A College Freshman’s Budget-Friendly Survival Guide: 32 Ways to Save Money

There are countless guides for choosing, getting into, paying for, and succeeding in college.

But, how to survive your first year of living independently on a fixed and frugal income?

From eating, buying textbooks, entertaining, and more, here are our top tips for surviving—and thriving—in college while on a budget.

Where Can I Find Cheap College Textbooks?

Buying textbooks can be an expensive commitment. The good news is, if you get a head start, you can find many of your books used.

Sure, some used textbooks might have a few scribbles and already-highlighted sections. However, after you consider that buying used books means potentially saving hundreds of dollars, it’s a little easier to stomach second-hand texts.

There are a number of places to look for when buying used textbooks, including your own campus bookstore.

How to tell which is cheaper? We like SlugBooks for comparing the prices of textbooks in your college store with prices online. Here are our other favorite places to shop for college textbooks at cheaper prices than what your campus bookstore might offer:

  • Academic Superstore: Offers student discounts on books, software, and other college necessities.
  • Amazon Textbooks: Find used versions of your next semester’s required reading here. Amazon also rents textbooks for a semester, which can save you up to 80%.
  • Barnes & Noble: Also sells used textbooks and will buy them back at the end of your semester.
  • Campus Book Rentals: The company that invented textbook rentals is still one of our favorites. Campus Book Rentals allows students to highlight text, so you don’t have to worry about missing notes just because you didn’t buy the book outright. They also offer flexible rental dates and free shipping both ways.
  • Chegg: This textbook publisher rents out titles, and will also buy select books that you purchased outright back once you’re finished.
  • Project Gutenberg: A volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works. You won’t find your textbooks on here, however, Project Gutenberg does offer over 40,000 completely free eBooks, including many of the titles that are required reading for your first two years of English Lit.

If you’re more concerned about a busy schedule than your budget, signing up for Amazon Audible can help you double task. The website offers thousands of books on audio, which means you can “read” Jane Eyre while getting some exercise or commuting to and from classes.

The first 30 days of Amazon Audible are free. After that, members get one book a month for $14.95. Liked something so much you want to hear it again? You can keep the titles you’ve already downloaded, even after you cancel.

Related: 33 Genius Ways to Save With Your Student ID

Where Can I Find a Discounted Cell Phone Plan?

Most major cell carriers offer discounted plans to students, including:

  • AT&T: Discounts depend on the school that you attend. Have your school email address handy and click here to see if you qualify.
  • Cricket: Offers students a discounted plan that costs $45 a month, and includes unlimited talk, text, and 3G data.
  • T-Mobile: If you register with T-Mobile’s Student Rate, you can get up to $50 month off of your bill and they’ll waive your activation fee.
  • Verizon: The Verizon student discount is a bit harder to find. Go to its employee discount page and enter in your school email to see if you qualify for up to 20% off your monthly bills.

While student discounts can save you a bundle, don’t forget to check out the many unlimited prepaid plans by bargain carriers such as Boost, Virgin Mobile, and Metropcs – many offer plans for less than $50 a month, and you never have to worry about going over your minutes.

Where Can I Find Cool Dorm Decor for Less?

When it comes to decorating your living space, you don’t have to settle for unframed band posters tacked to your wall or stacking your books in the corner. While plenty of retailers offer dorm-minded furnishings in decor, they’re not always priced for frugal shoppers.

Before you buy, check out a few budget-minded alternatives that might offer the furnishings and decorations you want at a discount:

  • Instructables: Why buy something when you can build the things you need? Instructables offers step-by-step instructions on how to make thousands of projects, from cool coffee tables to this dorm-sized loveseat made from a salvaged car interior.
  • Target: If you want it, Target probably offers it—and in your favorite color, too. Thankfully, the megastore offers shoppers with a student email address an extra 10% off of online orders.
  • Home Depot: More than plumbing joints and wall fixtures, Home Depot offers a wide variety of unfinished shelving and bookcases for a third of the cost of similar items at Ikea. And, since you’re already there, just pick up a small can of paint to personalize your new storage spaces.
  • JoAnn Fabrics: Do you study late into the night, only to be woken up by the morning sun through your window? Black-out curtains are expensive. Instead, get 10% off of purchases at JoAnn with your student ID card to make your own.

