15 Tips to Avoid Overspending for First-Time College Students

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For both parents and students, off-to-school shopping can be an important financial lesson that should be shared. It is a prime opportunity for parents to get to teach their kids a few remaining lessons about budgeting and personal finance: two very important lessons college kids should be learning before leaving the nest.

Here are fifteen tips that will help both parents and students stay on track and avoid a credit disaster when shopping for the basics and the luxuries before heading to the dorm:

1. Take Inventory

Before even hitting the malls, take stock of what is already at home. Sure it is great to get a fresh start and have shiny new things, but the reality is education is expensive. Look in the basement and the attic for old furniture and household goods that are still in good shape.

As a parent, anything you can part with can end up saving you a lot of money.

2. Ask Family and Friends

Not only should you check out the recesses of your own house, ask grandma how many extra things she has stored away. Family and friends may have many items you could use and would only be too happy to clean out some of the stuff out of the storage.

3. Ask Other College Students

Perhaps a friend of the family or someone in your neighborhood has returned from college and could sell you a mini-fridge or a microwave. A recent college grad can also provide useful tips for the first year and what you should bring.

4. Check Out the College Rules

Some colleges do not permit certain items like hot plates or microwaves in the dorm rooms. Make sure you know the regulations and the space available to each student before buying anything.

5. Make a List

Take time to plan your shopping trip. By making a list, you may be less likely to wander down every aisle and make too many impulse buys. Having a master list will also help you keep track of what you’ve already purchased since you may have to store items at another location until move-in day.

6. Stay on Top of Sales

Start looking in the newspaper for the advertisement fliers. Find out what is on sale and when and plan to hit the stores on sale day. Check off purchased items from the master list so you do not double buy.

7. Shop Early

Start following fliers well before the start of a new school semester. You will not only be able to hit great sales, you can also ease a lot of the financial burden by spacing out the timeline you have to get all of the goods.

8. Compare Prices

Take time to look around different stores and bring a notebook. Jot down how much big-ticket items cost at different stores. You can also comparison shop online at sites like www.bizrate.com and www.nextag.com.

9. Save Cash

Leaving for college isn’t generally a surprise event. Setting aside a bit of money from every paycheck for a few months prior to the going away date can help control spending and keep you on budgets.

Students who have jobs should also be encouraged to contribute to the cost of the items.

10. Consider Credit Wisely

In the event you need to rely on a credit card for a necessary purchase, make every effort to pay off the balance as soon as possible. Messing up your credit can limit future financial aid or other loans that will help cover the costs of education. Do not use a credit card carelessly just to make purchases.

11. Limit New Purchases

Consider buying the basics for the first trip to school. There are many factors to consider, especially if you have not personally visited the dorm or apartment first. Space in the transportation vehicle is the first consideration. If the school is within reasonable driving distance, consider packing basics on the first trip and supplement supplies on subsequent visits.

12. Long Distance Purchasing

If the school of choice is halfway across the country, consider leaving early and staying in a hotel. There will most likely be local places where you can buy the necessities without having to lug everything on an airplane or rent special transportation to haul things.

13. Wait to Buy Decor

Unless you are absolutely sure of certain situations, avoid buying curtains, carpets and other decorative items. With the changing minds of college students and the opinion of potential roommates, it is better to get settled and shop later for the incidentals.

14. Don’t Take All New Clothes

It is not a good idea to purchase and bring an entire new wardrobe to school. Buy a few new items and take a few comfy, familiar items to school. Dress code amongst students may change a new students mind about fashion. Take seasonally appropriate clothes and remember storage in the dorm may be very limited.

15. Safety First

Remember to take security measures into account when purchasing items, especially for students sharing a living space. You may want to invest in an appropriate safe to store valuables or cash. It will be worth the initial cost of the device if it ends up saving the replacement cost of any important or irreplaceable items.

