The Smartest Money-Saving Tips Real College Students Learned on Their Own

Karime Sanchez
Photo: Karime Sanchez

Karime Sanchez’s parents were always telling her she was spending too much money. The 21-year-old Texas A&M student ignored them – until they stopped paying her bills.

"I didn’t realize how much I was actually spending on doing my fun stuff,” says the community health major, who plans to attend nursing school. “I had no idea. It was way more than I imagined.”

Like many college students – she took a crash course in Adulting 101 teaching herself everything from how to budget to how to cook.

"My mom always did everything for me – I had to learn the ropes," Sanchez says.

According to a recent Wallet Hub study, 6 out of 10 college students say their financial literacy has improved during the pandemic – and 40 percent surveyed say have learned a lot more about saving.

People’s Real Tips for Real Life spoke to students across the country to get their best finance tips.

Don’t Buy Textbooks Full-Price

The biggest piece of advice Mercedes Owens gives to incoming freshman: Never buy new textbooks. “In my four years, I think I bought two textbooks,” says Owens, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in economics and minoring in consumer psychology.

On the first day of class, she asks professors if owning a hard copy of the book is required. “They’re so expensive,” says Owens, who is president of her school's Undergraduate Assembly. “I wouldn’t recommend spending $300 on a book if it’s optional.”

Looking to save on something you’ll only use for a semester? Many textbook companies make their online versions available at discounted or bulk prices. You can also find copies of most textbooks on reserve at the campus library, buy or rent used copies at heavy discounts, or ask your professor if she has the textbook available to download; some may provide that as an option for students facing financial hardship.

Mercedes Owen
Mercedes Owen

Leave Your Credit and Debit Cards in Your Dorm Room

Set a strict, weekly spending budget, Owens says. Once you’ve met your limit – leave your credit and debit cards in your dorm room, so you won’t be tempted to use them.

“That has saved me a lot of money,” Owens says. “I have a really bad habit of getting coffee everywhere I go.”

She’s also started making her own cold brew. “It doesn’t seem that expensive – it’s like $3 – but if you do it every day, it adds up,” she says.

Prioritize Your Spending

About a year ago, when Karime Sanchez’s parents told her to start paying her own credit card bills, she got a job at the campus' health and kinesiology advising office, earning about $400 every two weeks.

She got her paycheck, then went out one night and spent $100.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t go out like this anymore,’” she remembers. “I had $300 left for the next two weeks!”

The first thing she did was put gas in her car (so she would be able to go to work) then she hit the grocery store. She wasn’t able to buy everything she wanted, she says, and had to focus on store generics rather than brand names. She cut out ice cream runs and eating at restaurants, and began cooking at home - itself a surprisingly high expense, as she had to first purchase spices, oils and more ingredients.

The next paycheck, she bought gas and groceries first.

Nick Price
Nick Price

Keep Savings and Checking Accounts Separate - and Put Away 20 Percent of What You Earn

Whenever Nick Price gets a paycheck working as a deck hand on a charter boat, or as a server at a Charleston, S.C. restaurant, he puts 20 percent straight into his savings account. “I don’t touch it,” he says.

As a result, the 20-year-old junior at the College of Charleston bought a house this summer.

“I saved up enough to where I could put a down payment on my house and fill it with students who pay my mortgage for me,” he says.

Price closed on the 3-bedroom brick home on James Island in June. He spent the summer gutting and renovating it. He did much of the work himself – building shutters, installing kitchen cabinets, painting and tiling.

“Every time you pay someone to do something for you that you could do yourself, you’re losing money,” says Price, a business administration major.


Shop Around

Price was 15 when he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and told that he wouldn’t live more than five years.

Happily, his brain surgery was successful, and he is now cancer free. But, he learned first-hand how expensive cancer can be, and is now the founder and president of a non-profit foundation that financially and emotionally supports other cancer patients.

“I want to give back for being really lucky,” he says.

One things he’s learned running his foundation is to always shop around and price compare before spending any money.

“Doing a little bit more research and finding somebody that can do the same job for a cheaper price is worth it,” Price says. “You can be saving thousands of dollars by being a little extra cautious of your spending.”

When planning his annual fundraising gala, he was stunned by how much it cost to hire a bar and bartenders. So he built his own bars. “It saved us a ton of money; we did the work ourselves,” he says.

And it inspired him to launch his for-profit bar catering company, Charleston Sips. (After graduation, he plans to divide his time between running his non-profit foundation, and his for-profit company.)

Don’t Cut Back Too Much – College Should Be Fun!

Though Sanchez was being smart about her finances, it came at the expense of some fun experiences. "I would sacrifice a little too much," she says. For example, when her friends all went to a music festival in Vegas and she skipped it to save the $1,000, she regretted it.

“I definitely felt like I was missing out,” she says. “I was literally living through their photos… Snapchat was blowing up.”

So she relaxed her budget restrictions a little and found a happy medium between spending and saving.

"I’m not cutting back completely, but I still watch my money more than I used to. It’s not like I’m just blowing it off," Sanchez says. "You should definitely enjoy college -- just be aware. Thank God I have parents who have my back and will support me any time I do need them."

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