Getting More for Less in College

How College Students Can Save Money

By Mike Dang

It’s no big secret that college is expensive. Despite the mounting costs of tuition and living fees, college students don’t want to live the life of the stereotypical starving undergrad. They want to be able to go to concerts and restaurants, own iPods and DVDs, and get new clothes to replace ones that are ripped at the seams—and they want all these things cheaply.

Rather than take out a loan or open a credit card account to spend money you don't have, do a little digging around for some great deals. Below are some ways to get more for your money.


Here’s a depressing fact: according to the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups, college students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks—20 percent of tuition at an average university and half the price of tuition at a community college. The advocacy group also says that textbook prices have increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1994, and continue to rise.

Most students still go to the campus bookstore to find their books for class because it’s convenient and fast; you also get a receipt, making returns easier should you decide to drop the class. 

If you do go to the bookstore, go early. There are usually a number of used versions of the books you need at the bookstore, typically priced at 75% percent of the retail price and in pretty good condition, but they go fast. Waiting until class begins to buy your book means you’ll likely have to pay full price at the store or get a tattered copy with indiscriminate notes written in the margins. In some cases however, waiting until your classes begin can also pay off. Many students discover that some required books aren’t used very often or that they can get by sharing with fellow classmates. 

You should also search your school’s intranet and bulletin boards to see if anyone is selling the version of the book you need. Students are usually willing to give up their books for even less than the price of a used copy at the bookstore, and you will save on shipping because the seller can meet you on campus. The California Public Interest Research Group recommends buying from sites like, which allows students to buy and sell used books directly from each other.

“I found most of my books from looking at campus book forums,” says Nisreen Habbal, an alumna of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Book forums are great because you can usually negotiate the price with the seller. I bought one of my econ books for twenty bucks when the list price was something like ninety bucks. The next quarter, I sold the book for thirty bucks and made some money.”

If your campus doesn’t have online forums or if the book you’re looking for isn’t available, sites like ebay and Amazon sell used books at substantially lower prices than the market rate. Other useful sites include, and Also, look for books overseas. Buying international versions of textbooks can save you up to 90 percent of the U.S. retail price. To find international versions, look on sites like and

Food and Entertainment

Two words: Student discount.

As a college student, there is absolutely no reason you should have to pay full price for anything. The perks of having a student ID include discount tickets to the movies, theatre, amusement parks, and concerts.

In New York City, a student ID will get you into almost every museum for free as well as substantially reduced-price tickets to selected Broadway shows. At the University of California, Irvine, a student ID will get you discount tickets to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, and many other places. If you’re unsure of what discounts are available at your school, check with your student government representatives or the Office of Student Affairs.

Media departments and student-run film clubs often sponsor free film screenings and Q&A’s with filmmakers. A schedule of what films are playing is usually posted on department Web sites and advertised around campus.

Also look for free concerts hosted on campus, which sometimes offer free food and drinks sponsored by companies targeting advertising to college students. In fact, every week, free pizza is offered at some event on campus; it’s just a matter of finding out where it is and what you have to do to get it.

Speaking of food, local restaurants near colleges will often offer discounts to students who have a valid student ID. These discounts, as well as coupons to these restaurants, can be found advertised in the campus paper.

“Look for on-campus restaurants or take-out places where they offer reduced prices at odd times,” recommends Beth Hillman, an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley. “Some places offer great discounts to get students in when it’s slow.”

Dorm Goods and Electronics

College students are really good at making do with what they have when it comes to dorm décor. Most students will decorate their dorms with posters from their childhood bedrooms, and mom and dad are usually good at providing the basics—clean linens, toiletries and photos of the family.

Yet, according to the National Retail Federation, college students spend billions of dollars every year on extra furnishings in order to spruce up their spaces. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to go beyond the bed and bath stores and do a little creative thinking so you can keep your money in the bank.

College is most students’ entrée to the world of Craigslist, where one can find some really great gems at ridiculously low prices. Also check out your local Salvation Army for some good finds you can integrate into your dorm to jazz it up a bit. For example, used picture frames, old record albums or picture calendars make for cool décor for the college student who’s really into music and art. Those with an eye for design can create makeshift curtains out of sheets with wild prints, and fasten them with leather belts found at the thrift store. An ugly couch bought at a bargain can easily be transformed with some fabric and a staple/glue gun. Getting creative will save you from the same bland, run-of-the mill items every other college student uses for their rooms and you’ll have extra money to boot.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid retail stores altogether. Stores like Target and Ikea can be great places to go to for items you’d rather buy than make. Just be sure to look for the deals. For example, Target will usually offer “off-to-college” coupons right before school starts so you can get your furnishings at a discount. These stores are also good for finding those weird-sized, “twin extra-long” sheets. Many colleges have providers that try to sell sheets in information packets sent to your home. These are generally a total rip-off.

Another way to save some dough is to think about whether or not the things you want will make sense after you move out of the dorm. Yes, that miniature refrigerator will be convenient in your dorm—but will it be in a big apartment when you move off-campus by year’s end? Many colleges offer the option of renting a micro-fridge, and if you share the price of renting one with your roommate, it’s more than affordable. On the other hand, a flat screen TV may be a worthwhile investment for the dorm, and can easily make the transition to any future apartment. You can check in with sites like Cheapism for reviews and recommendations of the best low-cost gear. Just be sure to look for a good deal on Craigslist or in yard sale listings. Some of the best items can be found just around the time school is ending for summer break and people around campus are looking to get rid of a few items for next to nothing. Remember, the hunt is half the fun. The other half? Keeping your wallet full.