College budgeting: When to save and splurge

March 31, 2023

Heading off to school? Craft a smart financial plan with our guide to navigating everyday expenses.


If you’re a current college student or will be soon, it’s important to make a plan for spending money wisely. While there are a few essential items you’ll have to spend money on (think: clothing, food and dorm fees), certain expenses can be reduced or avoided. As you assess your budget and make a financial plan, consider these tips for when to invest or when to cut back on unnecessary costs.


When to save

Meal plan: Depending on where you go to school, the meal plans available might vary slightly. Some schools have a dining hall where you pay for food items individually, while others offer semester-long meal plans or discounts. Getting all your meals from the dining hall is convenient, but this can become expensive. To keep your meals affordable, aim to find a balance between utilizing your dining hall and cooking yourself.

Making a quick and healthy breakfast like oatmeal, eggs, toast or a smoothie can be done in your home or dorm room and will help you save money. Stocking up on nutritious grab-and-go groceries like apples, granola bars or yogurt is another affordable way to eat healthy. By cooking for yourself and purchasing your own snacks, you’ll be able to set aside money to save or even spend on occasional meals out with friends at local restaurants.

Gym membership: Getting regular exercise is an essential part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle during college, but paying hefty costs for access to equipment isn’t typically necessary. Many schools offer free access to fitness facilities like pools, basketball courts and cardio or strength training equipment. If you enjoy group classes such as yoga or Pilates, find out whether your school offers free or student-rate programs. If your college’s fitness options are limited, you can also inquire about student discounts for memberships at local fitness studios.

Transportation: While owning a car is a sensible choice for some students, it can be linked to a number of costs that add up over time. These might include insurance payments, gas, monthly parking and maintenance fees. If you’re attending college from home or are able to easily navigate your campus, it may make sense to choose other types of transportation to save money.

Some campuses have city or university-operated bus systems which stop at dorms and run frequently, making it easy way to commute between dorms, dining halls, classes and libraries. These systems are often free for students or have low-cost passes. Investigating bus routes and schedules will allow you to make a plan for getting to classes and extracurricular activities easily and on time. Walking or biking across campus to destinations is another great way to save some money, which you can use for ride share services when needed. 


When to splurge

Technology: When it comes to the equipment you’ll rely on for schoolwork throughout your college career, it makes sense to invest in high-quality technology. You’ll likely end up using your laptop or computer daily for research, projects, presentations, communication and more, so choosing a high-speed device with modern programs and capabilities will ensure you’re able to complete everything you need to. For some students, noise-cancelling headphones are also a worthwhile expense. If you listen to lectures online or study in a public area, these can help drown out background noise and allow you to focus on the content you need.

Practical clothing and footwear: While there’s no need to spend money on fancy items you don’t really need, it does make sense to splurge on functional clothing or footwear that you’ll use on a regular basis. For example, allocating part of your budget toward comfortable shoes that you can wear while walking across campus is a sensible choice. Choosing a sturdy umbrella, high-quality raincoat and backpack are also practical items that will also keep you warm, dry and comfortable and last for several years. Spending more on these necessary items makes sense since you’ll use them again and again, making them worthwhile investments.

Educational materials: Today, there are many ways to get learning materials like textbooks and workbooks. While some students prefer to purchase used materials or older editions of books for lower prices or skip optional supplies, it can be a good idea to invest in educational materials. By purchasing all requested course supplies and up-to-date book editions, you’ll be able to stay organized and easily follow along with your coursework. Be sure to prioritize these materials when budgeting, whether it’s art supplies, a certain calculator model or a specific edition of a textbook.


Looking for additional ways to prepare your finances for college? Check out our step-by-step college financial planning guide.

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