Frugal Tips for university students

I was a university student not so long ago. University was an interesting time for me, living on my own, studying and preparing for exams, and learning how to be an independent adult. Nowadays, attending university is not cheap and can cost you anywhere from $5 – $8K of tuition per year. That’s not counting the living expenses! I knew some people that went to the extreme by living on instant noodles for months just to save money while living in student flat coops like Downing Students in London. I am not sure if that makes sense health wise in the long run. Below are 6 frugal living tips that any university student can utilize.

1. Buy used textbooks or no textbooks at all

Buying new textbooks is probably the biggest money waster out there. A thin textbook can easily cost you over $100 when you can get a used one for 40% off or less. If you know people in your program that’s a year above you, you can easily buy their textbooks at a discounted price. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the price if you’re buying multiple books from them. Most of the time they’re just trying to get rid of their textbooks and make some extra money.

There’s usually an electronic copy of the textbook available somewhere. Look around online, ask your friends or people who have taken the course before for such e-book. Most of the time, e-books are way cheaper to purchase than the paper print counter part.

As a money making scheme, textbook publishers seem to put out new edition on a yearly basis. Most professors are OK with students using an older edition of the textbook. Heck, they probably don’t even have the latest edition.

If a textbook is not mandatory for the course, I’d recommend you not buying it at all. Out of all the university courses I have taken, the professors usually have the important stuff on their notes anyway. There’s really no point in buying a book when not necessary.

In my last year of university, I took a course called digital communications. The prof told us that we didn’t need the textbook at the beginning of the semester, so I didn’t bother buying one. The course notes covered all the materials for the entire semester. Just before the final exam, the prof decided to make the final exam an open book exam. Lots people complained but the prof already made up his mind. Without a textbook to use, I had a big disadvantage. There were a lot of people in the same boat as me. What did we do? We went to the bookstore a few days before the final exam, bought the textbook, then returned it after the exam (bookstore had a week return policy). As it turned out, none of the questions came out from the textbook. The textbook was no help. I bet the prof probably got some sort of kickback from the book publisher.

2. Attend meetings to get free food

Every university has a student society. Most of them will hold public meetings and provide free pizza to attendees. Find out when and where these meetings are to get free lunch/dinner. Find out if there are any clubs that are holding open meetings for potential club members. Most of them will provide free food as well. You’ll be surprised how much free food you can find around the campus.

3. Limit your alcohol consumption

This might be a bit controversial… after all, you are attending university for the parties right? I won’t lie, I did my shares of drinking in my early university days. Luckily I didn’t go overboard with the partying and completely ruined my education. It is OK to drink from time to time but when you’re drinking regularly, you may have a problem.

If you’re out partying, the best way to save money is to buy your own alcohol…also known as drink before going out. Alcohol is darn expensive at bars and clubs. If you drink beer, buy the cheapest beer available with the highest content of alcohol to get the job done. These cheap brand beer may taste nasty so be warned. If you drink hard alcohol, 151 is a good choice but do not over consume, that stuff is burns! If you’re really tricky, you can try bumming drinks off your buddies and friends to further save some money. Be warned though, people will not like you for taking their alcoholic beverages.

4. Shop grocery during discount days

Here in Vancouver, Safeway has 10% customer appreciation day every month. This is a good time to load up on grocery. Another way to save money is buy soon-to-be-expired products such as meat or milk and make sure you consume them right away. These soon-to-be-expired products are often marked down for 50% off or more. Then check out this post for 5 frugal ways to save on grocery bill for additional saving ideas.

5. Ask for student discount everywhere

If you’re at a store buying something, ask if they have student discount. Many stores, especially ones near the campus, offer some sort of student discounts but usually don’t advertise them. It is your job to ask. I remember one time asking a barber shop if they have a student discount. They didn’t, so I decided to walk away. Before I left, they told me to stop and gave me a special 10% discount. Score one for me!

Most stores will ask to see your student ID, so make sure that you carry your student ID wherever you go.

6. Buy a laser printer

When I first started university, I made the mistake of buying an inkjet printer. With the amount of course notes and assignments I had to print, I had to change the cartridge very often. Ink cartridges were not cheap then and they’re not cheap now. It is common for printer companies to sell their printers for dirty cheap and charge you an arm and a leg for their ink cartridges. B&W laser printers have come down in price significantly over the last few years. You can get one for less than $100 (often cheaper when they’re on sale). The laser printer will almost always include a “startup” toner, which would be good for 1,000 to 1,500 pages of printing. You can get more out of the startup toner if you print on the economy mode. By my calculation, it costs about 2 cents per page to print using a laser printer and anywhere from 8 – 10 cents per page to print using an inkjet printer. When I was in school, I would print about 2,000 pages of stuff per semester. That’s about a $120 saving per semester for you just by using a laser printer instead of an inkjet printer!

