also take my own iced coffee every morning, and say no to the “let’s go out”s occasionally for the “let’s stay in”s. My friends and I have found tons of creative ways to have fun for cheap (game night, s’mores night, midnight frisbee, etc.)

  12. Thanks for this post, I’m just starting college this fall. I can’t remember but do you have any posts about staying healthy while in college? I thought you did I’ll go look it up, if not what would you recommend??

  13. Bookmarked this as a favorite since I’m starting school in January. Great Tips, this will be very useful to me.

  14. This is so helpful! I need better ways to manage my money while in school. I used to spend a lot of money on coffee, but now I work in a coffee shop, so I just get it for free. 🙂

  15. your post was so helpful. I recently just graduated from college and I feel like I was very similar to you with the money situation. I always felt why spend money when I have it at the house plus I would go to school during the day, intern, then work in the evening.

    The $20 dollar tip is a great idea and I am still going to try that for right now. Grad school may be in my future sooner than expected.

  16. I went to undergrad and grad school in cities, but I always either walked home from work/school or biked both ways. This helped me shed a lot of weight during college and I can’t even begin to guesstimate how much money it saved me over time. I too have always juggled at least one job with my course load, not allowing much time outside during the day, so I enjoyed that this lifestyle choice afforded me at least 30 mins of outside time per day. I don’t plan on living in cities my whole life, and it enabled me to get to know the layout of the city as well as discover hidden gems more rapidly than my public transportation-confined friends. I always stuck to your other tips, and have since graduated from both programs with only my student loans (although considerable) as well! Thanks for all your amazing tips, recipes and suggestions!

  17. I’m from the Albany/Schenectady area…so cool to see your connection here! Union is a great place! Great tips…even though I’m out of school…I should probably follow those rules too!

  18. I appreciate the budgeting in college tips–as a higher ed administrator I know its a skill MANY of our students are lacking. However, I’m concerned about the image you give college–when you have 2 pics suggesting you’re drinking, write that you worked and played hard and talk about stealing juice from the dining hall for your vodka, it doesn’t necessarily parallel with the healthy living message that I love and know about this site. Without the context of knowing what non-alcohol-related activities you did, the implication is that its about the booze.

  19. No way, you went to Union!? I live in Niskayuna! ha. Anyway, I’m in college now (no where near home – i go to school in Rhode Island) so I’m VERY familiar with stretching the college student budget. I’m terrible with spending money – if I have money, I have to spend it until I have zero dollars left – it’s a horrible habit that I’m trying to break! But still, I tend to buy things super cheap, which results in me owning WAY too much stuff, and then getting stressed out whenever I pack because I realize once again how much crap I have that I don’t need (like right now!)

  20. Great tips! But I am not liking all the credit card bashing, they can actually be very useful. You can get points or money back on purchases. A monthly statement to tell you exactly where and how much you spend on things and most of all build your credit. As long as you use it how you would cash (aka stop using it when you are out of money to repay) I currently work at a furniture company and new grads with jobs come in to finance their furniture can’t because they never had credit cards throughout college, so if you have self control credit cards can be a good thing!

  21. Tina,
    I wanted to say thank you very much for the great tips. I’m just starting college ( tomorrow…) and I’ve just become one of those college students who is constantly worried about money.
    Thanks to your tips & other health blogs I feel like I can confidently, cheaply, and healthily, get through college!

  22. These are really great tips. It’s cool that you spent a semester abroad in York! That’s really close by me, and I love the city. Did you enjoy it? Do you have any posts about it by any chance?

  23. Wow. As a freshman in college, I’m definitely going to be using some of these tips next semester. Thank you so much!

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