Thinking about how to save money in college is overwhelming, to say the least.
You might feel more than a little skeptical, wondering “Save?!? I’m just getting by as it is.”
It’s true, if you’re living the lifestyle of a broke college student, putting aside any money for your future is challenging. But that’s what this article is for.
I’m going to show how to save money as a college student, even if you’re just scraping by right now. I’ll give you ideas that will help you cut back on the cost of college overall, and strategies you can use to build up a savings fund, whether you need it for a special purchase, a long-term goal, or just a safety net.
This is part of our full guide on How to Make Money in College. Be sure to check out that article, along with the other resources shared throughout this piece, to make the most of your finances during your college years.
How to make college less expensive
We’ll get into ways you can save money when you’re actively in college. But if you’re still in high school or haven’t entered your university years yet, then it’s a good idea to plan ahead and find ways to make college less expensive.
Learning how to cut down the cost of higher education is an excellent way to increase your savings long term. Though it may seem easy to take out loans to cover the cost, you could be making loan payments for hundreds of dollars, decades after you graduate.
Instead of sending money off to a loan company that charges you massive interest, you could be putting those dollars away in a savings account. So how do you make school less expensive?
1. Factor in the cost of the schools you’re considering
When you’re applying to a number of colleges, it’s likely you have a system in place to help you decide which ones you really want to go to. You might consider things like the location of the school, the program they offer, or the job opportunities the degree will bring you.
But something else you should consider is the cost. Not all schools are priced equally—private schools are almost always more expensive than community colleges. And even among private schools, some are far more expensive than others.
According to U.S. News, the most expensive private university in 2022-2023 was Kenyon College, with tuition and other fees costing $66,490. Compare that to the list’s least expensive private college, Boricua College in NY, which only costs $6,025.
Of course, these are the extremes, and you may not be as enticed by colleges that are more affordable due to other circumstances. But it’s vital to take cost into consideration when weighing your options—unless you want to end up paying way more money than necessary for your degree.
2. Earn some of your college credits at an affordable school
Even if you decide against a more affordable school for your full degree, you could cut back on the cost of college through dual enrollment. This is when you enroll at more than one university, one of which is more affordable, to earn some of your credits.
You could even begin earning some of your college credits before you graduate high school, by attending a local community college for a few of your courses to cut down the amount of time (and thus how much you’d pay) for your more expensive schooling.
If you choose this method, be sure to do your research to confirm credits transfer to the school(s) you want to attend. Some high schools actually weigh honors and AP classes more heavily than a community college course, so talk with your school guidance counselor to understand how dual enrollment could impact your GPA.
TLDR: The more you know about your future plans, the more you can accurately determine whether dual enrollment gives you an edge when it comes to saving money for college.
3. Apply for financial aid and scholarships
Financial aid is the saving grace for many broke college students who want to attend university at a lower cost and save themselves the heartbreak of huge loans.
There are lots of ways to get financial aid, though they generally fall into two categories:
Need-based: Your family’s income and background may help you get financial aid through the government’s Federal Student Aid office. You can receive grants or government loans (with significantly lower interest rates) by filling out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid. Bear in mind that you need to fill out this form every year you hope to receive aid!
Merit-based: You can apply to receive aid (most commonly as a scholarship—more on that below) based on a specific talent or athletic/academic ability. These are typically rewarded by a college or a private organization.
If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to scholarships, check out general scholarship websites. Talk to your academic advisor and other well-connected adults in your life (coaches, teachers, mentors) about opportunities within your local community.
There are MANY niche scholarships out there, so if you’re passionate about a cause or have a certain skill set, be sure to research related scholarships.
Another pro tip? Don’t shy away from the more time-intensive applications, as more laborious apps often have fewer applicants. Put in the work and apply early and often.
3. Consider options outside of university
Forget the bad advice you get from your parents—going to college right after high school is not the only recipe for a successful life and career. In fact, there are so many other paths you can take, that we have an entire article dedicated to alternatives to college.
Our suggestions cover everything from diving into your first job, finding alternative ways to build experience, or engaging in an externship.
Remember—you are the architect of your own future, and if that means skipping the traditional college experience, so be it! You can always go to college later in life if you so choose.
4. Take a gap year to save money
Though it’s quite common in many countries, U.S. students may be less familiar with the concept of a gap year. This is when you take a year off between high school and college to do whatever.
