Whether you’re living on campus or commuting from home, keeping your finances above water is a challenge, even if you’re already living cheaply.
There are a number of ways to keep you from stressing over your bank balance, and we’ve collected some of the best ones below. Read our 7 money-saving tips for students and take financial worries off your timetable.
In Summary: How to save money as a college student
- Housing - Live at home if you can. Otherwise, shop around and split costs.
- Transportation - Walk or bike if possible. If not, transit is always cheaper than a car.
- Food - Batch cook your food for the week if you're able. Understand the ins and outs of your school’s meal plan if you’re on campus.
- Tuition - Look at scholarships (there are lots), grants, bursaries, and side hustles.
- Recurring Payments - See what you can downgrade, share, or outright cancel.
Entertainment - Explore cheap or free entertainment options on campus and around town
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Save money on student housing
It may not be the most fun option, but the biggest way to save money on student housing is to continue living at home while commuting into school.
If that’s not possible, find a cheap house or apartment rental with some roommates. With everyone splitting the cost of rent and utilities, your monthly bills will be reduced. In some cases, you may even want to pitch in together on groceries and cook communal meals at home, slimming down your expenses even further. If you’re on the hunt for that perfect rental, here are some things to consider:
- Start your search early to get ahead of other applicants
- Canvas your family and friends - see if they know anyone who is leaving their current place or ask if they have any good leads
- Have an understanding of your credit score and how much you can afford to spend
- Visit neighbourhoods on foot - walk around and get a sense of their vibe (safety level, proximity to campus, access to reliable transportation, etc.)
- Don’t sign a lease until you’ve read and understood what’s on it. If you feel uncomfortable or unsure, get a friend or relative with more knowledge to give it a look.
- Have a thorough walk-through - when touring a potential property, pay attention to any structural damage and make sure things like outlets and water taps are functional.
In more expensive cities like Toronto or Vancouver, renting is going to be a pricier option (even with roommates), so consider where you’ll be living. If rental costs downtown are beyond your budget, consider living somewhere outside of the city’s core. You’ll be giving up on close proximity to nightlife, but your rent may be cheaper. Even still, keep an eye on your commuting costs and time, as living too far away from campus and other attractions could result in paying more for transportation and being constantly late. Working with a real estate agent can be incredibly helpful when considering these factors, as they’re free (your landlord will pay their commission once you sign a lease).
For those beginning their first year of post-secondary in a dorm room, your living space will most likely shrink - use that to your benefit. Before the big move, look around at your belongings and think about what’s essential and what you can do without. If there’s anything that won’t fit into your new life, try to sell it online (e.g. Facebook marketplace or Kijiji) donate it to a thrift store. You can make a little extra money which can go a long way during your first months away from home. Or earn good karma through donation.
While owning a vehicle can be a quick and convenient way to get around as a student, it’s also a gigantic expense you don’t actually need. Between repairs, gas, and monthly payments (if you’re still leasing), those costs can add up and eat away at your budget.
Instead, consider purchasing a public transit pass. Most university or college towns offer a student discount on transportation, and even at full price it’s a much cheaper way to travel from place to place.
Even better, if you live somewhere close to campus and other amenities, simply walk or bike as much as possible and save even more (while getting exercise).
Car (rough numbers)
If you are going to be using a vehicle while in school, make sure to ask your insurance provider about student car insurance. These are policies that are designed for young drivers (typically 25 and younger) enrolled in high school or post-secondary institutions.
While premiums may be higher due to your age and driving experience, they can offer ways to bring costs down such as increasing your deductible, paying annually, or taking advantage of your school’s group discount. Also, check out usage-based insurance – it uses an app that tracks your driving behaviour and you can save up to 30% almost immediately for safe driving.
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Help with school tuition
By far, the biggest budget concern when it comes to student life is paying for your tuition and textbooks. While some are lucky enough to have the bill footed for them by parents or scholarships, many students take out student loans or work at least one part-time job during the school year (and full-time over the summer) in order to pay off those expenses every semester.
One option to help ease the load (providing you meet their criteria) is applying for a bursary or scholarship. While you might think there would be stiff competition for this sort of help, you’d be surprised - tons of organizations offer scholarships and bursaries which get very few applicants, if any. Do some serious digging and apply to as many as you qualify for. The more applications you send out, the greater your chances of winning. Speak with your financial aid office on campus and visit 99 Scholarships to see what’s available to you.
Also, if you’ve found yourself staring in shock at the price of textbooks, you’re not alone. They can be an expensive purchase. Thankfully, the buying and selling of used textbooks has always been there for students on a budget. Seek out second-hand copies of required texts at bookstores around campus (some even have bookstores specifically dedicated to this). Then, when you’re finished with them, sell them to a bookstore or another student directly to get money back. Also look online, but beware of edition numbers: if you buy an outdated edition, it could be a waste of money.
