College on the Cheap: A Practical Guide for the Penny-Pinching New Student
By Holly E. Ordway
3 July 2005
Heading off to college is an exciting, emotional experience. It's also an expensive one, and the costs don't end when the tuition bill is paid. What about dorm furnishings? Or textbooks and school supplies? Do you need a new wardrobe? Don't worry! It's easier than you think to prepare for that first semester without breaking the bank.1. Don't bring a car!
That immediately cuts out the expenses for a parking permit and gas. The benefits extend beyond your bank balance, however. The car-less state encourages you to be more self-reliant, to make new friends with other people on campus, and to use the college's own sources of entertainment (often cheap or free, like concerts and sports events), and it makes it harder to go "out" instead of studying. It will also encourage you to look for a part-time job on or near campus, where he can walk or take public transportation to work, rather than further away. That's more important than it seems: campus or local employers are much more likely to accomodate student needs, such as flexible hours to accomodate class schedules, or to work fewer hours during finals week. 2. For furnishing the dorm room, the rule of thumb is "less is more."
Remember that everything will have to be moved out again, come summer! The essentials are a small desk lamp, an alarm clock, and a couple of plastic crates for storage. Crates make great shelves for storing all kinds of stuff, and double as carrying containers at move-out time. A small stereo with a set of headphones can help create an enjoyable studying environment. If the college is in a location that gets hot during the school year, a small window fan is also a good idea. In general, don't buy too much. You want to avoid the "freshman syndrome" of meeting your roommate and discovering that between the two of you, you have duplicates of everything.
Find out if the beds in your dorm are extra-long; if so, you'lll need to buy sheets specifically for that size. Or at least you'll need to buy bottom (fitted) sheets of that size; you can always supply a top sheet from your regular bed. Who cares if it matches or not? In any case, keep linens and towels to a minimum. One for use, one to be in the laundry is a good system. A comforter is a good all-purpose top for the bed, and can be picked up quite inexpensively.
If you live near your college (or any college, for that matter), another option for furnishing your dorm room (or off-campus apartment) is to take advantage of the great deals and freebies at the end of the spring semester. As students finish up and move out for the summer, they'll often sell their furniture for dirt cheap, or even just haul it out to the trash where it can be easily salvaged. Remember: as a student, cheap is good. It doesn't have to be fancy or nice, or even presentable. It has to be functional. In fact, hideous can be good; you won't mind if your roommate spills coffee all over it. 3. Appliances should be kept to a minimum.
If the college allows it, a small hot pot is great for making coffee, tea, or soup. However, don't buy or rent a refrigerator: it will tempt you to skip meals at the college dining center, and if you've paid for a meal plan, that's like throwing money out the window... not to mention that the dining hall meals are more balanced and nutritious than the convenience foods that can be prepared in a dorm room. However, a supply of healthy, non-perishable snacks like granola bars can help stave off the urge to order a pizza during late-night studying.4. Don't rush out to buy a new computer.
If you already have a computer of your own and use it regularly, then bring it along. Otherwise, wait to see what's available. The college may offer computer labs that will meet your needs for free. If you do decide to buy a computer later, you can keep an eye out for other students selling older systems for cheap. 5. There's no need to buy any new clothes for college, even if you're a "clothes horse."
Focus on wash-and-wear items, and remember that closet space in the dorm room will be limited. Only pack those clothes that make sense for the current season: when you come home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or spring break, you can rotate your wardrobe as needed. And remember that everyone else will be in the same situation as you. Jeans and t-shirts are popular for a reason: they're comfortable and hard to mess up in the laundry.
Speaking of laundry, given that you'll be using coin-operated washing machines and dryers (maybe for the first time!) it's best to bring "regular" clothes, not new ones that he'll feel bad about messing up. For doing laundry, bring a container of detergent, a bag of quarters for the washing machines, and some kind of small hamper or laundry bag for toting dirty clothes. 6. Stick to the basics for personal care items.
Get a small zippered bag for items like deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc. Other inexpensive but useful purchases are a plastic bucket to hold soap and shampoo to carry to the shower, and a pair of flip-flops or pool shoes to wear in the shower. Don't forget an umbrella for venturing to class on rainy days! 7. Don't let school supplies get forgotten in the rush to pack.
Make sure that you have plenty of notebooks, paper, and writing utensils for taking notes. One good system is to use a three-ring binder with loose-leaf notebook paper and dividers for each class, as this allows for easy re-organization of notes. Get a good supply of pens: college professors really don't want to see assignments written in smudged pencil. Another essential school supply is a calculator. If you will be studying in the sciences or engineering, check to see if the college suggests a certain type of scientific calculator, or wait until classes start and the professors make their recommendations. This will save you from having to buy a duplicate later on. 8. Cut out the unnecessary frills.
