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Money-Saving Tips for College Freshmen

When you’re a freshman, the whole college experience is new. Living on your own is exciting, yet everywhere you turn, everything you need or want to do costs money. As the parent of a freshman, you hope that your son or daughter will make wise financial choices, but some wisdom comes only with experience—or some tips from people who’ve already been through it, learned from their mistakes and are willing to share a few insights on how to hold onto your money while you’re an undergrad. We can’t tell you how to eliminate costs completely, but we can give you a few money-saving tips for college.

  1. Buying Textbooks and Required Packets—As a freshman, your student will most likely be taking core classes—prerequisite classes that everyone has to take. The books are often big, usually heavy and rarely keepers. You don’t have to buy them new.
    1. If your student is in an honors program, they may be eligible for free textbook use for the honors classes they take. This varies by university and college.
    2. Students often sell their used texts cheaply on local online student websites and exchanges.
    3. Rent the book for a fraction of the cost from vendors like Chegg or Amazon.
    4. If you must buy, opt for a gently used copy.
    5. Before you buy or rent, ensure that the professor really will be using the materials listed on the course description. A good place to check is on Rate My Professors. Students will often note if the course materials were relevant. If many texts are listed or are particularly expensive, email your professor to confirm that they will all be used.
    6. However you acquire your books, pay attention to whether the materials come with an online access key. These keys often include study guides, sample quizzes and supplemental reference materials that the professor may require for homework or include on tests, for example. If you have to buy online access separately, compare costs carefully.

      Professor-published packets are often an exception to all the rules. You usually can purchase them only through the school book store. Many can be surprisingly costly.
  2. Food and Meal Plans—Universities and colleges often require that freshmen purchase a full meal plan—even if your dorm room has a kitchenette or full kitchen. This can be especially frustrating if dining halls are far away, have restricted hours, are constantly crowded or prohibit takeout orders.

    Campus may have smaller takeout food stations or restaurants that will accept meal plan points, and you may even be able to order online for pickup. However, be sure to check on how point-costly this option is. Some purchases can consume meal plan points quickly, and some vendors may operate on a supplemental online meal account based on prepaid dollar balances.

    The most frugal course often is to purchase the minimum required plan, cook for yourself if necessary, and pack lunches and snacks as needed.
  3. Student ID Perks—Wherever you go, whatever you’re doing, it just may pay to ask if the vendor or facility offers a student discount. In a college town, student discounts may be scarce—or set for certain days of the week—but asking is always a good idea.
  4. Campus Amenities—Be sure you know about all of the services available to you on campus because you’ve already paid for them. Your tuition bill probably included any number of fees—institutional fees, student activity fees, technology fees, transit fees, athletic facility fees, health fees, recreational activities center fees and maybe even an environmental sustainability fee, for example. As a result, you may have free Wi-Fi access across campus, gym and exercise program access, cross-campus bus service, physical wellness and mental health services, counseling services, student tutoring and review services, tech support, bicycle repair, safety escort services for late hours and any number of other services.
  5. Service and Greater Good Opportunities—If you want to get to travel and see the country—or maybe even some of the world—you might want to check out your campus service organizations. Alternative Breaks, for example, has chapters at colleges all over the country and works with all sorts of nonprofits and charities. Fees are nominal, yet students get the opportunity to travel, experience something they might otherwise never have thought about and contribute to the common good in the process. You can end up anywhere from Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee—all on a shoestring budget. It’s a great way to rack up those volunteer hours.
  6. Housing—Living in the dorms is often mandatory for freshmen unless your parent or guardian lives within a certain number of miles from campus. Due to demand, housing can be surprisingly expensive.
    1. As a rule, even in the dorms, having roommates makes housing more affordable. Living in a four-bedroom apartment is often less expensive than a two-bedroom for just two people or a single. However, chores, budgeting, supplies, schedules and personal conflicts may be easier to manage with fewer roommates.
    2. For off-campus living, rent figures can be deceptive. If electricity, gas, water and sewer, and Wi-Fi are not included, monthly expenses can be costly. Some leases may include electricity, for example, but reserve the right to tack on extra charges if your usage exceeds what they deem “normal.”
    3. Parking can be problematic. You want to be sure that your vehicle will be safe from theft, break-ins and vandalism.
    4. Dorms will charge for any damages done to the room—including nail holes. Rental apartments will require an up-front security deposit. Check the facility's reputation for spurious charges before signing a lease. When you move out, be sure to take photos or video that shows that your space was clean and kept in good repair. A small jar of matched paint to cover any scuffs or flaws can be a wise yet low-cost investment.
    5. For the truly frugal student, living with family or at home offers free or low-cost housing as well as access to all of the amenities home offers.
  7. Used Goods—College is a good time to opt for used versus new on any number of items a student may need. Many colleges develop online student exchanges or online yard sale-type sites where students can sell to other students. You may be able to find anything from your next car, laptop or phone to a great deal on an area rug, an easy chair, textbooks and packets, sporting equipment or clothes. You can stick to your budget if you’re trying something for the first time or buying something you may or may not keep for the long term. You may find that some students sell premium items for far less than what their parents paid for them.
  8. Finances—For college students, financial stability revolves around having the proper tools so that you can keep yourself within budget.
    1. You’ll need a checking account with a debit card so that you can manage your own funds. Opt for one that has minimal or no fees for students or requires only a nominal balance.
    2. Learn how to balance a checkbook or financial account properly. You cannot just look at your account online and see what the bank says. You may have pending transactions that have not yet cleared the account.
    3. Open a savings account, and use it to hold any surplus loan money, for example, or large sums meant for rent. Most accounts allow a certain number of transfers from or to the account a month, and that should help to keep money in savings longer.
    4. Pay attention to all account balances, and manage your money daily. Check your checking and savings accounts daily. Monitor your credit card usage, always pay more than the minimum payment, and never miss a payment. Fees for overdrawing a checking account, interest accruing on unpaid revolving credit balances, and penalties for late or missed credit card payments are costly.
    5. Install mobile apps so that you can send and receive money. Many people use apps like Venmo, CashApp or PayPal to buy or sell things, and organizations may use them to collect dues or activity money[MHB1]. Do your research to ensure whatever app you use is secure and reputable. Don't forget to read the disclosures on safety and privacy to understand how financial apps use your personal information. 

 The hardest financial reality to manage in college may be that you simply do not have the resources that some or even many of your classmates, acquaintances or friends do. Some peers may be able to simply phone their parents with every wish and see money appear in their accounts. Trying to keep up can be a lose-lose battle that leaves you struggling with debt and could even jeopardize your financial ability to remain in college.

College life as a freshman is a new beginning and is often considered the start of a student’s financial history. For most, it’s the chance to begin adulting—but with a safety net. If you’d like more money-saving tips for college or more information about financial considerations and options for college students, it might be time to check out the financial literacy and support that La Capitol Federal Credit Union offers incoming college freshmen. We have checking and savings accounts and even loans to ensure that students at our institutions of higher learning will be able to manage their money wisely throughout their entire college career and into their profession of choice.


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