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How to save serious cash on this major expense

A place to live, along with food to eat, is likely the biggest non-tuition cost (or even biggest cost, period) associated with college. The College Board reports that room and board at an in-state, four-year university is, on average, $11,620. That’s more than $1,000 above the average price of tuition and fees ($10,560) at the same type of school. And while that price tag might seem fixed, there are ways to trim the expense.

1. Make dorm life more affordable

  • Avoid the most expensive dorm. If you’re committed to the dorm experience (or your school requires it for freshmen), there are ways to cut back on the associated costs. Even within the same school, different dorm buildings and room types can have different prices, which you may be able to take into account as you choose (as well as things like proximity to your classes and/or work-study job).
  • Mind your meal plan. The meal plan is another place you can save. Opt for a smaller meal plan and supplement with inexpensive groceries, or choose an apartment-style dorm that doesn’t require a meal plan, and in which you can cook your own meals. Of course, this only helps your bottom line if you actually shop for groceries and prep your own food. If you’re filling in with takeout and restaurant meals, you could end up spending more.
  • Become a RA. After your first year, you could apply to be a RA, or resident advisor, a position that usually comes with free or discounted housing, and sometimes a meal plan too.

2. Live off-campus

Some schools require that you live on-campus for a portion of your college experience (usually just your first year). But once you’ve met your school’s requirements for living on-campus, you may find that living off-campus is an option that saves you money.

  • Explore your options. The costs of off-campus housing can vary wildly depending on where your school is located, how far you live from campus, and the specifics of your setup. While you can’t do much about the first factor (other than transfer schools), the other two are entirely in your control. Just don’t forget to factor in commuting costs; if you move far enough away from campus, you’ll need to budget for gas and parking.
  • Get real about rent. Figure out how much you can realistically spend on rent, and then look for a place that fits your budget. That might be a house that you share with roommates close to campus, or a studio apartment further afield.
  • Live with roommates. Keep in mind that the more people you live with, the more people you can share non-rent expenses with, too (like utilities). Work together to create a shared roommate budget to remain a team when tackling your finances.
  • Plan your meals, but ditch the meal plan. By living off-campus and not buying a meal plan, you can save on food costs too. Roommates can take turns cooking so you can and enjoy the benefits of home-cooked meals with a fraction of the effort.

3. Bunk with mom and dad

  • Choose a school that’s close to home. Living on your own can be a part of the quintessential college experience—but it doesn’t have to be. And choosing a school that’s close to home and living with your parents can make a highly significant difference in the total cost of school, and therefore the amount of student loan debt you graduate with.
  • Save on food, laundry, and more. Plus, you’ll likely have easier (and free) access to laundry, and free reign to raid the kitchen whenever you’re hungry (though you might want to kick in for groceries if you can). Your parents may surprise you with their willingness to treat you more like an adult during this time, and if you generally get along with them, you may find you appreciate their support as you make this big life transition.
  • Still spend time on campus. Of course, there are some downsides to this situation, including missing out on developing life skills gained when you leave the nest as well as social opportunities. To minimize the drawbacks, get involved in campus life through clubs and teams, and spend as much time on campus as you can.

Figuring out a housing plan you can afford

The right solution for you will depend a lot on your individual school, your personality, and your relationship with your family. Once you graduate, you’ll be faced with similar options and tradeoffs, including whether to prioritize location or cost, or whether you should live at home for a while to save money. Only you know what the right choice is for you.


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