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Your Guide to Surviving Freshman Year on a Budget

You did it! You’ve enrolled in a college or university and you plan to start this fall. We’re so proud of you.

(Or you didn’t, and you’re just reading this out of curiosity… We’re still proud of you too.)

One of the first big steps for a graduating high-school senior is to map out college spending, especially in preparation for their first semester. College expenses can be surprisingly high, which is why it’s so important to plan ahead.

We spoke to a few college finance experts to come up with an arsenal of tactics that incoming freshmen can use to make the most of a limited college budget.

In summary: Make an accurate plan, thoroughly research your options, and take advantage of what’s available to you as a college student.

Read on as we break these down into 15 usable strategies.

1. Understand what you’re paying for

If you’ve started to plan your next 2-4 college years, you’ve likely taken a look at the formidable bottom-line cost.

For 4-year programs, Collegeboard estimates an average total annual cost of $26,590 for in-state students at public schools, $42,970 for out-of-state students at public institutions, and $53,980 for private institutions. This includes tuition, housing and/or transportation, food, and school supplies.

Average Estimated Full-Time Undergraduate Budgets (Enrollment-Weighted) by Sector, 2019-20 - Collegeboard.org
Source: Collegeboard.org

Here are some typical terms you might see along those lines:

Tuition and Fees

Tuition and fees are the core expense to your college enrollment. Tuition refers to the cost of the courses you take, while fees cover participation in campus programs such as fitness, careers, health, libraries, and student activities.

Room and Board

“Room” refers to the cost of living on campus or college-affiliated housing. Commuting students should replace this cost with their cost estimates for traveling to and from school. “Board” is defined as a college’s estimate of how much you’ll need to budget for food.

Altogether, the bottom-line cost of a college education is a frighteningly high number. Fortunately, there are tactics that incoming freshmen can use to save money at many of the tough corners. 

2. Fill out the FAFSA early

There are numerous avenues for getting help with your college dues. The federal government is behind more than two-thirds of this aid.

To access federal aid, the vast majority of incoming freshmen apply for Federal Student Aid (FSA) grants to help with at least a portion of their college costs. 

The FSA application process leads you to the FAFSA form, which determines your eligibility for federal student aid. Your school will review your completed form and verify whether you qualify for any of their allotted federal, state, or college grants.

The FAFSA form takes less than 1 hour to fill out and is completely free. Best case, you’ve saved a sizable chunk of what’s likely one of your larger personal expenses to date.

Filling out your FAFSA form early gives you the best shot at securing part of your school’s limited aid budget. Also, the sooner you receive your available aid options, the sooner you can start to make a plan for the rest of your expenses.

3. Prioritize your aid: Awards, then work, then loans

There’s mixed news when it comes to supporting the large upfront costs of a college education. 

The good news is that there are nearly endless resources to create a financial plan that’s perfect for your college journey.

The scary news is that some of these resources have long-term repercussions. Save these for last; your wallet will thank you years down the road.


Your best aid option is the one that requires no repayment or commitment on your part. This can come in the form of scholarships or grants from the government, your school, or external private organizations.

The first stop for federal aid is applying for Federal Student Aid, for which you’ll be eligible by filling out the FAFSA.

Schools often have a large budget for awarding merit-based scholarships to incoming freshmen. For example, Ohio State University offers annual awards for top achievers in high-school class rank and standardized testing scores. 

Check your school’s site or contact the financial aid office for information on what your school offers and how to apply.

The search doesn’t end there; you’ll find scholarships offered by many organizations outside your school as well. Dig into sites like CareerOneStop and Fastweb to find relevant scholarships from $1,000 to full-tuition.

A word of caution: Merit-based scholarships can affect your financial aid plan. When you let your school’s financial aid office know of any scholarships you’ve been awarded, make sure to ask them how your current plan is affected.

Part-Time Work

The best type of aid is that which has no repercussions down the line. If you can afford to set aside 5 to 15 hours of your week, a flexible and consistent job could help fill in some of the smaller gaps in your budget.

Work-study is a great way to recoup some of the smaller college costs by working for your school. Many colleges operate in conjunction with Federal Work-Study, which is awarded as a part of the FAFSA. 

Work-study jobs can range from research assistants, to campus tour guides, to retail and food service. Check your college’s job board to see what’s available to you.

Tutoring is another great way to fit flexible hours into your course schedule. Students in college towns will often find high demand. Online tutoring platforms can offer plenty of opportunities as well.

Alternatively, freelance gig platforms like Upwork can hook you up with people who need projects done in writing, editing, programming, and graphic design. These types of projects can stack up, so make sure you give yourself enough time to manage your coursework schedule as well.

