How Not To Be Poor In College - Part 1

Sep 23, 2014Reading Time: 6 min

In high school, I often heard the saying “don’t anticipate, participate.” This was my approach to college, which was good because I truly had no idea the experience that awaited me that first year. I learned a little about the big concepts in life and acquired a lot of practical knowledge as a result of living on my own and having to make many decisions by myself for the first time. Many of the practical decisions I had to make involved managing money.  

College is an expensive place, and not just because of tuition. When you go to a new place, you often have to start from scratch by buying many of the things that you previously believed everyone just “had” because you’d never thought about where they came from. You have to make yourself feel at home in your new place and allow space in your budget for expenses like books and food.

At the beginning of my freshman year, I was so terrified of running out of things and being stranded in the desert known as Los Angeles, without any supplies, that I spent way too much money on way too many purchases. However, after a little over a year, I think I’m starting to get the hang of things. Let me offer you my advice.

Your New Room

Last year, as a product of sheer coincidence, I ended up living in the cheapest dorm on campus. Was this a great experience? Not exactly, but it wasn’t the worst experience either. The truth is, in college there is so much to get involved and participate in that all you really need is a place to sleep, so don’t worry too much.

Now that you’ve moved in, here are a few things you’re going to need. Your new room probably isn’t very spacious, so you’re going to need to maximize your space with some useful storage options. I used a dublet, a second closet rod that hangs from the built-in metal one, to give myself twice as much space to hang up my clothes. Since drawer space was limited, I bought a hanging sweater bag where I could put folded clothes (you don’t have to reserve it exclusively for sweaters, this is college, there are no rules).  After your stuff is stored comes the fun part: decorating. I recently learned about coupons from, and I have definitely been eyeing their impressionist painting-I mean-famous athlete posters. If posters aren’t for you, AllPosters also has decals, tapestries, and apparel so you can showcase all your interests without damaging your walls, or your wallet.


You’ve decorated your room, and now you have to think about the rest of college, namely the actual school part. Oh how it slips the mind. Many of my friends scour the Internet weeks before the start of the semester looking for the cheapest possible books, but you get what you pay for, and sometimes the books are the wrong edition or have been badly damaged. I am a big believer in renting books because you don’t have to look around for a place to sell them at the end of the semester.  If you’re going to rent your books, make sure to shop around for a good deal.


This year, I got as many ebooks as I possibly could, and ended up saving over a hundred dollars. ebooks aren’t just a frugal choice, they’re a smart choice because they save the hassle of buying books in a store, they save paper, and they make life a bit easier for those of us whose backs aren’t exactly tip-top anymore.  Websites like CengageBrain Coupons, Vitalsource, and eCampus coupons all sell e-textbooks. For other books (novels, for instance) there’s always good old iBooks, which allows you to fully download books and tells you how many pages are left in a chapter, a handy tool to keep you motivated.


When I left my home state of Indiana to attend college in California, I was intent on wearing exactly what I wore in high school. However, after a few weeks of dealing with a room with no air conditioning in my long pants and long sleeves, I decided I needed to adapt to my environment. My advice would be to get a feel for the campus first.  You may think you want to dress up every day, but after some of your longer walks to and from classes you may reconsider. Once you know how you want to dress, consider your options for saving money: clothing swaps, thrift shopping, taking advantage of student discounts.


The following may make you second guess my credibility, but when I first came to college, I based my calculations for how much meal plan money I would need on how much groceries appeared to cost when I was back home. Most of the time I only went shopping with my mom, so I figured that one extra person’s food on the grocery bill didn’t make that much of a difference.  As you have probably already guessed, this system lead me terribly, terribly astray. Despite what my mother’s wispy appearance suggests, feeding another person actually costs a lot more than buying food just for yourself, so before you jump on the ‘I NEED the biggest meal plan’ bandwagon, consider the following:

  1. You may not like the food in your university’s cafeteria (or the school newspaper may publish a scathing expose of said cafeteria that makes you consider embarking on a fast until the next holiday break).
  2. Many colleges only allow your meal plan money to be used on food items, so that means once the money is on your meal plan, you can’t cash it out or use it for anything other than food.
  3. I personally have a lot of food sensitivities, and, if you’re like me, even a cafeteria that has lots of options can’t always offer you something.  
  4. Buying food from the grocery store may actually save you money.

You may be worried about the food situation in college, but there might be an easier solution than you think. Figure out what your needs are and do your research. Many schools have a plethora of options, so you may not have to look too far.

Well, that concludes our general rundown of college expenses.