Living on a Budget in College

Ways to eat well, dress well and live well without breaking the bank


College is a time of personal development. Beyond academics, you’re figuring out who you are and who you want to be. But it can be difficult to focus on personal growth when you’re worried about money. 

For many students, getting creative with finances is just another part of the college experience. But living on a budget doesn’t have to weigh you down during a time when you should feel free.

These tips can help you find ways to save as you get ready to take on the world.

Create a Budget

Keeping track of your finances is important when it comes to saving money and setting goals. Here are a few quick ways to start:

  • Keep a money journal. Writing down what you spend money on can be a real eye-opener. For example, buying coffee after class every day can really add up. By cataloging your expenses, you can find ways to save—like making coffee at home instead. Having awareness around your spending habits can help you adjust them to fit your goals.
  • Set a budget—and stick to it. Once you understand your spending habits, create a realistic budget that you can stick to. Set aside money each month for essential expenses like rent and utility bills. Then come up with a monthly spending limit for things like eating out and entertainment. That way you’ll know when you can afford to splurge and when you should stick to instant ramen. 
  • Set financial goals. If your budgeting goes well, you may be able to start squirreling away a little bit of money every month. Building good habits—and savings—can help you make progress towards bigger life goals. College is a great time to start thinking about the future and making plans. When you have a game plan ready when you graduate, you’ll feel a lot less overwhelmed by “the real world.”

Stretch What You Spend on Food

Being thrifty doesn’t necessarily mean skimping on taste. Learning how to eat well on the cheap is a great way to save when you’re living on a budget. Here are some ways you can keep your wallet—and belly—full:

  • Know what you’ll eat. This sounds simple, but a lot of the time grocery lists can be much more ambitious than most appetites. It’s fun to try new foods, but considerably less fun to watch produce slowly rot in the fridge. Avoid waste by shopping for foods you already like and know how to cook with.
  • Cut down on delivery. Having food delivered is very tempting—especially when you’re in the middle of an intense study sesh. And apps make it easier than ever. Unfortunately, it can also get expensive when done too frequently. Save delivery for special occasions and consider stocking up on less expensive frozen dinners. They offer all of the convenience and speed of delivery—and you only have to wait for your microwave!
  • Explore local food pantries. A lot of universities have free food pantries for students. Offering canned foods, nut butters, bread and other staples to help you when things are tight. Explore your school’s website to see what services they provide.

Consider Car Alternatives

As a college student, you need to get around. But having a car on campus can be costly. There are ways to get to classes and clubs that won’t cost you a fortune in gas, parking, insurance and upkeep.

  • Bicycle to biology class. Biking is a great way to get around. It keeps you active, it’s eco-friendly and it saves you money on gas or bus passes. Use a bike to zoom around campus, so you’re never late for a final exam.
  • Carpool with classmates. Home is where the heart is, but getting back to visit family can be a financial strain. Find other students from your hometown and carpool with them. Not only will it save you gas money, but you might make some new friends along the way.
  • Take advantage of student discounts. A lot of cities have public transportation deals for students. Look up what your city offers. You could get discounted or even free bus rides with your student ID.

Never Leave Your Dorm Without Your Student ID

Discounts don’t stop with bus fare. You’d be surprised at the variety of places that offer student discounts. From movie tickets to restaurants and museums, businesses love to offer a helping hand to students. 

Living on a budget doesn’t mean you have to stay inside all the time. Take advantage of student discounts while you can to live life while you’re in school!

Get Thrifty

Thrift stores are an oasis for style-conscious college students. There’s something fun about buying a piece of clothing with history. It doesn’t hurt that the prices are often ridiculously low compared to department stores—like, $6 for a ruggedly cool jacket kind of low. 

Thrifting can turn the average person into a treasure hunter, collecting pieces to create a unique wardrobe. If you’re lucky, you could even find vintage designer pieces. All it takes to create a personal style from thrift shopping is patience, creativity and personality. Happy hunting!

Decorate With Flair

When you’re low on funds, decor can feel like a luxury. But you deserve to come home to a place that actually feels like home. And there are plenty of ways to decorate your apartment, dorm or house—without making your wallet suffer. 

  • Create a garden of earthly delights. Indoor plants are a great way to add life and color to an otherwise bare apartment, and many indoor plants are affordable. Check local grocery stores and online shops for sales, and try to buy hearty, low-maintenance plants like succulents. Fill your space with a variety of green beauties to make it look like a gorgeous Eden.
  • Hang pictures. Hanging up photos, art and posters are a simple way to express yourself and your interests. Buy cheap frames at your local thrift store, and decorate them yourself with spray paint to add an eclectic and artsy touch.
  • Support your classmates. Many college art departments put on art shows to showcase student work. Show arts students your support by buying their pieces. College students generally don’t charge the same prices as galleries, and it’s a wonderful way to encourage your fellow students.

Being a student doesn’t mean you have to miss out. You can eat well, dress well and live well without flattening your wallet. As long as you live within your means and are conscious about your finances, there can be some real flexibility in your lifestyle.


We hope that you found this helpful. Our content is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the Capital One product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.

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