Many students use this time to explore the world and try their hand at living life as a digital nomad. And while you can certainly travel during your gap year, you could also use the time to build up your savings.
Putting in a year to work hard, while also living at home and saving on bills, can help you create a nest egg of cash in a savings account.
How to save money in college
Now that we’ve covered different ways you can try to cut down the cost of going to college, let’s shift focus to show you how to save money as a college student.
1. Abide by a 50-30-20 budget
It may seem boring, but setting a budget while you’re in college is key to saving money during your studies.
Our guide to budgeting for college students has lots of tips and advice for helping you set a budget and stick to it while you’re studying, including a template so you can start right away.
You can also consider the 50-30-20 budget guideline to get started. Instead of dividing your budget into 20+ categories, which is overwhelming to keep track of, the 50-30-20 budget splits your expenses into three broad categories:
According to the guideline:
50% of your take-home pay should go to fixed costs. This is the first place you should look if you want to cut back and save. Conduct a subscription audit each month, and see what you aren’t using or don’t need anymore. You can do this fast with a service like Trim.
30% of your take-home pay should go toward financial goals. Take a moment to think about your long-term goals. Do you want to save up to move somewhere after college? Set aside money for retirement? Pay off your loans faster? Set aside money toward this every single month; consider automating this portion so you pay yourself first and get rid of debt as quickly as possible.
20% of your take-home pay should go to flexible spending.
There are always things in life that require us to spend money when we aren’t planning on it. Perhaps a friend invites you to a surprise birthday dinner you weren’t anticipating, or your laptop suddenly breaks down and you need to purchase a new one to do your school work. This is what’s known as flexible spending, and you’ll want to make sure some of your income is dedicated to it.
To determine how much you should allocate to flex-spending, first, subtract your fixed costs and financial goal contributions from your take-home pay (the amount that hits your bank account after taxes and any 401(k) contributions). Doing so will give you the most accurate picture of how much you can comfortably spend each month.
2. Take advantage of student discounts
Many companies know students often struggle to make ends meet, which is why so many offer discounts for anyone with an active student ID. If you aren’t actively seeking out these discounts, then you’re missing out on one of the best ways to save money as a college student.
The key is to look for student discounts when you’re about to purchase something you want—not to purchase things you don’t want or need simply because they are discounted. For example, don’t go shopping at Nike just because they have a 20% student discount, unless you actually need new sneakers. (And even then, perhaps there are cheaper options).
Student discounts can help you save the most money when you use them on everyday expenses. For example, you may be able to get a student discount on public transportation, the movie theater, or local attractions (like museums and coffee shops).
3. Work while in college for extra income
Many students pay (at least part) of their way through college by working while they’re in school. This isn’t always easy, seeing that you’ll have a full roster of courses—not to mention a social life—to balance while you’re in school.
However, we have another guide that might help. Check out our advice piece on why working in college is a good idea, and perhaps more manageable than you assume.
4. Make use of the resources at your school
Believe it or not, but some of the best money-saving resources may be on campus.
Most schools have a student aid office that can help you find even more ways to save money and shed the “broke college student” persona. You can also speak with the career center at your school to discover opportunities for working on campus.
Beyond that, your school also likely holds lots of events for students that are completely free to attend. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on concert tickets or nights out, look at what’s happening on campus and see if you can fill your social calendar with free events.
5. Pick up some adulting skills of your own
If you want to find a way to save money in the long run, then learning a few new skills might be the way to go.
For example, you can save a lot of money on dining out if you learn to make a few simple, healthy, and delicious meals yourself.
You can prevent yourself from having to drop hundreds of dollars at the mechanic if you know some of the basics of car repair.
You won’t accidentally overpay for an expensive apartment if you know how to find more affordable housing on your own.
We have an entire article dedicated to Adulting 101, where you can learn these skills and more with some of the best resources on the web.
Go forth and save money!
Figuring out how to save money as a college student is no easy task. But the fact that you’re here, reading this article all the way to the end, already puts you far ahead of most broke college students who don’t start thinking about saving money until after they’ve received their diploma.
Setting aside money while studying will require both discipline and creativity. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, you may be able to graduate college with little to no debt, and a good chunk of change in your savings account to live the life you want.