College frugal or college spendthrift?

By Stew


I spend a great deal of time with college students. Over the past decade, I have observed a phenomenon – very few students work their way through school anymore. I know that there are exceptions, but I remember when the college student stereotype was a guy who drove an old beater (if he had a car at all), worked all night, wore old clothes and was always¬† hungry. Today’s college student drives a current year SUV, brand name clothes, does not have a summer job and goes out to eat in order to avoid cafeteria food.

Now, examples of the former student are still around some campuses today, but they are few and far between. Many of them tend to be older married students with children who have returned to college to finish their degree. Ironically, I have had more of the latter students tell me that they can’t afford college while the former always seem to persevere and finish their degree. Let me get off my soapbox before I really get going and let me give a list of some of the biggest ways in which college students squander their resources:


The frugal student eats in the cafeteria (since he paid for it), spends a couple of hours in the library and gets to bed at a decent hour. The spendthrift goes to Buffalo Wild Wings since he does not like the cafeteria fare, hits Starbucks on the way back to campus and plays on his Xbox until the wee hours of the morning.


The frugal student will stay on campus, eat in the cafeteria, get a part time job, and study. If he needs to relax, he will go for a jog, take a walk, work out in the campus weight room or watch television. He is refreshed and rested for class on Monday. The spendthrift college student will stay out all night, take trips to traveling to tourist venues, go to movies and eat out. He returns to campus on Sunday night, completely worn out and falls into bed only to sleep through his first period class the next day – probably a good thing since he did not have his homework finished anyway.


The frugal student takes care of his clothes so that they last longer and tries to find a friend or family member who will allow him to wash his clothes for free. The spendthrift lets his dirty clothes pile up until he absolutely cannot find anything else to wear. Then he takes his clothes to the expensive campus laundromat, stuffs them in without sorting according to color and then leaves them in the dryer too long or lets his pile sit on the laundry room floor for three days.


The frugal college student does no take a car to school, he uses a bicycle or mass transit until the day that he absolutely needs a car. Then he pays cash for a reliable, five year old model that will last at least another seven. The spendthrift takes out a loan to get a car that will turn heads as a freshman. Pretty soon the payments, insurance and maintenance costs cause him to drop out of school.


The frugal college student finds a job that will allow him to pick up extra hours on Christmas and Spring Break. When summer break hits, he is a valuable employee and has no problem finding work. Summer weeks include a 40-hour workweek at one job and then picking up an additional 15 hours at a second job. He stays so busy that he never has time to spend money. The spendthrift is too stressed out from school to work over Christmas Break and everyone goes to Mexico for Spring Break and of course he needs the first week of the summer in order to unwind. He starts looking for a job near the middle of June and is satisfied when he finds employment for 20 hours a week. His paycheck just about covers the money he spends on weekends.


The frugal student uses his time wisely, never has to retake a class and finishes school a semester early, thus saving a great deal of room and board money. The spendthrift flunks several classes because of all his extra-curricular activities and stays in school for an extra semester, adding additional room, board and tuition costs to his loan total.

College Loans

The frugal college student finishes school with one $5,000 loan which he repays in less than two years. He finds a good job and enjoys his weekends off. The spendthrift finishes school with close to $100,000 in loan debt. He finds a good job during the week and a second job to cover his school loans on the weekends.

Photo by besighyawn

16 Responses (including trackbacks) to “College frugal or college spendthrift?”

  1. Kristen Says:

    Wow, I think this really oversimplifies college students. Plenty of students fall between totally frugal and a crazy spendthrift.

    I particularly disagree with the last point regarding the student loans. Just because someone graduates with student loans, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were irresponsible. I went to a rather expensive school (It was my choice, and I was prepared to accept that I would have to pay back loans), and there was no way I could have worked enough to graduate without loans. I was fortunate to have some grants and scholarships and some help from my parents. My part-time work pretty much covered my books each semester and some incidentals. However, I had to really load up on my course work just to graduate within four years let alone a semester early!!

