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Live Like a Student

Many readers suggested that I can save money by “living like a student” when I am in school and after I graduate from my MBA program. This might be harder for MBA students than other professional students who have gone straight from college to graduate school, and who haven’t had the chance to “inflate” their lifestyle. In fact, Cornell University’s financial website specifically extols MBA students to live frugally while earning their degree.

Pursuit of an MBA is an investment in your future. It will most likely require you to take on some educational debt. There are ways to limit the amount of education debt you accumulate as a student. The easiest way to reduce your overall debt is to reduce your discretionary expenses. It is much easier to live like a student when you are a student than to live like a student when you are earning $90,000 annually.

So what does “live like a student” mean? Is it strictly a diet of ramen and eggs? Or driving an old beater? Or living with 3-4 roommates? Or working a part-time or even full-time job while going to school at the same time? My cousin, who is in medical school right now, lives with a roommate in an apartment very close to the school and leads a frugal lifestyle, but otherwise drives a paid-off car courtesy of his parents and doesn’t work. My other cousin is a junior in a liberal arts college much like mine and while she holds down a few part-time jobs on campus, she doesn’t worry about paying for tuition or books. Her room and board are all covered, and so any money she makes is her spending money.

Another friend of mine who recently graduated from law school lived in a cramped apartment which she described as “on the outskirts of drive-by territory”, close enough to hear the gunshots sometimes, but far away enough that your friends aren’t afraid to come by during the daytime. When my dad was in graduate school, my parents lived on his teaching assistant stipend (meant for ONE person), renting a room in a basement. The only time they enjoyed fish was when they could buy discarded fishheads from the market. At the liberal arts college where I graduated from, you can see BMW M-6s and even a Maserati dotting the parking lot. Obviously, “live like a student” can run quite a spectrum depending on your expectations, resources, and background.

Here’s what I think of as living like a student:

1. Cooking at home most nights. It might be hard to do, but I am going to make a concerted effort to put together meals that are nutrious and cheap. Think canned beans, omelets, and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. What I will not do, however, is eat ramen every night.

2. Have a wardrobe that fits and flatters for what I need… going to class, networking, interviews, etc. What I will not do is over-buy in quality or quanity, especially not both. For example, I’d need a nice leather purse to carry resumes and folders, but I do not need that purse to be Prada or Chanel (or even Longchamp!).

3. Live with roommate(s). Housing expense is probably the biggest fixed expense most students have, and living with a roommate is a sure way to save the budget. I am going to embrace shared living… every $100 I can save is another $100 in debt that I don’t have to take out and that I don’t have to repay (with interest).

4. Get by without a car. I am going to make a concerted effort to not own a car while I am in school. No car means no insurance fees, no car payments (as my 16-year-old Honda cannot survive a cross-country move, I’d have to lease or purchase another car), no gas money, and no danger of getting tickets. Outside of getting a roommate, this move will probably save me the most money.

What does “live like a student” mean to you?

  • Michelle - Cooking at home and not eating out as much is definitely the #1 saver that I can think of. Also getting a roommate would be helpful. ReplyCancel

  • addvodka - I guess I "live like a student' simply because I am a student, and I dont' make that much money. I live with my boyfriend in what my coworkers and I affectionately call the ghetto. My couch is a hand me down and a loveseat – the poor boyfriend can't fit on it if I'm on it. We have a 200 lb, 1990 TV and a vacuum that barely works but it does the job. I guess it's just living within your means, which is usually not much as a student. ReplyCancel

    • Margo - Check with your slightly older friends who lived separately and are now moving in together and/or getting married. You'd be amazed what quality of stuff you can be given, since selling things on Craigslist really does consume a lot of time that young professionals may not have. ReplyCancel

  • Walnut - I worked full time through my MBA and one point to keep in mind is that I didn't have time to spend money while I was a student. Outside of the coffee expense (my favorite coffee shop had a tucked away conference room. Worth.Every.Penny), I didn't have time to shop anywhere besides the most convenient grocery store. So, I highly suggest keeping yourself very busy during your MBA. It'll mitigate any impulse to spend money. ReplyCancel

  • Emily - I think you got the highlights already. And I agree with addvodka that you shouldn't spend much to furnish your shared apartment. A couple other suggestions (not sure if they apply for you specifically):
    1) Keep the bar tab low/zero.
    2) You don't need the latest gadgets.
    3) Don't pay for cable – get your entertainment for free online. Or study!
    4) Take advantage of all the benefits of being a student – student discounts, the library, free entertainment, the gym. ReplyCancel

  • SWR - I've been stuck buying more food on campus than I thought I would, mostly because I am sometimes there 12+ hours and I don't like eating a dinner that has been sitting around for that long. I make sure to eat breakfast at home and pack a lunch as much as possible- and I'm also learning to deal with instant coffee.

