How to Save Money on Student Housing: On and Off Campus


By Jeff Smith

Table of Contents

College can be an exciting opportunity for students to live on their own and take the first step towards independence. Since where you live in college is half the fun (literally, you’ll spend half your time outside class there!), deciding where to live can be a make-or-break factor in your overall college experience.

Not to mention, it can impact how much student loan debt you’ll have to take on. As the cost of attending college steadily rises, nearly 60% of students say they had to take out loans to cover expenses. As tuition and housing costs rise, borrowers have had to take out almost double the amount of loans ($12,000 to $23,500) in the last decade. These large costs can be a burden on many students and families, but luckily there are resources like financial aid and scholarships that can help.

So how can you tell whether a dorm or apartment is right for you? With so many choices on where to live and grow in college, it’s important to consider all the factors before signing an apartment lease or applying for a residence hall. Every housing option comes with its own pros and cons, and costs vary widely from campus to campus. But don’t worry, there are ways to save in every situation.

Living on your own in college is a chance to learn important life skills. It’s also the perfect time to learn to budget and start building credit to prepare for the real world. Use this guide to inform your college housing decision and find your perfect spot either on-campus or off.

Pros and cons: on-campus vs. off-campus living

Living on-campus offers a unique social setting and some schools even require it for incoming freshmen. However, living off-campus can give you more freedom and independence.

Many factors vary from campus to campus so check with move in coordinators or leasing representatives to find out what is included for the price. Meal plans, furniture and amenities are some of the most common variables. If you have a choice between on-campus or off, know your options and talk to others about their experience to get a better idea of what to expect.


Sources: U.S. News | Affordable Colleges Online

On-campus housing options


On-campus living is one of the fastest ways to make friends and build community in college. At schools like Harvard, Columbia and Vanderbilt, more than 90% of students live on-campus.

Dorms and residence halls have plenty of common areas to meet up, watch movies and play games so you can take a break from studying. Along with the social aspect, more upsides of on-campus living are convenient location and meal plans. Keep in mind that some schools allow students who live off-campus to purchase meal plans. Consider whether it would be cheaper to buy groceries and prepare your own meals or if a meal plan would benefit you more.

Dorms and residence halls

For many, dorms are an essential part of the college experience. Many first year students opt for dorm living because being surrounded by other first year students and supportive staff can make the transition to college easier.

Just remember, within a college campus, dorms can vary widely depending on the location, the year they were built and whether or not they have a dining hall. Before you choose a specific dorm, make sure you understand what you’re getting and what to expect for the price.

Here’s what to expect, generally speaking, if you’re considering living in a dorm:

Living space: Most dorm layouts have a shared living space with a roommate and either a suite bathroom (shared with an adjoining room) or a community bath. Dorms and residence halls are usually furnished with a bed, desk and dresser. Kitchens are not included, but some dorms are equipped with a mini-fridge and microwave with access to a shared kitchen facility.

Roommates: Unless you have extra budget to swing, expect to live with at least one roommate. When it comes to choosing a roommate, you can either select someone beforehand or choose a random assignment. Both options come with their own pros and cons. Either way, living in close quarters with someone can teach you valuable lessons about respect, cleanliness and courtesy.

Amenities: Many dorms offer shared study rooms, media rooms and sometimes even computers for students to use. A campus meal plan could be another major incentive for living in a dorm, and, depending on the size of your school, could provide many dining options all over campus. Another amenity to check for is security. Some dorms provide secure entrances and exits as well as on-duty campus police. It’s always a good idea to check the list of amenities available to you before choosing a dorm.

Greek life housing

For students interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, Greek housing could be an alternative to live on-campus or near campus and be close to friends. Dues and fees per semester vary widely but most members who live in the house receive a meal plan, security and access to special amenities.

Just remember that many greek societies charge dues, in addition to housing costs, to maintain membership, so factor those extra expenses into your budget if you go this route.

While Greek housing is commonly reserved for sophomores and upperclassmen, check with your organization for availability. Room styles can vary from shared rooms to private rooms. Since meetings and events are commonly held in the house, living in a sorority or fraternity house could be a convenient way to hang out with friends on a daily basis.

Housing cooperatives

Some college campuses offer on-campus housing cooperatives, or co-ops, that are made up of student members. Co-ops are a low-cost living option because students pitch in to run the complex and share costs of living.

Similar to dorms, co-ops have shared common areas that promote collaboration and community. There is definitely a social aspect to co-op living with plenty of member meetings, social events and group tasks. If you’re willing to pitch in and do your part for the co-op community, this could be a good fit for you.

Student family housing

Many campuses have accommodations for married couples and families. If you meet certain requirements, you may qualify to live in special apartment-style units.

These often have multiple bedrooms and full kitchens so families can live comfortably. Some family housing options are built in neighborhood-style complexes with multiple buildings and amenities like playgrounds for young children.

Off-campus housing options


Off-campus housing can be a big step for college students as they move into their own space. This option usually offers more freedom, but comes with a bit more responsibility.

