How to Save Money in College: The Benefit of Hindsight

How to Save Money in College - picture of yellow piggy bank with graduation cap on

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Ah, college. I may be an old geezer now – well pushing middle age anyway – but I was once a young whippersnapper myself. Yes, there was a time in my life where all I worried about was going to class, partying, and girls – and not necessarily in that order. But, alas, I’m all grown-up now…and let me tell you, the view is much better from up here. You see, I really wasn’t the least bit focused on how to save money in college. In hindsight, I thought I had it all figured out. After all, I was a big shot. I was an educated, cultured, college boy. I knew what I was doing, and nobody could tell me different. Now, I am old enough – and wise enough – to know better.

Looking back on my college days, there a lot of things that I wish I had done differently. As a young adult who was out on my own for the first time, I made a lot of mistakes – especially with my money. If I could go back, there is a boat load of stuff that I would have done differently. Here are a few things about how to save money in college that I wish I would have known then.

Investing in Liquid Barley is NOT a Good Strategy

I had a great time in college. At least, I vaguely remember having a great time. Basically, there is a period of about 6 years of my life where I can only recall large details. For instance, I remember that I used to go to a different bar almost every night. I don’t really recall what we did there…except drink…a lot…and occasionally play trivia.

Honestly, I still believe that college is a time to have fun. Looking back, however, I wish that I would have kept my fun to only 2 or 3 days a week instead of 6 or 7. The amount of money that I spent on booze has to be astronomical. I have no idea what the exact figure is, but I know that I was flat broke coming out of college. I kept a job almost the entire time I was in school, but I didn’t have a cent to show for it. Instead, I peed and puked it down the drain, literally.

Start Saving for Retirement ASAP

Now that we know that buying booze isn’t a good investment, let’s look at some actual ways that you can save money in college. If only I had begun saving even a portion of my income during my college years, I would be a lot further ahead now. If I started saving just $25/week in an IRA when I was 20 years old, I would now have over $26,000 in additional retirement savings. And that includes investing over the worst decade in the stock market’s history. Arrrgh! 5 fewer drinks a week could have made me $26,000!!!! I hate myself…

Renting a House is Cool, But…

Do you want to know how to save money in college? Live in the dorms. My freshman year, I lived on-campus. It was really nice to be within walking distance of all of my classes. I had my meals made for me in the cafeteria. Life was good. But, I didn’t care about all the convenience. What I really wanted was to be cool. I wanted to be able to throw parties and pick up girls. In my tiny 19 year-old mind, that meant moving off campus into a house.

Living in the house was pretty cool. I enjoyed living there with 4 other roommates. However, personally, I would have saved a lot by living on campus. At this point in my life, I had no idea how to find deals at the grocery store. I simply bought whatever I wanted – which was usually instant or easy prep – and ate it. I also spent money on cable tv, utilities, and gasoline. Sure, those bills were split, but they would have been much less had I been living on campus…or at least been driving a Prius.

Choose a Major That Pays

The first time I went to college I majored in theatre arts. The theatre was my passion. I could not live without acting. It was all I ever wanted, to be able to do something that I loved and scrape out a meager living while doing it.

After I graduated from college, I realized that just scraping by wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed. The starving artist lifestyle really wasn’t a ton of fun when you had to figure out how to pay your bills. Then, it came time for me to begin repaying my student loans. Yep, I financed my entire education – an education that I could have gotten for close to nothing had I went to work in the theatre and not went to school at all. Alas, I was convinced that I “needed” the security of a college degree. Now it was time to pay for that “security.” Something had to change and change fast.

You see, I majored in something that I thought was “my passion.” Don’t get me wrong, having passion for something is great. Most successful ventures come when passion and marketability collide. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that passion alone won’t pay the bills. It is hard to continue to be passionate about something when you are buying your groceries on cash back credit cards and wondering how you are going to pay your rent that month. Take it from somebody who has been there; if you are going to a college or university, be sure you are spending your money on something that will provide a decent return. In other words, choose your major wisely.

The experiences I had during my college years made me who I am today. Even if I could, I wouldn’t trade in any of the lessons I learned along the way. However, I wish that I would have known how to save money in college while I was actually going to school. If I could do it over, I would definitely choose to spend my money much more wisely. I guess it is true what they say, sometimes wisdom really does come with age.

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What were your college experiences? Did you know how to save money in college, or did you waste your money like I did? Let me know, and make me feel better in the comments below!