    Before going back to school, I also sold most of my "hobby gear"; my snowshoes, lots of my hiking gear, and my skis. I knew that I wouldn't have very much time to spend my weekends doing those things, and besides- I can always rent shoes and skis. Plus I don't have to worry about finding the space to store all of it. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - That's a good point.. I guess when the time comes, I need to figure out how to carry food with me so I don't have to go out to eat all the time. I'd love going out with friends and classmates, but if I am eating on the go it's healthier and cheaper to just eat something I've packed. ReplyCancel

      • Margo - It's more than just light snacks, sometimes you're on a sprint from 8am-midnight. A granola bar doesn't cut it in that situation. ReplyCancel

  • Jordann - I think everyone covered this topic pretty well, but just to add my individual insights: Living like a student to me means eating less meat, more rice and lentils. It also means choosing a broom over a vacuum, delaying replacing ANYTHING for at least a year , and searching out cheap drinks nights at my favourite bars. ReplyCancel

  • jefferson - It sure would be nice to be able to do this, at least until I was out of debt.
    But the wife and three kids pretty much make it impossible.

    -We *do* eat at home most nights.. But spend far too much on groceries.
    -I unfortunately need to pay for 5 people's wardrobes, and kids grow out of shoes really fast.
    -I have lots of roomates (my kids), but none of them help with the mortgage payment.
    -Getting by w/o a car isn't going to happen.. I have to get to work and the kids have multiple activities. ReplyCancel

  • BrokeElizabeth - 3 out of your 4 points are what I am doing right now. I'm not currently living with a roommate, but it's actually quite rare to live in a twin room here in the UK so I'm not too bothered about it. Next year I will hopefully (fingers crossed) get a 75% reduction in my accommodation fees instead of a salary for the part time job I applied for, so that expense will (hopefully) be lowered quite a bit. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - When I refer to roommate, I meant housemates or apartment-mates. I don't plan on sharing a bedroom with anyone else (I'm guessing that's what "twin room" means?) ReplyCancel

  • @moneyaftergrad - That list looks legit. I should really go back to living like a student until my debt is gone =( ReplyCancel

  • Melissa - I would just call it spending money only when you have to, on the basics, and on nothing else. It's funny. I lived on a totally bare bones budget when I was a student, and now I actually can't imagine going back to that budget. I'm not over it by very much, but it just seems really unrealistic now, and it wasn't even that long ago that I did it! ReplyCancel

  • SavvyFinancialLatina - I am currently in graduate school. I do 2,3,4. I am not a very good cook, so I cook maybe one meal a day. Eggs basically LOL.
    I lived with three girls for three years. I moved out in August with my hubby because we got married. Getting rid of your car will definitely make sure you have more money to spend on food. I don't have a car yet, and I get a along fine. It's a bit inconvenient at times, but my school has a good transportation system. You just need time. Also, my school has zip cars. Maybe your school will have some too? Thus, if you really need to get somewhere you can still drive by renting a zip car. ReplyCancel

  • Monday Roundup: Live Like a Student | Credit Karma Blog - […] Live Like a Student. “Many readers suggested that I can save money by ‘living like a student’ when I am in school and after I graduate from my MBA program. This might be harder for MBA students than other professional students who have gone straight from college to graduate school, and who haven’t had the chance to “inflate” their lifestyle.” Well Heeled Blog […]ReplyCancel

  • Bethy @ Credit Karma - The nice thing is that, while you're a student, you can find other frugal student friends to spend time with (and not money with). Having friends in similar money situations helps you feel the squeeze less. ReplyCancel

  • Kristin - I'm currently a grad student in engineering, and I was in the "real world" for two years, so I definitely understand where you're coming from. I live with a roommate to help share expenses such as heat, electricity, etc. An apartment in an apartment complex is more energy-efficient than a standalone house. I was also able to find a partially-furnished place. When you know you'll only be in one place for a few months or year, try not to acquire lots of furniture – you'll just need to pay to move it in and out or store it. I definitely eat out a lot less than I did when I was working. However, do expect more of eating out expenses when you first start classes, because people will want to go out to get to know one another. (1/2) ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - I hear ya! I lived in my current apartment for almost 2 years and the most we've spent on furniture is a $100 couch from craigslist. So I'm pretty sure I can restrain myself from going all Apartment Therapy on my new apartment. 😉 ReplyCancel

