Stretch Your College Student Budget Living On or Off Campus

It’s no secret: College is expensive. Beyond tuition, there’s the cost of living — and depending on your school, that cost can be exorbitant. One way to stretch your college student budget is to determine whether living on or off campus can save you money. (Hint: Don’t take your school’s word on price comparisons.)

Here are five expenses to consider when making a decision.

Monthly Cost

According to My College Guide, the average cost of on-campus room and board is nearly $9,000 per school year for public colleges, and even more for private. Breaking this expense down into monthly costs will help you figure out whether or not renting an apartment off campus is cheaper.

Most schools close dorms during summer break, and often for winter and spring breaks, too. That’s an entire quarter of the year you could be without housing. If you’re planning on going back home, it’s a nonissue. Otherwise, you may find that renting an apartment for 12 months — especially if you can split the cost with a roommate or two — is still cheaper than the cost of living in a dorm for nine months.

Advantage: Off campus.

Bills

With on-campus living, you know the total cost of housing up front. Dorms usually include all utilities: electricity, water, heat, trash services and often cable and Wi-Fi.

Off campus, you have to factor in these expenses on top of your base rent, not to mention the time you’ll need to spend setting up services, managing several providers and staying on top of bill payment. Set up a student checking account to pay bills easily and earn rewards.

Advantage: On campus.

Dining Expenses

Many schools require you to purchase some kind of meal plan, though you can save money by purchasing a plan with fewer meals included. Even if your dorm includes kitchen access, it can mean double the cost if you’re forking over money for both a meal plan and groceries.

Schools usually have at least one all-you-can-eat dining area. For those with large appetites, it’s a great deal. But for those who eat a little less or have dietary restrictions, purchasing groceries and having access to a kitchen may be more cost effective.

Advantage: Depends on your eating style.

Transportation

Living on campus means you can walk, bike or take a shuttle to class. Off-campus students have to consider the cost of public transportation or, if that’s not an option, the cost of owning, maintaining, insuring, parking and fueling a car. While living farther from your campus may allow you to save money on rent, make sure the savings you gain aren’t negated by transportation expenses and hassles.

Advantage: On campus.

Furniture

On-campus housing comes with basic furniture: bed, mattress, desk, chair and dresser. If you’re living off campus, you’ll need to supply these items yourself. Luckily it’s a one-time cost, but as My First Apartment found, even IKEA adds up. If heading off campus, check if family and friends have any excess furniture you can take off their hands, and look to Craigslist to supplement.

Advantage: On campus.

Factor in all these costs when weighing whether it makes sense to live on or off campus. Don’t forget to consider how your choice could impact your lifestyle. Living off campus means you’re farther from amenities like the gym and library, and that you may need to make more effort to spend time among your peers. No matter what, living on your own teaches you vital life skills — starting with how to manage your college student budget.

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