Thinking about how to save money in college is overwhelming, to say the least.
You might feel more than a little skeptical, wondering “Save?!? I’m just getting by as it is.”
Or maybe you’re counting on earning the big bucks after you graduate. Unfortunately—as many recent grads have found—that’s the exception, not the rule.
According to CNBC, the typical graduate with zero to five years experience makes $48,400. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) calculates that the preliminary average starting salary for graduates from the class of 2018 is about $50,004.
NACE data also indicates that college grads’ starting salaries have dipped, estimating that the starting salaries of the class of 2018 were actually two percent lower than the average starting salary of the class of 2017 ($51,022).
But even if you do earn a bit more than $50,000, let’s say $60,000, that’s still not a lot of money—after you pay taxes, bills, and student loans. It’s expensive to be an adult, especially an adult with student loans—trust me.
This is why it’s so important to start saving, particularly if your parents are still helping you get by for the time being.
Your future self will thank you when a rainy day comes, or when you don’t have to beg your parents to borrow more money, or when it comes time to pay back your student loans.
This thought has probably already crossed your mind though (since you’ve stumbled upon this post—which I can promise you is the best one out there for broke students), so keep reading if you want to learn how to save money in college.
Saving money for college
While it’s true you should make the most of your last few years of high school, it’s also time to start planning for the future. Life is expensive. And the preparation you do now can set you up for financial success during college and as you start your career. Ready to jump in and learn how to save money for college? Here we go…
1. Dual enrollment
Earn college credit while still in high school by taking a course (or a few) at your local community college or another accredited online program. This could ultimately save you money toward your college degree. But be sure to do your research to confirm credits transfer to the school(s) you want to attend. Some high schools actually weigh honors and AP classes more heavily than a community college course, so talk with your school guidance counselor to understand how dual enrollment could impact your GPA.
TLDR: The more you know about your future plans, the more you can accurately determine whether dual enrollment gives you an edge when it comes to saving money for college.
Related: What is dual enrollment? My experience and tips for success.
2. Apply for financial aid and scholarships
That’s the total amount of financial aid that undergraduate and graduate students received during 2018-2019.
Financial aid is either:
Need-based: You qualify based on your financial need (or more specifically, whether your family needs assistance paying for college, as determined by FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
Types of FAFSA include grants (do not need to be repaid), work-study (money earned through a part-time on or off-campus job), or a loan (repaid with interest).
Merit-based: You receive aid (most commonly as a scholarship—more on that below) based on a specific talent, athletic, or academic ability —and not on financial need. This is awarded by a college or a private organization.
If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to scholarships, check out general scholarship websites. Talk to your academic advisor and other well-connected adults in your life (coaches, teachers, mentors) about opportunities within your local community. There are MANY niche scholarships out there, so if you’re passionate about a cause or have a certain skill set, be sure to research related scholarships. Another pro tip? Don’t shy away from the more time-intensive applications, as more laborious apps often have fewer applicants. Put in the work and apply early and often.
Financial aid resources:
FAFSA – Complete Guide
Maximizing Aid Eligibility: What You Need to Know
Complete Guide to Scholarships for College Students
5 Things Every Student Should Know About Scholarships
The Mega List of Scholarships You Should Apply For
Mindblowing Scholarship Stats for 2020
3. Consider ROTC
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is a prestigious scholarship program that allows students to attend college tuition-free (and sometimes covers fees and/or room and board as well) in exchange for a commitment to serve in the military post-graduation. Of course, if free tuition is your only motivation, ROTC isn’t for you. But if you’ve always had an interest in serving your country or if you’re open to exploring the possibility, it’s worth giving ROTC a look:
Other than the uniform, the weekly three hour drills, the specialized classes and labs each semester, the Physical Training (PT), and the additional summer training, ROTC students are pretty much just ordinary college students. They have just as much fun as regular college students. They pledge fraternities and sororities at the same rates as regular college students, they participate in community service projects, and they play varsity team and individual sports.
The big difference is that ROTC students experience far fewer financial worries. This is especially true if they’ve enrolled at a college or university that offers ROTC students free room and board for four years (a fantastic benefit for future ROTC students to look for when they’re shopping for colleges to attend).” (source)
Besides the massive tuition savings, former ROTC cadets cite benefits including decision-making skills, leadership skills, and mentorship.
