What I spent last month as a Canadian university student

The price of an undergrad degree has never been higher. Here, three university students describe their typical after-tuition expenses, in their own words.
Paul Ipe trims his grocery bills with two- for-one deals (Photograph by Meghan Tansey Whitton)

This story appears in the Maclean’s University Guidebook 2023, available now for just $19.99. Order your copy here.

Paul Ipe, 19

Mount Allison University, biochemistry

I try to stick to a monthly budget of $1,275. My parents cover my groceries and school costs, like books and big purchases, but I pay for my rent and entertainment by working over the summer and part time during the school year.

Rent: $475

I live in a house with five girls. I know one of them from back home, which is Halifax. Each of us pays $475 a month, except for one roommate who has the biggest room in the house. She pays for our Wi-Fi, which is an extra $69 a month. Aside from internet, all other utilities are included. Our rent will be going up soon to $500 a month, but I plan to stay here. It’s a good house and I’m a six-minute walk to most of my classes on campus. I usually work in the summer to save up money for housing, so I can afford the extra cost. Last summer, I helped run a tennis camp in Halifax and I also worked as a busboy in a restaurant.

Groceries: $400

Every Tuesday, the Foodland in Sackville offers a 15 per cent discount to students. But it’s a 20-minute walk or a five-minute drive, so I pitch in a few dollars a month to cover gas for my roommate’s car. The store has pretty good deals and two-for-one specials. I’ll stock up on yogurt, frozen fruit and milk to make smoothies; bread and deli meat for lunch sandwiches; and chips and raw vegetables to snack on. I’ll make pasta, chicken burgers and stir-frys with rice for dinner. My parents give me a grocery budget of $700 a month, which is 75 per cent of what my meal plan cost last year, so I’m actually spending way less than that.

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Transportation: $33.33

Sackville is very small. I can walk pretty much everywhere—except to the grocery store, of course. But for reading week, I borrowed a car and drove myself and two friends back to Halifax. We split $100 worth of gas
three ways. 

Textbooks: $70

In first year, I bought all my textbooks before the first day of classes. I found out the hard way that some professors don’t end up using the textbooks listed in the syllabus. This year, I waited until after the first class and found out what I’d actually need to buy. I was also able to find PDFs for some textbooks online. I spent about $280 for the fall semester, which averaged out to $70 a month.

Entertainment: $60

I tutor first-year chemistry students two or three times a week at a rate of $15 an hour. That’s how I earn myself a fun budget. I usually go out with my friends every weekend. I don’t drink a lot, so a $19 six-pack of Smirnoff Ice is enough for two months of pre-drinking. Then we’ll do a club night at Ducky’s, which costs $2 for cover and $7 for a fruity cocktail. Or we’ll go to the Pond, which is the on-campus bar. It’s really cheap to drink there. A pitcher of Pond Water, a cocktail that tastes like blue raspberry lemonade, only costs $10, and you can split it between two people. After a night out, I love buying garlic fingers at Goya’s, the pizza place near us, and I’ll share them with my friends. The local movie theatre recently held a $2 movie night for students. They show older movies, like Ice Age. After paying for the movie ticket, I’ll spend the rest of my entertainment budget on movie snacks, like popcorn, candy and a Sprite.

TSN World Cup package: $20 

I’m a big soccer fan. My buddy and I went in on the $40 TSN subscription for the World Cup, which included access for two devices. I’m privileged enough that my parents let me stay on their family plans for Netflix, Disney+ and Apple Music. I watch a lot of adult animation series, like Futurama. And I love country music. I’m a big fan of Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs.

iPad and Apple Pencil: $665

Initially, I was super against buying an iPad. I’m a paper-and-pencil kind of guy when it comes to taking notes. But this semester, I have a professor who posts her lecture slides online before class. People with iPads were able to take notes on the slides directly, but I had to copy everything down. So I bought an iPad and an Apple Pencil for $665. My parents covered the cost for me since it was such a big purchase.

What I spent: $1723.33 


Liyi Ma, a third year student at the Mathematics and Engineering program at Queen’s university, photographed in her room in Kingston. She shares a house with five other female students (Photo by Johnny C.Y. Lam)

Liyi Ma, 20

Queen’s University, applied math and engineering

I spend anywhere from $1,200 to $1,400 most months. I don’t really have a set budget, but I was raised not to spend a lot, and it would eat at me if I went out for dinner two nights in a row. Right now, I’m completely independent from my parents in terms of money. Last summer, I had a paid, four-month finance internship with CIBC that covered two semesters of tuition, rent and living expenses. I’m also a Schulich Leader Scholar, which comes with a $25,000 scholarship annually over four years. And I work two to three hours a week for the Queen’s Student Academic Success Services, where I earn $16 an hour by managing a group of mentors for first-year engineering students.

Rent: $625

I have my own room in a house I share with five other girls. The rooms are different sizes, so we did a draw to divvy them up. I’m in a medium-sized room, which is $25 cheaper than the large spaces.

Utilities and internet: $80

I’m in charge of our hydro, gas and water bills. I have an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of everything. Another roommate is in charge of the internet, which is $18 a month per person. The rest of our utilities average out to about $62 a month each. 

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Groceries: $100

I usually prepare meals with my boyfriend, who lives nearby in a house with three guys. We shop on Tuesdays at Food Basics because they give 10 per cent off for students. We buy a lot of frozen dumplings because they’re easy to make and not too expensive. 

Eating out: $150

About twice a month we’ll go out for dinner or order delivery. One of our favourites is a Korean restaurant, Gangnam Style, for their soups and pork belly. One meal usually comes to $25 per person with tax and tip. 