First, nix the cell phone. The "free" minutes in any plan aren't really free: they're paid for with a hefty monthly fee. If you already have a cell phone it's a tougher decision, but I'd suggest ditching it. With all those textbooks to buy, it's wise to cut costs where you can... and it's better to focus on interacting with people on campus rather than calling high school friends all the time. Email is a great alternative.
Just say "no way" to any fancy entertainment setups. That means no TV, VCR, DVD player, or game systems. You don't want your room to become the entertainment center of the whole hall... that's hardly conducive to getting any work done! Let someone else have the fun toys, and go visit that room when you want to play, instead.
Also, don't bother getting a tape recorder for lectures. Many freshmen show up with them, but you never see upperclassmen using them... that's because the tape recorders get used a couple of times and then gather dust. 9. Be flexible to cut down on textbook costs.
Many times, the college bookstore will stock both used and new copies of a text; buying the used copy offers significant savings. Because of that, those used copies sell like hotcakes, so head to the store as soon as you know what classes you are taking, to have the best chance of snagging a used copy. Pay attention to the labels posted for each section of a class: if different sections of the same course are taught by different professors, each professor may have a different set of required texts. Don't get burned by buying the required books for the wrong section of the course! It also pays to find out what the return policy is, as well: most college bookstores will allow returns within a certain time period as long as you have a valid "drop" slip to show you're no longer taking that class.
Many times students will also post flyers to sell their used books from other semesters, so that's another great way to get a book cheaper. What if the text is a new edition and there are no used copies? You can ask the professor if it's possible to use the earlier edition: sometimes the changes are so minor that it's fine to use the earlier one.
You can also check online to see if you can purchase the book used. However, exercise caution here, or at least advance planning. It will take longer (sometimes quite a lot longer) to get a used copy through the mail than just stopping by the campus store. I don't suggest that you do this for the main textbook in a class that you're taking this semester. It's fine for a supplementary book, or for a textbook that you know you'll need for a class next semester, though.
For classes in the humanities, the reading list will often include novels. Don't feel obligated to buy the edition that the professor ordered, especially if it's a fairly well-known classic or popular novel that's available in many editions. Take a pass through the local used bookstores to see if you can pick it up for a fraction of the cover price. If you have any doubts about whether you should buy that edition, ask the professor. Sometimes it's important, because it's a particular translation, it has particularly good footnotes, or for some other reason, and sometimes it's not.
One thing that I do not recommend under any circumstances is trying to squeak by without buying the textbook. Sometimes the professor will be very accomodating and will put a copy of the text on reserve at the library... but even then, it means that your access to the book is limited. If your class has a text, it has it for a reason, and trying to save a few bucks here is just self-sabotage. Tighten the belt somewhere else so you can buy all the books that you need. 10. Track your expenses.
You don't have to do this in any fancy way; a simple notebook will suffice. It's a good idea to allot some money to fun stuff like ordering pizza or going out for ice cream, but you should also keep track of it... sometimes it's surprising how quickly cash can disappear, between snacks, doing laundry, and who-knows-what. If you know what you're spending your money on, you can do a better job of deciding if that's how you want to spend it. Be wary of credit card deals; if you honestly believe that you can handle using a credit card properly (and by that I mean that you'll treat it like a debit card, only use it to buy things that you actually have the money for, and pay off the balance in full each month) then it's a reasonable way to build your credit history and be able to do things like rent cars and buy plane tickets. On the other hand, if you start to see that you use the card to spend more than you have... don't use it. You'll have enough to deal with in terms of student loan debt; don't pile up consumer debt on top of it.11. Last but not least, learn to be self-reliant.
Don't call home as soon as you hit any little snag. The successful college student is the one who learns how to navigate the system as soon as possible: dealing with the financial aid office, the bursar's office, the other administrative offices, the professors, and everything else. Ask around; upperclassmen have been dealing with the system and likely have good advice about how to handle the school bureaucracy.
On the other hand, make full use of the support system at your college or university. Get to know your faculty advisor; stop by and chat at other times than the mandatory class-selection meeting. Here's my own little secret: definitely get to know the secretary of your major department... the secretary is often the one who knows all the best ways of getting things done, and can make life a lot easier for you at times. Talk to your professors; stop by their office hours and get to know them, even if (or perhaps especially if!) it's a large lecture class. Actually knowing professors is a huge benefit when it comes time to apply for scholarships, get recommendations for grad school or internships, or even for getting an interesting job in the department rather than some generic work-study post as a bus driver. Even at the largest university, you can create a small-college experience by taking the extra step on your own.
I loved my undergraduate experience, and I managed to do very well without incurring any debt except for a modest amount of student loans. So, too, can you! Enjoy yourself, put your best effort into your studies, and squeeze every penny; it'll make your college education a great value.