One of the missions of our scholarship contest is to contribute to the overall financial literacy in the USA. By continuously promoting the idea of better money management, we hope to improve the financial health of all the citizens.
This spring we are happy to award our $500 scholarship to a student who inspired with her stories of sharing a sofa with her friend’s cats just to afford an investment in her studies. Isn’t this an example of frugal living that everyone could follow at some point? It certainly is, and this is why we encourage you to read further and meet our Winner!
10 Money-Saving Tips I Learned in College by Kimberly Absher
In college, I have learned that saving money involves both a way of thinking as well as specific tactics. I have included the most useful lessons I’ve come across below. Not every tip will work for everyone, so as always take what resonates with you and leave the rest. Financial health is a lifelong practice that can be very challenging, and I hope you find something here that gives you a fresh idea or perspective.
#1: Know What You Value
The truth is everyone is different, and our individual values inform our spending. Understanding what matters to you is the first step in knowing what to prioritize. Personally, I am obsessed with quality food – cooking interesting meals with fresh produce makes me feel healthy and fulfilled.
Unfortunately, this makes for high grocery bills so to offset the cost I almost entirely stopped going to restaurants and coffee shops. Perhaps you value an occasional night out with friends, playing sports, seeing local bands, or making art. Pinpoint what you value and what you can live without, then align your resources with your priorities.
#2: Find the Holes in Your Spending
Tip #1 is about knowing thyself, and the next step is knowing where your money goes so that you can compare what you value vs. your actual spending. Simply record everything you spend for a month. If a month seems too long you can do two weeks, but a month is ideal so you can incorporate monthly bills into your tracking.
At the end of the month, I take all of the purchases and put them into a simple spreadsheet with category titles – food, fun, household, bills, transport, miscellaneous – and then see how much I spent in each category. Looking at what (and when) I bought allowed me to see where change was needed and adjust my behavior.
This tracking is what alerted me to my ridiculously high food costs. I started carrying snacks and a thermos of tea/coffee to avoid impulse buying food and caffeine. I took meal planning more seriously. I reduced trips to the grocery store to avoid buying random items. Once you know where the holes are, you can patch them up.
#3: Build a Spend Less Mindset
Saving money is a state of mind. Develop creativity and hyper-awareness in your quest to spend less. Start by thinking about something on your to-buy list and ask a few questions:
1. Is there a way I could go without it? This could involve simply living without it (do you really need it?), borrowing one/asking your network if someone has an extra, re-purposing something you already own, etc.
2. What’s the minimum quality? Some items are worth paying extra to ensure better, longer-lasting quality, while that doesn’t matter so much for other things.
3. What options do I have for where to buy this? Think outside the box store. Can you buy it second-hand? Most places have local buy/sell groups on Facebook, and even groups to post free items (many cities have “Buy Nothing” groups). Local thrift stores are great options and have regular discount events.
4. When is the best time to buy this? Do you need the item immediately or can you wait until the end of the season or a sale? Spend less thinking isn’t limited to smaller one-off purchases. Look at everything – your bills, rent, subscriptions – the seemingly non-negotiables.
Here’s an example: I had an opportunity to study abroad in South Africa, and desperately wanted to go. It would be expensive, and I didn’t see anything in my bare-bones budget I could cut. Getting into the spend less mindset, I did something extreme.
My lease was coming to an end, and I asked my friend if I could live on her couch for four months. Quarters were tight in her one-bedroom apartment, I shared the sofa with her two cats, but I paid $100 a month for utilities. It wasn’t a very comfortable time but was so worth it; studying abroad was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
#4: Go Car-Free
If you can survive without a car, you will save a significant chunk of money. Early in college, I had a car that cost a couple of thousand dollars every year in insurance, repairs, gas, and parking. I realized I could live more centrally and get around using my student bus pass, walking, riding my bike, and carpooling with friends.
I sold my car, and although at times I missed the convenience, I appreciated having more financial breathing room and choosing more eco-friendly transport options (that as a bonus encouraged me to walk more). A car’s convenience can be undermined by the stress and cost, so consider living without one.
