Choosing Between on and Off-Campus Living Options

Two female college students talking and relaxing in a dorm room

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When budgeting for college expenses, you may be looking for ways to cut costs, since the cost of tuition increases every year, as do the costs of books and other school supplies. It is important to consider other expenses that you may incur and find less expensive ways to pay for them.

One of the most expensive aspects of attending college is paying for your living expenses, such as rent, utilities, and groceries. But you also have the most control over what you spend on these budget line items.

Depending on where your campus is located, you may be able to find a better bargain renting an apartment or house off-campus. This housing option could save you money on both rent and utilities. Same for food. You may be able to cut your food budget by opting out of a traditional meal plan.

We break down how to cut living expenses while in college, and how the cost of living off-campus compares to living on-campus.

Compare Rent Off and On Campus

In some areas of the country, living in the dorms may be a much cheaper option than renting an apartment with your friends or by yourself. It depends on where you live and how close you live to campus.

Take the time to explore and research the cost of rent in your college’s city or town and find out the cheapest options when it comes to renting off-campus. Then compare it with the cost of living in the dorms. Don’t forget to factor in other costs when living off-campus, like the cost of transportation and estimated monthly bills.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with an off-campus lease, as the rules will likely be different than living on-campus in the dorms. Some apartments that cater to college students will have each roommate sign a lease, and you may rent with strangers. Having roommates may be more affordable than renting an apartment yourself. It also may be more expensive.

In addition, some colleges may also have restrictions that require you to rent from university-approved apartments or require that you live on campus for a certain number of years.

Consider the Costs of Extras

Another thing to consider when deciding whether to live on or off-campus is the extra costs of living for which you will be responsible. Generally, the dorm will cover all of your utility costs and internet fees. Your off-campus apartment will probably not. Consider how much each of these expenses will cost when comparing the costs of these two living options.

Additionally, you need to decide if you will need to pay extra for transportation if you are going to live off-campus. If you have a car, you will need to pay for gas, insurance, and parking costs. Otherwise, you may need to pay for bus fees, unless you are within walking distance of the campus. Keep in mind that rents in apartments closer to campus will likely be higher since students find it a more desirable area. You may also need to secure renters insurance if living in an off-campus apartment or house.

Look at Your Meal Plan Options

Another thing to consider is the cost of food and meal plans. Often the meal plan is one of the more expensive aspects of university housing. However, you may be able to save by choosing a plan with only two meals a day or one that has more limited dining options. You may also consider purchasing breakfast foods at a convenience store and storing them in your room to save money.

Additionally, you can purchase a meal plan that only includes lunches on campus, which may save you money. If you live off-campus, you will likely have a kitchen, so you’ll have more options to eat in or pack your lunch.

Choosing the Best Option

Once you consider both living options, considering the cost of rent, meal plans, and other bills, as well as the convenience of each, it’s time to make a decision. In many cases, it is easier to live on campus because you can spend most of your time focused on your schoolwork. It's also generally a good idea to live on campus your first year because it will help you form friendships, and it is easier to adjust to college life that way.

But if you are paying for school by yourself, you may need to choose the most inexpensive option. If you are working while attending school, your job may influence where you live and what type of meal plan will work the best for you. The costs may be close enough that you can make the decision based on convenience.

Find Other Ways to Save

But living off-campus isn’t the only way to save money while in college. You can continue to look for other ways to save while in school. These savings can be as simple as only buying clothes when there is a good sale or opting not to have a car and opt for a bike and public transportation.

Services like Uber or car-sharing make it easier to do your shopping off-campus even without a car, and you will often spend less than you would spend to maintain your car. All of these options can help stop you from making financial mistakes while you are in college.

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