A Savvy Guide to Managing Living Expenses in College

By Alicia Geigel on June 26, 2018

The transition from high school to college is certainly not an easy one. There are so many new responsibilities to take on, including balancing your budget and managing your own living expenses. Even though some of us get financial help from our parents, the physical move out of their home and thus out of their supervision/immediate surveillance and into your own space results in a lot more freedom and a lot more responsibility. Now living on your own, no one can tell you not to spend $50 on takeout this weekend or to advise you not to leave all the lights on in your off-campus apartment. The reality of living on your own is that there are just some things we all have to learn on our own, no matter how many times our parents or guardians tell us.

There are so many elements to consider when managing your own living expenses that it can be super overwhelming to think about. Living expenses while in college can include but aren’t limited to food, transportation, clothes, utility bills (if you are off-campus), toiletries, recreational fun activities, etc. Typed out, this looks like a lot- well, because it is! Before coming to college, typically most of us don’t have to worry about necessities like food for dinner or toothpaste, because parents/guardians took care of that. Smaller expenses like gas or Starbucks lattés were manageable with a part-time job, but with the added expenses of living on your own in college can add up quickly, leaving you stressed and on the brink of a breakdown.

piggy bank, pig, pink, money, savings

Image via Pixabay

Balancing budgets and managing living expenses as a millennial is hard, especially because the reality is, most of us are just ‘expected’ to figure everything out. In actuality, the cost of living for millennial now is significantly higher than it was 20 or 40 years ago. If it is not by now, it should be a well-known fact that millennials carry a larger financial burden than that of Generation Xers and Baby Boomers. Despite the fact that millennials have benefited in a 67% rise in wages since 1970, this increase in wages has not kept up with the inflation in living expenses.

According to Hillary Hoffower of Business Insider, “While incomes have increased for millennials, many significant economic expenses, such as the cost of buying a home and college tuition, have increased at a faster rate.”

Due to these significant financial struggles that millennials face, many of us, including myself, have to figure out ways to be frugal and savvy with money. For me personally, I have learned a lot about money, spending, and survival while in college and in my short post-grad life. The transition from your parents’ home to independent living in college can teach you a lot about what exactly you spend money on, which items have value vs. which do not, and how to make the absolute most out of the money you have. Are you currently in college struggling with balancing living expenses? Unsure of how to effectively split your expenses? Desperately wanting to ‘adult’ without pulling the last few hairs out of your aging head? Don’t worry, my guide on how to manage living expenses will give you meaningful insight into the best ways to spend your money with little tips and tricks on how to save in between!

Small Tricks and Tips to Save + Earn Money 

Infographic by Alicia Geigel

1. Cut Back Spending: This tip seems obvious, but I think its one we all (including myself) need to hear. We as college students, like to spend money on frivolous things until we embody our stereotype of the broke college kid. Whether we’re going out to bars with friends on the weekends or buying takeout for the third night in a row, these seemingly small purchases add up.

So, stop eating out all the time and cut ties with your favorite coffee place (limit to once a week), because all this is doing is putting a hole in your wallet. Instead of spending your money on things you definitely do not need at the moment, put it in a savings account or literally a piggy bank to keep you from spending!

2. Create a Budget That Fits Your Goals: We all have goals we want to achieve or do someday. Perhaps your goal is going to your favorite band’s concert next year or putting a down payment on a new car; regardless of what your goal may be, it’s a good idea to set a budget for the goals you have in mind.

Do some research on the pricing of your goal, such as the down payment on a car or phone, monthly rent payments, travel expenses, etc., and create a budget. Doing so will give you the incentive to set money aside for something you want to do, and give you more control over how you plan to spend your money!

3. Coupon: Have you ever seen that show Extreme Couponing? If you haven’t it’s a reality show on TLC that documents individuals who are obsessed with couponing, with the ultimate goal of paying the very least at the store for the items (with coupons).

Some of these are outrageous and I don’t recommend extreme couponing, however, finding deals and coupons on items here and there will definitely add up. Check out sites like RetailMeNot and Slick Deals for coupons and promotions that can save you big bucks! Or if you’re really old school, check the coupons in the paper that comes in the mail!

4. Sell Your Items: One of the greatest things about technology today is e-commerce. You can buy and sell just about anything online nowadays, which is awesome for people like me who have a bunch of useless junk lying around.

If you have collectible toys from your childhood, clothes that you don’t wear, books collecting dust on your shelf, etc. consider selling them online! There are plenty of sites to sell on, with the most popular being eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Poshmark. Not only will you be effectively downsizing, but you’ll also be making a quick buck!

Now that you have a few quick tricks and tips to start you off, I’ll break down and dive into a few important categories of living expenses to better help you with balancing and managing spending! These three categories are food, toiletries, and clothes.


