Unless you are some fortunate guy or girl born into wealth, your college years will be the time when money is always on your mind – mainly for the lack of it. Even if you get a generous allowance from your parents and college expenses paid by a scholarship or two, you may run into some financial difficulties. After all, for many, it's the first time they make independent decisions with money like planning their spending, budgeting rent, groceries, and transportation. In a word, live in the real world.
We have recently covered money-saving and given some general advice on cutting down your spending during college in a post about reducing your student debt. Now, let's look at some more practical tips and small habits you can adopt to live more frugally day by day.
Track your expenses
First of all, you will need to take a look at where the money goes. You can go old-school and make a list of all your monthly expenses in a notebook, or you can install an app that will make it automatically. Look at how much you spend on groceries, rent, bills, and non-essential things like eating out, entertainment, and new clothing. Once you see your spending patterns, you will be able to cut back on certain non-essential categories.
Hunt for bargains, but don't fall for marketing ploys
It's wise to plan your purchases and watch out for special offers. That said, don't buy just anything with a big red "sale" label stuck on top of it. Sometimes the difference between the "old" and the "new" price is infinitesimally small. Keep an eye on pricey items you need and see if they become more affordable. For example, I once circled around a dress I wanted for several weeks, waiting for a holiday sale. When they halved the price, it looked more like it, and I committed to the purchase.
The rule of thumb is not to look at how many % is off but focus on how much value you get for your money instead. For example, suppose you order a simple essay for a 101 class. In that case, it makes sense to opt for cheap paper writers instead of more expensive specialized experts – the value for money is just right.
Thrift your clothes, furniture, and books
Pre-loved things that are still in working condition can be found at a fraction of their price in charity shops. Often, you can get a used item of excellent quality that will serve you years for much less than a new low-end and less reliable thing that will need replacement very soon.
However, make sure you won't get carried away and buy a shedload of stuff just because it's so cheap. Have a clear vision of what you are looking for, buy only the things you need, and ask yourself: if this was sold for its full price, would I consider investing in it? If your answer is "yes," then it's a bargain, and you should go for it. If it's a "no," put it back on the shelf.
Read the instructions
Didn't know you weren't supposed to use those earbuds while swimming? There go your 100 bucks. It turned out this peel-off mask should be applied on the wet skin only? Another $20 down the drain. Putting that cut in the dishwasher was a bad idea. Hmm. I wonder why they didn't put that on the package? Oh, wait…
This sounds like a waste of time and a very boring thing to do, but reading instructions is seriously useful. Learning how to use things properly and what not to do with them before you spoil them is responsible grown-up behavior – and a money-saver.
Same with your clothes. Now that you do your laundry yourself, it's time you start paying attention to the instructions on those labels. If you don't, you risk ruining an entire load of laundry at one go. Wool shrinks if the water is too hot, delicate items can be damaged by tumbling, jeans bleed color onto lighter fabrics, and so on. Always make sure you use the appropriate setting of the washing machine and wash dark, light, and colorful clothes separately.
Look after your things, and they will look after you
Just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean it isn't useful anymore. For example, if I threw away my socks each time my toenail saws a hole in one of them, I would literally use each pair just once and go broke in a year. Besides, darning a sock takes even less time than ordering a new pair online, soooo…
Mend your clothes when they show signs of wear and tear; repurpose them. Get creative – it can be a look and a statement against disposable culture. This trend is called "visible mending," and one of its ardent enthusiasts, Kate Sekules, encourages people to take pride in the look of a mended thing.
It goes for other stuff you possess. Continue using slightly chipped crockery instead of trashing it – new items won't stay perfect in a dorm anyway. Replace a broken screen on your phone instead of buying a new one or, better still – invest in a protective case before you've cracked it. This way, you are not only saving money but getting green points for keeping things out of the landfill.
Restrict eating out to once or twice per month
Eating out should be a treat, not a routine. It doesn't feel like splashing out, but wait until you see the bottom line at the end of the month. When you compare how much money went to grocery shopping and how much on eating out, your jaw will drop. It is much cheaper (and healthier) to prepare your own meals. Even better – split the groceries bill between your roommates and take turns cooking for the company. This is much more economical. Besides, you cook more than you can eat in one meal anyway.
The same goes for coffee. Instead of popping into Starbucks every morning, make your own brew. Invest in the coffee-maker or cezve. This will save you money and probably will make you healthier since there will be no temptation to add all the toppings, syrups, and sugary snacks.
Never go shopping when you are hungry
When your stomach is empty, you are more prone to impulse buying. You will end up with a cart full of expensive junk food and ready-to-eat snacks that your reptilian brain craves. Instead, plan your shopping after a meal, and you will be much more rational in your spending.
And I don't mean just grocery shopping either. The last time I found myself in the supermarket hungry, I ended up buying cookie-flavored hand cream, white chocolate shower gel, cute macaron-shaped earrings, and a donut-print t-shirt. Yes. Really.
Buy food in the evening
Most supermarkets and food chains reduce their prices dramatically on items they need to sell by the end of the day. Make a list, but be flexible with brands and flavors, and you can save significant sums. Also, keep in mind that "best before" is more of a guideline than a rule and has more to do with food's quality – not its safety. Groceries close to their best before date are safe to consume, but they can save you a lot of money when they go on a discount.
According to Samantha Leffler, food blogger for Eat This, Not That! and Food Network, basically everything can be enjoyed beyond the date you see on the packaging.
Mark "no-spend" days in your calendar
Some people just like shopping. Even little buys cheer them up, so each time they feel down, they head to the nearest store or online for yet another trinket they don't really need. If you are a pick-me-up shopper or just know yourself to be susceptible to suggestions and marketing messages, try vetoing spending on certain days of the week. Bring a lunchbox instead of going to a cafeteria, don't buy coffee, and avert your gaze from that shop window.
When you see something you want on a no-spend day, put it on a wish list. Revise it later and analyze how many of the items on the list you really want. Do you need them? How would they improve your life? This might not save you oodles as such, but it will help you to learn more about your spending habits and be more mindful about them.
Use cash instead of your credit card
Cash just has this real, tangible quality that makes it harder to part with a large sum as opposed to a swipe of a card. When you spend cash, you are more aware of how much you give away and what you are left with. It is also easier to regulate your spending – carry with you just enough for the day, which will prevent impulse purchases.
If you do use a card, make sure it's a debit one. Credit cards stoke overspending by making it seem like you have a magical bottomless purse, while in reality, you live off borrowed money.