Our Guide To A Very Frugal (Yet Still Awesome) College Experience
If you graduated high school and are headed to college next month–congrats! Mr. Frugalwoods and I enjoyed that path just a few (ok more than a few… ) years ago and it truly is a magical time. Life is unfolding before your very eyes, you’re about to leave the nest, and the possibilities for your future are endless. But there’ll be time for all that poetic soul searching (not to mention toga parties) later. First, you’ve got to get through college with with your finances (and liver) intact.
It’s totally possible to snare yourself with lifelong debt during these four blissful collegiate years. But fear not, it’s also entirely possible to lessen the financial blow. I know that money isn’t exactly the most thrilling aspect of heading off to live on your own for the first time ever, but, fiscal responsibility doesn’t condemn you to an ascetic existence in the library. I promise. And hey, you might even meet another frugal weirdo along the way and later marry them, get a Frugal Hound, and write a blog about retiring early… not that I know anyone who did that…
Since Mr. Frugalwoods and I loved our college tenure so much, and emerged without any debt, we sat down to brainstorm our ultimate list of things to do for an awesome and frugal four years of undergrad. Not all of our advice is financial and it might not all resonate with you, but it’s what worked for us frugal weirdos. Many of the financial habits we developed during college still serve us to this day and we’re thankful for the frugal footing on which we began adulthood. If you’ve already graduated from college, check out our Frugal Advice For New College Graduates.
The Frugalwoods Guide To A Very Frugal (yet still awesome) College Experience
1) Choose an inexpensive school.
OK, I realize this proverbial horse may already be out of its proverbial barn, but I wouldn’t be a true frugal weirdo if I didn’t highlight the #1 way to avoid student loan debt. This is, in my humble frugal opinion, one of the best ways to set yourself up for a lifetime of freedom from debt. For many people, their debt originates with their student loans and builds from there. If you can avoid this genesis debt, you’ll be in great shape to avoid all other forms of debt too.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I went to an inexpensive state school with an excellent reputation and a ton of degree programs to choose from. Our annual tuition was so low that we were able to pay it in full every year with major assistance from our parents (thank you parents!), scholarships, and our on-campus jobs. We thus emerged with a whopping $0 in debt after our four-year stint. A fairly rare occurrence for our age cohort and one that we’re tremendously grateful for.
Paying attention to the sticker price of a degree is crucial. It’s pretty much the dead last thing a glossy college brochure and shining student rep are going to tell you about, but it’s by far the most important. The dirty secret of college is that you’re probably going to have a fabulous time and get a good education just about anywhere you go. Don’t get caught up in thinking there’s only one school (the expensive one) for you–in reality, there are probably a number of places that’ll cater to your interests of musical therapy, fencing, and gerbil-raising. Keep an open mind and consider in-state, inexpensive options.
2) Eat your meal plan.
If you purchase a meal plan, you best be eating that meal plan every single day. Food is an expense that’ll plague you for the rest of your life (doesn’t adulthood sound appealing?), so enjoy this hiatus from the real world of grocery shopping and cooking. Luxuriate in the fact that with a mere swipe of your card, you have a literal smorgasbord of food available to you three times a day. And, you’ve already paid for it!
So don’t let us catch you mincing around eating burritos from Chipotle because you forgot to take a sack lunch from the dining hall with you to class. No excuses, meal plan people!
3) Only pay for what you need.
Colleges are the champions of optional additional costs. You can buy the sports ticket package, the bonus meal plan package, the laundry package, the hire-a-freshman to text your parents package… it all sounds supremely tempting when you’re furiously filling out forms and money appears to be flying out of your hands at a rate previously thought untenable.
But don’t get caught up in the hype. Be realistic about what you’re actually going to use of your college’s services. Don’t buy the whole sports ticket package if you’re only going to go to basketball games and don’t join the climbing gym just because it “sounds cool, bro.” You’ll have plenty of chances to waste money throughout your life, don’t start now.
4) Textbooks should only come in used.
New textbooks are a worse investment than a new BMW. They depreciate so fast, it should be illegal. Avoid new textbooks like the scourge that they are. Never, ever buy a new textbook unless there’s simply no way around it. Buy used, buy used international versions (often cheaper!), share a book with a friend, check it out from the library and copy the pages you need… the alternatives are nearly endless here.
Also, resell those texts at the end of each semester. If you wait (as I so unwisely did in a few instances), it’s likely the course materials will change and the bookstore will no longer want your musty old tomes. People will say that you’ll keep these books for the rest of your life and refer to them later–but uh, in our experience, that’ll never happen. And if it turns out you do want them in 10 years, rest assured, they’ll be on Amazon for $3.
5) Do your own damn laundry.