Food is not just a beautiful piece of avocado toast — food is about survival and making sure you are eating not only to just fill your stomach, but also to satisfy nutritional needs. It is a habit of us college students to resort to what is quickest and easiest when it comes to food. Unfortunately, most of the time, this ends up being fast food — which doesn’t do us any good in the long run.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way trashing the occasional quarter-pounder with cheese or 10-piece nugget, but its no way to live, especially in college. All that food does is make us sluggish, low energy, and craving more. There are plenty of ways to save money on food- and here are some of the tips I have learned along the way!

Compare Prices: For a lot of us, its easier to do all of our shopping at one spot so we can just get everything out of the way in one shot. If you have the ability to, because I do realize that in some places stores are limited, compare prices among different supermarkets! I used to be someone who would simply go to one store out of convenience, but after comparing prices I haven’t gone back to those days.

Check ads online or in the store to shop the best deals for food items. Some of my favorite places to shop for food are Walmart, Aldi, and Target. These stores have some of the lowest prices for produce, canned goods, etc. You will save so much money doing this- guaranteed!

Discount/Bargain Stores: Discount grocery stores or bargain stores are a great way to save money because, well, the food is cheap! In these stores, you can find all of your favorite brand name food items for a fraction of the price. Just be sure to check the “best by” or expiration dates to make sure you’re getting an item that’s good to eat. Scope out your area to see if there is one near you and get to saving!

Invest in a Crockpot: School tends to occupy most of our time which means that when it comes down to meals, we can get lazy about it. One of the greatest inventions of all time (besides sliced bread) is the crockpot. With the crockpot, you can prepare your meals hours in advance, put them in and cook them slowly for hours! The great thing about this? You can work or study all day and not have to worry about throwing a meal together when it’s dinner time! This can eliminate unhealthy substitutions for meals and make life so much easier!

supermarket, store, shopping, toiletries

Image via Pixabay


Toiletries are an important part of our lives, as some things we definitely couldn’t live without (I don’t think your co-workers would dig it if you skipped brushing your teeth)! The issue with toiletries, along with just about every necessity nowadays, is that they tend to be on the pricier end. Here are some tips that can help lower your toiletry expenses:

Buy in Bulk: When it comes to toiletries (and food as well), buying in bulk can save you tons of money in the long run. Purchase a membership to Costco, BJ’s, or warehouse club to start saving! Memberships usually are around $49 a year, not too bad considering the deals you can get! Casey Slide of MoneyCrashers.com notes, “Make sure to check the price per unit when purchasing the largest size available. Sometimes stores purposely charge more for the largest sizes, knowing that shoppers automatically think they can get the best deal on the family size.”

Dollar Store: I have had a very long love affair with the dollar store ever since I can remember. Seriously, how can you beat getting everything in the store for a dollar? Some things you can get cheaper at places like Walmart, but other things, you just can’t get anywhere cheaper! Shopping for items like toothpaste, mouthwash, makeup (sometimes, depending), hair products, medicine, soap, etc. is cheap and for a dollar, a heck of a deal!


Obviously, none of us can live without clothes — nudity may be a socially accepted custom in some places, but it’s not here! There comes a point in time when you have to buy new clothes, whether you either outgrew old clothes or pieces just were too old to keep, it just is a part of life. Like everything else mentioned before, clothes are expensive- perhaps the most expensive out of what I’ve listed already. Shopping for clothes is hard when you’re tight on money, but there are a few things you can do to save and still get some great finds:

Thrift Shop: For the most part, thrift shopping is how I buy most of my clothes nowadays. I personally just can’t afford to buy clothes at full price anymore, and I’m totally okay with that! Shopping at local thrift stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity ReStores can save you so much money and fill up your closet without burning a hole in your wallet. I found a pair of lightly worn (practically new) Birkenstock sandals at Goodwill for $6.97, with the pair selling new at over $100- how can you beat that?

Shop Clearance: When I’m not in thrift stores, I am definitely shopping off the clearance rack at clothing stores, one of my favorites is Target, well because, who doesn’t love Target? Target typically has their clearance rack divided by percentage off the original price by 30%, 50%, or 70% off. You can find some really awesome finds on the clearance racks and here’s a little secret: Target has a schedule markdown for items!

The Krazy Coupon Lady states the following as their official schedule for marking down items: “Monday: Baby items, children’s clothing, electronics, and office supplies/gift wrap/stationery, Tuesday: Home décor, women’s clothing, and domestic items, Wednesday: Food, health and beauty items, men’s clothing, toys, and garden items, Thursday: Lingerie, housewares, sporting goods, shoes, and luggage, Friday: Cosmetics, jewelry, hardware, automotive, and home improvement.” So next time you’re out shopping, check the clearance rack or run to Target to see what markdown items you can find!

Being a college student with no real grasp of the reality of managing living expenses and being in the adult world can be a super scary thing. When you’re living on your own, it can be even more frightening. However, these simple and small tricks and tips can add up to large savings and better money management in the long run, giving you the financial freedom you deserve! As always, good luck!

By Alicia Geigel

Uloop Writer
Temple alum | columnist at Uloop News | photographer | food blogger if you want to learn more about me, visit my profile and check out my articles!

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