My boyfriend’s roommate found out about a secret code that gets you 50 per cent off Domino’s pizzas every Monday, so an extra-large pizza costs $14 when you order online and pick it up. If I’m in class and I get hungry (but I need to stay for meetings or to study), I’ll go to one of the campus cafés for a $4 bagel and a $3 iced coffee. 

Fitness: $0 

Queen’s offers access to a student gym as part of our tuition. It’s really busy, all the time. So I joined two intramural sports teams instead, which are also free for students. I do volleyball on Thursdays and dodgeball on Sundays. It’s really fun.  

Transportation: $50 every two months

Both Kingston and the Queen’s campus are pretty walkable, but there’s a bus pass included in our tuition. I only use it about once a month, when I want to get to class faster. My boyfriend drives us back to Guelph every two months to visit my family. I usually e-transfer him $50 to chip in for gas on these longer trips.

Spotify subscription: $5.64 

Last year I listened to 28,000 minutes of music on Spotify. I’ll put on a playlist of relaxing or calming music if I have to do intense studying. Otherwise, if I’m doing homework that doesn’t require too much thought, I’ll put on pop music, like Taylor Swift or Adele.

Textbooks: $0

It’s pretty easy to find a free online version of the textbooks I need. Plus, I don’t have to carry around a heavy textbook if I have it on my laptop. 

Phone: $50 plus a $67 monthly payment plan

Last year, after I finished my summer internship, I got an iPhone 14 Pro. I had an older model for the longest time and it was getting really laggy. I opted to split the cost into 24 monthly payments without interest so it didn’t affect my bank account as much. On top of that, I pay $50 for a 15GB monthly plan.

Recent splurges: $20

There are often poster and sticker sales at our campus. Last semester, I bought a big world map poster for my room for $19. There are also student clubs that raise funds by selling fun stuff. When I went to the recreation centre the other day, a Taylor Swift fan club was selling stickers. I bought four for $7 and put them all over my phone and my laptop.

Leggings: $80

I’ve never owned a pair of Lululemon leggings before, but my friends love them. I recently bought a pair on sale. I hope they’re worth it, because $80 is really expensive for leggings. 

Crocs: $65

Crocs was also having a sale—everything was 50 per cent off. I got matching pairs for me and my boyfriend.

What I spent: $1,153.64


Shanaya Barretto saves on textbooks and splurges on music (Photo by Claudine Baltazar)

Shanaya Barretto, 19

University of Waterloo, mechatronics engineering

When I’m on a co-op term, I’ll spend 40 per cent of my paycheque, which works out to about $1,300 a month, and save the rest. If it’s a study semester and I don’t have any income, I don’t do any “fun” spending, and I use a portion of a scholarship I received to cover my rent and other school expenses.

Rent: $652

I share a five-bedroom basement apartment with four other second-year engineering students. The unit is half above ground, so we still get a lot of sunlight. It’s a bit further from campus—a 20-minute walk or a seven-minute bus ride. We’re saving about $125 a month by living further away, so it was a worthwhile trade-off for us. In addition to rent, I pay $15 for my share of the internet bill and $12 for hydro. 

Food: $125

I go home to my parents’ place in Mississauga every weekend, and they always 

send me back to school with enough leftovers for the week. I’m not very good at cooking on my own, but I’ll help my parents cook things like biryani and samosas. Sometimes I get bored of eating leftovers, so I’ll get takeout twice a week. It’s usually a crispy chicken wrap from Tim Hortons or a sub from Subway, which cost about $7. Sometimes I’ll get a chicken shawarma plate from Lazeez, a shawarma place in Waterloo, which is about $14. I’ll also get a $2 medium double-double coffee two or three times a week from Tim Hortons.

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Transportation: $60

I’m currently on a co-op term, so I take a bus 30 minutes to the office of a tech company. The bus pass is included in the cost of our tuition, so I don’t have to pay extra for that. I do, however, pay for regional bus trips home to Mississauga. It’s about an hour and 30 minutes. A one-way student ticket costs $10, so that’s $20 a weekend. About once a month, my dad will come to Waterloo to pick me up. 

Textbooks and class fees: $0

Honestly, I haven’t bought a single textbook in my studies so far. My professors have told us that we don’t need them. They upload PowerPoint slides and PDFs and we get information from there. It’s pretty common, at least for my program. Our physics and circuits courses involve a lot of practice problems for homework, but our professor just posts them online.

Entertainment: $45

I don’t really go to bars or clubs, but I love going to concerts. Last November, I went to see Maisie Peters in Toronto. (It was over the weekend, so I was able to take transit in from my parents’ place in Mississauga.) The ticket cost $40. I also spend $5 a month on a Spotify subscription. I listen to music when I’m studying and commuting. It’s usually a lot of Taylor Swift, Bleachers, Gracie Abrams and Maisie Peters. I don’t have a Netflix subscription, but my parents do, so I’ll usually watch shows when I’m back at home.

Books: $60

I love reading sci-fi and historical fiction. When a new book comes out, I’m often too impatient to wait for it at the library, so I’ll buy it at Indigo. Last month, I bought The Martian, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Talking to Strangers.

Music: $60

I love vinyl. I recently got a Victrola suitcase record player as a birthday gift from my parents. I bought the new Taylor Swift album from her online shop when it came out. It cost $40 for the record and $20 for shipping. 

Clothing: $20

I wear a lot of flannel. My old jacket was getting worn out, so I bought a new one on sale from Ardene at the mall.

What I spent: $1,022 



— As told to Andrea Yu

This story appears in the Maclean’s University Guidebook 2023, available now for just $19.99. Order your copy here.