What ROTC Programs Are and How They Work
Army ROTC: College Scholarship FAQ
Funding Your Education with ROTC
4. Take a gap year
A gap year is “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.” (source)
I bet the first thing that popped into your head was “travel the world” when you saw “gap year.” Travel can be an incredible learning experience and there are, in fact, ways to travel and work—if you’re interested.
Let’s assume, at the moment, you’re more interested in saving money for college than world travel. Here’s how to invest in yourself and reap both financial and personal rewards.
Save money by living at home
Save on rent for a year? Yes, please. Utilities, furniture, groceries—those cost-of-living expenses quickly add up. If your family is willing to support you for another year (or even if they ask you for a small monthly contribution), why not?
Get a job and stash away cash
Working any job full-time, or even part-time, will allow you to build up your savings for college. Better yet, use this time as an opportunity to find work that aligns with your interests (or potential future career). Soft skills are lacking among many college graduates, so real-world experience can give you a leg-up on college applications and future job prospects.
Explore your passions and learn new skills
Not being a full-time student frees up time for pursuing your passions. Did you always want to try photography? Maybe graphic design sparked your interest, but you weren’t ready to commit to an entire program. Taking a one-off class, volunteering, or teaching yourself a new skill is a low-pressure (and less expensive) way to consider possible careers. Explore what you like, what you’re good at, and how you can make money doing what you enjoy—something everyone should do before diving into an expensive degree.
Develop as a person and gain clarity
Grow up a little more, know yourself better, and take the time to research all your options. Clarity about what you want to do with your life can pay off big (especially when you consider the cost of changing majors). In a survey by the Gap Year Association, participants reported that their gap year…
helped them develop as a person (98%)
will or has impacted their career decision (77%)
helped or will help them get a job (75%)
5. Don’t assume a 4-year degree is the only way
It’s easy to fall into the “should” trap when it comes to education.
“Well, of course, I should get a bachelor’s degree because that’s what people do.”
I’d argue that skills matter more than degrees, and a bachelor’s doesn’t necessary translate to higher earnings. And I’m not alone:
Ironically, the no-college stigma tends to overlook the fact that college, as we know it, is failing a growing number of students. A third of those who start at a public four-year institution haven’t completed their degree six years later, and many never will. And the numbers are far worse for African American, Latinx and low-income students when you look at key demographic segments.
Some 36 million Americans have some college education, but no credential—and many are saddled with debt. The picture isn’t rosy even for those who complete a bachelor’s, with 41% of recent graduates underemployed before the downturn, working in jobs that don’t require their level of education and are often low-paying.
In fact, the bottom 25% of bachelor’s degree holders don’t earn any more than the average American who stopped their education at high school. And student debt has reached crisis levels, with too many borrowing for programs that don’t provide a positive ROI. With statistics like that, it should be no surprise that a Strada-Gallup survey suggests that “individuals who complete a vocational, trade or technical program are more positive about their education decisions than are individuals with an associate or bachelor’s degree. (source)
The good news is you have choices (and good ones) when it comes to affordable alternatives to that traditional 4-year degree. Now, of course, this depends on what you want to do. Some career paths require a bachelor’s degree or graduate school with good reason. But if that doesn’t apply to you—or you’re still undecided—you can save money for college by choosing a more affordable path.
“Community college tuition can be as little as around $3,500 per year, compared to up to around $35,000 for out of-state-students attending a public university.” Whether you complete a degree or knock out some required credits before transferring, community college is a great way to save money.
An often overlooked career path, vocational jobs are in-demand, especially as more skilled workers retire. All of us have different strengths and interests, so it’s unfortunate that many young people are pushed toward a bachelor’s degree when trade school might ultimately be a better fit—or even a path toward saving money for college, like this young woman:
While speaking recently with a group of high school seniors, most raised their hands when asked who is planning to go to college. A young woman in the class bucked the trend and said she was going into carpentry, hoping to eventually become a construction manager. She will either attend a private career education school at a cost of a few thousand dollars (often covered with available scholarships) or join a labor union where her education is paid for by private employers.