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  1. I actually think I saved more money renting than I would have living in the dorms. I lived in the dorms my freshman year, and they charged an insane amount of money considering the actual space you got in exchange. The meal plans really rip you off because I know no one who actually used all their meals (and it averaged out to about $8/meal even if you used them all!). I should have kept better track of the financials, as I don’t have the exact comparison, but living off campus provided me cheap rent, allowed me to really only buy the food I ate, and was generally a better experience.

    1. Yeah, I think it depends on where you went to school. I definitely would have saved more money by living on campus. I wish that I had the exact totals, but that would have meant me being responsible back then…

  2. Glad to know I am not alone Greg! Not only did I not save money while in college I spent it like a fiend! Much of mine was on liquid courage as well. Too bad having fun and being stupid is not a major, because I would’ve had a 4.0 for most of my time. 😉

    1. Ha! Me too. I would have been Summa Cum Laude for sure!

  3. Don’t invest in liquid barley….Uncle Greg, you take the fun out of everything!

    I was clueless entering college. My parents hadn’t gone to college, so they were just proud I was there. They were no help, though. I majored in English. But, halfway through, I started working and going to school at the same time and that began honing my focus. Nothing helps you figure out what you want out of college like paying the bills…..

    1. Yup, I’m a fun sucker. I was also the first in my family to do a four year degree. My parents gave me some good advice. I just didn’t listen.

  4. By the end of college, I was starting to get my act together. I was employed full time every summer, which funded my IRA for the year, and then provided plenty of spending money throughout the year. During the semesters, I got paid to live in the dorms – as an RA I had no food or housing costs at all.
    But I still had a lot to learn about who to trust and how to choose my own direction in life. That’s something that doesn’t get taught in college.

    1. That’s true. Maybe colleges should require a personal finance class as part of the Gen Ed curriculum.

      BTW – You were WAAAAY better with you finances than me in college. IRA??? What is that?

  5. I actually did pretty good in college all things considered. My key was that I had a job of some sort throughout my entire college experience. I was a tour guide, a computer lab rat, and an RA at some point or another. Having that as spending money made it a lot easier all through college and after.

    Graduating in four years is probably the biggest money saver. So many people go for that fifth year which is a whole lot of extra cost that you have to pay for at some point.

    1. LeRainDrop says:

      Yes, four years is better than five, but believe it or not, some people do the four-year degree in three! Not me, but at least a few of my friends did, specifically because it was possible for them in their majors (not always the case with certain schools/specialties), it would save them money, and it would get them out into the “real” working world soon, which was motivating for them.

    2. Good point! Graduating in 4 years is a huge money saver. I also had jobs throughout school. Unfortunately, I just used the money to buy more junk.

  6. Huh, I guess I did all of those things you recommend (even the IRA!) I had a really fun time in college too. Though with my majors (math and economics) there would have been no way I could work and go out 6-7 days/week. I would have flunked out! But evenings doing math problem sets with similarly nerdy friends can be fun, honest. 🙂

    1. I believe that it can! I wish I would have taken your track. Oh well, at least I have some good stories.

  7. I personally never went to college for a lot of reasons but my brother did and he started out at a smaller local college and then transferred on a bigger college to complete his degree in computer science.

    A lot his friends criticized him for not going to a bigger college because he was missing out on all the parties but now he can laugh about it because he doesn’t have a $100k of debt to worry about now.

    1. Yup. That is another good money saving tip – take your Gen Eds at a junior college!

  8. I don’t think I did terribly terrible in college. I had scholarships that covered most of my expenses and my parents gave me a small stipend ($300 the first year, and $400/mo. the following two years) to cover my food. I invested $100 a month in a mutual fund. Could I have been better with my money? Yes. I didn’t keep track of my money and I probably ate out a little too much. I lived on campus for three years, and moved off campus my last year because I got married.

    1. It sounds like you did a great job! Congrats! I’m sure that you are thanking yourself right now😀

  9. i invested plenty in the local barley stocks as well 😀

    but yeah, i agree with all that is said above. i have a good friend that switched from a computer science degree (which I ended up getting) to a “music management” degree after 2.5 years of school..

    not surprisingly, he has never been able to find work in his field, while I have had a fairly successful career.

    1. It is tough when you are that age to see the long-term picture. I really enjoyed my college life. I actually got a first-class theatre education. Unfortunately, it is just tough to make a living on acting alone, unless you catch a really big break – or want to starve for 10-15 years first.