I’ve heard rumor that you can pay someone to do your laundry on campus. To this I say, are you kidding me?! You’re not too busy to do your own laundry, I guarantee it. I graduated with a nearly 4.0 GPA, a roster of extra curriculars and leadership positions, not to mention an internship and a part-time job under my belt–and let me tell you what, I did my own freaking laundry all four years.
Folks, you can study while your clothes dry if you’re that concerned (although we found the laundry drinking game vastly more engaging… ). In addition to being a colossal waste of money, you’re circumventing a critical life skill. There’s nothing quite like your first load of laundry–you’ll ruin some stuff, but you’ll eventually figure it out.
6) Go to class because that fifth year of college is really expensive.
That about sums it up. You’re going to pay for a class whether you pass it or not, so do everything in your power to get what you’re paying for. Going to class is a surefire way to actually know what’s going on in a course, which, turns out, is rather useful when it comes time to take a test on what the class is about.
7) Go to the gym too.
Not quite as high-ranking as going to class, but a close second. If your college’s gym is free, go all the time. It’s an amazing resource and it’s probably the only time in your life you’ll be able to workout in a state-of the-art gym for free. Plus, it’s a valid stress reliever from doing all that laundry and selling back all those used textbooks. It’ll also set you on the path for lifelong fitness. And, it’s a great place to meet people.
8) Seek out the free food (because there’s always free food).
Mr. Frugalwoods and I became homing devices for free food on campus. If Tumblr existed back in the stone ages of our college days, we could’ve had one devoted entirely to when and where to snare free vittles. After the halcyon days of our meal plan were behind us, we discovered the fine art of dining on the college’s dime. Just about every club, interest group, student organization, and lecture offers some sort of culinary incentive.
We munched on everything from free tea and cookies to free three-course dinners. Turns out, you can go to any student group’s events or meetings and that’s exactly what we did. In addition to this being a savvy way to cut down on our food expenses, it gave us fantastic exposure to unique ideas, cultures, and disciplines. We learned about everything from traditional African foods to Indian dancing to the impact of styrofoam on our planet. Fascinating and tasty! Added bonus: these free food fests provided the settings for most of our dates, so we were getting the frugal triumvirate of date, food, and culture all in one!
9) Fake IDs are not worth it.
Drinking is expensive and doubly so if you get caught doing it underage. Despite what Blake down the hall promises about his cousin’s epic fake ID creation abilities, don’t risk it. In addition to the immense financial repercussions, you could end up with a record that’ll haunt you for decades.
While of course it’s wisest not to drink until you’re of legal age, there’s one surefire way to avoid getting caught: drink at home with friends. Cheaper, safer, and a lot more fun (not that I have any experience with this… ).
Mr. FW made me add this sentence: if you do go to a bar, make sure to pre-game. Drinks in bars are for maintaining the buzz, not attaining it. Since I know there are parents reading this, I’m not saying I advocate for this, I’m just outlining how to do it frugally.
10) Go to your professor’s office hours.
This ticks the boxes of both passing your classes and seeking out free food. Professors are usually delighted that someone bothered to show up to their office hours and they’ll often feed you some snacks and give you sage advice. Turns out, they’re smart and interesting people!
It’s also a wise idea to build relationships with faculty while you’re in school–it’ll be useful for letters of recommendation later on and, it enriches your coursework. Plus, you’ll be far more likely to ward off that dangerous year #5 victory lap.
11) Get a job.
After your freshman year (or maybe even during your second semester of freshman year), get a job on campus that’s either 1) very interesting, or 2) pays you to study.
Mr. Frugalwoods worked at our college’s art museum as a photographer. He and the head photographer carefully photographed and catalogued every item in the museum’s permanent collection in order to digitize the images for the internet. This fell under job category #1 and he loved the work.
I had a job as a writing tutor at the campus writing center, which still ranks as my most favorite job ever. I adored helping fellow students edit, revise, and enhance their writing and it was the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever been paid to do.
If #1 eludes you, don’t lose heart as the #2 option is just as good: get paid to study. Such coveted jobs include front desk manager at a dorm/library/rec center/student union or really any other position whose primary job requirement is that you sit behind a desk and answer banal questions for a requisite period of time.
While neither Mr. FW nor I banked a ton of dough from these jobs, they certainly helped us pay the rent and gave us solid working experience. We also both worked during our college summers–often more than one job at a time. One summer, I lived the thrilling life of working in the cash office of the Six Flags amusement park and another summer, I was employed by both the Olive Garden and a car dealership. Doesn’t get more exciting than that–try to contain your immense jealousy. I did get to eat free breadsticks at Olive Garden though, so you can actually be jealous of that.
12) Compare on and off-campus housing options.
Most schools require you to live on-campus your first year, which is a solid decision in my opinion. After that though, you’ll want to carefully analyze the cost benefit of living on-campus vs. off. Often, on-campus living is a lot more expensive than off. However, in exploring off-campus options, you’ll need to consider the separate expenses of things like internet, heat, electricity, and commuting, all of which are usually moot when you’re settled on-campus.