  2. Stew Says:

    Kristen, these are certainly generalizations. Most students will fall somewhere in the middle, however almost all students could find ways to spend less and most could graduate with far less student debt than they do.

  3. Tyler@Frugally Green Says:


    Having just graduated last spring as an honorary member of the “frugal student” club, I can definitely agree that more students fall into the spendthrift category than the frugal one. I think a huge cause for this is the fact that kids these days are basically expected to go to college when they graduate from high school even if they don’t want to and have no motivation to. Society today seems to expect that everyone must have a higher education to succeed in life. This is simply not true and there are tons of kids wasting their and their parents money because everyone ELSE expects them to be in school and their heart’s not in it.

    I worked basically full time at multiple jobs to get through school debt free, but it also took me five years and I made sure I took advantage of the experience. I have friends that opted not to work, take on loans, and graduate in 3 years. Who’s “ahead” of who, now? Hard to say. I suppose you could look at that question a number of different ways.

    Being frugal, especially in college when resources are limited, is an ideal characteristic, but becoming a total miser rarely is. To really get the most out of a college education will require that you look at costs and opportunities on an individual basis. Save every dime you can on food and laundry and things that won’t pay off to spend money on, but don’t pass up an opportunity to grow, expand your network, and increase your value just because you’re trying to save on upfront costs. Saving a nickel to pass up on a dollar is the worst kind of frugality.

  4. Dan Says:

    The main problem for college students is that the amount of money he or she can earn in a minimum wage job won’t come close to paying for a typical college. Therefore they do not learn to value their work, as they are either on their parent’s dime, their school’s (via scholarship) or their future’s (via debt). None of these ways of paying for school stimulate a fiscally responsible outlook.

    I honestly don’t know the best answer for this problem. I can think that if you are paying for the school, you insist the child live at home to save you money and so you can teach and demonstrate a fiscally disciplined lifestyle. If they must move away for school, I can suggest heavily interacting with them and helping the manage their finances for the first few years, so they don’t make these kinds of mistakes. Finally, if they insist on disregarding your advice and help, just let them live with the consequenses of their actions, some must learn to hard way to learn at all.

  5. Dan Says:

    To follow up on what I just wrote, I reflect that it was truly amazing that my parents assumed that I was going to be able to maange my finances responsibly when I went off to school. They never once discussed with me the importance of avoiding debt, in fact they encouraged it. They never taught me how to develop and live on a budget, nor even tell me that it was important to do so. In hindsight, it’s really no wonder that now, 15 years after graduating, I am still paying for those youthful errors. I was just a kid, and suddenly had responsibilities I was never trained to manage.

    I reiterate my advice that parents should be heavily involved with thier children’s finances for the first year or two at least in college. They need to learn to do for themselves, but it is unfair to them to assume they will be able to do so successfully right off the bat. As a consequense, they routinely develop habits which are self-destructive and get into debt which is crippling over their 20s and even 30s.

  6. lizard Says:

    The biggest difference I see between this and my own college experience is in the entertainment/study area. We were generally pretty frugal, but we still made time for a lot of cheap fun. Board games, frisbee, eating at further dining halls together for food variety, video games on an older shared entertainment system. Maybe we wasted our tuition money a little by not studying quite so much, or maybe we preserved our sanity so we’d actually stay and finish our degrees.

  7. South Texas Says:

    I think that when you have to work while going to school, it makes you value your dollar more.

  8. Courtney Says:

    So, the frugal student mooches off of other people’s electricity and water bills, has no life or friends because he never leaves campus (except to do laundry…that he transports on his bike?), has no extracurricular activities to round out a resume, and can magically rearrange professors’ teaching schedules so that the last class he needs to finish his major is never offered the second semester of senior year?

