The Sneaky, Hidden Costs Of University Life (And How To Save)

The Sneaky, Hidden Costs Of University Life (And How To Save)

University gets more expensive every year. And crazy tuition aside, there are a number of sneakier, hidden costs that can drain your wallet when you head back to school. These costs can add up fast, but there are some simple ways to cut them and save big. At the very least, knowing about them can help you can budget a little better.

Piggy bank and books image via Shutterstock

School-Related Costs (Beyond Tuition)

Tuition is just the base price of your education, really. There are so many additional and essential costs that come with a formal education. You might not be able to get around all of these, but you can at least save a few bucks on many of them.


Parking is a big one. Most university campuses charge students for parking passes, not to mention metered parking closer to administrative buildings and classrooms. You probably already know this, but you might not be aware of just how expensive these passes are. For example, when I was in university, I haphazardly budgeted for parking, but I figured it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. I was surprised to find out it was $US75 ($104) for the semester, and that threw off my budget for the month. A year after that, parking jumped to $US100 ($138). You want to be prepared not only for the initial price, but hikes like this, too. But this applies to any of these costs, including tuition.

Depending on where you live, you could always skip the pass and opt for public transportation, if that’s cheaper. Public transportation even offers discounts for students. Or you could get around on a bike, if possible. You could also carpool with a classmate and split the cost. During my last year of university, I skipped the pass altogether by scheduling all of my classes after 5pm and on weekends, when parking was free. When that wasn’t possible, I opted for the online version of the class, or, if available, the taped versions, which I’d watch from the campus library after I got off work at 5pm.

Course Materials

And then there are those classes that charge extra for using their labs, studios, or materials. Some classes might require you to buy certain supplies on your own, too, so you want to be prepared when scheduling out your semester. You can’t really get around the course fees, but if you have to buy materials yourself, you may be able to save by buying used, or splitting the cost with a friend. Your campus bookstore probably has used course materials, and you can often find them online, too.

Books are a pretty common expense, so it’s hard to count them as a “hidden” one. But it’s worth pointing out that you should be prepared for this expense, because it’s a pricey one. The average US student spends $US1200 ($1657) on books and supplies each year, according to The College Board, and with textbooks costing hundreds of dollars each Australians are probably within that ballpark as well. Here are a few options for saving on textbooks:

  • Rent your books from The Campus Bookstore.
  • Buy from a big retailer, then look for coupons to get those books at a discount.
  • Take advantage of buyback programs some retailers offer. Your university bookstore probably offers one, but so do other retailers, and the prices can be better.

One of the most frustrating things about spending so much money on books and materials was that, often, I never even used them. After buying, I’d take the class, only to find out the book wasn’t essential; In some classes, the tutor never even taught from it, and I could learn the material and pass the exams just fine without ever even cracking their book open. To combat this, I’d ask friends who had taken the class whether or not the textbook was used very often. If it wasn’t, I just skipped buying it. This might not the best advice for new university students, but after a while, you adapt.

For many classes, it makes sense to wait for the first few sessions to get a feel for whether or not the book is necessary. You can also use a site like to see if past students can offer any insight.

Taking Longer to Graduate

Before I started university, I’d neatly planned out my next four years. I also told myself I could take on more hours than was reasonable, considering I worked while I was in university, too. Long story short, It took a full semester longer to graduate. This is a pretty common scenario for students.

It’s a tough thing to combat, because there are so many individual factors that go into how long it takes you to graduate. But if you anticipate taking longer than expected, eLearners suggests seven tips for saving money on tuition. Here are a few of their best:

  • Community college: On a transcript, all credits are created equal — meaning a Bachelor’s degree earned in two years with transferred credits looks identical to one earned after four years on-campus. But on your checkbook, all credits are not created equal — you’ll save so much money.
  • Summer/Night classes: Not only are summer semesters generally less expensive, but they are also shorter. While this translates to longer class times, they do not span as much of the calendar, and are therefore generally easier than the same class taken in the fall or spring. As for night classes, moonlighting as a student several times a week allows students to maintain a day job while at school.

In my experience, these tips work. Summer tuition wasn’t quite as pricey, so I loaded up as much as possible. And night courses (and online courses) helped me maintain a job while I was going to school. I also looked for courses that overlapped and could count for both my major and minor. If I didn’t consolidate in this way, it probably would have taken me another semester to graduate.