  • Kristin - Definitely look into what kind of public transportation options the school will provide you as a student. I get a free bus pass as a student and walk to classes each day. While I have a car, I could definitely get by without one. So before you decide to bring a car, figure out what options you have around you. I have also kept my technology steady – I have a 4-year old laptop, a 6-year old camera, a 2-year old flip phone, my backpack from undergrad. You will likely have access to school computers that have any complicated software you might need. I've also cut back on shopping a lot. It is probably harder as an MBA student to get by on the jeans and screen-printed T-shirts from undergrad career fairs like I have, but you shouldn't need to buy a whole new wardrobe or anything. I was probably spending about 2500/month before I started school, and now I'm averaging about 1500/month. Just for reference, I moved ~2000 miles, and it cost about $6500 for my company to pack, ship, and unpack about 2500 lbs of stuff and ship my car on a trailer. (2/2) ReplyCancel

  • Kim - Good topic! I'd say buying few things save networking/interview clothes, only watching tv online, going to school events just for the food, getting a part-time job that involves selling food or coffee, the only get-away you take in three years is camping or to the lake/beach while cramming 15 people into a house. ReplyCancel

  • ShoppingtoSaving - I definitely live like a student moreso now than when I was actually a student. When I was in college I was deluded into thinking that I could rack up credit debt and pay it off when I graduated with my new "real job". Sure, that definitely didn't happen! I had to pay off my credit debt and then live like a student now haha. ReplyCancel

  • Laura Vanderkam - Little secret: I actually like Ramen noodles. I started eating them years ago because people told me it was the "cheap" food. But they can be tasty. I tend to cook them with chopped up celery and spinach to add nutrition, and I only use a tiny bit of the flavoring in the packet (which I'm sure is like pure sodium and other stuff I shouldn't be eating). Yum! The fact that you can get 10 for $2 is totally beside the point. As for the Chanel purse — you could borrow one from somebody for an interview if you really needed to look nice. Basically the total benefit of business school is the network, so if you haven't met people by graduation who you know well enough to borrow their purse (or suit) then that's a problem on levels beyond the fashion one. ReplyCancel

    • Well Heeled Blog - I LOVE ramen, especially with an egg on top. But I can never get full on one packet of ramen, and it's pretty high in calories. So I only save those for treats. ReplyCancel

  • Centsibly $peaking - I would have to agree with ShoppingtoSaving, when I think of living like a student I don't think of saving. When I was a student I was very careless with my money. I racked up credit card bills, took out too many loans in order to have some fun, and any extra money I had always went towards having some fun and buying new clothes. I like the premise of thinking to live like a student, because most college students are broke, and really should be taught better money management skills before they reach college. If I could do it over again, living like a student would mean paying cash for everything and resisting the urge to use a credit card. I would also find ways to have fun with my friends at home rather than going out most weekends. ReplyCancel

  • MLISunderstanding - My "living like a student" looks a lot like yours, with maybe a little more weight on the fish head side. I am working full-time while attending grad school, and I plan to graduate without debt (by repaying my student loans at or just after graduation).

    Other general life rules that come in handy when living on a student budget:
    Buy Used, Not New. (if you buy things at all)
    Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, Or Do Without. (classic for a reason)
    Stock up on staple grocery/pantry items when they're on sale, and plan several recurring favorite meals — then cook in bulk and freeze.
    Cut out the cable. I've lived TV-free for several years now, and I haven't paid for cable channels since I finished high school and left my parents' home (where they paid the cable bill along with all the others). I watch everything I want to (and probably more than I should) on Hulu, Netflix, and occasionally friends' TVs. The public library is a great resource for DVDs and books.

