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How to Budget as a College or University Student 101

by:
Adriana Molina

First, congratulations on pursuing higher education! Attending college or university prepares you for a lucrative career, while also allowing you to pursue your passions, broaden your horizons, socialize with peers, and upon completion, bask in a wonderful feeling of accomplishment! But all these benefits come at a price, and current estimates put the total amount of Canadian student loan debt at $28 billion. And while while you can’t do much about the cost of tuition, there are some other smart decisions you can make to put yourself in a better financial position once you graduate.

8 Ways Post-Secondary Students Can Save Money

1. Always Ask About Student Discounts

You probably know you can get a deal on movie tickets or gym memberships. But you’d be surprised at some of the other places where flashing your student ID card can really pay off! From Air Canada to Apple, to Forever 21 and Rogers, there are dozens of companies willing to help students out. Canada’s Global News recently released a list of discounters worth checking out!

2. Use Your Meal Plan Frequently

Many first-year students purchase a meal plan, but then fail to use it in favour of the fast food fixes they love so dearly. And while it’s okay to want to get out of the cafeteria and off campus from time-to-time, using your meal plan can save you a lot of money—that's what it's there for! It might even be healthier for you in some cases, which can help you ward off the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.

3. Pick Up a Part-Time or Seasonal Job

According to Global News Canada, 28% of Canadian graduates under 40 say they wish they’d worked more during school. While working is a great way to bring in some extra spending money, you want to be careful just how much you work; working long hours can jeopardize studies, or lengthen the time it takes you to graduate (the cost of an extra semester or two is likely to be far more expensive than what you’d earn working part-time). Perhaps picking up a side gig is in your best interest, or just working a seasonal job. Consider getting a part-time job at your campus cafeteria and you could cut down on your food costs with employee freebies.

4. Be Careful with Credit Cards

Creditors are notorious for targeting college and university students. You’ll find them set up at tables during orientation and campus events asking you to sign up for their card, offering free swag like a beer cozy or university hat to further entice you. For many students, a credit card might seem to offer the promise of financial freedom. But the truth is, they can put you in a financial hole that’s very hard to get out of, especially as a student or recent graduate. (And when you call Mom and Dad to help with payments, there goes that feeling of freedom you thought you had attained!) If you ultimately decide to apply for a credit card, be sure to clear the balance every single month to avoid interest charges, which add up fast and can be very difficult for students to keep up with who are just starting to build their credit.

5. Take Advantage of Campus Events and Amenities

If you’re living on campus, there’s probably an event going on just about every night of the week! It might be a free movie (with free popcorn!), a Game of Thrones viewing party, free yoga classes, video game or billiard competitions, trivia, and much more. Not only does attending these campus events keep you occupied, but it also gives you a chance to meet new people. And while Goodlife Fitness might be Canadians’ gym of choice, your campus gym has it beat in one area: It’s free or costs next to nothing. So hit your campus gym and other fun events and your budget won't need to take a hit.

6. Go Without Your Car

In high school, a car meant freedom! But in college or university, it can be an unnecessary and expensive hassle. There’s the cost of parking (and parking tickets, which could result in an expensive tow), gas, insurance, and repair. Plus, you’re likely to be the one saddled with doing all the driving for your friends who don’t have a car. So just say no to wheels (and help the planet too) by hopping on your campus transit, taking the heel-toe express (aka walking) or biking around campus. You can also consider signing up for a car-sharing service like Zipcar for those times when you absolutely need a car. Car-sharing services have become popular on campuses, giving students access to a car any time of day with gas and insurance included.

7. Buy Used and Refurbished

Many colleges and universities are turning to digital textbooks, but plenty still require you to lug around the real deal. Rather than buying your textbooks brand new from the campus bookstore, check the library, reused bookstores, campus bulletin boards and online ads for students selling their old textbooks who have previously taken the course. And when it comes to tech, you may want to consider buying refurbished phones, laptops, tablets, and other electronics you'll need. Refurbished items can be found with retailers or manufacturers online or in-stores, and are meant to be just as functional as their “never used” counterparts, but with savings of 10%-50% if you search around enough. 

8. Live More Frugally

According to a 2017 Ipsos Poll, 30% of graduates cited living above their means as one of their biggest regrets. But living frugally doesn’t mean saying no; it just means finding less expensive alternatives. Can you buy generic groceries and/or fewer brand name clothes? Can you skip the club and go to a viewing party or hear a local band instead? How about grabbing a coffee from the cafeteria or brewing your own instead of hitting Starbucks on the way to class? Our Budget Calculator can help you see how just a few cutbacks can really add up!


Attending college or university can be some of the best and most memorable times of your life. And while there’s no way around the cost of tuition, you can look into financial aid opportunities and manage other areas of your finances—such as your monthly expenses, credit cards, and pricey purchases—so they don’t haunt you long after you’ve tossed your graduation cap. Already feeling a bit overwhelmed about your finances and student debt? Help is just a phone call away. Give us a call at 1.800.267.2272 and we can set you up with a free counselling session with one of our certified, non-profit credit counsellors who can help you develop a spending plan that you can follow through the remainder of your student years.

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Topics: Millennials, Student Loans, Generation Z

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