Work paychecks often aren’t enough to cover tuition; you may need to combine this with other options to foot the semester bill.


If these options have been exhausted, you may need to borrow money to pay for your college expenses. 

Federal student loans come with options that make repayment easier, such as fixed interest rates and more flexible payment plans, but they’re also limited in how much you can borrow.

If you need further coverage for your college costs, the final stop is at private loans. Many student-targeted options have lots of information available online, such as Credible and SoFi. You’ll want to look closely at certain aspects of the loans you’re offered, such as interest rate, loan forgiveness, loan fees, and refinancing options.

Student loan debt is an increasing burden for young graduates across the country. Take no shortcuts in your research to best understand the right loan options for you.

4. Budget before you borrow

Mark Kantrowitz, the VP of Research at Savingforcollege.com, says there are 2 different types of budgets that are equally important to create if you’re faced with taking out loans for your education.

The first is to specify how you will spend your money, so that you borrow only what you need. Mark advises to live like a student while in school so you don’t have to live like one after you graduate. 

The other budget is to specify how you will be able to repay your debt. This involves making a rough estimate of how much you’ll earn after graduation and aiming to cap your student loan debt at (a lot) less than your planned annual income.

If your total debt is less than your annual income, you should be able to repay your student loans in ten years or less.

5. Research cost of living

Logan Allec, a CPA, personal finance expert and owner of personal finance site Money Done Right, says the cost of living at different schools around the US varies dramatically.

For example, Salary.com reports the cost of living in New York, NY a city that hosts 110 colleges and universities, to be more than double that of Lincoln, Nebraska, which hosts the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Before you get to school, it’s worth some research online just to understand how much basic items like toiletries and groceries are in your college residence.

6. Decide what to do about credit cards

Logan says that many banks target college students for credit card applications. College students are young, which allows the bank to build a relationship with them now in the hopes the college students will end up doing all of their banking with them upon graduation.

While nice in theory, the reality is that many college students have never had a credit card before and it’s easier to overspend. Decide ahead of arrival at college what to do about getting a card.

That way, you’ll make a rational decision rather than an on-the-spot decision when someone approaches you to sign up in the quad.

If you haven’t had a chance to budget your spending until now, it might be a good idea to start with something more tangible until you get the hang of it.

From Mark: Charging purchases to a credit card or debit card feels the same, regardless of whether you are spending $5 or $500. If you have to actually count out dollar bills, you will feel like you are spending real money. 

You can also set aside cash in envelopes for the month, labeling each envelope with a spending category, such as food, rent, eating out, entertainment. Once you’ve spent the money on a category, there will be no more money for the rest of the month.

Either way, it’s a good idea to make this decision before your courses start so you have time to get acquainted with your new spending habits.

7. Look for local scholarships

Attending college is not only a huge decision for your academic future but for your financial future as well. Always keep your eyes peeled for local scholarships that could pad your bank account with cash before you even get to campus.

While loans and grants can take time to process and approve, scholarships are often easy to apply for and can deliver quick funding when you need it the most.

Logan advises putting your time into seeking local scholarships that are specific to your qualifications. You’ll find those on your college’s website, in local publications, or using filters on scholarship search platforms.

Your chances might be better targeting local organizations that are looking to award those in their own community with college funding.

Otherwise, you’re batching your scholarship application in with hundreds or even thousands of others who are equally if not more qualified.

Deadlines are spread out throughout the year, so make sure you apply to scholarships that line up with your needs and qualifications.

8. Wait for a school email address to get those discounts

Also from Logan: Consider delaying purchases until you get your college email address. Using it during online checkouts might result in some unexpected savings.

It may be tempting to invest in a new laptop well before you officially start college, but sometimes patience pays off.

Many companies give discounts to college students with a valid “.edu” email address, so maybe hold off on any big purchases until you actually enroll.

Logan updated an exhaustive list of savings to look out for; check out his great resource on student discounts across the web this year.

9. Don’t buy new textbooks… yet

The cost of acquiring the assortment of required course books adds up fast. Fortunately, there are many low-cost options.

First, run over to your on-campus library and see if there’s anything you can borrow. As a service often included in the cost of tuition, the library is an awesome resource for books both relevant to your courses and otherwise.

Don’t feel like running there? Stroll. Or, download the Libby app to see if there’s an e-book or audiobook version of what you need that you can download right to your phone.

Richard Best, Personal Finance Expert at Dontpayfull.com, says that renting books is a preferred option. Be extra careful to check for the right versions of your required textbooks, as some make major version updates as often as every year. Start with Amazon, eCampus, and CampusBooks.

