Tips for saving money in college

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 5, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
So your son or daughter is going off to college, and you’re wondering how you’ll weather the financial hit. Tuition, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. So how can you soften the blow and save some money?
Perhaps the most important thing is getting your student’s head in the right place about money.
It will undoubtedly be true that your child will be surrounded by some peers with a never-ending supply of cash for road trips, overpriced polo shirts or designer handbags.
It’s your job to make sure your child understands to the very core of his being that he must behave like what he is: a poor college student supported by his parents.
One way to keep your dependent student on the straight and narrow is through an online checking account linked to yours. Being able to transfer money directly is nice, but more importantly, you can also track debit card use. If you see a $100 charge to Sudsy’s Booze Barn, make a polite inquiry. Be aware of how your student is handling money and nip bad habits before they spiral out of control.
There are some other major areas in which college students can save money:
Having a car on campus can entail expensive monthly fees and may also make your student susceptible to peer pressure to drive places. Universities often have very efficient public transportation systems. Megan Bame of China Grove recommends that students take advantage of them to save on gas and parking fees.
Parents of college freshmen may be shocked to learn that a single textbook can be a three-figure proposition. It’s one of the biggest shocks about college for many parents.
It’s tempting for a student to simply walk into the campus bookstore and buy everything there, but that’s not very smart, generally. If you must shop at the college bookstore, buy used if possible.
You can save a lot of money shopping online for books (Amazon, eBay,,,,, to name a few). Compare prices. Of course you’ll have to wait for books to be shipped, but you can get away in most classes with not having the book for at least a week.
Savvy students advise holding off on buying books until you go to class or email the teacher. The booklist available beforehand is often pared down, and you don’t want to shell out for something you won’t need. Ask your professor if an older (i.e.,cheaper) edition of the textbook he or she is using will be OK. That can mean huge savings.
You may want to check out international editions as well. There may be a different cover or very minor differences, but savings can be significant.
Many schools and online sellers like now offer textbook rental options, but always do the math. You may be better off buying a book outright if can recoup most of the cost when you sell it back.
Chrissy Lopez Kaemmerlen — who was attuned to saving money as a married student at UNC Chapel Hill — notes that e-versions of textbooks are often available now to download and will be less expensive than buying.
At the end of the semester, sell textbooks quickly. A textbook worth $80 used today might be worth next to nothing a year or two from now. Selling used books to the bookstore is the easy route, but you’ll get the most back from a book selling it on your own. It’s easy, for example, to set up an Amazon account to sell books.
As the procurer of some of the textbooks my children have used in college — a task for which I volunteered — I’ve found that if you put some thought and effort into buying and selling, it’s possible to buy a book and turn around at the end of the semester and sell it for the price you paid — which basically means the use of the textbook was free.
One often overlooked avenue for acquiring textbooks is the library. My husband got most of the books for his graduate program this way. If you snooze, you lose with this strategy. Get there early.
Living spaces
It’s tempting to spend a lot of money to outfit a dorm room, but it may not be necessary to go out and buy tons of stuff new.
Colleges like to promote the idea that parents need to buy a special size of sheets — through the school or a company affiliated with the school — for their dorm beds. This is basically a marketing ploy.
Extra-long twin sheets, which are widely available, will fit pretty much any dorm bed, so don’t be suckered into buying overpriced sheets from the school.
Don’t go crazy buying extra sheet sets either, because the sheets are not going to get changed that often.
If you’re looking to outfit an apartment, consider hanging around residence halls as students are moving out. Students often leave items behind that they don’t want to cart home (or simply don’t have room for). During checkout time at most college dorms, lots of good stuff will be available for gleaning, from couches to fans to mirrors.
If you have an apartment to outfit, Craigslist can be a good source for furniture and other household items; thrift stores like Goodwill and the Habitat Re-Store can also yield great bargains, although don’t expect to find a huge selection at the beginning of the school year when everybody is looking.
Campus bulletin boards are a great source for cheapskates to find items that are inexpensive or even free.
College is often a time when students need formal wear for particular events.
One way to get a great dress without having to spend any money is to trade. Cultivate friendships on your hall, and it will be easy to borrow clothing items that you only need for special occasions.
And, of course, you will return the favor.
If you’re buying a meal plan, then use it. You’re paying for the college to feed you every day, so don’t waste that money by eating out. Get yourself up and go to breakfast instead of buying Pop-Tarts and juice for your room. You’ll eat better, and you’ll save money.
UNC parent Doug Miller advises parents not to over-buy the meal plan. Miller says his family saved more than $800 this year by scaling their son’s plan back to two meals a day. Now, he can buy some meals out when he can’t make it back to the dining hall and not feel guilty about it.
Avoid expensive vending machines by keeping drinks and snacks in your room.
“I learned never to buy large, expensive packs of bottled water,” says Lizzle Davis, a student at Catawba college.
“Most dorms have water fountains. Fill up your reusable water bottle and go about your day!”
If you’re living off campus and don’t have a meal plan, you need to get serious about cooking and resist the urge to eat out, which will suck a budget dry in no time.
There are plenty of simple meals you can make that don’t cost a lot. Parents are wise to teach the student how to cook a few simple, nutritious things — like rice and beans, burritos, a vegetable stir fry, pasta with simple sauces. Consider investing in a blender, perfect for making healthy smoothies — which are easy to drink on the run, too.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to have fun in college. Your fees pay for a lot of quality entertainment on campus, from sporting events to movies, concerts, plays and comedy acts. Your school may even offer free use of outdoor gear like tents or kayaks. Take advantage.
Getting a part-time job on campus through a work-study program can take some financial stress off. One job in particular — resident assistant — can be particularly rewarding, depending on which school you attend.
Serving as a resident assistant (RA) will mean helping students check in and out of their rooms and serving as an advisor and resource for a dorm hall.
At some schools, RAs not only get free housing but a free meal plan as well. Plus, the experience looks great on a resume.
Many students swear by campus jobs that allow them not only to make some money but get some homework done as well (front desk attendant, for example).
Landing a summer job can also make the school year much less stressful financially. With the job market tight, summer jobs are harder to find, so you should be putting feelers out all year long. Parents should get involved. Help motivate your student and stress the importance of landing a summer job early.
Even if you don’t find a job, you can still make money babysitting or taking care of pets. It will require some marketing on your part, but in this age of Facebook and social networking, it’s easier than ever to put yourself out there.
Grants andscholarships
Just because your child is already in school doesn’t mean that looking for money needs to end. Encourage your student to continue searching out and applying for scholarship and grant money.