She had obviously thought this through. A union carpenter, she said, serves as an apprentice for four years, while earning a paycheck and attending classes. Her starting pay would be above $40,000, and increase every 1,000 hours worked with health care and retirement benefits. Long term, her plan is to work for five years, save some money, get additional training as a foreman, take college courses and eventually become a project manager.” (source)
Average tuition for trade schools runs $3,600 to $1,400 per year, but will vary depending on the program.
Bootcamps or specialized programs
As education continues to evolve, a number of more specialized programs are popping up and they show real promise.
I have a friend who’s a web developer and his company almost exclusively recruits new hires from bootcamp programs, which are exploding in the coding world.
“Full-time coding bootcamps usually last anywhere from six to 40 weeks, with the average being a little over 12 weeks. Prices typically range from $10,000 to $24,000. Some bootcamps offer a guarantee of a developer job, and if you don’t land one, you don’t have to pay anything except your initial deposit.” (source)
Google recently joined the ranks of specialized learning as well, announcing it’s 6-month certificate program. The three new programs include Project Manager ($93,000), Data Analyst ($66,000), and UX Designer ($75,000)—which Google says will prepare students to do the job, without a prior degree or experience.
While pricing isn’t yet available for the certificates, a similar offering by Google on Coursera, the IT Support Professional Certificate, is $49/month.
Saving money in college
1. Abide by a 50-30-20 budget
The 50-30-20 budget guideline is an easy one to get started with budgeting. Instead of dividing your budget into 20+ categories, which is overwhelming to keep track of, the 50-30-20 budget splits your expenses into three broad categories:
- Fixed costs: The bills that don’t vary each month (Rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, subscriptions, etc)
- Financial goals: Contributions to savings, paying down debt, building an emergency fund, etc.
- Flexible spending: Day-to-day expenses that can vary from month-to-month (Food, shopping, hobbies, etc)
According to the guideline:
50 percent of your take-home pay should go to fixed costs.
This is the first place you should look if you want to cut back and save. Conduct a subscription audit each month, and see what you aren’t using or don’t need anymore. You can do this fast with a service, like Trim or Truebill.
30 percent of your take-home pay should go toward financial goals.
Consider automating this portion so you pay yourself first and get rid of debt as quickly as possible.
20 percent of your take-home pay should go to flexible spending.
To determine how much you should allocate to flex-spending, first, subtract your fixed costs and financial goal contributions from your take-home pay (the amount that hits your bank account after taxes and any 401(k) contributions). Doing so will give you the most accurate picture of how much you can comfortably spend each month.
Example 50-30-20 budget via LearnVest:
Who? Jamie (22 years old) is a recent grad working at her first job in Chicago. She is able to make her monthly student loan payments, contribute to her Roth IRA, and pay all her bills.
Annual Salary: $36,000
Monthly take-home pay after taxes: $2,250 a month (assuming 25 percent of her salary goes toward a combination of taxes and her 401(k) contributions)
Utilities (including phone and internet): $135
Gym and subscriptions: $75
Total: $1,100 (about 49 percent of her take-home pay)
Student Loan: $150
Roth IRA contributions: $200
Emergency fund: $75
Backpacking trip fund: $50
Total: $475 (about 21 percent of her take-home pay)
Flexible Spending: $675 (30 percent of her take-home pay)
Because Jamie is on a tight budget, her fixed costs are very close to the 50 percent limit. But she’s still able to meet her student loan payments and even put nine percent of her take-home pay toward retirement, where the money should have a long time to grow.
Best budgeting apps:
2. Gamify saving.
Try a no-spend challenge.
A no-spend challenge is when you don’t spend money on anything new for a specific period of time.
There are no fast and hard rules here, but you should create some before you get started trying to do this.
Step 0: Start with why
Why are you trying to save money? Write down your reasons, and find a way to keep them top of mind.
Understanding your bigger purpose will give you the stamina to keep going. The goal of this challenge is to get you to where you want to be in the future, and if an item doesn’t improve your quality of life and move you toward your bigger purpose, then you’ll see it’s likely not worth the cost.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Why do I want to take on a no-spend challenge?
- What are my bigger goals?
- How will this challenge move me toward those larger goals?
Step 1: Pick a timeframe
It takes 21 days to develop a new habit, so consider doing three weekly challenges in a row, and try to develop more frugal habits in that timeframe.