In terms of cost, sometimes off-campus living can be less expensive than living in a dorm. Before considering living off-campus, students will need to budget for groceries (or buy a meal plan), plan their commute and expect to pay utility bills.

Living at home

If you’re attending college relatively close to home, consider living with family to save money on housing costs. Relatives and family friends may be happy to host you during your college career.

If possible, offer to pay a fee to cover your portion of utilities and rent. If you’re close enough to campus, consider buying an on-campus meal plan or offer to pitch in for groceries at home. Keep in mind that you’ll have to balance being an adult and living under someone else’s roof, meaning you might not get the freedom you were looking forward to in college.

Rental apartments and houses

College campuses have many apartments, condos, and houses available for rent. Proximity to campus can vary, meaning you may need to consider a longer commute to get to class. Some rentals come furnished, but more often than not, you’ll need to buy and move your own furniture.

Renting alone

If privacy is a concern, renting a studio apartment may be a good option. Different from a one bedroom apartment, studios often have an open room that contains the kitchen, living and sleeping area with a private bathroom. Renting a space by yourself can be pricey since rent and utility bills are your sole responsibility, but the private space may be worth it.

With many online rental services, it’s easy to find a room available for rent in an existing house. Some families put rooms up for rent knowing that college students will need a place to stay. You’ll need to share common areas but this could be a great option that offers more privacy than a dorm.

Renting with roommates

Renting an apartment or house with roommates is a common way to share living costs with new friends. Most college apartments offer one to four bedroom options that can make rent more affordable.

While splitting utilities can become a source of conflict, if you set guidelines beforehand, it can be a great way to share responsibilities and costs. To save even more money, some students share a bedroom with a roommate. How many roommates to get is really a matter of what you’re comfortable with and how much budget you have to spare.

Tips for student renters

First-time renters are in store for a lot of surprises when finding their first place. From searching to signing, follow these nine tips for a smooth process.

1 - Start early
On some college campuses, rentals start to get leased up to a year before the move-in date, while some complexes even have wait lists. Research complexes you have in mind and talk to current students to get a feel for the best time to start looking.

2 - Solidify roommate choices
Find a small group of friends committed to finding a rental with the same requirements you desire. Some apartments require all roommates to sign a lease on the same day and won’t hold any units while you make decisions.

3 - Tour multiple properties
Even if you fall in love with the first place you tour, visit other properties to make sure you’re making the right choice. Take your time to find a place that meets your must-haves, keeping in mind things like safety and proximity to campus.

4 - Trust your instincts
Unfortunately, there are many scams targeted at college students. Protect yourself by only giving personal information to trusted businesses and never make a payment without a signed agreement. If something feels off, it probably is.

5 - Read and re-read the lease
For many students, this will be their first time looking at a lease, which is a multiple page legal document with many terms and requirements. Leases will typically detail things like who will be living in the apartment, who is responsible for paying for trash disposal, pest control, what type of deposit is required, etc.

If you can, look over the lease with a parent or trusted mentor to make sure everything is in order. Depending on the income requirements and whether the apartment complex checks your credit history, they may need to co-sign the lease with you.

6 - Consider lease terms
Most lease terms are for one-year, but there are other options available. Make sure you and your roommates understand the financial obligations even if someone decides to study abroad, live with a significant other or go home for the summer. Some apartment complexes will offer nine-month leases or other lease options instead, but will usually charge more for these options.

7 - Prepare for upfront costs and credit checks.
Rental agents may charge an application fee and administrative fee per applicant. Most landlords will also run credit checks on applicants, so you should review your report before applying and discuss any concerns. Once you’re ready to sign the lease, you may have to pay a security deposit and/or first month’s rent.

8 - Inspect the unit
After getting the keys to your new place, do a thorough inspection of all doors, walls, windows, floors, appliances and electrical outlets. Document anything that is damaged so you won’t be held responsible for paying when you move out.

9 - Acquire renter’s insurance
Even if your landlord or rental management company doesn’t require renter’s insurance, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to protect your belongings in case of an emergency.

Comparing student housing costs


There’s no definitive answer to whether it’s less expensive to live on-campus or off-campus, so it really depends on what’s available in your area. Costs vary from city to city because of the cost of living and local rent prices.

The chart below shows the monthly cost for housing options in college towns across the United States. In most cases, living off-campus has a lower cost per month but doesn’t include meals or utility bills. Factoring in these expenses makes the cost of both comparable. Be sure to research local rent prices to see if living off-campus could save you money or if living on-campus is the way to go.


Sources: Business Insider | College Simply | Apartment List

Financial aid and student housing


The cost of tuition, housing and textbooks can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many resources available to alleviate those costs. Since housing is considered a cost of attendance, many types of aid (including student loans) can be applied toward living costs whether it’s on or off campus.

Take advantage of these resources to help manage the cost of college...

Federal aid programs

To see if you qualify for federal aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA form asks a series of questions related to your income and financial situation. You’ll need to fill out a new FAFSA form every year to receive aid.

There are three types of federal aid available to students:

  1. Grants are a type of aid that don’t have to be repaid unless you withdraw from school. Grants are awarded based on financial need, meaning they are reserved for students who need them most. You must meet certain requirements to be eligible to receive grants.

