Be frugal: choose your college lifestyle to fit your budget

Second in a series of articles about what students can do to get through college with little or no debt by taking control of their academic journey.

“Frugal” is making a comeback with some college students, in contrast the the campus spirit a few years ago.  This is the time of year when first-year or returning students are deciding what to buy for their dorm rooms or apartments. Some colleges supply lists of recommended items; others leave it to the imagination.

If you think for yourself and communicate with your future roommates (if you can), it’s possible to save a bundle of money.  Only buy the share that you agree to – or wait until you see the room and its other occupant(s) before you decide what to get.  It can save you a bundle.

The frugal alternative: buy nothing before you get there.

If you’re an incoming first-year student, anything you buy for college other than textbooks and maybe a computer is sheer guesswork.  Every year, students haul carloads of things to campus – game devices, TVs, entire wardrobes of new clothes, cooking utensils. If your roommate(s) bring the same stuff, you try to cram two, three or more into a small space. Inevitably, some of the stuff that was brand new in September has already been carted home and left in your old bedroom by December. One other guy has a better TV, another a better game box – all that’s needed from your supplies is the microwave.

Then there are the things you didn’t know you needed – an ironing board, 2000 flash cards for your Spanish class, an iPad for your educational technology class.  You end up maxing out a credit card or all the student loans available to fill in these necessities – while looking at your new TV stashed in the corner.

If you put off the purchases until after the first week or two of school, you are almost certain to save money.  You won’t buy things your roommates already have, and the things you do buy (the microwave…) balance off your use of the appliances the other guys brought. You’ll know what is required for your classes before you shell out your money or taken on debt for less critical items.

The frugal alternative, part 2: have fun cheaply

Besides the start-of-the-school year choices, you face the everyday choices.  Colleges offer you a great experience that uses up your money a bit at a time: cappuccino bars, dinner out instead of in the dorm, concerts in town, movie rentals.  The same campus is full of cheap or free options: all those campus events in the daily announcements (movies, concerts, clubs, sports),DVDs from the library, learning to make a few special foods and hosting your own party. You’ll find you are not the only student at those events – and you’ll be able to fall in with other folks who intend to get out of college debt-free.

The frugal alternative, part 3: handling money

The way you handle money makes a difference, whether it is your own hard-earned dollars, the college money your parents set aside for you, or – if you do have student debt – your future wages paid to you now from a student loan.  The easiest way to stay on top of your spending is also simple: keep track of it. Write down all you spend, even if it’s just a quarter. Write down what you bought.

One effective way to reduce your spending is the subtraction method.  Instead of spending money and seeing it mount up, start with a number in mind.  Maybe you know that you have $500 for discretionary spending for the semester.  Subtract each purchase from that money to keep a running total; see how much you can manage to have left at the end of the semester.  If you don’t have any student loans, you and your parents might decide to use a little of it for an end-of-semester treat.  If you do have student loans, you might be able to reduce the amount of your loan next semester.  Even $50 less is important – it might take as much as a full day’s work on your future job to pay back $50 in loan. Much better to use the money that’s right here under your nose.

Frugal help.

Frugal living: A student survival guide

Seven Habits of Incredibly Frugal College Students

Frugal College Cooking: Pantry in the Dorm

College frugal or college spendthrift?

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