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16 years ago

Yes, take advantage of what your family and friends have. I still have dishes from my parents that I “took” when I went to college…it was nicer stuff than I could have afforded at the time and is quality that has stood the test of time (I’m five years out of school).

Pinyo Bhulipongsanon
16 years ago

@Trent — Good to see you here. Yes, definitely take advantage of all the free activities. I didn’t do enough of that I and certainly regret the missed opportunity.

@Nicole — I can still remember milk crates as all purpose bookshelves, storage, etc.

16 years ago

When I was a student I NEVER bought an item of clothing for three whole years. Instead I relied on family and friends to by me clothes for Christmas and My birthday or got gift vouchers which I could then use to buy clothes. It’s hard enough surviving financially at college/university without worring about a clothing budget. Some really excellent practical tips, thanks for guesting

16 years ago

These are great tips… also be sure to save on textbooks – buy used, trade with other people, etc.

My first year of college, my roomate had everything… all I brought was a cd player and my clothes! It was worth it to talk to her ahead of time so I didn’t bring stuff I didn’t need.

16 years ago

Don’t forget this big one: Don’t buy your textbooks at the bookstore (or at least, compare prices to online sources). I wasted a lot of $$$ my first semester by buying my books at the store, and I was too late to buy used.

16 years ago

Something I wish someone had told me as a college student was track your expenses for a month or so and see where your money goes. Then make a budget, trimming expenses where necessary.

I did most of the things on the above list and still wound up making some seriously stupid purchases, mostly on food and partying. I really regret not making a budget for myself and having a real awareness of where my money was going most of the time.

16 years ago

Those are excellent tips! New textbooks are usually expensive, so getting 2nd hand books is definitely easier on the pocket. Also, I’ve realized that the campus bookstore sold the books more expensive than outside the campus.

Pinyo Bhulipongsanon
16 years ago

@Christina — Good point about checking with your roommate. No need to bring duplicate things.

@StackingPennies — Oh, I spent a lot of money on textbooks. I wish I was a little wiser.

@Pearl — At least you tried. I didn’t and I made a lot of dumb decisions back then.

@Bunny — But I love campus store (may be that’s why I spent so much money)

16 years ago

Craigslist is a great place to find things that are gently used and are free or cheap, such as moving boxes, appliances, mattresses, and couches. And I agree that it is really important to check college rules — a lot of dorms don’t allow hot plates and things like that. As a recent college grad, I can also attest to the genius behind the idea of just asking around to see if anyone has an extra microwave. Most people I know ended up with an extra one somehow in college, because some apartments come with them and some come without… Read more »

16 years ago

Great advice! I’m coming over from your interview on Frugal Hacks today. I’ll definitely be sending this post to my sister who is a freshman in college. Thanks!

16 years ago

Great tips!

The storage cubes that had held my toys just a few years earlier, ended up perfect for under-the-loft storage in my dorm room. Save those 20% off coupons for bed-bath-and-beyond and just buy one item at a time. Those things are great.

Also, try buying books on amazon marketplace or half.com before stepping into the campus bookstore. If you can’t find the right edition (and BELIEVE ME, edition can be VERY important), try to buy used from the bookstore on campus. Don’t sell your book back on campus unless you can’t find anyone else to sell it to!

16 years ago

Talking with graduating seniors is one of the best ways to get information that has some element of insurance in its value… simply because it’s from someone who has been through the ringer themselves! Don’t buy everything they are selling before you find out what is really, truly needed for the program. The unnecessary crud can run into the thousands of dollars!

16 years ago

These are all great pieces of advice! For students and parents who may not have a lot of money to spend, try a thrift store. You can often find textbooks, appliances, furniture and clothes at really great prices.

Trent Hamm
16 years ago

#16. Get involved in the mountains of free stuff to do ON your campus. Join some campus organizations that are of interest to you and you’ll find tons of social opportunities that don’t require you to go out on the town and blow cash.

15 Tips to Avoid Overspending for First-Time College Students

by Tisha Tolar time to read: 3 min
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