How to Save on Personal Expenses in College

Cutting down on college costs may require better financial planning by parents and students.

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Online courses offer flexibility, but require added discipline and planning.
Online courses offer flexibility, but require added discipline and planning.

College students and their parents have probably spent the last several months researching college funding options, such as considering in-state public schools, applying for private scholarships, and filling out the FAFSA.

Now that you know your choices when it comes to academic expenses, it's time to examine how to cut costs on food, clothing, and other personal expenses.

After successes—and some failures—of our own, our family has tips to help shape your financial strategies.

JULIE:

Parents of first-time college students like to chuckle about how their kids have discovered frugality now that they're on their own. Grocery and gas prices are now on their radar. And they become experts at sniffing out "buy one, get one free" restaurant meals.

Like many families, we learned by trial and error about budgeting for the non-education expenses of college. Here are some of the things that worked for us.

1. Put kids in charge of spending money early: The first year of college isn't the ideal time for kids to manage a budget for the first time. Make sure your child has the opportunity to earn money and decide how to spend it before they leave for school—and the earlier the better.

That way, managing some spending money won't be on the list of things they're experiencing for the first time freshman year.

[Follow these four steps to financially prepare your student for college.]

2. Set expectations: Your student may be used to you buying his or her clothing, financing restaurant meals, and purchasing school supplies. If that's going to be the student's responsibility in college, make sure to communicate that clearly, and early on.

Make sure that whatever arrangement you agree on is understood by both parties.

3. Give practical gifts: When it's time to mail a care package or buy a birthday or holiday gift, think practically. College kids will probably appreciate laundry detergent, restaurant gift cards, and plain old cash better than anything else.

And those kinds of gifts can help the parents' budget too, since you student is less likely to come calling for more money down the road.

LINDSEY:

Coming off of high school graduation, I felt confident about my finances thanks to a summer job, graduation money, and relatively low expenses during high school. It didn't take me long, however, to discover how quickly the college lifestyle can drain funds, if left unexamined.

Here's how I learned to keep track of my spending and save for those few splurge items.

1. Use an online financial tool: This is something I just discovered this summer, when my school's Student Money Management Services talked to one of my student groups. They stressed the importance of knowing where your money goes, not just how much of it you spend.

You can do this through whatever website or method works best for you, but I personally love Mint.com. I use my allowed monthly budgets for groceries, gas, and clothing as a personal challenge to see how little I can spend.

[See other ways to save on college costs.]

2. Make it part of your routine: When I open my laptop each morning, my process typically includes checking E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and news headlines. What I learned to add to that morning ritual was checking my financial progress online. That allows me to look at each purchase I make within a few days, and examine whether it was necessary and where it puts me on my monthly budgets.

Keeping daily track of my spending was especially important because I was using my debit card much more than cash. When you don't actually see the money leaving your hands, it can be difficult to register just how much you're spending on those Jimmy John's sandwiches or Target runs.

3. Allot time to mull over purchases: One of my major pitfalls when shopping is being rushed. Whether it's a trip to a grocery store or clothing boutique, I like to have time to consider each item and think about whether I really need it and if it's the cheapest option available.

Simply walking through a store and tossing everything I like into my cart is how $100 shopping sprees have happened without my even noticing. A good strategy is to do your best to never be surprised when the cashier announces your total. This can take some of the guilt out of any purchase.