Co-Authored with Stuart Nachbar, Consultant and Publisher, Educated Quest.
Living on your own for the first time, setting your own schedule, and studying on a much more intense level seem tough enough without the further hassle of figuring our your own finances. But hey, welcome to the wonderful world of independent living, with bills, budgets, and laundry -- lots of it.
Our previous blog offered tips on how to create a basic financial framework for yourself in college. Here's our top five "Micro Money" recommendations for managing everyday expenses:
1. Don't Overdo Your Room: Students and their families can go overboard when outfitting a dorm room or off campus apartment. Do make sure that you have what you need to study, relax, and sleep. Take a few special items from home, get the essentials, and fill in the rest over time so your place reflects your current life -- not the one you left behind. If you have a roommate or housemate, consider sharing costs on snacks or laundry detergent, and perhaps mini-fridge, a printer and ink cartridges if it makes sense. Check out about appliances in rules in residence halls -- some include laundry on site others don't; some ban candles and small appliances as fire hazards -- others let you rent specially designed versions. Remember: graduating seniors, Ebay, thrift shops, and Craigslist are great resources.
2. Mind the Meal Plan: Eating on campus is pretty much required as a new student, and meal plans prices can run thousands of dollars per academic year. Unless you're in an isolated area or have a restricted diet, pick a less expensive plan if possible and use the difference for snacks in your dorm, or a budget for your favorite hangout. It's costly to skip meals regularly and pay again when you go out with friends. Also, pay attention to how the system works at your school; for example, if every "swipe" debits you one of your 19 weekly meals and you need a coffee -- get it at your dorm or pay cash. If you're not careful you could exhaust your meal credits before Homecoming end up eating ramen during finals.
3. Curb Your Car if You Can: If you're at a college that's in a city or is fairly self-contained, you'll save lots of money by not having a car (outlays for gas, insurance, oil changes and upkeep, repairs, and maybe a payment too). With parking limited at many college campuses, many schools recommend that freshmen leave the car at home (guess who gets the furthest lot). Opt for a bike or a motorized skateboard and see if your school has an arrangement with a company for short term needs. Public transport usually offers student discounts.
4. Get Savvy with that Syllabus: The cost of college text books has risen along with tuition, and publishers now try to update classic required texts every 2-3 years instead of 5 years previously. Students and families have responded accordingly, and a recent study showed outlays for text books have declined by 20% since 2007. While you might find it useful to purchase the "intro" text for your major, consider opting for less expensive used books, digital downloads, along with rental options (Chegg, Book Renter for example). Also, don't get all the materials on a course syllabus at the start of the term -- often a professor may leave some out. The same goes for technology - if you've got a decent laptop already, take it with you. Get the lay of the land, and if needed, go for an upgrade during "Black Friday" deals around Thanksgiving.
5. Stuff Happens -- Get Coverage: Theft of property happens regularly on college campuses - of 92,695 crimes that were reported to college and university police in 2010, the vast majority were property crimes. With families investing so much into higher education, it's a no-brainer to get insurance for lost, stolen, or damaged property. Students who continue to live at home may be covered by their parents' homeowners insurance. If not, a simple renters insurance policy generally costs under $200 a year and some schools offer group rates. Replacement cost coverage runs a bit more than depreciated cost coverage; one covers the cost of buying a replacement new -- the other gives you a value based on the item's age and condition. Either way, it's well worth it, as is insurance on your cell phone or laptop if you don't have it already.
A common theme here is a principle you know well -- do your homework. With so much information available online, investing even a few minutes could save money -- which by the way you can add to your savings account so you don't spend it on something else. Generally you'll want to pay the lowest price, assuming it works for you and is convenient (time or hassle factor have a cost too). Sometimes you may decide to pay more because of a product's quality or because you want to support the group behind that product. Or you may avoid them because of a negative experience. When in doubt, walk away and give it a day.