#5: Grocery Shop Strategically
As a foodie on a budget, I’ve scoured blogs and books for tips on saving money on groceries. One tip is to shop what’s on sale rather than what you’re craving at the time. If you go to the store with a specific meal in mind, you’ll pay whatever they’re charging.
Shopping based on sales means looking at the grocery store’s weekly flyer and identifying items you tend to buy. If items have a long shelf life (rice, pasta, oats, sauces, soups, etc.) you can buy them on sale and slowly build up a full food pantry, so there’s always something to eat.
For fresh items, buying what’s on sale means you’ll have to incorporate those items into meals more quickly. But this lends itself to creativity – what can you make with 2 lbs of carrots? Using this tactic, your basic staples will have been largely purchased on sale, which means if you have a serious craving, you’ll have some wiggle room to pay full price.
#6: Get a Job With Discounts
Another tip is to work somewhere that discounts something you tend to spend a lot on. A friend of mine works at a gym so he can enjoy excellent workout facilities for free. Another friend works as a snowboard instructor in the winter so she can afford to snowboard every weekend.
For two years I worked at a gourmet pizza place with a bar attached to it, which allowed me to pay next to nothing for slices, salad, and beer – three of my major food groups at the time. During the couch surfing months before studying abroad, I practically lived off what I got free at the pizza place. Not a great long-term diet but I burned some of the calories by walking my car-less self to and from work.
#7: Maximize Financial Aid Opportunities
As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know a lot about how to navigate college, and unfortunately that included maximizing financial aid. I filled out a FAFSA and accepted my financial aid package (which was mostly loans) but didn’t realize how many other potential funding opportunities existed.
Now as a graduate student I am a lot more conscious of applying for scholarships like this one and combing through my university’s financial aid resources. I know how busy it is to be a student, especially a working student, but building in time to explore funding options can be a financial game-changer.
#8: Guard Your Time
You might be wondering, what does time have to do with the money? In my experience, these two are highly connected. For a long while, I didn’t have strong boundaries around my time. I signed up for lots of events and clubs on and off campus, which in addition to school, work, and volunteering left me running around like a crazy person.
I didn’t have the time or energy to meal plan or budget and frequently bought overpriced, unhealthy to-go food and tons of coffee to keep going. My messy apartment matched my cluttered mind and cluttered calendar. Saying no to extra stuff (people, activities, commitments) and paring down freed up the space and time that made it possible to make sound decisions.
I got organized, clarifying my values, and aligning my time, energy, and money accordingly. Guarding our time makes it possible to build processes that support what we need and want. And that intentionality affects our spending, too.
#9: Make Healthy Choices
I know this sounds like something your mom would say, but I have found that healthier choices tend also to be cheaper choices. For example, if I want to hang out with friends, going out to bars on a Saturday night will be expensive and also leave me feeling lethargic, which can lead to additional overspending (like on next day take-out).
If instead my friends and I go for a hike, we will get exercise and fresh air, and that’s a free activity. Making my meals at home tends to be healthier since the ingredients are high-quality and it’s cheaper. Hobbies that stimulate us mentally, physically, or socially may require an upfront cost (say for an instrument, board game, or gardening supplies) but can save money overall through countless hours of low-cost entertainment.
#10: Realize You Are Training Yourself
As an undergrad, I often made excuses for my lack of budgeting and other habits by thinking, “It will be different when I’m not in college anymore.” But truthfully, I was developing important habits that stuck with me long after graduating. I realized after college that I didn’t become magically good at budgeting, and it still wasn’t fun.
My college years formed major aspects of my adult identity for better and worse, and I have had to undo habits and retrain myself to become a more responsible person. Set yourself up for success. Realize that you are becoming the person you’re going to be and take that seriously by forming positive habits now.
10 Money Saving Tips I Learned in College by Kimberly Absher
Name: Kimberly Absher
Institution: Washington State University
Major: MA in Strategic Communication
Graduation Year: 2019
Hobbies: Volunteering with local health non-profits