Social Activities

Obviously, going out with friends usually costs money. Bars, restaurants, and movie tickets add up. But there are some seemingly cheap activities that can end up being really expensive.


If you choose to be in a club, you definitely want to budget for it. Dues can range depending on what type of club it is, but things like skiing could rack us a few hundred. Kiplinger points out that if you join halfway into the year, you might be paying for past months, too. Budget for any required clothing, travel, and special events. University of Texas student website Longhorn Life offers solid suggestions for saving money in this area:

Many sororities and fraternities understand that not everyone is financially blessed. If they want you to be a member, they will work with you. Some have payment plans that allow members to pay their dues in smaller installments. If your house is part of a larger organisation, there may be scholarships or grants available for members. Do research online or ask leaders in your campus chapter if they know anyone to contact.

While we don’t have sororities and fraternities in Australia, this advice can be applied to clubs and club activities. Beyond checking with your club about payment options, weigh the costs and benefits of joining any university groups.

Travelling to Visit Family

Depending on where you’re from, trips back home can be costly. Of course, if you’re going back home for breaks, you probably won’t have to pay for rent or housing. But flights and petrol are still expensive. There are a lot of variables in this scenario, but the point is: budget for the ones that cost money. Namely, travel.

The good news is, there are plenty of savings options. You can save on flights by purchasing at the right time, for example. Your student discount should come in handy, too. Places like that’s about $12 to $17. It’s not a huge expense, but when you’re in university, an extra $48-$69 a month makes a difference.

Plus, there’s the added cost of laundry detergent. One way to save on this is just to use less of it; it will probably do the job just as well. You can also cut your laundry bill in half by skipping the dryer altogether and hang drying your clothes. On-campus laundry facilities may be more expensive, too, so check prices at nearby laundromats. Overall though, you just want to be prepared for this expense so you can factor it into your budget.


Like airport food, campus food can be a lot pricier. If you do your own grocery shopping, you can spend considerably less.

Learning to cook at home or even in your apartment can save you quite a bit. Websites like Student Recipes can help you make meals with cost effective ingredients. It’s also easy to plan based on sales. You can pair this with Supercook, a website that gives you recipes based on ingredients you already have (or plan to buy). Buy stuff on sale, then see what you can make with that stuff. If you learn how to meal plan and come up with a routine, you can eat for relatively cheap.

Of course, you’ll want to research your options before making your decision. And be realistic about your eating habits and schedule. You might not have time to cook and go grocery shopping. Plus, some schools have off-campus meal plans with food chains. If you’re going to spend money at these places anyway, you might consider opting for the plan. Some universities actually require meal plans as part of the tuition, so it’s good to be aware of this beforehand.

Food is another area in which your student discount is golden. There are a number of restaurants, (usually chains) that offer student discounts, even if they’re off campus. Some of these deals are only available at certain locations, so they’re not often advertised on the website. You’ll have to keep your eyes out, or just ask.

Another option is finding a part-time job in the food industry. Of course, it’s not an option for everyone, and we’re not suggesting you get a job just for the free or discounted food. But if you’re looking for part-time work anyway, many eateries will offer huge employee discounts, or they will let you take food home at the end of the day. My brother worked for campus catering, for example, and he and his roommate mostly ate leftovers from special events. Again, it’s not an option for everyone, but it’s something to consider if you’re applying for part-time work just to make money.

Household Items

Toilet paper, shaving cream, dishwashing liquid: when you’re living on your own for the first time, you’ll be surprised at all of the small household items you have to buy. You’ll probably want to avoid buying any of this at on-campus stores, too, because the markup is usually high compared to nearby stores off-campus.

One tried-and-true method for saving on household goods is to buy in bulk from places like Costco. Just make sure you buy the right stuff, because some items aren’t worth it. Your apartment probably won’t have the required space to store loads of toilet paper or paper towels, but you can split the cost (and the membership fee) with roommates.

When you’re living on a university student budget, small expenses like these matter. When they add up, they can throw off your budget. There are so many ways to save in each of these areas, but you’ll go a long way by simply being prepared.