How to save thousands of dollars at university

Keep costs down with these 14 money-saving tips
Chris Yu of MoveU invites students to join a group that promotes healthy living (Jessica Darmanin)

University is expensive no matter how you do it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to save money—potentially thousands of dollars per year.

Whether you’ve moved from the other side of the world or are commuting from the other side of the city, here are 14 ways to keep costs down.

1. Get a student bank account

All the major banks in Canada offer free banking for post-secondary students. At CIBC, for example, students get unlimited transactions for free, while non-students might pay $13.95 per month. All you need is proof of enrolment.

2. Buy used textbooks online

Many universities have websites with postings from students who are offloading last semester’s books at deep discounts. You can make dough selling the books back at the end of the year, too.

3. Find the cheap entertainment

Your student union may offer discounted tickets to movies, sports and more, so check their website. Don’t forget to check out the cheap and free sports and performances on campus. And remember, the library doesn’t just have those books you pretend to read for class, it also has a selection of bestsellers, graphic novels and films you may actually find entertaining.

4. Use Skype to call home

Don’t bother with a long-distance plan on your cellphone when Skype and a number of other online services let you call anyone in Canada at no cost. Also, make sure to switch your phone to a local number to save on long-distance charges.

5. Find the free food

Many clubs will hold barbecues to attract new members or give out free pizza to volunteers who attend weekly meetings. Other groups give away free or cheap food to promote certain lifestyles. The Jewish group Hillel often subsidizes kosher meals. At Dalhousie University, the Loaded Ladle student group gives away free vegan meals. You’ll be surprised how often you can eat for free merely by paying attention to posters on the wall and events posted on Facebook.

6. Pick up your refund cheque

If a parent has medical or dental insurance through work, it usually covers you, too. That means you do not need not pay again through your student union. However, that student union probably collected an insurance fee to the tune of hundreds of dollars when you paid tuition. You can get that back as long as you have written proof you’re covered through a parent and apply on time.

7. Make friends with someone with a car

A car is an unnecessary expense unless you’re commuting. Find a friend with a car who will take you grocery shopping or drive you home for the weekend. If you can’t find a friend with a car, look into ride-share programs where you only need to chip in for gas.

8. If you travel far, buy seats early

Megabus, which operates in Ontario and Quebec, offers seats for as low as $1 if you book far in advance. Via Rail, the national train service, regularly offers discounted tickets for those who buy weeks early. For those with parents very far away, get a copy of your final exam schedule as early as possible, because flights home in December are expensive and booking early can save money.

9. Pack your lunches and snacks

Living on your own has many temptations, and few are more frequent than buying something tasty and convenient. If you spend $5 extra per day on food, though, that’s thousands of dollars per year. Pack your lunch instead. Packing snacks is frugal, because when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re in the library, Chinese delivery is going to be a lot more costly than your emergency granola bar supply.

10. Buy used clothing

Thrift shopping isn’t just for Macklemore. The careful shopper can pay less than $10 for quality jeans at used-clothing stores while something from a fast fashion joint won’t even last a season.

11. Pick up sexual health products on campus

Don’t spend money on condoms and birth control pills—they’re usually free on campus.

12. Find the cheapest place to print

You’re going to be printing out most of your assignments and many of your notes, which means hundreds of pages per year. At 25 cents per page, that can add up quickly. Find a place to print on campus that charges more like 10 cents per page—perhaps a library or student union building.

13. Pick up your free day planner

All kinds of local businesses put coupons in your student union day planner, so pick it up.

14. Use the campus gym

Your student fees may give access to a free or cheap campus gym. If you’re really cheap, shower there and save money on soap and shampoo. Okay, maybe you don’t need to go that far…

This is an update of a story originally published on August 21, 2013.

Zane Schwartz studies at the University of Toronto, where he is news editor of The Varsity.