College Voices

Three easy ways for college students to cut expenses — and the biggest mistake when budgeting

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Amanda Mier is a senior at UC Berkeley and she is setting up her first budget. This week's challenge: Cutting expenses.
Courtesy: Amanda Mier

“I’m so broke” might be the most common refrain among college students.

But when it comes down to it, how many college students have actually taken the time to set up a budget?

I’ll admit, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t have a budget. And, while setting that up was a very important first step, I learned that actually budgeting is the real challenge.

Case in point: I was feeling pretty good about taking charge of my finances. Then, my credit card got declined when I was buying $100 worth of groceries at my local Trader Joe’s.

Oops! It’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is.

Now, don’t worry – this isn’t a 207-step journey to financial wellness. We’re going to make this as simple – and painless – as possible. A few small changes could lead to some big savings!

Three easy ways to cut expenses

1. Milk your student services and discounts.

Going to college costs a lot of money — but, there are many resources at your disposal to help you save money that you might not be aware of.

Shannon Eusey, president and co-founder of Beacon Pointe Advisors, recommends looking into every service available. If on-campus facilities (like gyms) provided to students are open and safe, take advantage of them. A lot of schools also give free access to software programs or publications, which can help diminish costs that add up (phew — Photoshop is expensive!). And always check if there’s a student discount available, wherever you go.

“You would be surprised,” says Eusey. “[There are discounts] on everything from Apple products to SPIN classes.”

It never hurts to ask!

2. Minimize credit card use.

There are already a ton of necessary expenses built into college, and the student debt crisis is impacting millions of current and former students. It can be hard, but if you’re able to leave college with no extra (read: credit-card) debt, you will have a huge leg up.

Eusey suggests using credit cards for emergencies only, if possible. And be sure to double check your debit and credit-card bills, she says, because there might be unused subscription services that you forgot to cancel or don’t use anymore that are racking up. I personally realized I was spending $4 per month on some photo editing app that I haven’t used for years, so thank you for the tip!

More from College Voices:
Here's what college students need to know about making a budget
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How college students are turning hobbies into side hustles — and extra cash

Lauryn Williams, a certified financial planner of Worth Winning, takes this one step further and suggests going old-school — back to cash.

“Everything operates on a card now, so you don't feel the money leaving your account,” she says. “If you have that cash in your hand, you ask yourself every single time, ‘Do I really need this?’ That is a great way to cut your expenses.”

3. Go “carpool” on everything you can.

Splitting purchases or expenses can drastically diminish your spending, especially if you, like many college students, live with roommates or housemates.

“That’s a great way to keep your expenses down, because the things that we need are pretty predictable,” says Winnie Sun, a longtime financial advisor and managing partner of Sun Group Wealth Partners. “We can definitely not only help ourselves but help those around us, too, because I find that one of the best things to do is to align yourself with others who have similar spending patterns.”

For example, going in on groceries with roommates can lower costs and help limit food waste if produce goes bad. You can even have fun nights cooking together!

“ It becomes a social thing, and then you all end up spending less and end up saving more money,” Sun says. The carpool mentality can be applied to lots of areas of expenses: household goods, school supplies, entertainment, and more. It also can help keep yourself and your friends more organized and accountable when it comes to tracking spending.

The biggest mistake students make when budgeting

So, what is the biggest mistake college students make when it comes to cutting expenses? The experts all had the same response: Being too hard on yourself.

The key to this is setting realistic goals -- you are not going to become an ascetic overnight.

Even if you decide to only eat ramen for the rest of your life, after three days of that “you’re angry, and what do you do? You splurge and you order everything at the next restaurant that you go to,” Williams says. “Cutting back is not about completely getting rid of the things that you enjoy doing, but maybe doing them in a less expensive way.”

And if you do end up splurging on something really unnecessary, first try to see if you can return it or re-sell it. If not, remember that every adult makes financial mistakes, and it’s part of growing up.

“If it's not a huge mistake, then chalk it up as part of your financial education and don't make it again,” Sun says. “You can't get financially independent without making mistakes.”

Amanda's Budget Challenge #2: Cut expenses

Changes I’m making

With this advice in mind, I came up with a few fun ways to lower my spending. Since I found out that my biggest discretionary expenses were on takeout, clothes, and beauty products, I needed to find creative ways to cut down on those areas.

1. ‘Carpooling’ on produce. I love to cook, but I often buy too many groceries so my produce goes bad quickly. Then I’m too tired and lazy to go grocery shopping again and I justify getting takeout. My five other roommates have similar issues, though, so we found a solution. One of my housemates and I are “going carpool” on produce so we make the most of it before it expires.

Mier and her roommates "carpool" on fresh produce so it doesn't go bad – and they save money.
Source: Amanda Mier


2. Roommate dinner night.
My house is also having a house dinner every week where we cook together, making saving money a social activity. For last week’s dinner, we went to get groceries in Chinatown for a dumpling-making night. It was absolutely delicious, and we ended up spending only $10 per person on tons of food and drinks — a meal which would have cost over $30 per person had we gone out!

Mier and her roommates decided to cook together at home at least once a week – it's fun and it saves money.
Source: Amanda Mier

3. Clothing swap. We also did a clothing swap to help curb our online shopping urges, where we traded in clothes that didn’t fit anymore or which we didn’t want so we could spice up each other’s wardrobes (we donated what we didn’t end up trading). I got a phenomenal haul and ended up saving so much.

Mier is excited with the haul she got from the roommate clothing swap. She got great stuff – and didn't spend any money!
Source: Amanda Mier


4. Doing at-home beauty treatments.
Going to the salon is fun and relaxing – but it also costs a lot of money! So, I decided to try doing a few things – like my face mask, eyelashes and nails at home.

Mier experimenting with a home-made face mask of honey and turmeric.
Source: Amanda Mier


Mier applies her DIY face mask.
Source: Amanda Mier

5. Changing my habits. Instead of shopping online when I’m bored or stressed out, I have decided to create art, clean my room, do yoga or take a walk. And when I do, I leave my credit and debit cards at home! So, it reduces the urge to spend even a few bucks on the walk – those savings can add up.

How much I'm saving

OK, so now the important question: How much am I saving?

1. Takeout. I used to spend $25 per week. Now, with cooking one night a week with roommates ($10 for my part of the groceries), I'm saving $15 per week = $60 monthly savings

2. Clothes. I used to spend $45 a month. Now with the clothing swap (free!) that = $45 monthy savings

3. Beauty products. I used to spend $50-$100/month at a salon. Now, I spend $15 on supplies to do it myself = average monthly savings of $60

Total savings = $165 per month!

That, combined with the $266 I was already saving per month puts me at $431 for monthly savings, which means I hit the savings requirement according to the 50/30/20 rule! (That is: spend 50% of your income on needs, 30% on wants and 20% on savings or paying off debt.)

Let’s see if I can keep it up!

Are you trying to cut expenses while you’re in college, too? Email me an update of how it’s going and any questions you have at amanda.mier@nbcuni.com.

We’re in this together!

CNBC's "College Voices" is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Amanda Mier is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in English. She set up her first budget and agreed to document it in a series of articles and Instagram videos for College Voices. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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