  10. I say instead of investing in liquid barley you should invest in the green herb…you get more for your buck and you can relax when you are stressed! CO and WA have made it legal to do so…probably not the advice a mother wants to hear but I am slowly becoming an anti-booze pro-herb advocate…its all natural!

    1. Ha! Eddie at Finance Fox wins “Best Comment of the Day!”

  11. Mandy @MoneyMasterMom says:

    I was a good two shoes in college and saved my pennies. I still went out to the bar with friends, but I didn’t drink. My friends didn’t mind as it saved the cab fare as I could DD for them. I still looked like fit in as the bars always gave free soda to DD’s. So I still had a glass in my hand like everyone else. I was too cheap to drink, and I was also too afraid of gaining weight 😉

    When I graduated I had over 10,000 saved. I spent half on backpacking around the world for a few months, and the other half went into a down payment fund. Then I met Derek and he already had a house, so we used the 5000 to pay down the principle a little more.

  12. I was lucky enough to be able to stay on campus all four years, but many campuses don’t have the capacity for everyone to live on campus. My college guaranteed housing for freshman and sophomores, but rising juniors and seniors had to enter a lottery for housing.

    1. Wow, I didn’t realize that. You were required to live on-campus as a freshman at our school. Afterward, most of the students chose to live off-campus. I went to a fairly large school, but not a NCAA Division I type enrollment.

      1. My school was D-III. Odd that you would require you to live on campus freshman year. About 10% of our student population were commuters. My roommate’s lab partner grew up 7 miles from school. It would have hardly made financial sense to live on campus when home was so close.

  13. I was in the same boat as you Greg. I spent money like it was going out of style. I invested a lot in the liquid investments and I would say that they didn’t provide a great return. If I had learned to keep myself in control, I would have been better getting out of college.

    1. Ah, those were the days, weren’t they? I’m glad that I’ve grown out of that stage! So is my wallet…and my body.

  14. As with most college students, saving money was the last thing on my mind. While living in a dorm for 4 years will certainly save you some money, I’d live in an apartment/duplex again if I had the choice. There is something to be said for personal space, having your own room, and not having to share a bathroom with people.

    1. That is a good point. It is nice to have your own space, although I still had to share most of the space with roommates. I did have my own bedroom though.

  15. If only I were as good with my money right after college as I was in college, sheesh! Same with the liquid barley. Somehow I didn’t overdo it in college, but being 23 in DC? All bets were off.

    1. Yeah, getting out of school can be an adjustment too. Suddenly, you find yourself with a nice paycheck and more free time at night. It is easy to fall into poor spending habits.

  16. In addition to living in the dorms, I saved a lot of money as an R.A. for a couple of years, too – it’s not very fun when you’re more the policy enforcer than their friend, but it’s a free room, meals, landline (for emergencies), and cable. Of course, I also spent frivolously because I thought I was “saving” so much as an R.A., but those are errors all on their own… great post!

    1. Thank you! You know, I probably should have applied to be an R.A., but I wanted to be able to have a little more fun at my own place. That was a pretty poor decision on my part, but I’ve learned to live with it.

  17. I wasn’t good with my money during college either, not by a long shot! And I was in a sorority, so….party much? 🙂 Yup!

  18. I majored in Thearte Arts too. 20 years later probably the biggest mistake of my life. They need to change the word major to career in my opinion.

    1. You know what, that would probably be a good decision for the students, not so much for the school. They are trying to make moolah too.

      I can’t say that my choice of major was the worst decision I ever made. However, it wasn’t optimal. I met a ton of awesome people and I wouldn’t be who I am now if it wasn’t for that experience. Besides that, I did get a 4 year degree which has opened a lot of doors for me. However, career wise, I wish I would have chosen something that paid better and had more usefulness in the business world.

  19. Ugh…I’m there with you–I wasted my money and then some; accumulating ridiculous credit card debt for no apparent reason. I sometimes want to kick myself for the time I’ve lost and the money I’ve cost myself, but then I realize they were all great learning experiences.

    I’d rather make those mistakes at a young age than turn my life upside down at 35-40-50 because I didn’t know how to manage my money!

    1. Exactly. At least we have time to correct those mistakes.

      Luckily, I never got into too much credit card debt. I am thankful that I was smart enough to avoid that mess.

