How College Students Can Waste Less Money

When Aaron Johnson returned to his Columbia University dorm from his weekly grocery shopping trip, he felt devastated by the number on the receipt: $30. Next week, he vowed, he would spend $20.

Johnson, a Gates Millennium Scholar, came to Columbia from a low-income community in Los Angeles. He felt overwhelmed not only by the prospect of changing coasts and entering the Ivy League, but also by the necessity of buying food and textbooks.

“You’re handling a full-time course load, you’re given a budget and you’re supposed to stretch it out for months on your own,” he says. “You’re thrust out into a competitive market, and there’s no one holding your hand explaining how things work.”

Johnson ultimately decided to take time off from Columbia due to a combination of financial and personal concerns. He currently works as a security guard and is enrolled part-time at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. Looking ahead, he hopes to transfer soon to the University of Southern California and believes “there needs to be a much greater push to connect college students with resources for discounts.”

Like Johnson, many students struggle with the additional costs that come with college. Some end up failing to effectively manage these expenses. In response, a growing number of organizations have made it their mission to help.

Here are three main ways that college students waste money, along with the services that can help them save:


When profs pass out a syllabus, they’re also handing out a hefty bill. The College Board reports that the average student living on campus at a four-year college or university spent $1,231 on books and supplies this year.

“When students are faced with choosing between paying for rent or buying their textbook, they often have to choose the former,” says Ethan Senack, higher education advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, which recently found that 65% of students had decided against buying a required textbook because it was too expensive.

Many students lose money by shopping at the campus bookstore, a haven of high price tags. But more affordable alternatives to campus bookstores have cropped up in recent years.

The classic Russian novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, which remains a staple on the reading lists of English courses, provides a powerful example. TheKenyon College bookstore lists Anna Karenina for $18.00. The online learning platform Chegg lets users rent the novel for $9.99 or buy a used copy for $4.99. And the volunteer effort Project Gutenberg and Google GOOGL +0.21% Books let users access the novel online for free.

At first glance, Project Gutenberg and Google Books may seem like the best options because they’re free. But Project Gutenberg only contains 49,000 older books whose copyrights have expired. And students will be frustrated to find that Google Books often leaves out several pages. In light of these limitations, Chegg emerges a great choice for students in search of flexibility.

Chegg, a company based in Santa Clara, CA, leads the way in online textbook rentals in addition to providing a host of other services such as online tutoring and scholarship and internship matching. The $305 million annual revenue (2014) company saw its stocks rise 30% this March after CEO Dan Rosensweig announced it would outsource ownership of physical books to distribution service Ingram and become fully digital.

“If you tell us your classes, we’re able to instantly search and tell you all the textbooks you need,” Rosensweig says. “And we let you get them the way you want it, whether new, used, rental or digital.”

While Chegg recently partnered with Bowdoin College to replace the campus bookstore with an online version, Rosensweig says Chegg will not actively seek out more partner schools.

“The whole premise of Chegg, the whole mission since the day we got here, has been how do we save students money and time and help them get smarter,” he adds. “Everything we do is designed to do those things.”


Getting around campus and the surrounding area can also rack up the expenses. The College Board figures that the average student living on campus at a public, four-year institution spends $1,146 on transportation alone.

Many students make the mistake of bringing a car to campus. While gas prices have fallen to a national average of $2.75 a gallon and could hit 2009 lows, filling up the tank still frequently means emptying the wallet. Parking spots can also go for around $80 on many campuses.

Other students fall into the trap of paying a surcharge to use popular ride-sharing mobile apps like Uber during peak hours, major holidays and inclement weather. For students who attend schools in the northeast, snowstorms like 2015’s Winter Storm Juno can raise the Uber fare by as much as 2.8 times higher than normal.

Free or subsidized bus programs help students hop around town for less. Students at 10 colleges and universities in Rhode Island, including Brown University, can take unlimited free rides on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority thanks to the University Pass Program.

Bike-sharing programs also mark an excellent choice for students on campuses committed to sustainability. All five institutions in the Claremont Colleges consortium currently offer the student-run Green Bike program.

As part of the program, Pitzer College annually gives out around 120 free bikes to students who volunteer for four hours in the bike shop, says Drew Herbert, associate dean of students at Pitzer. “We don’t allow our first-year or second-year students to bring cars except for special circumstances, but it does save money on taxis,” he says. “And the obvious cost of purchasing a bike is saved.”

Meal plan

While food is a basic necessity, college meal plans can eat into students’ savings. Many students fall prey to optional or mandatory plans that cash in at anywhere from $5 to $9 per meal.

For students living in certain dorms at the New School, the required $3,270-per-year Dining Dollars program may not offer the best deal. Over the course of the 30-week academic year, a New School student would need to consistently eat three meals a day to lower the cost of each meal to $5.19. Yet many students sleep in and skip breakfast, while others chow down on New York City’s wider array of culinary offerings.

Other students wind up with extra meal swipes at the end of the spring semester. Since these meal swipes don’t carry over to the next academic year, they’re as good as wasted.

The best course of action is to “pick a meal plan that fits your lifestyle,” says Tom Driscoll, director of Food Services at the University of Oregon. And while food donation programs don’t help students save money, they do help them make an impact in their community. Last year, a point drive at the University of Oregon let students transform their extra swipes into a gift of 317 50-pound sacks of brown rice to a local food bank, Driscoll says.

As a sophomore at the University of California Los Angeles, Bryan Pezeshki got together with a few friends and founded a similar program called Swipes for the Homeless. By his senior year, the program was collecting around 10,000 meals at the end of each quarter for less fortunate community members. Today, the program has spread to several campuses under the new name Swipe Out Hunger.

Extra swipes can even go toward treating classmates in need to lunch right on campus, Pezeshki says, adding, “That was one of the bigger things we focused on at UCLA, that there was a small population of students who were having difficulty essentially just affording a decent meal and coming to school.”

About the Author

Maxine Joselow

Maxine Joselow

I write about the use and misuse of the college experience.

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