How to Be A Frugal College Student: A Sort-Of Practical Guide

We’ve all been there. That boring 11am class and you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. You resort to internet shopping. And there it is – that one perfect, beautiful thing that will make your life complete…that you absolutely don’t need at all. But it’s right there! And it’s on sale! And you just got paid!

A week later, you have $5 in your bank account. How did that happen?! All you did was buy that one thing on Amazon…and then a subscription to a magazine you won’t read…and then groceries, which also involved buying a pair of shoes (and jewelry was buy one, get one!) and then grabbing appetizers with friends at 11:30pm, because that’s college.

TL;DR version: little things like that add up.

How do you stop the madness? Do a total spending freeze and not buy anything? Well, that’s a little extreme, but if you think you need that, go for it. Other than good old-fashioned resisting temptation, there are a couple other things you could do to curb your spending. I’ll walk you through each one, based on category.

1. Internet Shopping. Just don’t. That’s really all the advice I have for you. HOWEVER. I know that sometimes you find a deal that you just can’t pass up. So if you do fall into the online shopping rabbit hole, WRITE DOWN HOW MUCH YOU SPENT. Whether you’re able to log it onto a banking app on your phone or actually have a paper transaction record, write it down so you physically see how much you spent and where that money you thought you had went.

2. Grocery Shopping. Two words: Store. Brand. Buy store brand everything. I worked in a grocery store for a summer, and they let me in on a little secret – most store-brand products are the exact same as name brands – they are made in the same factory but labeled differently. So seriously. When you get store-brand stuff, you’re not getting lesser quality. You’re just not paying for the name. However, some products (like Coke and Oreo – c’mon, we all know that the store brands for those are crap) have trademarked recipes so they’re not the same. I still buy name-brand Coke because I don’t want the sTRAIGHT SUGAR EXPLOSION taste of the store brand. (“We don’t have the recipe…let’s just throw MORE SUGAR in there.”)

3. Coffee. This is very important to me. (In case you were wondering whether or not coffee was important to me, look at the header on top of this page.) I do not go cheap on coffee. People often judge me for my coffee budget, but I glare at them over the rim of my iced red-eye extra ice with mocha (yes this is something I order – I GET POINTS ON MY LOYALTY CARD, OKAY?!). Let’s face it – coffee is expensive. Unless you get Maxwell House. And I am NOT TELLING you to get Maxwell House. Or the f-word (Folger’s). Here’s what I would recommend though: store brand coffee is actually pretty good. Plus, they often has a wholebean station where you can grind it up fresh (fresh is always good). A bag of (good) coffee at the store will usually cost you about 8-12 dollars. You could buy in bulk, which will save you a little bit of money.

I DO NOT recommend this: A Keurig. If you drink a lot of coffee (I average three cups a day), then do not get a Keurig. A box of K-cups will cost you 8-12 dollars as well, but you go through them a lot faster than a bag of coffee. One of those boxes would usually last me a week…that’s $8 a week. A decent-sized bag of coffee lasts me two or more…and makes multiple cups, which is helpful if you have roommates. So don’t get a Keurig. Get yourself a nice coffeemaker (you can get single-serve ones that aren’t Keurigs which you can fill with coffee of your choice!) that doesn’t use plastic cups. Your coffee will be cheaper and taste fresher.

If you’re craving a fancy latte, I also have some cheap recommendations in the form of DINING HALL HACKS. If you’re a veteran college student, this is not news to you. When I want more than just black coffee, I stop in for lunch at the dining hall, fill my cup up with coffee (I know, dining hall coffee isn’t always great, but bear with me) and then go over to the ice cream station (because every college worth going to has self-serve soft-serve ice cream) and put some flavored syrup in your cup. It masks the grossness of cafeteria coffee and makes you feel frou-frou because it kind of tastes like a latte. And it tastes waaaay better than whatever they put in the cappucino machine. (Sand and water. That’s what they put in there. Sand and water.)

4. Budgeting. You should probably have a budget. Even if you don’t have a steady income yet (ESPECIALLY if you don’t have a steady income). I am a student worker and I usually work about eight hours a week, so I get a small check every two weeks. That doesn’t give me a lot of spending wiggle room, unless I dip into my savings (which you DO NOT WANT TO DO). Speaking of, the first thing you want to do in order to budget is have savings of some sort that you do not touch unless you absolutely need it (and by absolutely need, I don’t mean shopping spree at Target. I mean broken leg or student loans.) I’m not going to go full-blown Dave Ramsey on you, but you should have some sort of savings. Even if it’s just $20 in your mattress. But I would recommend a little more than that.

There’s also some budgeting apps for your phone (gasp! An app?) I use Mint, mostly because it’s free and it syncs with my bank account. It shows me where my money is going using this cute little colorful pie chart and sends me alerts when something’s up (Example: “You spent $500 in candy this week. This is $400 more than you usually spend.” Stuff like that. I cannot confirm or deny that this happened.)

So, there you go. There’s my budgeting crash course. Frugality 101. Not even 101, it’s like pre-101. Just Frugality. So go forth and be frugal. Save those dollas and change the world.