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How to Not Be Broke in College: a Guide to Financial Stability and Money Responsibility

Updated on February 14, 2012
My college dorm room on a good day: Simple, cheap and attractive.
My college dorm room on a good day: Simple, cheap and attractive.

For most young adults, the transition to college can be rough, especially for those who are desperate to get away from their parents! Within a few months, however, those same college students are suddenly realizing just how good they had it at home. They didn’t have to pay for their laundry, let alone do it! Everything from printing to parking suddenly costs money and you, in all your naïve freshman glory are beginning to realize that you might as well be giving your money away freely, considering how fast your bank account is being drained. So what do you do? Prepare yourself, because this Hub is going to be nothing but tough love. If you want to be financially stable and graduate with as little debt as possible, you don’t need someone to pander to you; you need to hear the cold, hard truth about living frugally in college. The fiscal habits you learn and set in college will continue with you throughout your life, so make sure they’re good!

Getting a Job

Getting a job is vital to your ability to lead a fiscally responsible college life. In general, you need money to be able to budget it. In this economy, you may have dissuaded yourself from looking for a job, convincing yourself that it is impossible, and that you should therefore not try. I can assure you that this is not only deeply lazy, but false. You are not the only college student who has never worked before, and college employers realize that. There is a wealth of jobs constantly opening up on any college campus, especially at the beginning of a new semester. Spring and summer semesters, if offered, open up even more higher-paying jobs that you can then keep throughout the next fall and winter semester. Keep your eyes on job boards, online postings and newspaper classifieds. You can never apply to too many places. Use a free online resume builder to put together a resume. If you’ve never worked before, be sure to note all your various accolades, high school extracurricular activities and talents. Employers need to get a sense of who they are hiring.

If you’re looking for your first job, don’t be picky; you can’t afford to be picky in many cases. Take the job as a dishwasher, suck it up and swallow your pride. You could probably use a good dose of humility. Not only will you appreciate the future value of your education (you don’t want to be stuck scrubbing other people’s dishes, right?), but you’ll be gaining insight on how truly good you have it in life. Take the best job offer you get and go with it. You can always quit after a semester and look for another job. If on-campus jobs are scarce, don't forget about looking for close off-campus jobs. Don’t count them out just because you’ll have to haul yourself to work every day. Exercise and money—life is good, right?

Bridal Veil Falls: Climbing it was one of the most memorable things I've done with my friends at college, and it was completely free! Photo taken by me.
Bridal Veil Falls: Climbing it was one of the most memorable things I've done with my friends at college, and it was completely free! Photo taken by me.

Saving Money and the Social Scene

The summer before I went to school, I saved every single cent I earned working at a sandwich shop. At the time, there was nothing I particularly wanted and my parents paid for social outings (I was never a very social kid, so they loved to pay me to go out). As I packed my belongings and pocketed my brand new debit card, I remember my mother told me to be wary of how much I spent going out with friends. “Little things add up. Your friends will nickel and dime you to death going to movies and out to eat. Fun will often cost money.” I think I laughed her off, reminding her that I wasn’t a big spendthrift and that I would be careful. Within my first jobless semester, I spent over 500 dollars on the stupidest things. They weren’t things I needed. They were computer games, and Netflix and Redbox rentals and gas money from toting my friends everywhere with me. And that was when I realized I needed to get smarter, because my bank account was quickly shrinking.

If you’re one of the fortunate few to have a car with you at college (seriously, don’t take that freedom for granted), gas will be one of your biggest concerns. I labeled a small jar “Gas Donations” and set it in the cup holder for all in my car to behold. I may have mislabeled it, since dropping in some loose bills or stray change was more required for my passengers instead of willingly given, but you’re going to have to face it- gas is expensive and if you’re taking people places, they need to chip in, because it’s not fair that you should be the only one to foot the bill. Calculate how many miles your car gets per gallon and write it on the lid of the jar, so that people know roughly how much you spend per mile you take them, so they can donate appropriately.

Budgeting will come into play in terms of paying for activities like movies or food. Be wise in your choice of venue- choose the cheapest theatres and bring your own snacks in a purse. If you’re a guy, bring a girl and then stash your snacks in her purse. Set a budget for how much you can afford to spend each month on social activities. Don’t go over that budget and if you do, suggest free outings when your friends want to do something. Go for a hike, find a waterfall and climb it… there are so many free things for you to do with your friends that going over your budget should never be an issue. If you have several roommates, take turns setting up accounts for a free one month trial on Netflix, or have one person link the account to their debit card and have your roommates pay in two dollars a month so you can all enjoy stay-in entertainment.

This is one of my food storage boxes, which will save me a lot of money in the future!
This is one of my food storage boxes, which will save me a lot of money in the future!

Toilet Paper and Ramen: The Cost of Necessities

First things first, when buying toilet paper, buy the 24 roll Scott tissue pack from Target for fifteen dollars. After much experimentation with my roommates, we discovered that this particular brand of tissue lasts for forever, and that’s backed up by the testimony of four college girls who really like their toilet paper. We’re only halfway through the pack and we’ve had it since the first week of January, which is something of a record for us. I challenge you to beat it. Toilet paper is a necessity, and before we settled on a cheap, but long lasting and relatively decent brand, our costs were adding up. We’ve only spent fifteen dollars this semester so far on toilet paper. Last Semester we spent close to fifty.

