By Paula Pant.
Let's be real: Even if you can snag some great scholarships, college can be astonishingly expensive. Between books, coffee to fuel those late-night study sessions and the occasional pizza with your roomies, the incremental little costs can add up fast, even if you're not spending every night hitting the bars, shopping for clothes or splurging on Spring Break trips.
If you want to emerge from college with your finances intact, you need to get smart about how you spend your money. It's time for a crash course in savings. Got your notepad ready?
Make a Budget -- And Stick To It!
It's ridiculously easy to lose track of how much you're spending, especially when your mind is full of facts and figures from your textbooks that you need to remember for next week's final exam. You have plenty on your mind already -- tracking your finances mentally is next-to-impossible.
It's also hard to get an intuitive sense of how much you're spending, when you're only spending a few bucks here and there. You rarely drop more than $10 or $20 on a single item, and yet, somehow your little $2 coffees and $5 lunches add up. You're just not sure how.
The first step to saving money is to know exactly how much cash you've got coming in and going out each month. Setting up an account with a program like Mint.com or You Need a Budget (YNAB) will help you track your expenses automatically by linking up to your credit and debit cards, then filtering your purchases into budget categories you set up.
These websites and apps let you see at a glance what you've spent so far this month and how much you've got left, so you can tweak your future purchases accordingly -- no boring number-crunching needed.
Take Advantage of Your School's Facilities
As a student, you've got access to some pretty awesome on-campus facilities. Make the most of them!
Instead of paying for a pricey gym membership, hit up your school's gym. Instead of hanging with your friends at the bar, grab some coffees at the student union and linger around the foosball table. Instead of investing in a new computer, printer and all the ink and paper you'll need for your various class projects, visit the computer lab (it's often got a better atmosphere for thinking than your dorm, anyway).
Make yourself familiar with the amenities your campus has to offer, and then use them shamelessly. You're paying good money for your tuition, so may as well get the most for it.
Know Your Student Discounts
The perks don't stop when you leave campus.
Plenty of local stores and businesses in college areas offer student discounts if you show your college ID. From discounted movie tickets to the ability to use campus cash at the local grocery store, these deals can help you trim your budget. Check with your student services, student newspaper or student affairs office for a rundown of area-wide discounts.
There are also lots of national chains that offer student discounts on various items. Whenever you make a major purchase -- on everything ranging from a computer to car insurance -- ask if they offer student specials. The worst they can say is "no," and simply asking your provider will save you from paying more than you need to.
Shop Around for Textbooks
Textbooks can take a mammoth chunk out of your funds each semester, and some professors barely even wind up using the book much in class. To add insult to injury, those books cost you hundreds when you bought them (used and over-highlighted) from the campus bookstore, and yet they'll net you next to nothing when you sell them back.
Luckily, you've got a lot more options when it comes to getting your required reading list. Hop onto eBay, Craiglist and Amazon to search for gently used copies other students are selling online. Arrange with a classmate to buy one book that you both can share. Pin a flyer on campus bulletin boards to see if students who took your class have a book they're willing to sell to you directly.
In other words: Don't give in to the campus bookstore racket. Go there as a last resort, not a first option.
Get Comfy with Slumming It
Most people have war stories about their lifestyle as a "poor" college student: eating Ramen noodle dinners, scrounging a couch from the curb on garbage day, coaching their junk car through another winter.
College is a rite of passage in lots of ways, and one of those ways is learning what it's like to not have a ton of money. Where people get into trouble is when they try to act like they have more than they really do.
You've got your whole life ahead of you to worry about taking on new car payments, furnishing an HGTV-ready apartment and frequenting your city's trendy hotspots. For now, your focus should be on making good grades, making good friends and avoiding the fate of those graduates who've wound up back in their parents' basements because they lived it up too much in college.
If your friends are living beyond their means, it doesn't mean that you have to, too. Get yourself started on the right foot and focus on what really matters during your college years.
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