8 College Essentials That Will Actually Help You Save Money—and the Planet

These smart items will keep your budget on track and your conscience clean.

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College is an expensive endeavor and the costs can add up—quickly. While the price of tuition may be out of your control, there are a few key ways to keep living expenses aligned with a tight student budget, whether you’re living on-campus or off. The first place to look is your shopping list.

Carefully analyze the items you’re planning on buying to identify the extra stuff you can skip and those that will actually help you save money during your stint as a student (and even beyond). Read on for eight essentials that will help you lower the cost of living as a college student. And as a huge bonus, most of these items will help you slash your environmental impact, too. A win-win. 

1. A Bike to Cycle to Class: Pure Cycles Urban Coaster Bicycle


Between gas, parking permits, insurance, maintenance, and repairs, having a car while you’re going to school can (and will) get expensive, not to mention damaging to the planet. You can save a lot of money by leaving your car off campus and biking to get to class or run errands around town. Sure, a bike is an upfront investment, but it’s one that will pay itself off with every use—and you’ll be able to ride it long after you graduate. Parking is free and often more convenient than a car, and you can even learn to do repairs yourself, saving you a few bucks when you need to replace a tire.

Need even more inspiration to exchange a gas pedal for a bike pedal? It’ll help you stay in shape in between long nights of pizza and studying and lighten up your carbon footprint. That’s something you know you’ll be able to feel good about for years to come.

Our pick? An affordable choice that has exactly what you need (without the bells and whistles you don’t). The Urban Coaster Bicycle is lightweight and features foot breaks (childhood nostalgia!). While it won’t serve as a high-performance road bike, it’ll get you to class and that part-time job reliably and easily.

2. A Power Strip: AmazonBasics 6-Outlet Surge Protector Power Strip


With a lot of tech involved in all that education, you’ll also need a lot of outlets to charge everything. But many dorm rooms and apartments don’t have ample outlets (or, if they do, they always seem to be oddly configured or exactly where you don’t need them to be). A power strip is an easy, cheap solution to make sure all of your devices can be charged simultaneously.

Convenience aside, a power strip is an essential tool for managing your energy consumption and keeping your electricity bill low if you live off-campus by allowing you to truly turn off appliances when they’re not in use. (Did you know electronics actually still use electricity when they’re plugged into a working outlet, even if they’re not in use?) And there’s no need for a fancy brand name when buying: AmazonBasics makes an affordable, unobtrusive option.

3. A Filtering Water Pitcher: The Brita Pitcher


It’s often the little things that can have the biggest impact on your budget — a few dollars here and there can add up over time. Take bottled water, for example, which is about 2,000 times more expensive than tap. But tap water doesn’t always taste as good, right? Enter the Brita pitcher, which reduces many of the contaminants like chlorine, copper, cadmium, and mercury that make your tap water taste and smell subpar. And because it’s small enough to fit in a mini-fridge, it’ll work in a dorm room just as well as a full-sized apartment.

And for when you’re not at home, keeping a reusable BPA-free water bottle in your bag is another simple way to stay hydrated while cutting costs and unnecessary waste. The Brita Filtering Bottle has the same effective filter on-the-go, so you can fill up your bottle at any tap and always have great tasting water. With Brita, you can replace 1,800 single-use plastic bottles a year--which really adds up!

4. Clothing Drying Rack: Polder Compact Accordion Clothes Drying Rack

drying rack

If you’re living in a dorm or off-campus housing, you’re likely paying to do your laundry every week—be it per load or as part of your electricity bill. Air drying instead of using the dryer can help keep costs down, while also extending the life of your clothing by keeping those delicate fibers intact.

Drying racks are generally relatively inexpensive, and this compact, foldable version is perfect for tight spaces where storage is at a premium. Stretching vertically (rather than taking up floor space), you can hang a good amount on its various-height bars and still move around your bedroom. 

5. Coffee Maker: OXO BREW Single Serve Pour Over Coffee Dripper


Between all-night study sessions and early morning classes, coffee and tea are nearly universally college student staples. But if you’re not brewing your own and rely on coffee shops to get your caffeine fix, that daily coffee habit can easily end up costing you well over $20 a week. With that kind of baseline, purchasing a coffee maker pays for itself in a couple of months, if that, making it a worthwhile investment for the school year (and beyond).

A simple pour-over coffee maker, like the OXO BREW, distributes its own water from a water tank for a balanced cup without requiring you to be hyper-attuned to the details. Plus, you won’t have to worry about buying those pricey brewing cups and pods that all-too-often end up in landfills anyway.

6. Travel Mug: RTIC Double Wall Vacuum Insulated Tumbler


Sipping from a reusable coffee mug is another way to save on your caffeine routine without sacrificing that energy bump. Having a travel mug on hand not only gives you a way to take your homemade coffee (see above) or tea with you to class but, for the days when making your own just isn’t in the cards, it also allows you to benefit from discounts that more and more coffee shops are offering to customers who bring their own cups.

You’ll find tons of options to choose from when it comes to keeping your java warm away from home, but this 20-ounce tumbler with an easy-grip base is a great choice. Plus, it comes in a number of attractive colors, from simple stainless to bright purple.

7. Reusable Food Containers: Pyrex Simply Store Glass Food Container Set


College students can save money on meal plans or their weekly grocery bill by meal prepping for the week and stocking up on an inexpensive kitchen essential: food storage containers. If you live on campus, they’re great for storing snacks, plus you can bring them along to the dining hall and take an extra meal to go. They’re also handy for batch cooking for the week every Sunday, a good habit to get into if you’re trying to stick to a budget.

Going for glass or ceramic options is the best way to keep chemicals from potentially leaching into your food and do the right thing for the environment. Sure, they’re a little heavier than plastic, but it’s worth it. Plus, they’re microwave and dishwasher safe, if either of those is available to you, which means less mess for you to clean up by hand. 

8. LED Lightbulbs: Philips LED Non-Dimmable Frosted Light Bulbs

light bulb

The lighting you choose for your space can have an impact not only on the quality of your study session but on your electricity bill, as well. Switching your light bulbs from incandescent to LEDs can reduce energy consumption by as much as 80-90%. They can also last 25,000 hours or more (25 times longer than incandescent bulbs), which means one bulb could potentially get you through your entire college career.

For a softer look, try a frosted LED bulb: It minimizes much of that harsh white light while offering all the cost- (and energy-) saving benefits. Plus, you won’t have to change your light bulbs as often, which is one less item to worry about when you have midterms on the mind.