By Michele Stillwell
After reading Punny Money for a couple of years, you college students out there might know that you can save lots of money avoiding the school bookstore and flashing your student ID at area businesses for a discount. But for today’s college student on a shoestring budget, sometimes you have to go beyond conventional wisdom to make it through your four (or five, or ten) years of college financially intact.
Conventional Wisdom: Get the Citi mtvU Visa and receive 5 ThankYou Points for each dollar spent at the college bookstore (including textbooks, clothing, and other necessities), and at restaurants and movie theaters. Send in your transcripts each semester and get up to 2,000 points for good grades.
Beyond CW: When you’ve accumulated some points, rather than getting a gift card that you’ll spend on things you don’t need or trading it in for cash at a less that 1 point for $1 exchange, use it for student loan rebates and get the full value of your points in a check to your student loan bank–it’s easy to do and the check comes quickly.
Conventional Wisdom: Look online (Amazon and AbeBooks, among many others) for used books at a fraction of the price. See if there are any student co-ops or book swaps for getting cheap textbooks. At the end of the semester (or better yet at the beginning of the next semester), sell your books online and avoid the bookstore buyback at all costs.
Beyond CW: Many college bookstores hire temporary cashiers for two weeks at the beginning of the semester during the textbook buying rush. Contact your bookstore to see if they’re hiring. Not only will you get paid an hourly rate, but you’ll get an employee discount (as much as 15%) on your books for the semester.
Many professors get free textbooks sent to them by publishers hoping they’ll choose to use it for their class (thus putting more money in the pockets of the publishers). Often the professors don’t need or want them and they’re relegated to recycling or a box in storage. Ask your professors for their unwanted books or check recycling and you might come across some brand new, most recent edition books that will sell very well online.
If you see your book online for extremely cheap and then realize it’s an earlier edition than the one on the booklist, don’t immediately dismiss it. Textbook publishers often come out with new editions after only making minimal updates or adding one chapter. If you have a classmate with the newer book to fall back on, you can usually save a huge amount by getting an older edition. But make sure to do your research on the changes because occasionally there is a major update and you’ll be lost with an outdated book.
As soon as you have your booklist, check out the books from the school library (do it quickly before someone else beats you to them). After you attend class and get a syllabus, you’ll have a better idea of which books you really need and which ones the professor put on the booklist only because he wrote it and gets a cut for each book sold. Plus, if you decide to buy it online, having a copy from the library will ensure you don’t get stuck without the book when you have an assignment. Your library doesn’t have the book? Check out the inter-library loan or consortium program–they’re often really easy to use and give you access to a huge database of books.
Using the College Discount
Conventional Wisdom: Use your college ID to get discounts at the movie theater, on transit passes, and in other places. Get a Student Advantage card to save money with companies like Amtrak, Greyhound, Target, and more.
Beyond CW: If you live in a city that has a car sharing company like Zipcar or Flexcar, most universities have organizational memberships which give affiliated members–including students–discounts. If you use a car share instead of the costs of parking, maintaining and fueling your own car, your savings will soar.
Many universities, usually the department in charge of student activities, have Costo/Sam’s Club memberships and make the cards available to student organizations. Use the card to access one of the warehouse clubs and save money on buying soda, veggies, and more in bulk.
Many first-run live theaters offer half-price tickets (or even less–I’ve gotten $10 ticket to Broadway-esque plays in the past) to students if you go to the box office on the day of the presentation and ask.
Unite With Your Fellow Students
Beyond CW: Many universities have not-for-profit, student-owned-and-operated coffee shops, book co-ops, convenience stores that offer books, clothes, food, and more at prices cheaper that surrounding businesses. If your university doesn’t have one, consider starting one up and gaining amazing business experience while saving your fellow students money.
Share expenses with floor/dorm/apartment mates. For example, rather than buying separate cable for your room (and wasting time in front of the TV when you should be out experiencing college life), see if you can get people on your floor to contribute a few bucks for cable in the common room and make TV watching a social event.
Be creative and have fun with your friends for free rather than paying for theater tickets or cover charges. Have a unique costume party or pot-luck–the crazier the theme, the better.
Other Tips for Saving or Making Money
Conventional Wisdom: Before buying anything new, check Craigslist, Freecycle, local thrift stores and moving sales to see if you find it cheap or free.
If you’re eligible for work study, find a low stress job at an academic department or office and use down time to study.
Beyond CW: Instead of visiting Blockbuster, check your college library’s DVD collection–there might be something you want to see. Often libraries have some great independent and arty films, and occasionally more popular hits.
Check out bulletin boards for notices of science or psychology studies that will pay you to answer questions, drink green juice, or something similarly harmless.
After You Graduate
Conventional Wisdom: Consider consolidating your student loan. Try to avoid lifestyle inflation. Oh, and find a job.
Beyond CW: See if your university has an alumni association that you can join. Many offer numerous discounts, cheap membership to the university gym, and use of other university facilities that can come in handy even if you move to another city. Careful though, you’re also likely to get calls and letters asking you to donate all the money you’ve saved and more to your alma mater.
If you’re a member of United’s Mileage Plus program, take advantage of their 10,000 mile graduation reward and you’ll be almost halfway to a free air ticket.
Above all, make sure you utilize all the amazing facilities available to you. Never again will you have so many resources–the library, the gym, the career center, the mental health center, and activities, events, speakers and student organizations–available for free (well, free after you or your parents paid thousands of dollars for the access).
Michele Stillwell is a communications associate for a nonprofit in California. She’d love to hear from you by email.