    Once again you’ve managed to make a wide cohort of people fit into your little preconceived boxes. How about the NORMAL college student that graduates in 4 years, finishes with a 3.4 GPA instead of a 4.0 but has a rich and well-rounded experience that includes classes, extracurriculars, friends and activities outside the library or their dorm room, and divides their tuition between scholarships, grants, work-study and loans? Yes, they’re probably tired on Monday morning (here’s a hint – NO ONE gets enough sleep in college) but at least they have a balanced life to show for it all.

    Also, perhaps some people are fortunate enough to be in the idyllic “college town” where you can walk or bike or take the bus to all your needs, but SOME of us went to college in a very rural area where, outside of the campus, there was pretty much nothing within a 10 mile radius.

  9. Dramon Says:

    Note: not all colleges have cafeterias. Many have food courts which are as expensive if not more than going off campus. The real way for college students to save money is to cook themselves. The bad news is that many residence halls do not allow this.

    Living off campus is far cheaper in some cases because of the ability to cook meals. But thanks for some other good ideas.

  10. Marsha Says:

    I agree with your message but not with the facts in your presentation.

    In particular, I think you are romanticizing the frugal student of yesteryear. I went to college some forty years ago (yikes!), and almost NObody was working their way through school or taking on student loans. Also, almost nobody took more than 4 years to graduate – unless they got sick or changed their major.

    Today, it is much more acceptable to take more than 4 years to get a bachelor’s degree, and therefore, more feasible and acceptable to work one’s way through school.

    I think student loans are OK for very expensive graduate degrees, but I don’t see the need for them at the bachelor’s level.

  11. Deb Says:

    There’s also another way to go to college. The alternative route. The road less traveled. There’s nothing wrong with it and I highly recommend it.

    I spent nearly 6 years in the military right out of high school. I got to travel all over the world on the military’s dime, lived in two foreign countries, learned responsibility and developed a strong work ethic while I was young, plus I took advantage of FREE college courses for my basic education requirements. When I finished with the military, I had enough in financial aid to finish my first 2 years of school without a single loan or a credit card. I also worked 24 hours a week, in my career field. Was it easy? No way! I’m telling you, it was exhausting and I was POOR! I drove a beater Honda, ate a lot of soup, and shared a small rental house. But the real world experience on my resume was invaluable, and after finishing my Associate’s Degree, my continuing higher education was subsidized 50% by yet another employer. I was limited to 2 classes a semester, but that was fine with me. I accepted that limitation in exchange for the benefit.

    I didn’t finish my BS in Health Care Administration until I was 32, but I didn’t suffer for it one bit. I worked in my career field the entire time, made good money, got promotions, and was able to graduate without a single student loan or debt.

    I am here to attest to the alternative route to a college education. It’s not for everyone, it may take longer, it may require a lot more effort, but it’s quite possible for those who can bite the bullet. There are still many employers out there that offer financial aid for college. Take advantage of that offer if you can!

  12. DDFD at Says:

    Great post! These days things are different . . . things come too easy and aren’t fully appreciated. College is no different.

  13. Mneiae Says:

    I agree with Courtney, although she was a little aggressive about her views. I’m a college student myself, but my parents are paying my way through college. I also have merit scholarships that cover 82% of my tuition as well as my room and board. Unlike Dan, I’ve had financial planning classes since I was 10. Perhaps that was a by-product of growing up in an affluent community in an excellent school system, but I am sure that college students are completely capable of managing their finances, given the correct incentive. It’s hard to motivate someone who lives in the moment to save up, but if a college student is approached correctly, he or she will be happy to keep better track of their money.

  14. Frugalista Says:

    Another huge expense is textbooks, and I use Chegg to rent texts instead of buying them. I wanted to share a code that your readers can use to get a discount on their text order. Put in the code when ordering and hit the “apply” button. The code also gives you back an additional $5 when selling Chegg your used texts.

    The code does not have an expiration date so it can be used with every order. Here it is:


    Feel free to pass this code to friends.

  15. Andrew Says:

    I generally torrent my textbooks or use TextBook nova to cover the costs of textbooks. It saves me a lot of money per semester.