When you're scrapin' and survivin', it's easy to lose perspective. A lot of people living on a budget, particularly young single people, make the mistake of always buying the cheapest thing they can find. That can be good, but just as often, it's short-sighted.
The best example is the ubiquitous fast food value menu. Sure, you get a double cheeseburger for a buck, but you're not getting a very good deal. Fast food isn't the healthiest stuff around, nor is it very filling (unless you consider having bad gas the same as being full). Too much of this sort of diet may deprive you of nutrients, which could make you lethargic, making it harder for you to work and earn money. It might even make you sick, and doctors are expensive.
Another false economy is Happy Hour. Sometimes it works out great, if you can get your friends to come out at five, have two or three cheap drinks, enjoy some free appetizers, and leave. But bar owners don't offer Happy Hour because they're such charitable souls. They do it because once you get drunk, if you have only a nebulous plan of what you're doing with your evening, you're going to be inclined to stay and order regular priced drinks.
And speaking of Happy Hour, stay away from the cheap booze. Have two Grey Goose martinis and enjoy them, rather than five Popov'n'crans you won't remember. Cheap beer makes you look bloated and will eventually give you a gut that would make a pregnant lady blush. Almost all cheap booze contains impurities, which increase your chance of a nasty hangover, again making you lethargic and making it harder for you to earn what little money you do have coming in.
So, enough gloom and doom. Here are some think-ahead, listen-to-me-because-I-walked-five-miles-to-school-uphill-in-the-snow type suggestions.
I disagree with the advice above. Don't get rid of your full-sized fridge. Just quit being a little punk and learn to grocery shop and cook. You'll eat better, you'll be healthier, you'll look sexier, you'll have more energy, your eyes will be brighter, and your tail will be bushier. If you have a freezer, you can prepare a few meals each week, portion them out, freeze them, and live off of them until the next weekend. Heating them up only takes a little longer than waiting at the drive-thru.
Cooking is not hard. Do some experimenting with spices and find your favorite(s). Mine is garlic. Get a lot of them and use them liberally in things you cook. Even if you're totally broke and can only afford a sack of potatoes, you have enough food to get you through a week and you can make it taste good. When you have more money, you don't need an elaborate recipe. Just get what's on sale, chop it into bite-sized pieces, and throw it all in a non-stick pan with some olive oil and your signature spices.
Remember that there's no shame in hitting the discount stores. No sense buying a block of cream cheese at Safeway when you can buy the same amount of Brie for 50 cents less at Grocery Outlet.
If you like to drink, and especially if you like to entertain, you should look into using Brita filters to purify your booze. Some people on the Internet claim that you can take swill, pass it through a charcoal filter like a Brita three times, and have something equivalent to high-quality booze. I haven't tried it myself, but if you already have a bottle of Smirkoff and a roommate who never refills the water pitcher...
Choosing a good place to live is one of the best ways to save money. If you have any choice in the matter, look for as many of these qualities as you can get, and remember than a rental with these amenities is generally worth paying more for:
- Near work, school, a grocery store, a library, a park, and other places you may need to go on a regular basis. Within walking distance if at all possible, on the same bus route for sure.
- Includes utilities. That way you can get a refrigerator as big as a damned house and it won't cost you a penny extra.
- Modern, efficient appliances, if your landlord is too cheap to pay utilities.
- Your own washer and dryer or a free one in the building. Besides the obvious, this gives you a greater chance of recovering lost socks and decreases the chance that dirty hippies will steal your clothes, which may be costly to replace.
- Perks like a gym, pool, rec room, or free cable or broadband. You are not a monk. You will eventually need some sort of entertainment. It is not a trivial concern.
Especially as a college student, there are lots of ways for you to get free stuff. If you've always hated cigarettes and cigarette companies, a great thing to do is get on their mailing lists. The easiest way to do this is to find them at a bar or club some weekend when they're giving away freebies. Sometimes these are cigarettes, but sometimes they're more handy things like Zippos. Let them scan your drivers license and take their bribes.
In a few weeks, you will begin receiving their junk mail. Be sure to fill out any surveys or other feedback forms they send. My boyfriend and I sold our souls for free Zippos one night and have been receiving the same junk mail ever since. But he filled out his survey and I didn't, so Marlboro sent him a debit card with $25 on it (no, he doesn't have to spend it on cigarettes). I did not receive one. Lesson learned.
As long as you don't buy their stupid crap, selling your demographic information to evil corporations in exchange for trinkets and debit cards is a morally sound means of sticking it to the man.
If it's practical, get a bus pass, bike, moped, or scooter for transportation. Gas and parking are expensive, and time consuming to obtain.
Finally, if you are truly committed to living well on your budget, learn to dumpster dive. This crazy world of ours tends to go through possessions faster than necessary and discard what is still usable. You can find lots of good stuff for free.