A Freshman’s Guide to Saving Money at College

A Freshman's Guide to Saving Money at College - picture of graduation hat sitting on bed of money

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It’s the middle of August, which means that college kids around the country are heading back to campus. Some of them are leaving home for the very first time. Besides the parties, beer bongs, and sharing an 8×10 room with a total stranger, college students have something else to look forward to – a ton of new expenses.

I was a broke college kid once. I even lived as a starving artist for a while, so this old man knows a little bit about saving money and living cheaply. Now, I want you to benefit from the mistakes that I made. Here’s a quick guide on all the ways that you can should be saving money at college this Fall.


Buying books can be one of your biggest expenses as a college student. If you are new to the college scene, it is easy to get roped into spending far more on books than what is necessary. Naturally, your first instinct will be to check out your campus bookstore, where you’ll be able to find all of your textbooks for the semester. Unfortunately, college bookstores are notorious for marking their books up to astronomical prices. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a used copy for a little less, but you’ll still be paying far more than you should be.

Until recently, there weren’t many options for buying textbooks. These days, online stores have made it much easier to get the books you need for school without breaking the bank. Before spending a fortune on books, check out places like Amazon or AbeBooks.com.  In general, you may be able to find your textbooks at greatly reduced prices from your campus bookstore. You may even be able to find an older edition for pennies on the dollar.

Hot Tip: If you are new to college, you may not realize that instructors “require” a lot of books that you may never even crack open. It took me a year or two to realize this before I started to buy smarter. Instead of purchasing every book before ever stepping foot into class, I would attend class for a week or two before making my book purchase decisions. For most courses, the most important material is going to be covered in detail during the instructor’s lectures. If you attend class every day and take good notes, chances are that you’ll learn what you need to know, and you’ll save yourself hundreds of dollars on book purchases in the process.

School Supplies

Walk into almost any large retail store right now and you’re bound to run into a “Back-t0-School” section filled with all kinds of school supply items. Stores around the country are competing hard for your school supply dollars right now, so be sure to do a little research on who is running the best sales this week. While a few dollars here and there may not seem like a lot, it really adds up when you are buying pens, pencils, and paper in bulk.

Personally, I always liked to have a one-subject spiral bound notepad for each class. I would buy one notebook and one folder per course. I’d also coordinate the color of the notebook and folder for each course, making it easy to keep all of my paperwork well-organized. Rather than splurging on the “name brand” paper goods, I always buy the store brand…because I’m thrifty like that. I mean, when it comes to taking notes in class, paper is paper is paper.

Groceries and Household Goods

If this is your first time living on your own, you are in for a treat. For the first time in your life, you are going to have complete control over what goes into your pantry and your refrigerator. Yup, yup! Saving money at college can be hard to do, but it is a lot easier once you learn how to grocery shop!

Food can either be one of the largest expenses in your budget or one of the smallest. It all depends on how you shop. Learning to look for the best bargains early in your grocery shopping career can set you up to become a super-saver at the supermarket for the rest of your life!

When you’re shopping for food, make sure to be flexible with your meal planning. Obviously, ramen and macaroni and cheese are pretty cheap meals, but you don’t have to eat like garbage in order to save money at the grocery store. Plan your meals around what is on sale for the week. Rather than buying brand name food, try the store brand instead (it’s often just as good and sometimes even made by the same company for much less). Eating meat can be expensive (and not very healthy), so go meatless a few meals a week. Annnnd….BOOM! We’re saving money!

Hot Tip: If you’re looking for even more bargains at the grocery store, be sure to check out our Printable Grocery Coupons page. There you’ll find coupons not just for food, but for cleaning supplies and personal care items as well. If you’re able to line your coupon up with a killer sale, you may be able to get many of the items you need practically for free. Yeah, using coupons may not impress your new friends, but having a baller bank account sure will!


