Get By on a Limited Cash Flow

Students repeatedly cite food costs as a big part of overspending — and a key way to cut down their expenses. Food costs can absorb a huge portion of students' spending money, whether it's $1 a day for a soda, $4 for an occasional latte, $5 for a fast-food meal every few days, or $20 for a weekly trip to a decent restaurant.

Cutting down on expenses is not easy, but it's not impossible, either. Keep an eye out for the campus events where snacks are free, or for the times that you get pizza or fast food look for coupons or specials. Even if you only get a free soda, that's still an extra dollar or two in your pocket.

Take care of essentials first and consider any other expenses, such as dining out, to be luxuries. No matter what size town your college is located in, there are bound to be free or low-cost entertainment options.  You might find museums with free admission or art galleries serving free refreshments on some days.

Employ these strategies and you may be able to stretch your ­dollars more:

  • Don't be quick to skip the dining hall. It may not be fine dining, but you can usually have a decent meal.

  • Get a dining hall meal-to-go if necessary. Most colleges with meal plans offer this option for students who are unable to get to the dining hall during lunch hours, perhaps due to a job or off-campus commitment. This can save you the $5 or more you'd spend at a pizza or burger joint.

  • Sometimes, the only way to afford a Saturday night out is to stay in on Friday. That doesn't mean you have to spend the night reading or watching TV. Most campuses offer numerous events (musical performances, movies playing in lecture halls, campus-wide programs) for free or really cheap.

  • Limit trips to restaurants. Next time you're desperate for a break from cafeteria meals, consider less-expensive alternatives to full-service restaurants. A gourmet precooked meal at a supermarket (take it home to heat it up) might cost $10, much less than you'd pay at a restaurant.

  • Shop around, and take advantage of sales. From textbooks to clothes, know where you can get the best buys and do your shopping in those places.

  • Get a job. Even working just five hours a week can give you the spending money to enjoy your free time a little more. When you're working, you're not spending money, either.

  • Take advantage of free or low-cost cultural offerings in your college's home city. Often, you can get into many movies, museums, art galleries, concerts, plays, and much more for discounted prices if you bring your student ID.

  • Consider moving off campus. Although many colleges require students to live in campus housing for at least one year, off-campus living might be a cheaper choice, especially if you have one or more roommates. And depending on your eating habits, you might end up spending less compared to the cost of your on-campus meal plan.