7 Unconventional Ways to Save Money in College

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A man applying the 7 unconventional ways to save money in college sitting at his desk looking at his laptop.
An inside look at what it looks like to apply these unconventional ways to save money in college.

When I was in college looking to save money, I got sick of seeing the same generic, no-brainer advice. Eat out less. Stop buying Starbucks coffee everyday. Don’t go on shopping sprees. Cut cable. Wow, of course! Why didn’t I think of that? (sarcasm). Maybe you are thinking the same thing. So here are 7 unconventional ways to save money in college that I’ve personally used myself.

1. Plan Ahead

If there’s anything to take away from this post, it’s to make planned decisions. Unplanned decisions will cost you more in time and money than spending a few minutes to plan ahead. A strong plan will also help you to spend your time on the most important things and to say no to the others. With a plan in place, you will naturally make the right decisions to reach your financial goals.

Planning ahead will help you avoid things like impulse buys at the grocery store (shopping list) or running into unexpected fees like late fees or overdraft fees (budgeting). Potential plans include meal plans that help you stop eating out, long term career plans, and graduation plans to help you graduate early and pay less tuition.

2. Cut Food Expenses

Besides eating out less, you can also focus on increasing the calories per dollar ratio of your home-made meals. Basically, you need a certain number of calories and nutrients to maintain your health. If you can minimize the dollars required to reach that number, you can save a bunch of money. For example, instead of eating beef ($3.00 per pound), you could eat chicken ($1.20 per pound). Someone already did the calculations for many types of food that you can read about here.

You should also be going to any school events that offer free food for attending. Typical events include department seminars and workshops, student org recruiting events, and church outreach events. There are probably some apps out there that might help you with this.

If you’re addicted to caffeine or need to pull an all-nighter, swap out your coffee with caffeine pills. I used 100 mg pills to start. Instead of spending one or two dollars per cup of coffee, you can get the same amount of caffeine for 5-10 cents. Just don’t take more than one at a time.

3. Don’t Buy “Required” Textbooks

Textbooks cost a lot. Cutting out this expense alone will save you thousands of dollars through college. Try to find an alternative solution to buying the textbook from the bookstore. This is my checklist for avoiding textbook expenses:

  • Google search “[Name of Textbook] filetype:pdf”
  • Search on Library Genesis
  • Check if anyone on Reddit or your school’s Facebook group shared a link
  • Check if your library has one you can borrow
  • Ask your classmates or former students if you can borrow their textbooks
  • Compare your school’s bookstore textbook prices with Amazon
  • Buy an older used edition of the textbook. These are way cheaper than the newest edition
    • Usually the authors shuffle the problem numbers in newer editions. Make sure you have a way to double check with the newest edition if you have to do book problems.

In some cases, the textbook isn’t really required at all, even though the professor says so. Before making any purchases, wait a couple of weeks to see if the textbook is necessary for assignments.

4. Take Classes at Community College

Community college classes cost significantly less. They also help you either graduate early or have more time during the school year. If you graduate early, it cuts tuition significantly. If you have more time, you can spend that time working more hours or doing something productive like learning a skill.

Everyone has to take general ed classes. But, you don’t have to take them at your university. Check with any community colleges you have access to for classes that might transfer for credit. Then double check with your university student adviser to see if those will actually count.

5. Test Out of Classes

Some classes allow you to earn credit for a class by passing a test instead of enrolling in the course. I’ve done this for a class whose material I already learned in high school. This allowed me to take more advanced classes in its place earlier than I would have following the traditional route.

If you can handle it, ask your student adviser if you can test out of some classes. This will cut out the time required for lectures, homework, and projects. You can use that time to knock out other classes you need or work more hours.

6. Study Smart

When it comes to studying, you want to make the most of your time in each study session. You want to get decent grades while spending the least amount of time studying possible. This will allow you to spend the remaining time knocking out more classes or working more hours. This enables you to take many classes per quarter/semester which could lead to an earlier graduation date.

According to the 80/20 principle, 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. The most important 20% of the effort in this case is consistency. Studying consistently for short periods of time will get you far better results than infrequent long study sessions. Coursera has an excellent course on this for free.

7. Switch to Bing

Microsoft runs a rewards program where you can enter sweepstakes, donate to charity, or get gift cards. You should aim for the Burger King or Chipotle gift cards. I’ve used the rewards program myself and got about $35 worth of gift cards after 2-3 years of using it. (I’m not being paid for this by the way).

To earn rewards, you just have to sign up and do your searches on Bing. You get 5 points per search up to 150 points per day, which comes out to about $0.0038 per search if you get a $5 gift card. Since you have to do searches anyways, it’s essentially free money for doing nothing (besides getting slightly less relevant search results).


To summarize: plan ahead, cut food expenses, don’t buy “required” textbooks, try community college classes, try testing out of classes, study smart, switch to Bing. These tips will help you reduce your biggest expenses and free up your time. More time can be used to earn more money or knock out even more classes.

I hope these unconventional ways to save money in college actually helped you save time and money. If you want more tips on personal finance, career advice, and more, subscribe and I’ll let you know when I post something new.

Joe Wong

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