Freshman 15: College Budget Busters

Mom Helping Daughter Pack for College
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The late-night studying that leads to late-night pizza deliveries. The partying that leads to taking cabs (and more late-night snacking). The group dinners with roommates. College habits like these are known for bringing on the dreaded “Freshman 15,” but they don’t just lead to fuller frames—they can also bring about slimmer wallets.

How to Save Money at College

College is the first time many young adults become responsible for managing their day-to-day financial lives. “At 18, though, the tendency is to think in terms of full ‘freedom’ rather than full ‘responsibility,’” says Stefanie O'Connell, author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life.”

Want to help your kids stay on track? Here are 15 budget busters to keep in mind, and how to bring down the cost:

1. Course Essentials

The ​College Board estimates books and supplies cost full-time undergrads at four-year public colleges $1,298 a year. To lower them: Buy used, rent instead of buying (via, or share a text with a pal.​

2. Cars

Parking alone can get pricey (an annual parking permit at The University of Arizona is $672, for example). Weigh the cost of a Zipcar membership instead. Memberships start at $7 a month, and your school might qualify for special rates.

3. Other Rides

Taking cabs, Ubers, Lyfts, or other ride-sharing services adds up fast. Personal finance blogger Tess Wicks didn’t realize she was spending around $200 a month on Ubers before pumping the brakes. “You need to pay attention to it,” she says. Make sure you talk with your kids about how they’ll get around when deciding where to live.

4. Pizza (and Other Food)

Even with a meal plan, the cost of snacks, late-night munchies, and pizza adds up. The key is to set an amount that’s okay to spend weekly for food off the meal plan. “Keep track of your receipts or use an app, like Mint, to review your spending and stay accountable,” O’Connell says. And encourage them to grab an apple or other portable snacks from the dining hall to tide them over.

5. The Caffeine Fix

Coffee can be as vital as water, but buying it every day can get pricey. Even a $2.50 cup of joe is $77 a month when purchased every day. Investing in a Keurig, or better yet, a good old budget-friendly drip coffee maker, is a smarter move.

6. Going Greek

Joining a sorority or fraternity can cost upwards of $1,000 per semester. Talk with your kids, in advance, about whether that’s in the budget. If they pledge, know that older members, or “Bigs,” are assigned to shower newer members called “Littles,” with gifts. Tell your freshman to save the swag to regift the following year.

7. ATM Fees

Using a machine that doesn’t belong to your bank can cost more than $4 a pop, according to The solution: Bank with the institution that has the most machines on campus. And if you don’t have cash? Use your debit or credit card, or let your friends pay and pay them back with Venmo.

8. Laundry

Make sure they know how to do their own before leaving home so that they’re not tempted to send it out. For example, Lazybones laundry service charges up to $364 for a semester at certain schools. Ouch.


“The fear of missing out” can lead to impulse spending on concerts, movies, and even Spring Break, says O’Connell. The solution: Encourage your kids to check the events and student life calendars for free fitness classes, movie screenings, and comedy shows—and pitch those ideas to their friends.

10. The Bookstore

College bookstores aren’t just bookstores anymore. They’re tech emporiums, drugstores, boutiques, and (sometimes) mini-marts rolled into one. And students can often charge purchases on their IDs. Tell your kids you’ll be watching this line item very carefully.

11. Data Drainers

Mobile data isn’t cheap, and if you go over your plan limits you’re looking at up to $15 per extra gigabyte. Tell your kids what their explicit limits are, and if they’re on the family plan, see if you can set individual data limits just for them. (Note: They should be in the habit of joining WiFi whenever possible.)

12. Hygiene

Your teen might get a reality check when they find out how much their common toiletries cost. If they’re living in the dorms, then they likely have the public restroom staples (i.e. toilet paper and hand soap) covered. But shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are a different story. Coupon apps like Shopsavvy and CouponFollow, as well as store apps from CVS and Walgreens, can help.

13. Coming Home for the Holidays

Flights home can cost as much as textbooks, particularly on major holidays. To beat them, plan ahead—57 to 54 days ahead of time, to be exact, or if you can't swing that, at least 21.

14. Streaming

Netflix. HBOgo. Spotify. Services like these can add up fast, but college pricing can help in some cases. Prime Student, Amazon Prime's student discount, offers six months' worth of free two-day shipping for college kids, and after six months, they get Amazon Prime for 50% off (about $50 a year). Spotify’s college deal at $4.99 per month without ads represents a 50% discount. Apple Music and Tidal also offer student deals. 

15. Leaving Free Money Up for Grabs

Finally, tuition. It’s a no-brainer, right? But "almost 3 billion dollars gets left on the table annually when it comes to scholarship money,” says Christie Garton, founder of the 1,000 Dreams Fund. Two sites to explore are and And if you’re borrowing? Exhaust your federal loan capacity before delving into the private ones.

With Kelly Hultgren