If three back-to-back weekly challenges sounds too difficult, start with a no-spend weekend, which focuses on finding free activities to do with family and friends. Then move onto a no-spend week.
Step 2: Make your rules
During the challenge, you want to try to eliminate all non-essential spending, which will vary from reader to reader.
Examples of essential spending:
- Student loans
- Internet/Cell phone
Examples of non-essential spending to cut:
- Eating out, coffee, drinks
- Anything else that’s not essential
When I tried this challenge, I didn’t cut all non-essential spending. I just made the rule: “No buying anything at Homegoods, Marshalls or TJ Maxx,” because I used to waste a lot of money each week there, when I was bored.
Make rules that work for you and your lifestyle.
Step 3: Set a goal
In addition to documenting your “why,” it helps to create a SMART goal.
SMART is an acronym for:
A good example of a goal for a no-spend challenge would be: I want to save $100 in one month by not spending any money at Marshalls for that month.
Step 4: Find or create a support group
According to psychology, publicizing your goals on social media or simply sharing them with friends makes it easier to accomplish them.
Don’t want to involve your immediate friends? No worries. There’s Facebook groups and Reddit communities you can join to participate in their no-buy challenges.No-spend challenge resources:
- Broke Millennials’ No-Spend Challenge
- My No Spend Challenge: How I Bought Nothing for Six Months
- Broke Millennials’ No-Spend Challenge Facebook Support Group
- How To Quickly Save More Money: 10 Simple Rules For A No Spend Challenge
Qapital is a free app that automates saving and kind-of makes it fun in the process.
The app uses a “rules” and “goals” approach to money management, where users set short-term and long-term goals, and then create spending rules to help them reach them. Rules can be anything from “save $1 every time I buy a coffee” to “save $2 anytime I use a debit or credit card.”
In addition to Qapital, there’s a similar app, called Acorns, which I haven’t tested myself but it seems to have good reviews.
3. Utilize student discounts
Just about every company today offers student discounts, but they don’t always make it easy to find or redeem. Don’t let this prevent you from getting them though.
Before making a purchase, Google “[company/brand] student discount,” and the student discount page should pop right up. If it doesn’t, don’t hesitate to ask a customer service rep via chat or email, or in-person, if you’re in a store.Other discount apps I use:
4. Use cash
When I’m low on cash flow, I use what Ramit Sethi calls the “envelope method,” which works by putting physical cash for all your monthly expenses (e.g., gas, going out, shopping) into separate envelopes.
For instance, you could have an envelope for “eating out,” and every time you eat out, you take money from that envelope to pay for it. Once all the money in that envelope is gone, you’re done for the month.
The nice thing about this method is its flexibility; you can easily take money from other envelopes, if an emergency pops up, but you’ll just have less money that month for the category you pulled from.
And of course, you don’t have to use actual envelopes. You could just simply get another debit card, and automatically put $200 or however much you want on it each month, and just use it for X category until it’s gone.
Important: If you set up a debit account, make sure to tell your bank you DON’T want them to allow you to spend more than you have in your account (AKA overdraft protection). If you don’t do this, you’ll likely get a ton of overdraft fees, which, at $35 a pop is no bueno.
5. Attend on-campus events and utilize campus resources
When I was in school, every day there was an event going on, and every event always had food and usually other free resources for just attending it.
Find these events on your campus calendar, and save money on meals!
In addition to meals, campuses usually have group activity discounts for students and don’t forget about the career center, where you can get resume help and other costly career advice/help for the very low price of free.
There’s usually free tutors for students as well. I used to go to the math tutoring center to get my homework done and the writing center to get my papers checked before turning them in.
Another place I use to love was the computer center, which had loads of gorgeous, brand new iMacs with pricey software installed. Why buy Creative Cloud when I could use the community software for free?
My school even had a beautiful gym that students could attend by just swiping their student ID card. So do some digging and find the french benefits your university offers its students. You’ll be surprised by what you find.
6. Audit your subscriptions
Use a free service, like Trim, Clarity or Truebill, to get a list of all your subscriptions, and cut the ones you forgot about and/or don’t use anymore. I’d do this on a regular basis because it’s easy to forget about them.
