Managing Costs as a College Student

Managing costs as a college student can be one of the hardest lessons to learn on campus. College students are responsible for tuition costs, housing costs, food and transportation, buying books and supplies, and other personal expenses. Managing costs likes this on your own is overwhelming. Use the resources in our guide below to save yourself some stress and learn how to manage costs as a college student.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Former Licensed Agent

UPDATED: Nov 21, 2020

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It is no secret that going to college can be expensive. Most students rack up a ton of debt even before they graduate because of student loans and other living expenses. To help you manage your finances as a college student, here is a guide with tips and links to resources that will get you through the four (or so) most expensive years of your education.

Tuition

You have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to funding your college education. Other than being a working student or asking your parents for money, you can try to apply for loans, scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid targeted for special groups of students.

Loans

With college tuition rates rising year after year even at state universities, it has almost become a necessity for students to take out loans to pay for college. The good news is that there are plenty of loans you can apply for.

Before you go for loans from private entities like banks and lenders, we recommend that you apply for federal student loans first. They are low-interest loans that are intended for students who may not be eligible for private loans.

Scholarships

Applying for scholarships is also a great way to lighten the financial burden of college. You will find plenty of scholarship databases on the Internet divided by field of study. Better yet, you can go directly to your college’s website or office for their list of scholarships to find out which ones you qualify for.

Grants

Grants are financial aid like scholarships except they are mostly issued by the government instead of private institutions. If you come from a low to moderate income household, you can apply for the Pell Grant.

Special Groups of Students

Acknowledging the disadvantaged situations some students come from, universities, colleges, and other institutions usually offer special financial aids specifically for groups such as students with disabilities and minorities. Ask at your college’s financial aid office and apply there.

Resources:

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Housing

The type of housing you will be living in will greatly depend on how far from home your campus is. Assuming that you are going to college in another state and commuting home every day will not be possible, you can either apply for on-campus housing (dorms) or opt to rent a place off-campus.

Living in a dorm has its own perks and downsides. The positives are that it is relatively cheaper and safer. You will have easy access to the college’s facilities and have an immediate circle of friends. Most dorms also have their own dining halls and laundry facilities, so you will have everything you need in one place. However, if you are not used to sharing a bedroom or a bathroom with a bunch of other people this setup may not be ideal for you.

Should you decide to rent a place off campus, be sure to do your research first. Make sure only to consider places that are located in safe neighborhoods. Inform yourself of your rights as a tenantto protect yourself from opportunistic landlords. We also recommend that you protect yourself (and your belongings) with renter’s insurance.

For more specific housing advice, check out the resource links below.

Resources:

Books and Supplies

College textbooks are notorious for being ridiculously expensive. You can save a few hundred dollars every semester by opting to download your textbooks for free from the sites below or by buying them secondhand from the bookstore, online, or from other students who have taken the courses you are taking.

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Food

Being in college makes it hard to keep a healthy diet because (1) you are surrounded by unhealthy, instant food, (2) you don’t always have the facilities to cook your own meals or (3) you are too broke to buy healthy food. It is no surprise that people gain the dreaded freshman 15 in their first semester at college.

Making a food budget or devising meal plans are great ways to manage your food spending while also eating healthy. To help you make these, check out the links below.

Resources:

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Transportation

Your mode of transportation will depend on your living situation and how far it is from school. If you live on-campus, you would be best off with biking or walking around campus. However, people who live off-campus might consider either taking public transportation or bringing their car to college.

Going for the public transportation route can save you plenty of money on gas and car maintenance. One downside is that your college town’s bus system may run on a schedule that you cannot work with.

If you decide to bring your car with you to college, make sure that you have good car insurance. You can’t legally drive without it, and more importantly, it provides property damage coverage in case you get into mishaps. In addition, look into on-campus parking options. These will often incur an additional fee.

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Personal Expenses

Aside from tuition, housing, food, and school supplies, you will need money for your other personal expenses for college such as emergency funds if your laptop or phone breaks, clothes, and other things. Here are some simple personal finance/budgeting tips you can employ:

  • Use apps to track and make budgets
  • Steer away from using credit cards
  • Take advantage of student discounts and promos
  • Learn to be frugal – only buy things you need instead of just want

To get the best use out of your money, check out the links below.

Resources:

Medical Expenses

Medical expenses will vary. However, most colleges usually offer or require their students to have health insurance plans before the first semester starts. If you are not covered by your parents’ health insurance, you can opt for a private plan or your school’s plan. Just be warned that these usually have more limited coverage.

Most plans should cover basic medical needs such as:

  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization, mental health, and substance use disorder services
  • Prescription drugs
  • Lab exams
  • Preventive and wellness services
  • Chronic disease management
  • Contraceptives

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Additional Resources

You might find these other resource links helpful if you are still in search of financial aid or need to calculate how much money you will need for college.

US Department of State: has a great resource for students on their website: Scholarships, financial aid, and student internships.

The US Department of Education has a calculator to help you determine how much you will need for your college education: Net price calculator.

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