As your typical ~broke college kid~, my #struggle lies within the delicate balance of finding a flexible job so I can work and make money around a full-time class schedule, completing any and all academic tasks with a certain level of grace, and trying (really, really trying) to have a rewarding, Instagram-worthy social life on the side.
I’m going to be honest in this moment and say that no, I don’t accomplish any of this with ease. Some might even say that I failed miserably for three consecutive academic years. But last semester was different, because I had a plan. I haven’t found it terribly effective to live by the hard-and-fast money-saving rules you find when conducting a soft Google search on how to save during college. They tend to say things like, “rent textbooks!” or “don’t drink alcohol!” But the truth is, not all textbooks can be rented, and obviously no one is particularly keen on the idea of swearing off booze. As with anything else, I had to take a look at the areas where I personally could stand to tighten up and pinch a few pennies. For me, these things tend to be in the “food” category – what can I say? Your girl likes to snack.
I didn’t do anything insane, but these small tweaks in my lifestyle, paired with my active desire to pay painfully close attention to exactly where my money was going, really helped me to save a good chunk of change by the time summer break rolled around.
These are the few small but entirely helpful life changes I made to significantly cut back my expenses this past semester.
1. Making (and sticking to) a strict gas budget.
I commute 30 minutes both ways to my university five days a week, then I drive straight to work after. Because of this, I need to be careful with how fast and loose I play with my gas. Tossing extra dollars into my gas tank feels so easy because it’s a thing I have to do to get to work and school. But recreational car trips burn the gas I need, so I find myself at the pump more than my wallet prefers. By making a monthly gas budget (allowing myself one fill-up per week, usually around $22) and holding myself insanely accountable for it, I eliminated all the extra “just because” trips and saved a lot of cash. If ever I found myself tempted to use my car to go somewhere random and unnecessary at a time during the week when my tank was getting low, I found an alternate way to get there (walking, carpool with friends, or the free bus pass I get from my university), or just didn’t go. Sometimes, when money is tight, you have to just deal with the FOMO. When I compared my gas bills from the Fall 2015 semester to this past one, I found that I saved about $208 altogether, bringing my bill for the whole 16-week semester down from $560 last fall to $352 this time around.
2. Creating (and actually following through with) a Meal Prep plan.
This is an obvious one, but there’s no reason to for me to ever have spent $9.50 on a questionable dining hall meal when I can buy the ingredients to make a sandwich every day of the week with that amount of money. I always saw “meal prep” as something exclusive to people who are dieting, and therefore never thought I needed to spend Sunday night planning my weekly meals. But when I looked through my bank statement and saw how many times I swiped my card for a midday bagel last semester, I decided to restrict myself to only food I prepared myself to see if it helped me save a few bucks. Before classes started in January, I made a list of meals and snacks that could be easily prepared, packed, and eaten in the very short amount of time I had between classes, then bought ingredients in bulk for super-cheap every few weeks, to make sure I had what I needed. I also found that I’m more likely to stick to my meal-packing plan if I bring utensils with me so I can eat it whenever and wherever I want on campus, because I personally get a little emotional when I have to seek out a spoon come lunch hour. I’m embarrassed to say that I spent about $300 dining on-campus during the fall, and only about $50 altogether this semester. Next semester, I’d like to get that number down to $0.
3. Killing my insane coffee habit.
Not killing my coffee addiction, because it is alive and well (complete with the withdrawal headaches to prove it), but just kicking my innate white-girl urge to buy a cup of Starbucks every blessed morning just because it looks better with my outfit. I saved around $108 this semester (yes, I did the math and I hate myself for it) by pouring my at-home leftovers into a travel mug before I went to class in the morning, and then cutting myself off from caffeine once I finished it. Pro-tip: I also got a cute-as-heck, spill-proof mug so I actually wanted to use it, and didn’t get bothered by the idea of carrying it around all day, since I could throw it in my bag without worrying about spilling coffee on everything.
4. Kicking my insane water bottle habit.
Mary. You don’t need to buy water. It is free. Bring a damn reusable bottle. This has been the best idea for years, but for some reason I’ve had a hard time with it, because I love being able to throw the bottle away once I’m done with it. But that is stupid, and also insanely wasteful. The reusable bottle thing is doubly awesome, because it not only provides a home for your free water, but also reminds you to drink way more. Bonus points if it is a cute one, as per the above statement I made about travel coffee mugs. I got one at Target in the dollar section, and aside from it being a cheap-and-excellent way to get free water during the day, it also became my fave reason to leave class for two seconds and fill up at the water fountain because I was ~thirsty~ (aka bored).
5. Forcing myself to acknowledge my slip-ups, and celebrating my victories.
I wrote a post about this last week because I believe in it so hard, but writing down my almost-purchases has truly proven to be one of the most effective money-saving methods I’ve found in life so far. This may not be for everyone, but the reasons it works brilliantly for me are twofold: I get a nice little ego-boost when I find the self-control to not waste money on an unnecessary purchase, like a Starbucks cappuccino or a dining hall muffin, and I also come face-to-face with my areas of weakness, bringing me one step closer to conquering my eternal desire for $5 cups of crappy coffee.
6. Buying textbooks on Amazon- and then selling them back.
Everyone pretty much knows that you can get textbooks at places other than the university bookstore for way less money. But I recently found that buying them cheap online, and then selling them back to the university bookstore at the end of the semester, sometimes can even make you a profit on them. Example: I bought a used, beaten-up Sociology textbook on Amazon for about $10 and sold it back to my school’s bookstore during their end-of-semester buyback program for $45. The buyback systems in the bookstores have no idea how much you originally paid for it, so if they happen to offer you more than you paid for it in the first place, you walk away feeling like you totally cheated the system. Which is justified, because you probably took out so many freaking loans to go there in the first place. Now you’re even.
7. Studying so hard that I’m too busy to spend.
This one was key for me personally, because I spent so much money during the fall semester in a sad attempt to ignore my painful college responsibilities. By committing heavily to my studies this past semester, I stopped going out almost completely and saved a shit-ton (actual scientific unit of measurement) of money. But in dollars, I calculated somewhere around $400 that I would have spent over that 16-week semester going out on most weekends if I hadn’t become obsessed with getting straight As.
I started last semester with a $1000 savings goal, because I wanted to buy a new computer this summer — and I’m a little bit shocked that changes this small ended up having a big enough impact to actually help me reach that goal. I’m now sitting behind my new computer typing this, and trying to figure out what small changes I’ll make next semester to reach my next goal. Stay tuned!
Mary is the summer Media Fellow at The Financial Diet. Send her your summer intern stories (your lessons, failures, triumphs and good advice) at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image via Pixabay