While recurring charges for Spotify and Netflix may seem like a drop in the bucket, those kinds of subscriptions can add up quickly if you’ve got enough of them. Take a hard look at the monthly bills you pay, then decide if there’s any room for a downgrade or outright cancellation. You can always use Spotify for free through their ad-based subscription, and see if you can share a Netflix account with friends (they will allow up to 5 people to share an account at the same address).
A cell phone may be essential, but do you absolutely need the bells and whistles of your current plan? If downgrading to something cheaper can save you even 10 or 20 dollars a month, it might be worth looking into. For those on a particularly tight budget, a pay-as-you-go phone (on which you add data and minutes as you need them) may be worth looking into. Use WiFi as much as you can, and scour campus for hot spots and coffee shops to work at when you need the internet.
Have a cheap night out
Evenings and weekends can be a tough time if you’re trying to budget. There’s no shortage of bars, restaurants, and other expensive places that are waiting for your money - and this is especially true if you’re going to school in a larger city.
Thankfully, there are usually less-pricey options available when it’s time to relax and have fun. Many cities offer free activities throughout the year, ranging from things like movies in the park to outdoor skating and concerts. Check out the local listings to see what’s available.
Also, as a college or university student, you should be eligible for free (or discounted) access to events and activities put on by your student council. These could include guest speakers, live music and sporting events, mixer nights, and more. Your school’s website will most likely have an events calendar where you can get details.
All this being said, you can still enjoy the odd pricier night out on a budget: just make sure you’ve got the money set aside. For example, take $40 cash to the bar and leave your card at home for a few weekends. Or, if you want to save even more, enjoy a low-cost movie night with friends. If having a few cheap weekends means you’ve saved enough to have a baller night, you’ve earned it, and you can enjoy yourself guilt-free.
Visit our student personal finance guide.
Other Student Budgeting Tips
Getting a part-time job
If you’re able to manage it alongside your schoolwork, a part-time job is a great way to take some pressure off your budget and bring in a little extra income. Local businesses in university and college towns are always looking to hire students during the school year, so look up local job listings online and even take a walk around (as smaller, independent businesses tend to just put signs up in their window).
Think about your passions - could you teach music or a new language? Do you have skills in graphic design or writing? Check out Fiverr or Upwork to find contracts. You can also get paid to fill out surveys at websites like Respondent or Survey Junkie, tutor other students, walk dogs, or be a trainer at your campus gym. There’s a ton of possibilities out there.
How to create a budget
It’s much easier to control your finances when you know exactly how much you can spend per month. That’s why creating a workable, easy-to-follow budget is essential while you’re a student, and may still come in handy once you’ve left school and started your career.
In general, you can start by writing down your total income for the month. Then, list all your spending categories (cell phone, entertainment, food, etc.) with how much money you need to set aside for each. Plus, if you find you have money left over, you can use it to begin a savings account (which may come in handy if you’re dealing with post-graduation unemployment). To help, we’ve produced a downloadable template you can use.
Needs vs. wants
How much of what you buy is essential (or at least practical) and how much is simply stuff you want? While it might seem like an obvious point, take a moment before making a purchase to ask yourself: “is this something I need right now?” Doing so can save you money and help you avoid that guilty feeling of having just bought something you can’t afford.
Student credit cards
If you hang out on campus, odds are you’ve seen kiosks from major banks who want to sign you up for a credit card. Newly independent students are a prime target for credit card providers, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for if you’re in the market for some plastic.
First of all, getting a credit card as a student can be a great thing. It helps you build credit early, which (providing you pay your bills on time) can have a positive impact on your credit score years down the road. Your credit score is a number assigned to you based on factors including your debt (if any), bill payment history, open bank accounts, and more. It lets potential money-lenders know whether you’re a risk or not, which will have a big impact when you’re ready for large-scale purchases like a car or a home.
If you’re in school and new to credit cards, what you’re ideally looking for is a “beginner card” - that is, one with a low annual fee ($0 to $30) and an interest rate that won’t bury you in debt if you slip up on your payments. While cards like these sometimes offer decent signup bonuses and incentives, they’re generally not known for having a ton of rewards. At this stage, however, you want something you can pay off reliably and keep track of easily, so collecting points probably isn’t a priority. Read our picks for Canada’s top student credit cards.
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The Bottom Line
School is expensive, and trying to be a thrifty student can be tough. That’s why sticking to a budget, taking advantage of discounts and deals, and ditching unnecessary expenses are crucial to making sure you’re not spending every semester in a money-fueled stress spiral. Try out our tips above, use our budgeting template, and be sure to share any tips of your own in the comments.
The best student credit cards in Canada 2021
Compare student car insurance quotes