There you have it, 6 frugal tips for university students out there. Do you have any more frugal tips for university students?

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20 thoughts on “Frugal Tips for university students”

  1. Hi Tawcan
    Great tips there, a couple of which I’d wish I’d known about!

    When I went to uni, the UK hadn’t introduced tuition fees so yes, I went for FREE! There were student loans but I graduated with little debt.

    Interesting comments about living at/near home since I deliberately chose a uni that was far away enough that I couldn’t stay at home – I was 18 and wanted independence lol! However, I didn’t go so far away that I couldn’t just hop onto a train if I had to.

    I lived on campus for a year and shared a house for the other 3 years. To this day, I still meet up with my ex-house mates for a catch up. I could have probably saved a lot of money had I stayed at home but to me, the 20 year friendships I have are priceless.

    • Hi weenie,

      Living on campus has given me a lot of memories and I’ve met a lot of friends because of that. If I had to choose again I’d live on campus even though it was a bit more expensive.

  2. Oh gosh, I wasn’t a frugal student at all and spent most of my money on booze. It’s really true when they say Western is a party school…

    Here are some tips I’ll add:
    – Share as much as possible with your roommates – there’s no point in everyone buying their own ketchup or bringing their own set of plates and cutlery if you can just split the expenses
    – Bike or walk to school whenever possible to save on public transportation or parking
    – Don’t ever buy a meal plan – you’ll eat more that way, which means spending more money and freshman 15
    – If your campus has a gym, you’re probably paying for it in student fees so take advantage of it! You don’t need to buy a gym membership anywhere else
    – Lastly, go to class! Based on the average Canadian tuition, you’re paying ~$50 per lecture. If you paid $50 for concert tickets, there’s no way you wouldn’t go

    • Hi Christine,

      Some great tips. Don’t buy a meal plan if possible when you live on campus is a great idea. Most of the times they charge too much for the meal plan package.

  3. Tawcan,

    I had a good chuckle at your last tip! Buying a laser printer was the biggest source of savings during my student carreer. 🙂

    Having only graduated 1,5 years ago I continued living like a student while working in that a share my house with a roommate and enjoy cheap food anytime I can. Doing so had a big positive impact on my savings rate.


  4. Heh, as someone who recently finished grad school and who’s girlfriend is still in undergrad, all of these are truth. I bought a printer my first day of undergrad, and that must have saved my hundreds over the years. I’d also add starting your own club and seeing if the college will help pay for events. I know my college had a small fund allotted for each club, which could be used for catering, pizza, etc. IDK, maybe see if your college has a similar opportunity.

  5. Community College. In my state [I know you’re from up north] they guarantee some classes will transfer to any school in the state. I am looking at taking a class and the cost difference is around $2000/class.

    When I was in school, I found out our library had the text books on to check out.

    • A lot of my university friends went to college for a few years and then transferred to university to finish the degree. College is certainly a lot cheaper than university. Good idea on loaning textbooks from libraries.

    • Indeed. Most universities have the textbooks at the library and people would just photocopy the entire textbook. : ) It could save up to $50 per textbook.

      I also remember the good old days when we would line up at the used book store the night before opening day to get first pick on the books!

  6. I always shopped on Tuesday for Atlantic Superstore and Sobeys’ 10% student discount (There are only 2 major grocery stores in Halifax) and purchased meat in bulk during sales and froze it. Conveniently enough, they had great in rotating the sales on various types of meats- chicken, beef, pork etc… That instant 10% off added up to $15-$25 per month!


  7. Nice list Tawcan. I lived very frugally in college, and thanks to some scholarships…..I was fortunate enough to escape debt free. Looking back I really wish I had the university health insurance……it was both dirt cheap and very good. Minimizing the alcohol and club expenses was also critical.

  8. My biggest advice as a recent university student is to LIVE AT HOME and go to a close university whenever possible. It will probably save $20,000 to $40,000 for the four years. : )

    Nice list Tawcan! My favourite one is number 3. A six pack a week for 4 years can add up real quick.

    • I was able to live at home close to school and it definitely cut my expenses. For textbooks, I was able to snag a few off ebay, really kept the cost down!

      • Hi Emily,

        If your home is close to school you’re one of the lucky ones. I think it only makes sense if the commute time is less than an hour each way though.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Staying home is an excellent idea in cutting living expenses. Having lived on campus during my university days I think you can’t really enjoy the university life without living on campus… but of course it does come at a cost. It’s a balancing act.

      • Hi Tawcan, I spent 2 years on campus and it was the best experience I had thus far. Made tons of friends, party almost every night and my grades tanked. Then I moved to another university closer to home for the remaining 2 years. My 2 years on campus cost 20 grand of student loans which I am struggling to pay off though but I wouldn’t do any of it different. : )


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