If you’re a freshman, and lucky enough to have a meal plan with a certain amount of money added to it daily and a campus grocery store that takes said card, use it properly! You’ll likely have excess funds on the card, since you’ll eventually get sick of the cafeteria. Use that money to build food storage. I’m currently doing that now and I have several large boxes of non-perishable goods stashed under my bed. Use it to buy things like flour, sugar, condiments and soups. Buy cans of fruit, rice, seasonings and cereals. Stock up on cooking utensils, cleaning supplies and school supplies for when you move out of your non-cooking dorm and into an apartment. You’ll save money and you won’t have to worry about shopping right away for those first few hectic days of a new semester.

For the majority of college students, again, budgeting comes into play. As foul as it may seem, it’s crucial. You need to sit down and determine your monthly income and determine just how much money you need to eat decently (seriously, have you seen that video of ramen in your stomach for hours on end?). Clip coupons and join sites like couponmom.com or coupons.com. Look for deals on fresh fruits and produce and buy only what you can afford. The big secret to getting out debt is staying out of debt and you MUST live within your means at all times possible.

Scholarships

Are you ready for more work and tough love? No? Too bad. Outside of basic living costs, school itself is expensive. Study hard and work your tail off and keep those grades up. Don’t be a college flunky. Motivate yourself by thinking of your future job and how much money you’ll make- you’ll be able to afford all the things you can’t even dream of right now. Invest in yourself and your future by getting a good education and taking the opportunity seriously. Keep your grades up and you can easily apply and earn school scholarships. You can join sites like fastweb.com that help match you up to potential scholarships. This is another section of your college life where there is no such thing as applying too many times.

Make sure you complete your FAFSA if you're a US student, because you could qualify for money from the government to help pay for your tuition. However, another important part of being as fiscally sound as possible in college is choosing a University you can afford. I've always heard people say that if you need to go into debt for your education, you should, and I believe this. However, you need to consider whether the cost of a specific college is worth it. Yes, Ivy Leagues are prestigious and great, but they’re also hideously expensive. Take your college search seriously and ask about financial aid- keep cheaper schools (who also have relatively decent academics) in mind and if you need to, think about going to a less prestigious school if they’ll give you a scholarship. You can always work and study while there and then transfer to a better school when you have enough saved up.

If you're willing, you can let people test things on you! This is a photo of E.coli, Salmonella and other fun diseases on microscope slides that I took in class.
If you're willing, you can let people test things on you! This is a photo of E.coli, Salmonella and other fun diseases on microscope slides that I took in class.

Other Sources of Money and Free Things

If the job market is just not your thing, keep in mind that there are other ways of earning money. Donating your plasma is a well-paying biweekly thing you can do. Many colleges have plasma banks close to college campuses, due to the wealth of donors, and they pay decently as well. A friend of mine earns over two hundred dollars a month donating plasma twice weekly. It requires very little effort and, according to plasma banks, puts no strain on the busy college body.

Many college campuses also conduct research studies and will post flyers searching for candidates, offering payment in reward. Look for the easiest of the studies and sign up! My roommate is participating in a study where all she has to do is wear a pedometer every day and record her steps for 150 dollars. The payment here is smaller than donating plasma, but it is still money for minimal effort.

Also keep an eye out for club meetings or college events that offer free food just for showing up. Even if you’re not interested, grab a friend and show up. Who knows? While you’re there munching on pizza or cookies, you might suddenly find that symposium’s on catheter’s are your thing!

Conclusion

College is expensive, it’s not a secret, but that doesn’t mean you have to dive into debt and wallow there for the next fifteen plus years of your life. By planning a careful budget and working hard, you can graduate debt free, or with minimum debt, but still have fun and enjoy the awesome years that constitute higher education. There is no well-kept secret to being as financially stable as possible in college beyond budgeting carefully and working hard.

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    • ArtzGirl profile image

      ArtzGirl 5 years ago from San Diego

      I really like your dorm room décor! This is a great picture!

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Amen to the toilet paper! Love it. Voted up and useful. Too bad I wasn't as thrifty as you are...

    • traslochimilano profile image

      traslochimilano 5 years ago from USA

      Nice post ....

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Selling parts of your own body is apparently a lucrative business away at college! D: Lol... my mom actually decorated my dorm. She loves to decorate and I was more interested in getting my textbooks... this was part of the end result.

      It's homey enough, but I'm excited to move into an apartment soon!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Great Hub, and props on getting so thorough into delving into money saving/making ideas! I really enjoyed developing my frugal superpowers in college, and learned a lot from my jobs. I never thought of donating plasma, though! I wonder how many college students do that... I bet a it's no insignificant number!

      Also, you've done lovely things with your dorm. It is SO HARD to make those brick walls look agreeable @_@

    • Shanna11 profile image
      Author

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      This is true, I suppose!

    • Casey Strouse profile image

      Casey Strouse 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Get into homebrewing your own beer and save big on bar trips.