How to save money in College

Today’s generation will have an average of seven careers throughout their working lifetime.

Sometimes, I feel like I’ll need all seven just to pay off my student loans.

Yeah, college is expensive.  Hell, LIFE is expensive.  Bill after bill after bill after bill.  But that’s just the way of the world, nowadays.  Nothing to do but bend over and take it with a big ol’ smile on our faces, right?

Not necessarily.

The past four years of my college education have been instrumental in teaching me, not just about gene inheritance and copywriting, but how to work with what you have to get by, get ahead, and get focused on becoming an adult.  With a little bit of effort (and yes, some Saturday nights spent [gasp!] sitting at home), you can end your years at university with a diploma in your hand and money in the bank.

1. Learn to cook.  I’m going to be starting things off with food, because 1. it tends to be the thing college students spend most on besides textbooks and alcohol, and 2. even the main-stream act of eating is still necessary for college hipsters.

We all know you spent $99 dollars on that ironic granny shirt and don’t have any lenses in your glasses.  I wore glasses back before it was cool.

anatomy of a hipster

Moving on…..

If you weren’t raised by an Italian, you might not already have advanced culinary skills.  Or ANY culinary skills, for that matter.  There was a girl in my dorm freshman year who made all 700 of us evacuate for a “fire” at five in the morning because she burned ramen.  As in, microwavable ramen noodles.  She forgot to add water.

If you also fall into the “dumbass with food” category, make some effort to learn how to whip up simple meals.  Fried eggs.  Mashed potatoes.  Spaghetti.  Trust me, eating out all the time adds up to a full waistline and an empty wallet- and your girlfriend is gonna get damn tired of those PB&J’s you “cooked” her.  Any idiot can throw together a healthy and inexpensive dinner that covers most of the essential food groups (for tips on how, read my “Adventures in Cooking” posts!)

And no, beer is not an essential food group.  Which brings us to numero dos:

2. Be smart with your alcohol.  Don’t be one of those people who bums beers and cigarettes off of people.  It’s just sad and reminds everyone of when they were in high school and had to beg their older sisters to buy them the cheapest, nastiest bottle of nail-polish-remover they sold.  If you can’t afford to purchase your own beer/wine/whiskey, then don’t drink.  Friends will treat you once in a while, but if you get the reputation of a booze-mooch, don’t be surprised when you are no longer welcome to the weekend bar-hops.

That being said, when you do choose to imbibe, do so with dignity and class.  I really don’t respect people who buy the cheapest beer just because they want to get drunk.  If you like drinking a less expensive brand, that’s totally cool!  But don’t force it down just because you’re broke and Natty Light is the only thing that will get you wasted off of the change in your pocket.  It’s just repacked frat-house piss-water and everyone knows it.  The truth is, alcohol can be a fun and delicious addition to a night out, but it should be viewed as an extra and not a necessity.  Drinking beer should never take precedence over buying groceries or paying your electric bill, as I’ve seen happen all too many times.  That leads down a very bad road, my friend.

Oh, and don’t be stingy on the tips because your drinks cost more than you planned!  Your waitress or bartender is probably also a student who makes their living off your generosity- if you can’t tip them decently, you’re just perpetuating the college stereotype (though when I was a pizza cook, most of the people who didn’t tip were wealthy businessmen!)  If you can’t afford to go out responsibly, just buy beer and have a party at home.  That’s the smarter, safer way to do it, anyways.

bad tippers don’t deserve good service.  Or air.

3. Buy in-season fruits and vegetables.  They are cheaper, fresher, and oh-so-tasty.  Buying in-season, even in the large chain grocery stores, means you will probably be supporting a local farmer vs. a foreign one, ensuring that less fuel is spent schlepping the goods across the continent and less illegal chemicals are used in your food.  Look at you, saving money and avoiding e. coli poisoning from unwashed vegetables!

4. Figure out which foods can be bought “off-brand” and which ones you should splurge for.  This may take some trial-and-error, but it’s well-worth a few meal experiments to see what you can substitute.  Many of your grocery store’s own brands taste just as good as some of the pricer ones your mom always buys (once you start making $27/hr., you can afford to eat fancy cheese again).  For instance, Kroger brand crackers taste just like Ritz, and their lunchmeats are more-or-less the same pressed-together pig innards as Oscar Mayer sells.  Valu Time Duplex cookies, which sound more like an apartment than a snack food, are friggin’ delicious, try to convince me otherwise.  Off-brand mac-and-cheese, however, is to be avoided at ALL COSTS.  I remember having to suffer through an entire five packages of disappointing Kroger Easy-Mac before I gave the rest away to the boys next door.  Even they wouldn’t eat it, and I know for a fact that one of them survived on a lone jar of peanut butter for three days before his mom sent him some pity cash.  A dire example of how ignoring rule number 2. will bite you in the ass.

5. Stay away from the frozen foods aisle.  This pretty much goes along with the “learn to cook” tip, but even I fall into this trap every so often (though since I gravitate towards the ice cream, it usually tends to derail my diet, not my wallet).  All those hot pockets, Marie Callender’s lasagnas, and frisbee-disc pizzas are EXPENSIVE.  I mean, have you ever noticed how the portion sizes look bigger on the box?  Or how even the foods that were around when we were younger are getting smaller and smaller as companies cut corners?  I’m fully convinced that the size of a Toaster Strudel is directly proportionate to how many kids still know who Hey Arnold! is (i.e., by next year they’ll be about as big as a postage stamp).  And next time you reach for that T.V. dinner, take a gander at how much bleeping sodium is in there.  Enough to bloat up a bleeping cactus.