Chances are, these places will have better prices than your campus bookstore or website. But every rental option is worth a check before looking at buying books, even used. Keep that as your last resort, as buying results in the highest sticker price.

If you do end up buying your books for college, there are a number of online sites that will buy them from you. But don’t rely on this, as constantly-updating textbook versions often leave your tome a lot less valuable than when you got it.

10. Research your tech

Need a laptop? Do some research before jumping at the shiniest object.

The Macbook Air is a student staple that comes with more than what you’ll need to get through your opening semester. Best of all, incoming college freshmen can save a few hundred bucks with Apple’s education program

You can save more by getting a PC; the Lenovo IdeaPad 730S has Air-comparable specs at a fraction of the cost.

Chromebooks are available for even less. They have less offline and storage capabilities but are great for school basics like docs and emails.

Not everyone even needs a laptop to succeed in college. Some libraries offer free computer access. Tablets and other mobile devices offer more and more capability. Having a dedicated computer may make your coursework more convenient, but there are a few ways to cut corners and still succeed.

Before you techify your college journey, take a closer look at what your courses demand and what your campus offers you.

11. Eat like a college student

There’s no better time than college to discover low-cost, low-effort food solutions that still support a healthy lifestyle.

The first stop is looking at your college’s offered meal plans. On-campus students may find that a dining hall plan is cheaper than the cost of going back and forth to grocery stores in the area.

Next, get an idea of student discounts around you. You may find a host of stores, cafes, and even restaurants that will take a chunk off your purchase if you show them your student ID.

Many colleges have dedicated teams for on-campus events, which happen year-round. Many of these will offer free food or coffee, which is always a great decision to snag.

Not only are disposable plastic bottles an unnecessary cost, but they also further the damage we’re doing to our planet. Purchase a cheap, reusable water bottle from your campus store or on Amazon and fill it up between classes.

Your health is very important, especially in these trying times. Make sure you’re hydrated, eating as healthy as you can, washing your hands, and working some exercise into your daily routine.

12. Research off-campus housing

Students opting to live on campus may be faced with some high (and skippable) costs.

Jesse Cramer, author of personal finance hub BestInterest.blog, writes: “College makes things ‘easy,’ but it doesn’t make them cheap. At most universities, the on-campus housing and food options are not the best value. A small, dingy dorm room costs $1500 a month. A bad piece of pizza (yes, it exists) and a Gatorade for $8 at the caf.”

Many universities require non-commuting students to live on campus for at least their first semester. As soon as you’re able, look into moving off campus and spending your money elsewhere. Your housing and food costs are almost sure to drop and you’ll probably have a better time to boot.

13. Take advantage of campus inclusions

Richard mentions that universities come jam-packed with on-campus staples. This can include gyms, libraries, physical and mental health services, IT centers, interest groups, and so much more.

Best of all, these services often offer services included in your college bill. All you need is your student ID card or a college email to sign up.

Not interested? Some colleges offer fee waivers for some of these services. Talk to your financial aid office about getting fees waived for the programs or activities in which you don’t plan to participate.

14. Ditch the cable box

With the advent of online content, the cost of cable just doesn’t add up anymore. Many services offer millions of hours of great content cooked into plans with other useful student perks.

One of the best packages for students is Spotify Premium, whose $5/month subscription includes Hulu (with ads) and Showtime.

Another is Amazon Prime, which batches their 2-day delivery with music and video services. Paying yearly cuts the monthly cost to below $5, and there’s a generous 6-month trial to get you started.

Many streaming services allow multiple users to access plans, even simultaneously; talk to your family and friends about sharing these services.

15. Track your spending

A budget is nearly worthless if you’re not sticking to it. Jesse recommends not only budgeting, but tracking your expenses in order to maintain financial health.

He says: Budget in order to understand what jobs your money needs to accomplish. And then track to understand the real truth — where your money actually went. You can still have plenty of fun, but make sure your money does important jobs first. 

Not a fan of pen and paper for tracking your spending? There’s a crowded field of free apps out there that claim to help you navigate your college costs.

Our recommendation is Mint (free) for a low-maintenance, highly-helpful budgeting app. Students can integrate their bank information and preset budgets in-app, and Mint’s huge catalog of existing merchants gives you an accurate, pre-sorted view of where your money is going.


And that’s it! We couldn’t have done this without the help of a few leading minds behind college finances. Their guidance went into every section of this piece and they all have great resources beyond these suggestions on their websites.

Huge thanks to:


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