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While it’s tough to squirrel away extra funds in college, it doesn’t get much easier after you graduate. Americans at almost all income levels have a hard time setting money aside. But it is possible to save money in the face of growing college expenses and constant spending temptations… even if you’re not necessarily swimming in cash to begin with. Here are six tips to help you save money in college, no matter how hard it might seem.
- Set a goal
That feeling when you check your bank account balance and see a much smaller number than you expected? To say the least, it sucks. Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid it:
Set a spending target and stay under it.
The best way to stay under your target is to create a budget. This will help you see how much money you have coming in, how much you need to spend, and how much you actually spend. Thankfully, there’s an Evernote template to help you, so all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Once you know what’s left over after you take care of your monthly expenses, set a weekly spending target—one you hopefully won’t exceed, but that allows you a reasonable level of comfort.
Pro Tip: Even though you’re tracking monthly expenses, we suggest setting a weekly target. It requires you to check your finances more often, which makes you more aware of your spending habits and can help you save money.
- Reward your success
Review your finances each week. If you spent under your target, deposit what’s left over into your savings account. Most banks have an app to make this part easier. Then record your success in a visible way. Maybe you make a checkmark on a wall calendar, or put a small sticker on your laptop, or use Evernote’s habit tracking template.
Now, whenever you look at your calendar, laptop, or habit tracker you’ll see your wins accumulate. This might seem like a small thing, but finding ways to gamify your finances can make saving money feel good, which helps encourage you to stick to your plan.
- Get cheap (or free) books
Textbooks are one of the heftiest college expenses any student will face. Before you drop a bunch of cash at your college bookstore, head to the library first. Try to figure out your required texts as early as possible and check them out before other students beat you to it. A lot of professors even put their textbooks on reserve in the campus library (check your syllabi to see if they mention it). And don’t forget to check your local library, too—you can usually do that online.
While you’re reading your syllabi, see if you’re able to choose between physical books or e-books—this can open up a world of cheaper options. Many libraries offer e-books for various tablets or e-readers.
Some titles you’ll probably have to get at the college bookstore. An easy way to save money here is to pick up used copies. Most college bookstores put out discounted used books, if available, alongside the new copies. Many will also buy certain books back from you at the end of the term, so check with yours to find out if they have a buyback program and which of your texts might be eligible.
- Use student discounts
When you’re a student, people often throw discounts at you without your even knowing it. Of course, you have to be careful. A five-percent discount on a Sony PlayStation isn’t saving you money as much as it’s baiting you to spend it. But if you stick to buying things you really need, student discounts can really help you out. When you see a student discount, ask yourself, “Is this a college expense I’d have to buy even if it were full price?” If so, it might be worth it.
If you’re buying something you need at a shop near campus, check to see if they have a student discount. It’s also worth searching the web for student discounts on things you purchase online. Here are two thorough lists from The Simple Dollar and College Info Geek.
Pro Tip: If you’re a current Evernote Basic customer, or have been thinking about signing up, here’s a student discount you can’t ignore!
- Save automatically
You check your bank account and see more money just arrived, maybe from financial aid, a student job, or helpful family members. Whatever the source, when you’re faced with a fresh lump sum of cash, it can be a real challenge to put some of it aside. There’s a simple hack for this: Save your money before you see it.
Most banks have plans that transfer part of your income into your savings account automatically. There are also savings apps that will round up your debit card purchases to the nearest dollar and save the difference for you. Let’s say you buy a coffee for $1.25. The app will round that purchase up to $2.00 and deposit $0.75 into an account without you having to do a thing.
Pro Tip: Not enough savings? Most of these apps let you round up to higher amounts. But you might be surprised how quickly your savings accumulate even if you’re just rounding to the nearest dollar.
- Cook your own meals
According to Money Under 30, a meal that costs $13 at a restaurant costs only $4 to prepare at home. The temptation to eat out is especially high in college, where you’re either studying so often it’s hard to break away and make dinner, or you’re out with friends a lot and visiting restaurants becomes a fun social activity. But cooking at home doesn’t mean you have to survive on energy drinks and instant ramen.
If you’re constantly pressed for time, try setting aside one or two days per week to cook a lot of portions of simple meals at once. Stack these up in portable containers in the fridge (with your name on them if you have roommates). Then you’ll have something you can grab quickly for the next few days on your way out the door, and you’ll be saving money on every meal you prepare yourself.
If you don’t want to miss out on eating as a social activity, try arranging a group to cook and eat together. If it’s hard to get people motivated, learn to make a popular dish really well and share it with your friends. You might find this helps sway them into having a ritual practice of dining in.
If any of these methods help you save money during your college years, take one final step and try not to spend it! If you can, use the following rule of thumb: whenever you save money on something, figure out what you would have spent had you paid full price, then deposit the difference into your savings account. Do that on a regular basis and your future self will thank you.