I Had Fun In College and Didn’t Go Broke

Mastermind Weekend 1/16

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I'm Tina

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.

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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?

 

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80 Comments

  1. Awesome tips — I worked throughout college too, although I always had unpaid internships during the summer. It teaches responsibility better than any class to juggle school and work. I feel like as a 24-year-old today, I’m much more responsible with my money than many peers.

  2. I really could use this post lately as a new grad student just having taken out my first loan and being advised to take out a credit card (with a $500 limit) for emergencies. My head is spinning. I had scholarships for undergrad but was always broke and stressed out by it. I am starting a part time job next week. I am planning to save half of what I make. I am starting a new savings acct and putting half of every pay check in their habitually. I want to save to be able to visit my little brother consistently and I need travel $$. I also want some money for walking around here at too school and I really like your $20 dollar rule. Thanks for posting that idea!

  3. I love your tips! I try to shop smart. When grocery shopping I balance health and the best deals. I’ll go for unpackaged carrots instead of baby carrots or carrots in a plastic bag. I also try to realize how much food I actually eat and not buy too much more.

  4. Go to meetings that offer free food

    Flirt with a cute guy at a bar to get free drinks (I’m KIDDING!)

    Get summer internships that applies to your interest AND pays you

    Always repeal your financial aid offer (I did that over and over and got nearly $10K over 4 years…feel free to ask me how via email)

    Buy the food that’s on sale

  5. Totally agree with a lot of these tips – especially not having a credit card.
    For me what worked was writing down every SINGLE thing I spent money on (even if it was $3 at a convenience store). I used a page in the back of my student planner and at the end of the week added up my total. I aimed to keep weekly spending around $20 (didn’t drink much & ate in the dining hall daily almost always), and if some weeks I went a little over it was okay because some weeks I’d be a little under $20, but I always checked just to make myself aware of what I was spending.
    If I knew I had to write every single purchase down, it made me think twice about making it!

  6. Tina, since you offer such great money advice all the time.. I was wondering: for a couple getting married in 8 months, we have been receiving engagement ‘gifts’ (cash/checks) and have yet to open an account… should we open a joint savings or joint checking at first? As far as paying for the wedding we’ve been paying out of our own separate accounts, and since we don’t live together yet I don’t know if we should put our engagement money into a savings and open the checking when we move in together or what? thoughts? THANKS!

  7. Wow, I wish you were around to give me advice when I was in college. Turns out, you were close: I’m from Albany, and you were in Schenectady! I’m a year ahead of you and went to Binghamton, but you know what I mean. 🙂 These are great tips that I can still use many years post-college!

  8. Mine were roughly the same as yours Tina! I didn’t have a credit card because I watched my cousins go into debt with that and I put myself on an allowance of a certain amount of money per week. I should probably get back to that sort of thing now 😛 I need to save instead of spend :\ haha

  9. In college, I only ever took $20 when I went to the bar…and no credit or debit cards. That way I could only buy $20 worth of drinks/food/cab fare. My friends and I would always have a few drinks before we left so it was actually very manageable!

  10. Wow, where were you when I was in college? Actually, turns out you were close by: I’m from Albany, and you were in Schenectady! Well, I’m a year ahead of you and attended Binghamton, but still, you know what I mean. I didn’t know you went to Union! Anyway, these are great tips that can still be handy many years post-college. 🙂

  11. I could probably give you lots of tips. I grew up in such a thrifty household that spending wisely and saving is second nature to me. DH and I still (in our 50s) brown bag, carry our own snacks, coffee, etc., and do many other things to live well (including travel) on one salary. His mother was a widow, and my parents paid off their mortgage in 1/3 of the time (10 yrs.). I guess we learned well 🙂 I feel bad when people don’t know how to budget, and throw away their money. Oh, and not surprisingly, DH is a now financial advisor after 30 yrs. as a Naval officer.

  12. I got by without a car, worked 2 different part time jobs, shared a house with a lot of roommates to cut costs, and my roommates and I would pool our resources together to buy groceries and cook everything family style. I feel thankful I graduated college with so little debt, and made some of the best friends in the world in the process.

  13. Like you, I worked summers and throughout the school year. When I studied abroad I got a job cleaning a house that was being renovated, just to support going out and my travel. I was SO cheap back then! We had a great place in Amherst where we “splurged” on $2.50 tacos. I love them to this day! I never bought clothes and shared a bedroom even when I lived off campus.