If you’ll be living in an apartment while at college, you’re going to need to find some furniture to fill your living space. Heck, even if you are in the dorms, you’re gonna need to find a few things to organize your stuff. But furniture can be expensive. You can spend a lot of money, even on low quality junk.

Back in my day, the best option for low cost furniture was to make a run to the thrift shop. You can still find some good deals there, but selection is obviously limited. Consignment stores are also another good place to look. Some cities have furniture only consignment stores where you can usually find some high quality items.

My favorite place to find used furniture is at Craigslist.org. Here, you can find all kinds of great deals on chairs, couches, desks, tables, and more. If you do just a little bit of searching, you’re sure to find some quality items. In fact, we’ve used Craigslist to purchase all kinds of stuff for our own house! You’d never know it came from Craigslist unless you asked us…and we’d proudly say “Yes it is!”

Hot Tip: You’re also going to need some pots, pans, and dishes. Along with garage sales, Craigslist and thrift shops are a great place to find these sorts of items as well.

Moving to college and setting up your new living situation doesn’t have to cost you thousands of dollars. You can easily save money – on everything from textbooks to couches – just by looking for sales and used items when the situation applies. Better yet, learning how to be frugal in college can set you up for a lifetime of financial success!

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  1. Two tips on books but both regarding the library.

    I used to make copies of the books I needed from the library’s reserve section!

    2nd tip is that a co-worker of mine who went to the same college said that a professor wasn’t only required to have a book in the reserve section, but they also had to have one in the regular section. My co-worker would take the book out at the beginning of the semester, with any other books he needed, and then he would just keep them the entire term and pay the late fees at the end of the term. So he was out $30 each time instead of the couple of hundred!

    1. I had lots of friends who did this. The trick was being the first person to get to that copy.

      My only other book tip is see if you can find someone who took the class the semester/year before you and see if they will just let you borrow the book. I did this for a good chunk of my classes since my girlfriend was a year ahead of me in the same major. She was even nice enough to continue you this after we decided to call it quits.

      The only piece of furniture I didn’t skimp on was a good mattress. You don’t always get a lot of sleep while studying, so might as well be able to get quality sleep when you can.

  2. As a teacher, I feel like I’ve been training all summer to find the lowest prices on school supplies. You’re definitely right to point out sale ads. Every week, different stores (thanks, Walgreens!) run loss leaders. I try to couple that with my regular shopping, so I’m not wasting time and gas. Just like holidays, back-to-school ads seem to happen well in advance, so I’d say it’s a good idea to look early. It’s also smart to look late – things get clearanced out in September and then often times, more stock-up sales happen right around semester (though these ads seem to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays). And hooray for meal planning. That was such a foreign concept to me in college, and we had such a teeny tiny fridge. I know I was guilty of wasting a lot of food that could have easily be turned into a meal the next day.

  3. One thing that can really help you save money on textbooks is to ask your instructor if you can use an older edition. While the current edition of a textbook tends to be pricey, older editions are usually dirt cheap and easily available on used book websites. There are usually very few changes between editions.

    Be careful about picking up workbooks used. A lot of them are made to have pages torn out. If you do pick up the workbook used, hold it tightly by the spine and check the top or bottom of the book for gaps caused by missing pages.

  4. Your library will also have copies of all textbooks, so you can usually borrow those and at the very worst make copies of the chapters that you don’t understand. We had a study group that met and borrowed the text book to complete some monster homework assignments.

  5. I worked at the print shop and I saw a lot students making copies of textbooks. I think some copied most of the book because they were there FOREVER! Still cheaper than buying it but time consuming. I hate it that they change the edition of the books and you have to buy a new one yet the new edition is basically the same thing with some minor changes.

    1. Professors hate this too. SO VERY MUCH. Especially when they take things out that are important. (Two years later, they put them back in the next edition(!))

  6. Good tips! I so wish I had followed more of these when I was in college. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t have such a big debt hole to dig out of.

  7. I am always at the school library, having parts of books photocopied I need for school and reading lots of books. This is one surest way to save money at college.

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