Want to save an additional 5–15% on an in-store purchase? You can usually find gift cards sold at discounted rates on Cardpool, Gift Card Granny, or eBay. Just be sure to check the seller’s feedback first to make sure that they’re legit.

How to Buy Food on a Budget?

Groceries can eat up a large part of your budget, even when you’re a conscious shopper. Most important is to be mindful of purchasing convenience foods, no matter how inconvenient shopping at an actual grocery store might feel. You can buy a burger, or pick up a loaf of bread and deli slices for close to the same cost, and the latter will feed you for more than one meal.

Ready to cook? Here’s a helpful list of links:

Once you’re ready to start cooking, my absolutely favorite resource is Poor Girl Eats Well. Unfortunately, the blogger’s regular website went kaputz, so she’s switched back to a Blogspot format which is, in my opinion, a little more difficult to navigate.

That being said, you can still find amazing posts such as 15 different options for $25 shopping carts and which kitchen items are of utmost importance, and where to find them for cheap.

But, my favorite part? She breaks down her recipes to cost-per-serving. Here are just a few examples:

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes available on her website. And, while the costs will vary slightly depending on the price of groceries where you live, I’ve found that her estimates for pricing have been pretty generous.

Also, note that most of the recipes make multiple servings. However, knowing the cost-per-meal makes budgeting for daily spending easier when you’re shopping for groceries once a week. Seeing how cheap it is to cook healthy and delicious options might even help you just say no to expensive convenience foods as well.

Transportation: How to Get Around for Cheap?

Don’t have a car? While depending on alternate modes of transportation can be inconvenient at times, you’re saving hundreds in parking permit fees. (Not to mention tickets on the days you forgot to bring your placard or park in the wrong zone.)

When it comes to getting to and from campus, nearly every college is serviced by a public bus or transit route that can get you back and forth from surrounding areas. Instead of buying your tickets daily, pony up and get a semester-long pass – they’re cheaper overall, plus you’ll usually find discounted student pricing.

You can also find cheap bicycles on Craigslist. And, we’re pretty sure that you already know about Uber and Lyft. But, what to do on those days when you really need your own set of wheels?

Zipcar is the world’s largest car sharing and car club service and, having used it many times, I can attest that it’s darn convenient. To use Zipcar, you first need to apply for a card by filling out an online application.

Once you’re approved, you pick the membership that’s right for you. Then, pay an annual membership fee (about $50) and gain access to dozens of cars in your immediate area that you can schedule at the push of a button.

Prices to rent a Zipcar are by the hour, and range from $7–10 depending on your plan. However, insurance and fuel are included (there’s a gas card in each car), which cuts down on the overall cost.

Zipcar isn’t the most economical option for multi-day rentals. However, if you need a car for just a few hours to do some bulk grocery shopping or take a day trip, it’s a convenient and cost-friendly alternative to owning your own car.

Make the Most of Your Student ID

In 33 Genius Ways to Save With Your Student ID, we share how to use your school-issued identification to get discounts on items that you need on the day-to-day around town. However, if you’re heading abroad for a semester, or even a vacation, you can net even more savings from your student ID by signing up for an international student identity card.

The International Student Exchange Card was founded back in 1958 by the University of Illinois specifically for students who were traveling overseas. Today, the card can be used in over 50 countries around the world to cover things like emergency medical assistance and legal help, along with a host of other travel-related benefits, like assistance with replacing lost or stolen passports.

Next up, the International Student Travel Confederation offers students information on cheap and tax-free travel, along with a host of other travel-related discounts on everything from guidebooks to tours.

Smart Money Management Is Really About Managing Priorities – Not Just Purchases

Before heading off to college, you’ve probably at least had a part time job. But, the chances are that you got to spend your income on stuff that you wanted, while what you needed, like food and rent, were likely taken care of by your parents.

Now that you’re living on a bare-bones budget, consider that you really only have five basic needs that demand priority: food, lodging, clothing, textbooks and transportation.

To help you survive without racking up unnecessary debt on credit cards, or spending student loan money on extras, start your semester by determining how much you can spend each day. Then, subtract each expense, including meals and transportation costs, from that daily budget.

Once you get a handle on tracking (and following) daily spending, you’ll have an even easier time finding ways to save. And, what’s left over can be allocated to an end-of-the-week fund for some much-deserved extra fun.

More Money Tips for College Students:

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.