    I'm also lucky because I work in a VERY casual office, and I take classes online — wardrobe doesn't factor into my cost concerns. I have a few nice dressy outfits and some basic office wear for interviewing, but I got them either at a deep discount or at a thrift store. I don't drink coffee, alcohol, or soda, and that translates to a vastly reduced grocery budget. ReplyCancel

  • Julie@Freedom48 - LIving with roommates and managing without a car are huge! We purchased our first house in 2003… but rented rooms to fellow university students until after we were married (until 2009). We also used bus passes until we bought our very first car (for $5,000) in 2007.
    Living that "student lifestyle" is what gave us such a good head start in life =) ReplyCancel

  • SavvyFinancialLatina - If you have been working, you should already have a wardrobe. No need to add to it. As long as, you don't gain weight. Many students gain weight because of the weird schedules and bad food. ReplyCancel

  • krantcents - Living like a student is living very cheaply.. I think I still live at a very modest level. ReplyCancel

  • Living Like A Student - […] Heeled has an excellent blog post today about how to live like a student. She asks the question what does it mean to live like a student? since there are so many different […]ReplyCancel

  • Christopher - I lived like a student while going for my MBA, even though I had graduated a few years earlier. We were recently married and she wasnt working she was going for her masters. So it was both of us on my measly income. It feels like we were living the same lifestyle back then that we are now. I dont know where the money goes but it disappears. Thats part of the reason I started blogging to not hide behind where the money is going and put it out there for the public to see… ReplyCancel

  • eemusings - we still do all of those things, though have lived alone for a couple years now. When we buy a house I’d be open to getting flatmates in for a while to help with the mortgage. ReplyCancel

  • Money Infant - Having a roommate and getting rid of the car will definitely give you the greatest benefit. Focus on your studies and keep entertainment expenses to a minimum should help as well. And eating frugally is sure to save a few hundred dollars a month. If you need ideas check out my blog every Sunday for a new frugal recipe :) ReplyCancel

  • Mochi & Macarons - 1. No car ( public transportation if possible, some cities don't have that option 😐 )
    2. Cooking at home
    3. Going out rarely and on a budget
    4. Not buying whatever you want on impulse
    5. Making sacrifices and cutting out things in favour of others. E.g. you love reading, so you buy a book instead of eating out that week. ReplyCancel

  • Liz - I went back to undergrad school to finish my degree at age 35. I did everything you are planning except to do without the car. It is a 7-mile one-way drive to the campus, and a bicycle or public transportation was just not doable. There are no bike paths along the route I took and the closest bus stop is 15 city blocks away. I did make it though and graduated. ReplyCancel

  • Nele - Being a student I know most of the tricks. However I had no idea how much money I was still wasting before I started to barter. Bartering will allow you to get new clothes, books, dvds, cellphones, computers etc. for "free". I signed up on barterquest.com because they would also allow you to trade services. So I offer my service as a dog walker (great exercise too, and you don't pay for a gym membership) and get whatever I like and need in return. ReplyCancel

  • ShesPrettyFrugal - To me, living like a student means…

    1. Eating in more and when I do eat out, it has to be as inexpensive as possible. Save the fancy restaurants for true special occasions, like graduation!
    2. Only clothes shopping for necessities. So, take care of the clothes you have so they last longer.
    3. When tempted with the urge to shop or spend money, redirect that focus towards studying, or something related to school (completing that assignment, researching internships/jobs, etc). Keep busy. Time goes by faster when you stay busy. Before you know it, those 2yrs spent in graduate school are over. Better grades mean a great chance of "passing that class, which puts you closer to graduating.
    3. Now, I don't expect to be all work and no play but, when the time permits, look for free sources of entertainment. ReplyCancel

  • Round-ups & Carnivals | Freedom 48: The Everyday Guide to Financial Success - […] Well Heeled Blog wrote an article identifying some key characteristics for living like a student.  http://www.wellheeledblog.com/2012/03/12/living-like-a-student/#idc-container […]ReplyCancel

  • Lucas - Being frugal without sacrificing your social life…:) ReplyCancel

  • Student Struggling With the Student Budget | Well Heeled Blog - […] I came back to school, I thought living like a student would be, well, not a piece of cake, but it wouldn’t be too hard. After all, I always been a […]ReplyCancel

  • Monday Roundup: Live Like a Student | Credit and Personal Finance Blog | Credit Karma Monday Roundup: Live Like a Student | A blog about the trends in credit and credit related industries - […] Live Like a Student. “Many readers suggested that I can save money by ‘living like a student’ when I am in school and after I graduate from my MBA program. This might be harder for MBA students than other professional students who have gone straight from college to graduate school, and who haven’t had the chance to “inflate” their lifestyle.” Well Heeled Blog […]ReplyCancel

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