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!

How to Be Cheap: College Edition

Another way to go to college for free is to use the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO or PSO). Under this program the state pays for high school students to take college courses for free. And by free, I mean completely free. You don’t even have to pay for your own books (you get a full refund when you return them to the bookstore at the end of the semester).

Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. You just have to be a junior or senior, and you have to apply by a deadline. GPA and other requirements vary by university, but your high school guidance counselor will have information about PSO. Most high schools allow you to go part-time or full-time. So you can split your time between high school and college classes, or you can take all college courses and never even go to high school. Many of your college classes will also count toward your high school graduation requirements. Again, you just have to check with your school.

This program is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s great that it’s so flexible. One of my friends did PSO at a private university part-time her junior year and full-time her senior year. She entered her freshman year of college at that university with enough college credits for sophomore status. One of my sisters took just one PSO class—college algebra. She took it at a branch location of a state university, and was happy to have it out of the way before she started college.

The branch location is a good option if a big campus seems intimidating, too much of a hassle, or too expensive for commuting while in high school. If your heart’s set on going to private university, PSO could make it more affordable if you can graduate early or take less classes per semester. And it’s a good way to try out different courses and figure out what you want to major in if you’re not sure. Not paying for the class takes some pressure off in case you “don’t need it” for your major.

But if you’re already in college and paying for it, how can you get the most for your money?

I mentioned this before, but DO NOT pay full bookstore price for your textbooks unless you have to. Here are your other options.

1. Before the semester starts, get the required book lists for your classes from the bookstore. Many universities have these lists available on the bookstore web site. You can also email the professor for information about the required books.

2. Check the library. Using the on-line catalog, see if the books are at your library. If only older editions are available, reserve them in case you can’t find anything better. Often, older editions are still usable. Math and science books are most likely to be the exception, especially if the problems have changed. You don’t want to answer the wrong
questions for homework.

If your library doesn’t have it, try OhioLink. Your university library web site should have a button to search Ohio Link. It’s a system between all the universities in Ohio that gives any student access to the catalog and books of any library. So you will be able to see all the schools that have your books, and you can request for them to be sent to your university library. It’s an amazingly convenient system, because all you have to do it show up at the circulation desk after you get an email notice saying the book is waiting there for you. You don’t even have to go find it in the library.

You can now renew an OhioLink book for an entire semester. The only problem you might run into is if someone else requests the book while you have it. Then you can’t keep renewing it. In that case you can try to request another copy, return it late and eat the late fees (which are higher than for other library books, or copy the pages you need before returning it. Sure, it’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s worth saving $500 a semester on books!

The biggest danger with OhioLink is if you lose a book. They charge like crazy even for a paperback novel. The fee for all lost books is $125! I was once accused of not returning an OhioLink book (which I most definitely did—I saw the employee take it out of the drop box which I thought was weird) and faced this $125 penalty. But I convinced the dean of the library that it was a mistake and she let me off. I wouldn’t count on getting that type of grace, though, especially if you really do lose the book. So keep close tabs on OhioLink books.

Social science and humanities books are more likely to be accessible this way. But you can always try the science library for math and science textbooks.

And here’s a secret: you can underline and highlight in library books. I did it all through college.

3. If the library doesn’t have what you want, try They have tons of used textbooks, with the ISBNs so you can be sure you’re getting what you want. Shipping is $4 per book, but if you’re saving 50% or so, it’s certainly worth it. Again, consider buying an older edition if that’s all you can find. You can always run it by your professor, but make sure they have good reasons if they really think you should buy the new one.

4. If doesn’t deliver, see if Ebay, Amazon, Abebooks, or Alibris (all .coms) have better deals than the book store. It’ll only take you five minutes to search these sites, and you could save hundreds of dollars. They have new and used books, and shipping again runs around $4 per book (free on Amazon if you buy $25 worth of new books).
What if you order a book but it doesn’t come in before classes start? This gets a little complicated, but again, the savings were worth it. I would buy the book at the campus bookstore and check the return policy. I’d use it till my book arrived in the mail, or until the last day I could return it for full credit (usually a week or two).

5. Check off-campus bookstores. They’re not owned and operated by the university, so they often have better deals. Students on your campus may know which store is cheapest, so ask around. You can always call and check the price of a book if you don’t want to spend time going there. Buy used if you can, and find out about their buyback policies.

6. If all else fails, buy used at the campus bookstore and sell it back at the end of the semester unless you really think you’ll need it. Books closely related to your major are often worth keeping, especially if they contain some reference material you’ll need. Another option is to sell it on See what it’s going for and if you could get substantially more than the bookstore is paying. I never bothered with this, but then again, I never bought many books. They also run coupons sometimes so keep your eyes open for those.

Remember that the bookstore often won’t buy back those “old editions” that won’t be used next semester, so don’t be surprised when you can’t sell back your $100 biology book. Oh, well, that’s just college for you.

How to Be Cheap: College Edition

Here’s to all the “poor college students” out there.