6. Consider living off campus.  If you’re not in your freshman year, grab a few roommate-material friends and get an apartment!  I will always treasure those crazy nights partying with half of my dorm floor, but as an upperclassman I get so tired of dealing with the newbies’ antics.  And talk about expensive.  My dorm fees?  Around $4,000 a quarter.  My rent and utilities?  Around $4,000 a year.  Not only does living off campus save me a butt-load of money, it’s taught me some real-world responsibility and given me a taste of the true adult-life, sans parents helping me with my tuition payments.  Just make sure you and your roomies are fully up to paying the bills.

Nothing like an early eviction to put a serious dent in your semester o’ fun.

7. Watch your energy use.  While living at home, your parents probably gave you flack for not turning off the lights or running the air conditioning in November.  Now that you’re on your own and paying each utility bill, you understand why: each gallon of wasted water adds up by the end of the month.  Be smart with your appliances; it’s better for the environment and will save you money!  Turn off the t.v., lower the heat, throw on an extra blanket (or six).  And unplug those charging devices from the wall- they call them “vampire drains” for a reason.

8. Search the internet, newspapers, and campus bulletin boards for free food and events.  The awesome thing about going to college is the insane amount of activities your university will offer you, most of them costing nothing but your time.  Joining clubs is a good way to meet new people with similar interests and score some free pizza.  I get the neighborhood newspaper delivered for free, and it always has lots of articles on upcoming street fairs, art festivals, and new business openings within walking distance from my apartment.  With a little more effort, it’s pretty easy to come up with more creative [read: awesome] dates and outings that don’t drain your savings.

9. Get a job with fringe benefits.  Two years ago I worked as a night cook making pizzas in the city’s best pizza shop.  I walked to work (in hindsight, not the best idea considering I worked till the wee hours in the inner city), took home extra, unwanted, or “messed-up” pies, and saved all my tips in a big olive jar for a rainy day.  As a result, I was not only making a paycheck, but saving money on all those dinners and cold pizza breakfasts I would have otherwise had to buy.  Most college towns have tons of late-night food joints for the double-duty student; just make sure you’re not choosing work over the reason you went to college in the first place: good grades.

the Turtles know how to save money- and stay out of federal prison!

10. Create a budget.  This is probably the single best thing I ever did for my finances during college.  Most computers come pre-loaded with an Excel or Numbers program and budgeting templates, or you can easily download free apps for your iPhone.  Plug in each receipt as-you-go to track your spending habits; or, if you’re lazy like me, just record your average expense per month to see if you’re being wallet-sensible.  You’ll be surprised to see exactly how much those lunchtime fast-food runs are actually costing you.

11. Carpool, carpool, carpool- or take public transportation.  There is no real need to own a car in college if you live in a bigger city.  Make a Facebook group for everyone at your university who lives near your hometown, and split the gas equally.  Sometimes I have no choice but to use Greyhound or MegaBus, but their tickets are significantly cheaper if you plan your trip farther in advance.  Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the low student rates for the city buses.  My university even has a free shuttle that runs until 3:00 a.m. on weekends; just in time to cater to all the drunk barflies at last call.

12. Skip the student bookstore and purchase all your textbooks online.  Seriously, screw the campus bookstore.  Check out sites like Amazon,, or for reliable, high-quality, and usually much cheaper textbook sources.  I’ve gotten slightly older versions of the books I need for as low as three dollars, when the bookstore would have me pay five times as much.

13. Resist the temptation to own a pet.  This is one temptation I sadly fail at.  Throughout my four years of college, I have been suckered into providing free room and board for a cat named Lucy; five mice: Ping-Pong, Pinky, Flower, Quentin, and Cinnamon; and a fish named Spike (though he doesn’t do much besides poop and make faces at me).  Anyone who’s familiar with this blog knows that I had no choice but to save the cat from my selfish former roommate (and really, I’m glad I did), but the rest of the animals are a product of my incessant Italian need to feed things.  Things whose poop I now have to clean.

Speaking of poop- oh Lord, I don’t ever want to own another rodent again.  Yeah, they’re cute when they run on their little wheels or squeeze through their little play-tubes or peek out at you from their little modified aquarium, but DAMN those little butts make so much freaking poop.  Poop that smells.  Poop that gets everywhere.  Just a hellhole of freaking. little. poops.  And their frequent demises are really depressing.  One died of old age, another died a week after I got her, and one, I’m sad to say, was coerced out of her cage by my evilly intelligent kitty and gobbled up like a furry little Cheeto (I’m blaming the toxoplasma mind-control).  The fourth one was lucky- she turned out to be a he, and had to be returned for trying to impregnate his unwilling cage-mate.  Now I’m impatiently waiting for his very old girlfriend to croak, but she’s still going strong.  At least she’s proved Cosmo right that having sex really does make you live longer!

Seriously, having pets is great for the company, the responsibility, and the overwhelming desire to cuddle and smother it with unconditional love, but be realistic: if you can’t afford to pay your landlord extra rent for your cat, don’t get one.  Get a freaking bamboo plant from IKEA, those things are REALLY hard to kill.

Man’s best friend: aiding in our laziness since the caveman days.

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