Surviving on Student Wages
Every time I see an oscillating fan I think of the summer after my freshman year of college.
The rhythm of the whir and click as it moved back and forth was the only thing that kept me from suffocating in our stuffy apartment.
My roommate and I were both financially supporting ourselves that summer, so we didn’t have money to run the air conditioner. Combine that with 100-plus degree days and you start looking forward to going to work.
I had a great job working 40 hours a week at the plant pathology lab on campus. I got to experiment and study plant fungi and its effects at every stage of plant development. The only drawback? I was making a dime more than minimum wage.
Sure, I could have gone home for the summer, but I’d gotten this idea in my head that I needed to stay in town and go to summer school. My scholarship didn’t cover summer tuition, so my dad told me he would pay my tuition if I paid all my living expenses.
It seemed like a great deal. I was more than happy to agree to it. But I had no idea what it was like to support yourself on such low hourly wages and have to live paycheck to paycheck — especially after I’d been used to living pretty comfortably.
I know other students might be finding themselves in a similar situation this summer, so here are a few things I learned from my experiences.
Plan Your Meals
Look for simple recipes with fewer ingredients because generally the fewer the ingredients, the lower the cost. Pinterest is usually a great place to start, but there’s also lots of apps out there like Allrecipes.com that can help you find dishes you feel comfortable preparing.
Then, take it a step further and schedule your meals for the entire week before you go shopping. My husband and I do this every week, and some of our friends and family tease us about it, but it really helps us focus our grocery shopping. With a meal plan, you don’t waste food, and it also prevents you from wasting money on snacks you don’t need.
Shop At the Dollar Store
You can find a lot of your basic necessities at the dollar store, including some food products. I’m not saying you should shop at the dollar store for everything you use, but it can be a great way to save money. (And it’s a great way to avoid the hustle and bustle of the grocery store.)
Cut Up Your Credit Cards
I didn’t have any credit cards during my Oscillating Fan Summer, and I’m so grateful I didn’t. Later, when I started my professional career as a newspaper journalist, I fell into this horrible cycle with my credit card.
I would spend more one month than I was able to pay off, so I would just tell myself that I wouldn’t put anything on it the next month. But I couldn’t go a whole month putting NOTHING on it — in fact, I used my credit card for a lot of automatic bill payments. After a few months, I was several hundred dollars in debt and it would keep me up at night because I had no means of paying it off.
So just avoid the stress by getting rid of your credit cards and instead being a stickler about what you spend money on. Get in the habit of checking your bank account once a day.
Trim the Fat
Everyone’s got things they spend money on that they can cut out of their budget. For me, it was dining out and entertainment (and running the air conditioner).
Eating out was the first thing I nixed. No more midnight Taco Bell runs with my friends, either.
I quit going to the movies or even renting movies. My roommate had a pretty extensive DVD collection, so we watched those. I also got accustomed to going to the public library to find DVDs and other sources of entertainment.
Learn to Say No
This was by far the hardest thing I had to learn to do.
When my friends invited me to dinner or bowling or whatever else was going on, I had to get used to telling them that I just couldn’t afford it. It was embarrassing and awkward, but your friends will understand — that’s why they’re your friends.
A Final Note
When I sat down to write this post, I intended to write about what I learned from juggling my on-campus job and summer school. And while I learned a lot, the biggest lesson for me that summer was in self-discipline with my finances.
I hope some of this has been helpful, and I’d love for you to comment and tell me what you do to save money while going to school.