How to Be Cheap: College Edition

Someone in my dorm had a theory that a college student could find enough free food to eat every meal for free. There is some truth to this overstatement. There is usually free food at least once a day somewhere on or near college campuses. You might have to sit through a play or lecture to get it, but you could always try to slip in at the end. Campus organizations know college students are broke and hungry, so they use food to lure students into their meetings. Which works out great as long as you can find those meetings. Keep your eyes and ears open. Look for signs on billboards, and listen in class for department goings-on. Then there are parties and dorm events, college fests, restaurant promos, and student coupons in the newspaper.

Kent State University also has a “food committee” that meets occasionally to evaluate the different food options students have. They also visit other campuses to try out their dining halls and on-campus restaurants. But the best part about the food committee is that if you put down $25 a semester, you get $25 every week to spend on campus food (in the form of a charged card). And all you have to do is fill out a review card for your meal. That covers lunch every week day, for only $25 a semester. What a deal! (I’m not sure how to join the food committee, and of course it’s pretty limited, but I’d be asking around the dining hall and residence life people if I were going to Kent).

Another good strategy is to get an job at a food place—whether it’s the dining hall, on-campus eateries, or near-campus cafeterias. When I worked at Starbucks we got a free drink and $5 for lunch at the Student Union eateries every day we worked. So that took care of lunches every day. Ask the student employees about the perks before you apply.

Your parents also assume you’re broke and hungry so they tend to invite you over for dinner and send you home with leftovers and groceries. (“I just happened to pick up two extra jars of peanut butter this week,” you mom says.) If your parents want to help you out, take it! Don’t be proud. But don’t be a beggar either: “Hey mom, what’s up with a haircut reimbursement?” I heard one college student ask. That’s just lame.

Speaking of haircuts, your best bet in college is to go with a hairstyle that doesn’t have to be trimmed often. This means long hair for girls, or very short hair for guys (unless they want to go long, too). For females, the longer your hair, the less often you have to get it cut. If you don’t have a short or angled style to maintain, you can go four to six months without a trim. That means you only have to pay twice a year. Keep your eyes open for sales or coupons for Best Cuts, Great Clips, and Famous Hair. Often their normal $10-12 prices will drop as cheap as $6.
For guys, get a cut you can trim yourself (like having no or very little hair), or do the hippie thing and let it grow. This last option is not recommended if you are interviewing for internships or jobs in a professional field, though.

For girls, the cheapest route is to not dye or highlight your hair at all. Often highlights and dying require maintenance, which sends you back to the salon again and again. There is drug store hair dye which is much cheaper, but make sure you know what you’re doing, or get an experienced friend to help. Of course, you’re still going to have roots showing soon enough and it still costs money, so the cheapest is not to dye at all.
What you really want to find is a friend who is going to cosmetology school. They will be happy to practice on you, but not experienced enough to charge you. Of course there’s some risk involved with this strategy, but “it’ll grow back” offers some reassurance.

These tips hold for graduates, too, although if you’re a career woman or just have a job where you need to look professional, you might not be able to sport the long-locked scholar look. I remember getting my hair cut at J.C. Penney the week before I started student teaching. “I want to look older, more professional,” I told the nineteen-year-old stylist. I was twenty, and about to teach seniors. She gave me an awful high-school-girl hair cut. I cried. And then I had to buy a curling iron in order to make it look like I wasn’t fifteen. By the time I was actually teaching I pretty much gave up and went with simple: straight down or pulled back everyday.

It’s also cheapest not to have a car, but very annoying for other people who have to drive you around. See the car entry for tips and tricks. The biggest rule is not to get a new car or any significant car payment, especially while you’re in college. I’ve seen college students kill themselves trying to pay for a shiny new Honda, when there are plenty of rusty ones to be had for what you spent on Taco Bell last year. It’s never a great idea to have a car payment, especially a large one, but in college it’s a relational death wish. Between studying and working to pay your car loan, you’ll have no free time. So beware!