  14. I do the exact same thing with my car payment now. I have a separate credit union account and I have a set amount of money automatically transferred to that account right out of my check and the remainder goes to my checking account so I never even miss it. Then at the end of the month my car payment automatically comes out of that credit union account. Now I don’t even have to think about my car payment. The one thing I did do that I don’t recommend is getting a debit card to that account. Now every time I see a hot pair of shoes that I MUST have and I know my checking account can’t afford them, I find myself tempted to dip into my “car payment” account! :&

  15. These are all great tips for anyone entering college but also in life. I worked at restaurants and bars so having cash on hand all the time was very difficult. I would change in the majority of the smaller bills for bigger ones because I always hated breaking them. Saving 10% every day no matter what was another trick. Eventually it all adds up!

  16. Great tips! I think my standbys are:
    Making my own breakfast/tea/lunch/snacks for work days.
    Cooking at home instead of going out to dinner.
    Using exercise as a getaway instead of going places that cost money (cycling, hiking, etc)
    And definitely always having a job while going to school.

  17. Great tips! I agree with working. I did not work a part time job during the school year but I hustled every summer to get a paying internship. The one summer I didn’t I managed to supplement my internships with a paid part time position. I would save my money all summer and that would become my spending money during the year. I also was on the executive board of my schools Student Government, which has a stipend attached to it. While I always got it at the end of the semester it gave me an extra boost for the two years I did SGA.

    In law school it isn’t advisable to work while in school, especially for the first year (unless you go part time). I did have to take out loans for living expenses and I am lucky that my parents are willing and able to subsidize my bills a little bit. Living expenses loans are not by any means ideal but in the long run its going to be worth it to achieve my goal.

  18. i definitely worked in college, too– about 30 hours a week on top of school and extracurriculars. it sometimes was hard, but honestly, the people i worked with were great, so it was *almost* like hanging out with friends. i just dug myself out of $5k in credit card debt, and i hope to god i’m never that deep ever again. student loans are still biting me, but that was more like a worthwhile investment!

  19. Throughout College I ALWAYS had a part-time job for all my extra expenses. I was fortunate enough that my parents paid for my college, but when time came to studying abroad, I opened a credit card. Now I pay that on the regular. Some other ways that help(ed) me save major $$$ is going to the .99 store. Surprisingly they have EVERYTHING including name brand foods, household items, cleaning supplies, etc. In San Diego we have .99 store chains that are huge! its a great way. Also I am a fashion lover…and always love new things….so I find that Forever 21 is a great way to save mula too!! or “inexpensive” clothing stores instead of Nordsroms or Macys.

  20. I am lucky in that my parents paid for my college. What kept me from acquiring student loans (keeping my parents in the black) was my co-op. I participated in the co-op program at Purdue, meaning that I worked every other semester starting the summer after my freshman year. The money I would make while on co-op would be put towards the rent/food/fun the following semester. This made it a 5 year program, but I left with 5 semesters of experience and no debt!

  21. Also in College, my girlfriends and I would bring little mini bottles to the bars (shhhhh) so we didnt have to waste money on drinks….and get home safely by cab.

  22. I think these are great tips! Unfortunately I didn’t do so well with college — I paid my tuition with cash (smart) but I took out a credit card to pay for expenses (dumb). I ended up with only $5000 of credit card debt which is by now paid off!

    I love reading about budgeting, saving, etc, so I look forward to more of these posts!

  23. 1. I resisted going to the mall at all, unless it was for work, and even then it was straight into the store and straight out after work. I limited myself to only purchasing 2 items when we had out employee aprec. sales of 50% off all items.
    2.Lists for grocery and necessity shopping kept me from spending extra money.
    3. I borrowed movies from friends and the library rather than renting them.
    4. I made gifts or spent a little less on them when Christmas and birthdays rolled around… most people understand the budget of a college student 🙂

  24. Amazing tips!

    I *highly* recommend part-time jobs as a way for anyone (non-students included) to make some extra money. Although I have a comfortable full-time job, NYC is a very expensive city to live in. It’s for this reason that I’ve also a) bartended (amazing pay!), b) taught Pilates, and/or c) done freelance writing and editing. Freelance is extremely viable part-time work–it can pay quite well, and usually allows you the flexibility to work on your own timetable.

    Write now, my only “extracurricular” work is freelancing. I can easily make an additional $500-$800 a month through freelance–great for saving, splurging, or setting aside for trips.

  25. As a current college student with $$ always on my mind (seriously was just talking to my roommate about bills seconds ago), your tips were perfect timing. Now that I’m 21 and going to the bars IS the thing to do, I’m going to take your advice on taking cash only. One thing that would really help me is cutting down on my coffee drinks b/c I don’t have a part time job… though you’ve convinced me I should probably get one. I’m afraid of my grades dropping while I work, but I guess I won’t know ’til I try.

