Trying to Make Ends Meet - Budgeting at School

by Stephanie Abba

I have a confession to make: I made it through university without going into debt. I was lucky enough to have my parents help me out with rent and food, and all the money I made at my summer jobs went towards tuition and books. I worked part-time during the school year to pay for my social activities. I was one of the lucky ones. In fact, I am one of the few people I know who went through school in the 1990s without student debt.

Now I'm sure you know that I can't wave my magic wand and make all of your financial difficulties disappear, and I know that these tips probably won't help you stay entirely debt-free, but here are some hints to help you stretch and save some cash on the way through school.

  • On the phone:
    Lest you think I'm Little Miss Moneybags who never had a problem with debt, I'll start with my own downfall: don't go crazy on the phone. Trust me on this one; I speak from experience. I had huge phone bills my first year at university. Somewhere in the $600 range - I had to borrow money from friends to make the payments. I know how much you'll miss your family, your friends and your significant other, and believe me, they'll miss you too. But no one wants a phone bill the size of the national debt. Here are my "boy, I wish I'd thought of this then" hints for the phone:
    - Get a long distance calling plan.
    - Always call during low-rate hours: it's usually cheaper after 6 p.m., and even cheaper after 11 p.m. Contact the phone company to find out the cheap times for calling in your area.
    - Try to limit the number of conversations per week, or alternate calling so that you're not always paying.
    - Try using a timer and force yourself to get off the phone after a certain amount of time.
    - Use e-mail or snail mail to keep up to date with family and friends - it's great to get mail that isn't a bill or a nasty reminder that you owe someone a whole lot of money.

  • Make a budget and stick to it. Know your limitations. If you really can't afford to go to the movies or to buy a new hardcover novel, don't. If it's vital (buying a textbook, going on a field trip, etc.) and you can't beg or borrow from a friend, you may need to rework your budget and give up something else.

  • Decide what your priorities are: if you really MUST have a $5 coffee every day, have it. But be prepared to have less money in your pocket or to give up something else, like that weekly magazine you like to buy. Or switch to cheap coffee until you can afford the more expensive stuff.

  • If you're living at home, maybe you can barter some services with your family for reduced rent. Propose to them that if you do some extra chores such as mow the lawn, shovel snow, wash dishes, clean the bathtub or prepare some meals, etc. on some kind of scheduled basis, they will cut you a bit of slack on the rent.

  • Bring your lunch or some healthy snacks to school with you every day. This will help you avoid the impulse cafeteria/snack bar spending that gets so many students. (Hint: make sure the snacks you bring to classes are quiet - chips are a no-no. Try dried fruit, a muffin, or similar foods.)

  • If you're eating out, avoid ordering overpriced alcoholic drinks. Try sticking to water - it's free and it's better for you.

  • Limit your indulgences. If you have a drink, skip dessert, and vice versa.

  • Have a potluck meal with a few friends. Everyone cooks something for the group (be sure to decide who's making main courses, salads, desserts, etc. before hand), and brings their own drinks as well. This will give you free food, a change in your diet, and a social occasion all at once.

  • Participating in student activities can sometimes lead to cheap or even free food and/or leftovers.

  • At the movies:
    - Find out when cheap night is, and go then. (Go early to avoid line-ups.)
    - If you have to eat, share popcorn or a snack with a friend or two.
    - Find out if your town has a repertory or second-run movie theatre; you can often see popular movies not long after they've left the first-run theatres, and you might catch some hidden gem you might not have seen otherwise.
    - Many schools have a film society or another group that shows movies on the big screen for cheap. Find out when and where, (check your school's student newspaper) and go! Take your own snacks.

  • If you have a car, try running a car pool. Find out who in your classes lives near you and would like a ride. Let them know up front that you'd like weekly gas money.

  • Ask for gift certificates for clothes for your birthday and other gift-giving holidays.

  • Instead of spending money you don't have on gifts, try hand-making something or give gift certificates for services you could provide. Do you drive? Offer to be someone's chauffeur for a day. Can you paint a room? Offer to help paint, or to tape and prime the walls. Can you bake or cook? Give a week of home-cooked meals or home-made lunches. Maybe you could bake something (a cake, a pie, some cookies) every month for a year.

  • Visit the library for books, music and movies; if you don't mind a little bit of a wait, you can usually get it free at the library.

  • If you work, keep a percentage of each pay cheque for spending on yourself; save the rest for school expenses, rent, gas, food, etc.

  • Organize group activities. Five people splitting the rental cost of a couple of movies is much cheaper than just one person paying for them. This works for pizza, too.

  • Find out where you can use your student card to get discounts, and use it.

  • Buy used textbooks if you can. Be sure to flip through them to make sure that no one has gone through with a black marker and written over all the pages. If it's still too expensive, see if you can get the book from the library or time-share books with classmates. Make sure you don't both want it at the same time, though.

Last but not least, think carefully about the money you're spending. You're an adult now - it's time to take responsibility for your finances. Good luck!

Modified on April 23, 2009