  2. Work-Study programs provide part-time jobs to students with financial need. There are both on-campus and off-campus jobs in the work study program to help students pay for school.

3.__ Federal loans__ are amounts of money from the government that have to be repaid with interest. There are many types of federal loans available that don’t require you to make payments until after you graduate or unless you drop to part-time enrollment status.

Private scholarships

Many students are able to apply to private scholarships in their community and online to help with the cost of college attendance. Like grants, scholarships do not have to be repaid.

Scholarship amounts can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. While most students apply for scholarships as freshmen, many scholarships can be renewed and are available to upperclassmen as well.

College financial aid office

Your college financial aid office is there to help you manage the cost of attendance. Knowledgeable advisors and staff should know of opportunities given by the school, alumni or for your specific major. Make an appointment with your financial aid advisor to discuss your options.

Ways to save on student housing


College students are known for their thrifty ways when it comes to getting by on a small budget. Make the most of your money by following these tips.

Cutting on-campus living costs

Here are five ways you can cut costs when living on campus:

1 - Become an RA

An RA, or Resident Assistant, is a trained peer leader who lives in a dorm or residence hall to foster community, be a leader and handle conflicts. RAs usually receive waived housing fees or financial compensation for their work.

The perk? Get free housing (and sometimes meals!) during the academic year.

2 - Work on campus

Similar to work-study programs, there are many on-campus jobs within walking distance of your dorm. Boost your resume and make some extra cash in your downtime.

The perk? Working a minimum wage job 12 hours per week could give you $348 per month to put toward rent. (12 hours x 4 weeks $7.25 =$348)

3 - Save on transportation

Some schools charge outrageous fees for garage parking, so consider leaving your car at home. Save on transportation costs by walking, biking, taking city transportation or taking advantage of free campus transportation where available.

The perk? Get your workout in by walking or biking to class (for free!).

4 - Take advantage of your meal plan

Since meal plans are a big expense, take full advantage by spending any leftover amount at the end of the semester on non-perishable snacks. Some schools will even let you put that money towards school supplies. If you know you won’t use the full amount, try to get a reduced meal plan at a lower cost.

Remember! The typical meal out costs $13, meaning that even 4 meals out per week could total $208 per month. Source: Money Under 30

5 - Use campus amenities

In addition to taking full advantage of your campus meal plan, take full advantage of any campus amenities. For example, if you’re into fitness, hit up the campus gym as often as possible if it’s included in your admission.

The perk? Campus fitness centers may have fun amenities like rock climbing and racquetball courts to try out a new skill.

Cutting off-campus living costs

If you prefer living off-campus, consider these five tips for cutting costs there:

1 - Split rent with roommates

To save money on rent, consider sharing a bedroom or splitting an apartment with multiple roommates. The costs should decrease for each person you add on. Just be aware, in some locations, there are housing restrictions around how many unrelated individuals can live in the same building. Make sure you know the local rules before you count on this!

The perk? Sharing with another person could cut your monthly rent in half.

2 - Factor location into your commute

If you live close to campus and walk to class, you may be able to save money on gas and parking fees. However, sometimes if the rent’s cheap enough further away, it’s actually less expensive to just pay for gas and parking. Be sure to factor that into your decision.

Remember! If you have to drive, you can save up to 37% on fuel by slowing down your driving, accelerating softly and braking gently. Source: NBC News

3 - Cook meals at home

Now that you have a kitchen, become your own chef! If you’ve got time to cook, try to limit how often you eat out and split meals with your roommates to cut grocery costs. If you drink coffee, pitch in for a coffee maker instead of buying coffee out to save even more.

The savings? Make your $2 coffee at home Monday through Friday and save nearly $40 per month. Source: Money Under 30

4 - Save energy and utilities

If you can, try to pick an apartment that offers energy-efficient appliances. However, on a budget, that might not always be an option, but there are ways you can reduce your electricity and water usage that also reduce your monthly utility bill.

In fact, just by unplugging your electronics and appliances, you could save $100-$200 per year. By turning the water off when you brush your teeth, you can save up to 200 gallons per month. Over time, those savings can really add up.

5 - Sublet over summer or winter break

If your unit will be sitting empty over winter or summer breaks, ask around to see if anyone would be interested in subletting. Just make sure it’s okay with your landlord first, because sometimes there’s additional paperwork involved.

Final thoughts

Although college can be expensive, there are many ways to help manage the financial burden. Move into your own space, meet some of your lifelong friends and ace your exams! Take control of your finances by building a strong financial foundation so you’re set up for success after you get your degree. Check out these additional resources for help finding affordable housing, managing your budget and getting financial aid.

Additional resources


Financial Aid and Scholarships

Consumer Reports | US News | Business Insider |

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Written on April 17, 2019
Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings. Comments? Questions? Send us a note at

Disclaimer: Self is not providing financial advice. The content presented does not reflect the view of the Issuing Banks and is presented for general education and informational purposes only. Please consult with a qualified professional for financial advice.

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