The house I shared with four friends my senior year was walking distance to campus and we had a ridiculously fun time living there together. It was a lot cheaper than the dorms and we enjoyed the freedom it provided for us to host
parties study groups anytime we wanted. We even turned it into a revenue-generating operation by selling parking spots in our backyard during home football games. We even charged extra if game-goers wanted to use our bathroom. Props to my roommate J–he gets all the credit for coming up with that brilliant idea.
13) Take advantage of every single free offer for students.
When in doubt, try it out. You never know what’ll catch your fancy and you’ll never again have the opportunity to try so many different things (for free!) and meet so many different people. Go to every free movie/lecture/concert/pumpkin-decorating soiree that you can.
Mr. FW and I once won $50 each in a campus costume contest–not too shabby and Mr. FW totally forgave me for making him wear what amounted to a dress. In my defense, it was a Lord Of The Rings elf costume that I’d cobbled together from some draperies and although it was a little bit dress-like, it was apparently very convincing as an elf.
I also pointed out to him that he’d once worn a dress voluntarily when he dressed up as Janet Reno to attend a lecture by… yep, Janet Reno herself. I really did know he was the man for me from early on in our relationship. Takes a special kind of guy to (respectfully) imitate the former Attorney General in front of an entire auditorium.
14) Don’t watch TV and don’t go home every weekend.
Immerse yourself in the wild and wonderful world that is college. Mr. FW and I both knew people who left campus every weekend to go home and thus missed out on some of the richest aspects of being in school. The pep rallies, games, open mic nights, midnight spray foam fights, and random silly hat parties (because why not wear silly hats?!) constitute some of our favorite memories from our undergrad days. Don’t shortchange your experience by wasting time watching TV or retreating to your parents’ abode.
Our college friends, who are all both immensely creative and epically frugal, once hosted a Swiss Family Robinson themed treehouse Thanksgiving party where everyone both dressed up like the Swiss Family Robinson and brought a themed dish to share. Another time, we staged a full-on faux wedding complete with thrift store bridesmaid dresses, best man toasts, and a unity
beer candle. One friend played keyboard, another officiated, someone else gave the “bride” away, and we arranged chairs in the lawn for the “guests.” Why did we do these things? Because why not! I seriously can’t make this stuff up, so rest assured, you’ll have similar opportunities during your own collegiate years if you open yourself up to them.
15) Don’t spend money on entertainment.
If you’re paying for a concert or movie, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a free one somewhere, I guarantee it. It might be your friend’s emo funk band playing in their neighbor’s basement, but it’ll be worth it for the humor alone.
I myself became a
beer soda pong champion during my senior year, a prowess I intend to employ at some future date. Lifelong learning is an important skill to cultivate during college and I encourage you to explore all aspects of your personality. You just might uncover aptitudes you never knew you had.
I also played on an intramural softball team (the Dragons!) and was, without contest, the WPP (worst possible player). I was so bad that we decided I should stand in right field (FAR right field) and pray a ball never actually came my way. But my lack of ability with ball and bat didn’t matter a whit. My friends and I had fun running around in the dust together, wearing our matching homemade t-shirts.
16) Avoid car ownership if at all possible.
Cars are expensive little things and if you can make it through school without one, you’ll have just that much more money saved. You’ll always have a friend with a car and you can repay them for rides
with beer by doing their laundry or cleaning their room.
Plus, in most college towns, you can get everywhere worth going on foot. Eschew Ubers and cabs too–just grab a group of friends and walk together. College is one of those times where you truly can save on transportation–take advantage of it and liberate yourself from the shackles of a vehicle!
17) Spend money on meaningful experiences.
You know how I said not to waste money on stupid things like new textbooks or laundry service or food when you already have a meal plan? That’s so you can use your money on things that truly are meaningful and that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
This is college after all, and you should be OK with spending on the occasional special opportunity that you’re going to look back on and appreciate. I, for example, studied abroad and am so glad I did! Find those experiences that you really want to have and make them happen.
Enjoy every minute. I know, I know, I’m just an old lady delivering a misty-eyed remembrance of my idyllic four years on the quad. But seriously. People tell you it’s the best time of your life for a reason. You have minimal responsibilities, you’re surrounded by your friends 24/7, there’s a ton of free stuff to eat and/or do, and you’re living in a perfect balance between childhood and adulthood. Relish every moment, but don’t spend a ton of money doing so. Learn to cultivate a love for the frugal life now and you’ll set yourself up for a lifetime of financial well-being, peace, and freedom.
P.S. If you’re not a student, but happen to know a student, do them a solid and forward this along to add to their summer reading list.
What advice would you give to college students? If you are a student, what’s been most helpful to you while in school?
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