7. Understand all the benefits of your subscriptions
Many subscription services offer A LOT more features than you probably realize and use each month, which could save you money from spending on things you can already get for free.
Take Amazon Prime, which is 50 percent cheaper for students, as an example. Take a peek at all the benefits I bet you didn’t know you already have as an Amazon Prime member.
8. Negotiate your bills
I stole this from Ramit Sethi’s “Save $1,000 in a month challenge.” Because this is an entire post in itself, and because Ramit already did such a great job breaking this down, I’m just going to recommend you read his post to learn how to negotiate your bills.
9. Don’t pay the full price
My mom is just one of many Americans who buys brand new things all the time and then just gives them away for free to family or friends. She loves to shop, and finds this enjoyable.
Find people like my mom in your community.
Here are some places you can find people like her:
“Buy nothing” neighborhood groups
There are these “buy nothing” communities in just about every city across the U.S. In these groups, people give away everything from toiletries to furniture to services for little to no cost.
Find a group near you by searching Facebook for “buy nothing” + [your neighborhood]. The more specific your neighborhood the better. So for instance, I’d search “buy nothing lauderdale by the sea” rather than “buy nothing Fort Lauderdale.”
The smaller the group, the easier it is to find stuff. Pay attention to the related groups for buying and selling, which can also be useful.
Old electronics are supposed to be recycled, because there could be parts that could be harvested and reused, and many cities have local recycling centers where you can drop them off… and sometimes, pick them up.
Many centers will sell any working electronics donated to them, at super low prices. I’m talking everything—computer monitors, keyboards, networking gear, all types of cables and even old laptops and/or video game systems.
While these e-waste centers come fewer and far between, check out Free Geek, which does something similar. Local universities or your state government may also have a surplus store, where they also sell used computers and sometimes desks.
If your school doesn’t have a gym, look for local, free workout groups as opposed to splurging on a gym membership.
The November Project is a completely free, volunteer-run organization that’s in 45 cities across the globe. Members get together twice a week in the mornings to workout together, doing everything from running to strength training, and caters to people of all skill levels.
If there isn’t a group in your neighborhood, start one.
Rapid recap: Money saving tips for college students
Ready for my round-up of key takeaways? Here’s a quick review (plus a few extras) of the very best financial tips for college students.
It’s never too early to start saving
While how much you save depends on your situation, take time to educate yourself and make a plan that works best for you.
⇒ Start an emergency fund
⇒ Open a high-yield savings account.
⇒ Invest in a Roth IRA—starting early will add up big over time.
Get creative and plan ahead
When it comes to saving for college, do your homework and research all of your options, including:
⇒ Financial aid and scholarships
⇒ Alternatives to a bachelor’s degree
⇒ A campus role like a resident assistant
Track your spending
Establishing goals will help you save. Give one of these budgets a try:
⇒ 50-30-20 budget
⇒ YNAB (You Need a Budget) app
Work a side hustle
Whether you’re saving money for college or saving money in college, there are more flexible job opportunities than ever before.
⇒ How to Make Money in College: The 11 Best Side Hustles
⇒ THIS is How to Make Money and Thrive in College
Let parents/family help where they can
While not all parents can pay tuition, many are interested in helping in other ways if they’re able. Why not…
⇒ Keep your cell phone on your parents’ family plan
⇒ Live at home for a year or two
⇒ Accept help with books or groceries
Shop second-hand or free
⇒ Workout groups
Don’t own a car
⇒ Save on a car payment, maintenance, insurance, and gas
Avoid impulse purchases
⇒ Don’t shop on credit (unless you can pay it off immediately)
⇒ Be intentional (i.e., don’t shop because you’re bored or sad)
Make the most of what you already have
⇒ Campus resources
⇒ Student discounts
⇒ Unused benefits of subscription services
Don’t be the average American, when it comes to spending
The average American saves just 7.5 percent of their disposable income, and 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 set aside for an emergency, according to the Federal Reserve. And adults under 35 are even worse, with a savings rate of -2 percent, according to Moody’s Analytics.
Lucky for you, this doesn’t have to be your story.
Your “broke student” status won’t last forever, but—for better or worse—the money-saving habits you develop now will serve you well beyond your college years.