Saving Cash in College: What to Buy, What to Skip, and What to Save For

moneyCollege is chock-full with financial temptation. You’re eager to explore a new town with new friends, your fashion sense is rapidly developing into cool college kid, and everything in the grocery store looks delicious. If you’re like the majority of college students, you don’t have the funds to buy everything you’d like to—so where should you draw the line?

I’m no financial expert, but as a soon-to-graduate senior who’s watched plenty of friends feed savings accounts or run their wallets to empty, here’s what I’ve learned.

SKIP

  • Skip: The nicest apartment on campus. You’re only spending four years at college, and the first one or two of them were probably in a dorm; in the long term, it’s not worth the extra $500 each month for slightly whiter walls or a barely-shorter commute. The best way to build a great apartment life is to pick the right roommates, be considerate about sharing space with others, and take good care of the place you’re in.
  • Skip: Nice furniture. Again, you won’t be in this apartment for long, and you’ll probably sell all or almost all of the furniture you’re buying to fill it. Nicer furniture will lose more value over the course of the year or two you’ll own it. Secondhand or IKEA furniture will do just fine if it’s kept in good condition, and if you dress it up with cozy tablecloths, pillows, and other accessories you won’t even notice the difference.
  • Skip: New textbooks. You’re (probably) only keeping these for a semester and ultimately you care much more about what’s in them than how crisp and white the pages are. Rent textbooks, buy them secondhand, order them from discount textbook websites, or just use the library’s copy; you’ll save hundreds or thousands of dollars over the years.
  • Skip: The gym membership…maybe. Unless you’re sure you’ll use it regularly, don’t sign up on the first day, and be sure to look for a student discount if you do. Far too many gym memberships go unused and become senseless drains on your bank account. And hey—running is a great way to explore a new town!

BUY

  • Buy: Healthy food. It’s tempting to eat fast food or junk food every day; you’re a busy person, the grocery store takes an hour out of your schedule, and junk food is cheaper, longer-lasting, and less likely to require much cooking time. Remember that you’ll perform better as a student with healthy food in your system, and that your waistline a couple years after graduation will thank you.
  • Buy: Restaurant food…but sparingly. You’re in a new town and it’s worth getting to know a new place. College is just as much about the experience as it is about studying. Just be tasteful about it. Check out the New Place Everyone’s Talking About, but you don’t need to eat at a five-star restaurant every night.
  • Buy: New clothes…but sparingly. I’m a big fan of tiny closets, especially in college, where you’ll probably need to move at least once. (I’ve moved almost every year, and twice again for study abroad.) It’s worth updating your closet to match your new environment and to look good for professional events, but don’t fill your closet up; extra pieces will end up as clutter.
  • Buy: Drinks, movies, camping trips, and other fun…but sparingly. Again, you’re in a new town and it’s worth exploring and socializing, but it’s not worth going out every night—and it’s definitely not worth a hangover the next day!

SAVE

  • Save for: Study and travel abroad. Nearly every study abroad student cites their semester abroad as their most educational college semester, and for good reason. International experience is increasingly valuable in our quickly globalizing world. Study abroad is expensive, but the benefits make it a worthy investment as long as you choose the right program for your interests and goals. Even if you can’t study abroad, use college as an opportunity to travel abroad; you have fewer life responsibilities in college than you likely will later in life, and as a college student you’re probably more willing to save money by staying in hostels or skipping fancy wine tasting tours.
  • Save for: Graduate school application fees, research travel, and other career- and academic-development endeavors. A good education is always worth the investment.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.