I say “poor” because the American definition of poverty is so different from the rest of the world. There are people who are seriously impoverished in America, but even our ghettos are a place of great wealth compared to the slums of India. (Just see the film Slumdog Millionaire, with kids living in the city dump).

I’m not trying to make you poor college students feel guilty, but to point out that you have so much to be grateful for. Are you still covered by your parents’ health insurance? They are saving you $200-300 a month! Do they let you eat their food when you go home? Thank them! Do they ever give you a little cash or help out with an unexpected bill? Don’t count on this, but be very grateful if it happens.

Realize that your run-down college apartment that you share with too many people would look like a mansion to millions in this world. And your beater car is a luxury so many people wouldn’t even dream of owning. Just the opportunity to go to college is a an amazing advantage that you should be so thankful for. Consider yourself privileged. And go to class.

So now that you’re not so “poor” anymore, here’s how to make the most of the money you have.

The BEST way to save money in college is to get scholarships! This advice is important for both high school and college students. You can earn scholarships before and after you start college. In high school good grades are important and activities can be helpful, but the real clincher for many colleges is your standardized test scores. So take that ACT, SAT, and PSAT, and then take them again. Practice really helps, so start your junior year (earlier for the PSAT). The tests cost from $30-50 to take, but compared to the $50,000 or more you could earn, it’s a worthwhile investment.

So put some time into as well. When you register for the tests you should get a practice test booklet. Take the practice. Time yourself, and then score it. Determine your strengths and weaknesses, and then practice those some more. Get off Facebook for a minute and find on-online practice tools. Learn how to take the tests—how much time you have, whether you get points off for wrong answers, and what types of questions are on the test. What formulas are provided, and what will you have to know? Get a list of “SAT words” (I bet your English teacher has a list) make flashcards, and study them.

Scholarships are free money1

I earned $80,000 in one day of high school. It was the day I took the PSAT. I don’t say this to brag, but to communicate that it is worth studying and preparing for a standardized test if there’s even an outside chance that you could go to college for free, half price, or anything less than the astronomical amount college now costs. So maybe I actually spent a week earning that money, but don’t you think it was worth it?

If academics aren’t your strongest suit, look into other scholarships. There are many Internet databases with applications. Write some essays, fill out some forms, and get some letters of recommendation. It’s a hassle, but paying off $50,000 worth of college loans will be a much bigger pain in the butt down the road. Ask your guidance counselor for information and take advantage of every opportunity, including local scholarships. Even $500 can help you buy books. Check out,,, and your high school guidance office.

I am not speaking from experience, but sports scholarships seems like a rip-off to me. You have to spend all hours practicing, traveling and competing. I don’t know how you could do that, study, and have a social life. Perhaps your whole social life revolves around the team. If your life is that sport, it would work for you. But if you don’t want that, I wouldn’t recommend pursuing sports scholarships. Music or art scholarships also require a ton of time, but if it’s related to your major then it would be worthwhile.

Here’s an obvious but often-ignored piece of advice: go to the school that offers the best financial aid package (within the region you want to go to school). The best package isn’t necessarily the highest dollar amount for scholarships or loans. Private schools offer big bucks in aid, but they charge even bigger bucks for tuition. But sometimes the more expensive school is the better deal. So do the math and figure out how much you’ll pay in the end, not just how much they’re offering you.

Of course, there are factors more important than money in choosing a school. If you want to live in Kent (perhaps for a ministry house), and Miami offers you the best package, it isn’t worth it. But if you want to live in Kent and Akron offers you a better package, the twenty minute commute is worth it to save thousands.

Most scholarships must be renewed every year. So never miss the renewal application deadline! A simple mistake like this will cost you thousands of dollars. Each year you should also investigate if you are eligible for new scholarships. This is especially important after your first and second semesters of college, when you may prove with your grades that you are worth some dough.

Always fill out your FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You may qualify for federal grants, which is free money that you never have to pay back. And then you can also get federal loans which have lower interest rates. You don’t have to pay them back till after you graduate (or quit school, but don’t do that), and they have deferral options that other loans don’t. So if you’re going to need loans, these are the ones to get. Go to

Another good option is a community college. These aren’t just for those without top grades or people pursuing two-year degrees. You can get your general education requirements out of the way for half the cost or less. If you want to be on a particular campus during the school year, consider taking a couple summer classes at Tri-C or Kent Stark. Again, you should determine whether the commute times are worth the money you’ll save. They very well may be.

Going to class isn't so bad.

The next best way to save money in college is to not flunk out! Don’t pay $5,000 a semester just to blow off class and party too much. If you just want to party, don’t waste that kind of money on tuition. College is a good investment, but only if you’re getting a useful degree. So go to class, pay attention, take notes, do the work, and study for tests. It’s not that complicated. If you need extra help, ask for it. You’re paying big bucks for every class session—around $25 for many state schools in Ohio, and much more if you’re at a private school. So waste not your tuition dollars, and want not a return on your investment (a degree).

If you have questions about standardized test scores, scholarships, grants, or other related topics, please post them in the comments.

Up next, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of everyday money-saving tips for college students.