  20. I always lived in the dorms because I had a scholarship that covered it. I don’t think I knew what saving meant, but I also had no money to spend so it was a wash. In optometry school, they don’t have dorms, but I usually had 2 roomates, so housing was pretty cheap. I did go out probably more than I should, but that is the only time in life you can do that without being a shiftless layabout, so I don’t regret it.

    1. Nice. I had scholarship money, but nowhere near enough to cover my expenses.

      Hey, there is another tip! Apply for scholarships!!!

  21. I did dorms and college meals the first year, then realized it was expensive, meals were about $4 and I cooked at home for $1. I was lucky to have frugal friends and many student jobs to graduate with about $25K in savings. It may have been much more without the booze though.

    1. See, you were smarter than me. I didn’t figure out how to cook at home for $1 until much later. Of course, when I finally did learn to cook for $1, the nutritional value was about zero.

  22. I was your polar opposite! I majored in business with a minor in accounting. I met my wife in the beginning of my sophomore year and I was done. I was in a fraternity and thoroughly enjoyed my college years. I learned how to budget by using my summer earnings as my spending money. Lessons that helped me tremendously!

    1. Yeah, I made money during the summer and during the school year. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn to budget very well until much later. Mostly, that is because I spent on my wants and not my needs.

  23. I think when I in college you could care less about saving money. Looking back on it I wish I would have been more frugal. These student loans never seem to disappear.

    1. I hear ya. I would do things differently as well.

  24. Ah yes, those illustrious college years. When I think about all that damn money slipping through my fingers on nonsensical ‘stuff’… *grumble* What memories, though!

    I majored in Journalism and minored in Creative Writing (hah). Thank goodness I frantically paid off all of my student loans within five years of graduation.

    1. Wow! Good for you! That is quite an accomplishment!

  25. I did not blow my money in University I saved it, enough to buy my first house before I was even old enough to drink in the USA lol. 21 right? I worked nights, weekends, summers to pay for University and save up. I’m the type of guy who likes to have a good time but I like to get in and get out (mind out of the gutter I meant school). I didn’t want to waste time nor money in school. I’m happy knowing that what I did pushed me that little bit ahead in life. I didn’t miss a thing, I was just smart with saying Yes and No and figuring out what was right for me at the time. You are right though, picking something that has potential also helps. Meant squat when I moved to Canada…

    1. You should be happy. You gave yourself a great headstart!

  26. Saving in college (and grad school) can often be really hard, since you usually don’t make much money. I think that you’re list is pretty solid. Especially the part about not investing in liquid barley.

    Now a days it’s even harder to save money in college since a lot of institutions have been increasing their tuition.

    The one other thing I would add is to work hard in high school. Hard work in high school can equate to nice scholarships for college and way less debt.

    As far as I’m concerned graduating college with $0 in the bank is way better than a lot of people who come out with negative net worth.

    1. Oh yes! Zero is much better than negative.

      It can be really hard, but part of the reason is because many of us are still really impulsive at that age. Now, I look back and I just shake my head…

  27. Not only did a spend a ton of money on food and drink, I also bought a lot of expensive things I didn’t need (new computer because I was going to school and didn’t want to take my dinosaur-although it worked fine). Overall, I did OK on living expenses because I was working a lot during college, but if I’d spent less on food, drink and things, I could have paid more on tuition and taken out less in student loans.

  28. Hindsight is a bitch sometimes but look at what you’ve learned! Through your mistakes you’ll be able to prevent your children from making the same 😉

    1. Absolutely! I never would have learned if not for doing things the hard way!

  29. I majored in business administration which was a good choice. But I minored in being an idiot which didn’t do much for my finances, or lack thereof. But I agree with you that all of those bad decisions molded me into who I am today.

  30. I had a few different jobs in college from tutoring to doing my volleyball team’s laundry and grading tests for upper div. classes. I actually saved a ton during college since my parents helped me pay for school and groceries.

    1. That is awesome! Thankfully, I got help from my parents when I needed it as well.

  31. I wasted soooo much money in college. I lived in an apartment by myself instead of a dorm or sharing a place with roommates. I majored in biology without researching what the actual pay for a biology undergrad was. And I took out loans… so many freaking loans. Sigh.

    But, I learned and with my 2nd degree, I chose a well-paying degree, and did not take any loans and bought all my textbooks from India. 😀

  32. I remember working really hard with the other three physics majors in my class, but I’m glad I chose that major. (Not knocking the arts though … I’m a musician too!)

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