5 Tips for Saving Money While You're Still in College

Young caucasian girl reading textbook at a university library

On Thursday, I looked at some of the reasons that college has gotten more expensive in the past few years, and suggested some ways for new students to increase the return on their educational investment. Ultimately, though, most of these suggestions are for the long-term, and won't bear economic fruit until long after your college years are over. With that in mind, it seems worthwhile to look at some nearer-term ways to stretch your dollars -- and borrow fewer of them -- while in college.

For most students, college offers a soft launch into adulthood, a zone between the cocoon of living with mom and dad, and the harsh reality of being economically independent. With that in mind, it's also a good place to develop the budgeting and shopping skills that you will later use as an adult. Here are five things that can help you build good spending habits and keep money in your pocket -- while still maximizing your college experience.

1: Get a Checking Account

If you don't already have a checking account, now is the time to get one. Most college towns are filled with banks offering free, no-minimum-balance checking accounts. In addition to helping you control your cash, accounts that have no-fee online banking give you an outstanding tool for tracking your purchases. By monitoring your expenditures online, you can get a clear window into your spending habits -- and, when it comes time to watch your budget, you'll have a better idea of which stores and spending triggers you need to avoid.

2: Get a (Part-Time) Job

While the debate continues over the potential ill effects of working while in school, half of full-time students and 80 percent of all part-time students have jobs. Most studies show that students who work for 20 hours or less per week don't suffer any ill effects on their grades; in fact, a recent article in "Inside Higher Ed" reports that students with part-time jobs are likely to be even more engaged in "educationally purposeful activities."

3: Not All Credits Are Good

Soon after school begins, you'll probably notice ranks of tables near the library, outside the dining hall, and lining the path that you take to class. Friendly people -- many of them college students just like you! -- will be poised and ready, eager to offer you frisbees, slinkies, water bottles and other brightly-colored trinkets. In return, all you have to do is fill out a credit card application. Don't do it!

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There's an endless array of credit card horror stories out there, and all too many begin with the phrase "Well, they were offering free ice cream cones..." While you will probably want to get a credit card sooner or later, doing so should be the result of a bit of research, a comparison of interest rates, and a little soul-searching -- not a free plastic toy.

4: Take Control of Your Food

Have you ever heard of the "freshman 15"? Well, there are a lot of reasons that college students tend to pack on the pounds during their first few semesters, but one of the biggest is dining halls. Buffet dining, the most common model at most universities, naturally encourages overeating. To make things worse, if you choose the biggest meal plan, you'll probably be inclined to get your full money's worth by going to every single meal. Add in the free pizza that is so often offered at campus events, and you've got a caloric horror story in the making.

Save yourself, your wallet and your waistline by planning around your eating schedule and needs. If possible, get a flex plan that charges you by what you eat, rather than the number of meals that you attend, or can attend. If that doesn't work, get a smaller meal plan, put aside the extra money, and use it to buy yourself healthier meals that you can eat in your dorm room.

5: When It Comes to Textbooks, Get Creative

One of your biggest college expenses will be textbooks. Publishers, professors and academic departments know that they have a captive audience, and they often make deals to assign the same textbook to all introductory students in a particular class. Given the profits involved -- imagine 300 or more students each paying $50 or more for an intro textbook -- it shouldn't be surprising that the relationship between publishers, textbook reps and professors can sometimes seem a little shady.

But how can you fight it? One way is to share your textbooks with someone in your class. While this means that you'll both be jockeying for the book at the same time -- right before a test -- it could also give you a built-in study partner and a much lower textbook bill.

If you aren't the sharing type, there are a bunch of other methods for saving cash. You could try buying used or electronic copies from your campus bookstore or an online bookseller -- this is especially useful if your class is using a classic text. Alternately, you could try renting textbooks from companies like CampusBookRentals or CollegeBookRenter. You may even try specifically seeking out professors who use low-cost or open-source textbooks -- depending on your university, you may find that many of your faculty members are even more annoyed at the textbook industry than you are.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

Originally published