Congratulations! You’re a college student. These next few years will be filled with personal discovery, professional development and new relationships. It will also be some of the poorest years of your life. 

Many freshmen find themselves hemorrhaging money during their first semester. Here are tips from broke college students on how to stay cheap and frugal during your first semester.


Unfortunately, freshmen do get the short end of the stick when it comes to meal plans. The three meal options are Tiger 20, Tiger 14 and Tiger 10 which can be explored in depth on the Dining Services website. This means that there is a mixture of meals that you are able to use at any dining location on campus using "debit" and a mixture of meals that you can eat at Gracie's, the main dining hall by the dorms which is all-you-can-eat. The meal options cost more or less depending on how many meals you eat. Most students avoid the Tiger 20 because it restricts you to Gracie's for most of your meals, and you may prefer a plan with more food debit. However, not everyone can handle having too many dining dollars.

“Just don’t go food crazy,” said second year Electrical Mechanical Engineering Technology student, Davierraven “Davier” Simmons. “It may be tempting. It’s your first time on your own with money on campus but you don’t want to have to dig into your own money.”

During his first semester, Simmons had a lack of self-control with his debit spending. Toward the end of the semester, he had burned through all of his debit and had to cough up real cash to pay the rest of his way through.

Paige Belfield is a third year student in the School of Individualized Studies with a focus in Criminal Justice and Political Science. She recommended that all freshmen begin with the Tiger 14 meal plan as a good middle ground between debit and Gracie’s. Belfield also warned against going to eat too much off-campus, as the desire to escape campus food can also hit you hard in the pocket.

“I occasionally go out to eat, then I regret it. I yell at myself, ‘I shouldn’t have spent real money,’” Belfield said.

Many students find that the meal plans actually give them too much debit. It depends on the individual. Fourth-year Illustration student Isabel "Isa" Lynch recommended making friends with people who have lots of extra debit. Call them what you want but having a “debit daddy” will be crucial if you want to avoid another trip to Gracie’s. Return the favor by swiping them into Gracie's with your extra meals.

“I have more than I need from [the Orange plan] so I buy for my friends as well as other broke college students,” Lynch said.

The Corner Store is good for groceries, but the selection isn't complete and prices are marked up. Wegmans is a good alternative and RIT runs shuttles there on the weekend. Unfortunately, you'll have to spend real money there. Splitting costs with friends and preparing group meals can build friendships and savings accounts.


Do not get a false sense of security because your financial aid or loans covered your tuition, housing and meal plan: you still have books to buy. 

“Ah man, when I had to pay for textbooks, the textbooks cost me $300 and it was just for the [homework] code,” Simmons said.

Textbooks can be much more expensive than anticipated, and the act of purchasing them is a science. If you don't think that you'll need the book that much, avoid shelling out cash. There are plenty of cheaper — sometimes even free — options that you can utilize that will make your piggy bank happy.

Christie Dobson is a senior staff assistant for the Center of Residence Life in the South Area Office. She has successfully put her two daughters through college and helps with the banking for all Special Interest Houses at RIT. 

"If you don’t already, rent books or if you need to buy them, get them in the summertime or at the end of a semester [when it’s cheaper] instead [of] at the last minute,” Dobson said. 

Many places have cheap textbook rentals such as Amazon, Chegg or Barnes & Noble. Online digital copies or PDFs are typically less expensive as well and sometimes can be downloaded for free. To lower costs, find a used textbook. Check with your professor to see if an earlier edition will suffice; they are often much cheaper.

“I primarily don’t buy textbooks. I just get [them] from friends or free online,” Lynch said.

Always, always consult upperclassmen in your major before purchasing books. They'll know what books are actually used and will sometimes let you borrow them for free. 


If you’re a shopper and want to go out to the movies or restaurants, then you’ll need to get a job. RIT, fortunately, has very good student work-study programs and there’s always a job opening somewhere. To find out about your employment options go onto the Student Employment Office (SEO) webpage or stop by the SEO office in the University Services Center.

Some jobs definitely have more perks than others. Working in food service gets you discounts for meals, and being a tour guide for housing gives you swipe access to most buildings on campus. Working at Reporter lets you write articles on a freelance basis in your own time. However, if balancing school and a job doesn’t work for you then there are other options available.

“I’ll be looking for a part-time job over the summer. And if my tablet gets fixed I can start doing commissions,” Lynch said.

Working freelance is a great way to make money while abiding by your own schedule. Many students like Lynch offer their skills online to earn commissions. RIT has many options to work freelance and offers workshops in professional development. 


Once you get money it can be hard not to spend it immediately. Although you should treat yourself on occasion, money you make in college should be saved if possible.

“I really budget, I don’t splurge money ... I follow the 30 percent rule where you save 30 percent of whatever you earn,” Simmons said.

Saving isn't easy. Spending money on stupid things can be part of the college experience. Trying to avoid impulse purchases is a skill that will be necessary for the years to come. Concoct a budget that works for you, that is realistic and easy to follow. Erase vices such as excessive smoking or drinking, and even frequent habits such as buying coffee every day, as it’ll all add up against you.

“It’s about choice and willpower,” Dobson said.

If you have the desire to splurge but still want to save, check out exchange pages like RIT Free and For Sale on Facebook.

Part of being a college student is embracing your broke status. You need to let go of attachments to designer clothes, gourmet food and online shopping because it will harm you in the end. College is about receiving the skills you need so you can one day have a successful career, so surviving college won’t always be a comfortable experience for you.

Never be too proud to ask for help. That means checking if there is a student discount. Use coupons for every purchase possible and apply for scholarships. If you need to dumpster dive for art supplies or bum on your friend's couch for a few weeks, no one will judge you. This is college, this is your time to make memories, friends and new experiences as a broke student.