4 Ways to Keep College Costs at Bay

September 29, 2022 by Chevron Federal Credit Union

School is officially back in session. While there is a lot to love about the fall semester for both parents and students, rising costs definitely don’t make the list.

College life is an expensive one. During the 2020-2021 school year, students spent around $26,000 on average at four-year public universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Tuition, books, housing and meal cards do not come cheap. 

Unfortunately, as any experienced college student — and their parents — can tell you, expenses often creep up and up as the semesters go on. Even the best-laid financial plans can go bust. Thankfully, there are steps you can take now to keep the cost creep from taking hold, including checking out the resources from our partner, Balance.

Create a realistic budget

College freshmen and their parents often set budgets based on what they think the year ahead should cost, only to be blindsided by unexpected expenses a few months in. A great budget is one based on experience.

College sophomores and beyond can get that wisdom from looking at costs in previous semesters. Making a list of actual expenses and comparing them against your original budget can help you set more realistic expectations (and find ways to cut costs).

For college freshmen, the best teacher may be other students and their parents. Students can ask older classmates and friends while parents can reach out to coworkers, friends and family members who have been through it all before. Getting a sense of what textbooks actually cost at the university bookstore, what unexpected expenses came up and what you might be forgetting to include in your budget can help you narrow things down.

Keep expenses at bay 

Knowing what you can expect to spend doesn’t mean you actually have to spend it. While college students can find seemingly endless ways to spend money, most expenses come down to three big things: textbooks, living expenses and food.


You’ll save a ton of money buying used textbooks. In the 2019-2020 school year, students spent $413 for required reading materials on average, according to the National Association of College Stores. To save money, buy used books and don’t just rely on the university bookstore. Off-campus stores, online retailers and student swaps can all be sources of cheap books. And when you’re done, don’t forget to resell and recoup some costs.

Room and board

Most families assume living on campus is cheaper, but those savings aren’t guaranteed. The NCES found students living on campus spent $25,700 on average while off-campus students spent $26,000.

Compare several living arrangements to get the best deal. Students who want to stay on campus can often get free or reduced dorm rates by becoming a resident advisor. Off-campus, many apartment complexes offer discounts on furnished and unfurnished apartments — especially for students who can sign a longer lease or pay in advance. Adding a roommate or two can also slash costs substantially.


The days of starving students living off bad cafeteria food and ramen noodles are long gone. Most modern campuses now offer meal debit cards for both on-campus meals as well as several on and off-campus restaurants. Incoming students are encouraged to sign up for a three-meal-a-day plan in advance.

Before you sign up to use it or lose it, decide what is really needed. Are you likely to eat three square meals a day, every day on campus? If the university has agreements with nearby restaurants, do you actually get a discount for using your campus meal plan, or could you just pay in cash as needed?

Finally, consider living arrangements. Even dorm rooms have mini-fridges. You can save a lot of money by stocking up on bulk-bought snacks and shopping grocery deals to fresh produce.

Set clear expectations

One of the best things parents can do to keep costs from creeping up is to set clear expectations. Talking to your kids about money can help them both now and well into the future.

Consider looping them into the budget conversation. Have them help you review expenses and prepare what looks realistic. Once you have it in place, offer some guidance on how to split up funds between semesters and where they could save money. The more empowered they feel, the more likely they’ll be able to stick to a budget throughout the school year.

Consider a part time job

Earning extra cash with a part-time job is a viable option for many college students. Most universities offer on-campus jobs that work around class schedules. These jobs may not pay a lot, but many universities offer perks like discounted dorms for on-campus workers.

In college towns, many businesses are also happy to take on college students and work around class schedules and school breaks. Plus, working in college is a great way to get your resume started early.

Before deciding if a part-time job is a good idea, be sure to consider your student’s class schedule, course load and on-campus activities to discuss and decide what is realistic. Students who aren’t used to juggling school and work may overestimate what they can handle.

Chevron FCU is committed to helping your favorite college student manage their money. Our MySavings Youth accounts can help students under 21 years old earn interest and get started on the right foot while our checking accounts come with a debit card and online account access to make spending and budgeting easier. Members can also receive Student Loan Coaching from our partner, Balance and they have some helpful resources to help your college student navigate new financial paths on their road to higher education.


From everyday finance to life’s big money moments, it’s better when you belong.