  26. I hope I’m not repeating anyone’s advice, but to bundle two suggestions in to one: CO-OP PROGRAMS! I did a co-op program during my undergrad and always had really well-paying jobs in my field, so that by the time I was ready to graduate, I had no debt, had money saved and had a career network established. My co-op program taught me one super important thing above all: I didn’t want to continue in my field. I cannot recommend these programs enough. You learn really in-depth networking, resume and cover letter skills, and you have a really good sense of what you can do with your degree once you’re out.

  27. Part-time jobs are the best as long as your part-time employer can respect that. Totally agree with you on spending cash Tina. I started doing it just for gas because it is cheaper, but for other things it really helps you save money.

  28. WOW – this post could not have come at a better time. I have been working and attending a community college for the past one and a half years. Just recently I quit my job because I am transferring to a much larger and much more expensive university. I am freaking out money, overspending, being broke, etc. but this post was super helpful! Thanks!

  29. I think you should speak to highschool seniors (or even younger students) about budgeting 🙂 Those are amazing tips! Thanks for sharing!

  30. I’m living by most of those tips although I dont have a job right now (and nobody’s hiring!!..I know, crazy and lame.) but I still save money by being a smart grocery shopper, taking advantage of free campus stuff, and spending some meal time on campus. Also, I buy the season football tickets and then sell them individually to students who didnt get to. If it’s illegal, everyone does it so I’m not sure what they’d say lol

  31. These are all REALLY, really great tips. The only thing I think I would add to it is go to a junior/ city college before a 4 year school.. I saved myself at least 30g’s by doing that and you know what… when I was interviewing for my first jobs out of college, no one asked me if I went to a JC… They ONLY saw where I graduated from.

    I really like the ‘only bring cash to the bar’ tip… didn’t think of that before!

  32. As a soon-to-be doctorate (2 weeks!!!), I know all too well about student loan debt and the life of a college/graduate student. My biggest tip is to keep an up-to-date budget. My husband and I started this much too late, but we can’t change history. We’re living and breathing by the budget now and it will hopefully allow us to do the things we want to do in the future – like buy a house!

  33. I was very lucky going through my undergrad becuase I was in a cooperative program where I alternated between school and work (I HIGHLY recommend this if it is available). I paid for all my school and living expenses with this money (thankfully in Canada 1 year of university tuition is about 7000 and not 35000…thats crazy!!!), and gained a lot of experience. I always planned ahead and knew what I could and could not afford to buy. I prioritized what was important to me (food) and what I would spend less on (clothes). Not buying processed food, making my own lunches, buying sale items in bulk, making large batches of food to freeze, all helped me to save money. Now I am starting grad school and while money wont be as big of an issue I will still try and save up as much as I can with what I learned during my undergrad.

    Those are some great tips! This was a great post! Too bad these days a lot of college students don’t learn the value of a dollar even at this point in their lives. I think going through college on your own dollar gives you a lot of life lessons!

  34. I really like the “paying” your car payment idea. I should do that with my renter’s insurance/gym membership because the bills always come up around the same time as rent and it’s a KILLER.

    I used to go to free events all the time in college! A great way to save money.

  35. Wow, some of these are great tips! I’m going into my sophomore year of college next week and I successfully drained my checking account at the end of last semester haha. Needless to say, I’ve applied for jobs and am going to try to not let that happen again, but still have fun at college! Thanks for the tips!

  36. Those are great ideas! In college, I was pretty smart. I wrote for the school newspaper (which paid) and I worked in the cafeteria of my dorm. It was AFTER school that I lost my head with credit cards. In some ways, I think maybe getting a wee bit out of control was good for me. I’ve been pretty smart financially ever since.

  37. Great tips! I admit, I was spoiled. My college was paid for, my car was paid for, and my spending money was earned in the summer and given to me. Looking back, I realize I was fortunate. I almost wish I had to fund my own car payment or something to give me an idea how tough the real world really is. I definitely appreciate that now…as I work hard for every cent I make.

  38. I love that beer is on your list of college expenses 😉 I managed to get through without a credit card and I still managed to go out for dinner/drinks, movies, and shopping – I think it’s all in how you budget. I didn’t have a car payment – luckily – but I made sure to put aside my bills first and use the leftovers (in CASH) for fun stuff!

  39. @Emily #8

    Whether you put it in checking or savings, I’d advise you wait to open any joint accounts until after you change your name (if you’re going to). The worst part of getting my name changed after we were married was dealing with the bank accounts. Bank of America may just be particularly bad at this, but if you decide to open a joint account before you change your name, I’d check with your bank on how their name-change policy works.

  40. Those are such great tips!! I’m a college student and I always try to save money as much as possible. And I’m the same way with $20. I don’t like to give cash away if it’s worth over $20. I also like to keep a money drawer where I stow away some extra cash in case I get desperate for money!

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