Tips for Living Off Campus in College

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Pictured: Typical state of student housing

There is one thing about college that I have not been able to appreciate. This thing is the famed college dorms, with tiny rooms, shared bathrooms, and… roommates. Let’s just say I haven’t had a good string of roommates. My roommate this semester is pretty good, but she snores and smells weird. That might sound petty, but if you’ve never had a roommate you don’t realize the value of quiet and neutral smells. She’s been my fifth roommate in four semesters of college, so you could say I’m a bit of an expert on bad roommates. However, that’s for another post. This one is about dorm rooms and living on campus.

Next year I will not be living on campus but I will have roommate. Way back in November my boyfriend and I signed a lease for an apartment about a mile away from campus. The distance was intentional; we liked the apartment building and we didn’t want to be right next to campus because we’re snobs, I guess. My parents continually questioned the decision to move off campus, despite the fact that they knew I had had terrible roommate experience (as I assume it is the case at most schools, boys and girls cannot room together on campus) and I couldn’t afford to pay extra for a single room. They thought that it would cost way more and that I was stupid for moving off campus.

At first I thought it was because my parents didn’t trust my math skills. Not only did I calculate an estimate of how much cheaper it would be, but I explained that since I get $10,000 in government loans we would no longer need to pay the school anything during the year because the loans would cover tuition and fees. In fact, next year I should actually be getting a little money back in a check so that I can pay for books. All I’ll need to pay is rent, electricity, and for food. It’s less than my current payments now.

Upon first visiting campus for an open house one of the first things the tour guide told me was that living off campus was way cheaper (plus it’s a dry campus, so you have to leave to drink). I thought everyone at my school knew that. However, after talking with enthusiasm about how I’ll be in an apartment next year, I’ve heard many people say they think living off campus would be more expensive. I plan on emailing the school newspaper to try and write an article debunking this next year (before housing sign-ups), but for now I’ve decided to write a blog post about it for anyone it may help.

On Campus (2013-2014 school year, 4-year state school)
Unavoidable school fees: $2,277.00
Tuition: $6,622.00
Meal Plan: $3,088.00
Housing (Traditional- Super Fly Suites): $5,264.00 – $9,264.00
Total: $17,251.00 – $21,251.00

Off Campus Estimation
Unavoidable school fees: $2,277.00
Tuition: $6,622.00
Food (200-328 a month 9 months): $1,800.00- $2,951.00
Rent: (400 a month 12 months): $4,800.00
Utilities (50 a month 12 months): $600.00
Total: $16,099.00- $17,250.00

Now, let me explain a little more. Firstly, my school is pretty cheap since it’s a public state school (at least compared to my friends at private schools). That being said, housing is pretty steady from college to college if the geographic location is similar. I added the price of the suites at my school because it’s $4,000 more and the people living there still think that they’re going to have to pay more to live off campus. Obviously, you’re going to have to pay tuition no matter what if you want to go to college, along with the ridiculous fees. Clearly, those things I don’t have to explain.

The first thing to gripe about is the campus meal plan. I seriously cannot take another semester of eating at the campus dining hall. The food was okay my freshman year, but it’s been in a steady decline since then. I don’t know how most schools do it, but for me it’s mandatory to have a meal plan if you live on campus. This makes total sense because if you live on campus and don’t have a meal plan you are probably going to starve by trying to cook food only with a microwave. However, the meal plan is expensive considering the quality of the food and the fact that I’m only paying for two meals a day (there are other plans, but I had to go with the cheapest viable one). When I explained how it was NOT more expensive to move off campus to a girl complaining about the dorms she expressed concern over having to cook for herself. Allow me to address this in my next section.

Food costs for living off campus will be as high as you make them. If you order pizza every night and buy a case of beer each week then yeah, your budget is going to be pretty high. I calculated the food budget with what I plan to spend next year ($200 a month for myself, I’ll share a little but my boyfriend is responsible for his own shopping) ranging to what you could spend just to stay even with the on campus cost. I only budgeted 9 months in because summer is usually at least two full months at home (almost 4, actually) and winter break is usually at least 4 weeks. If you don’t think you can stick to a budget of ~$328 a month for a single person, you’re going to have trouble when you’re in an entry-level position working to pay for rent, a car, cable, internet, phone bills, insurance, food, and student loans.

Part of going to college is learning to be an adult. This means budgeting your meals and learning to cook for yourself. Believe me, I’m not an excellent cook. I’m not even that good. I’m a picky eater, too. But I still believe that I’ll be able to stick to my budget. I’ll be practicing making cheap meals from scratch this summer when it’s my parents who will be paying for supplies and eating any disastrous results. While the two-ramon-noodle-packs-a-day can be your life if you don’t plan right, here shows that you can get 202 servings of rice for $10. With a $15 investment in spices at the start of the year, you can have stir-fry literally every night. Occasionally buying chicken and veggies when they’re on sale can make this a meal you wouldn’t mind eating two or three times a week. Planning cheaply like that is how you’re going to save money during college and for the future when you’re budgeting for more than just yourself. Also if you’re willing to take the time you should definitely research on how to be a good couponer so that you can get more food for your money. There are tons of sites out there dedicated just to couponing.

As an interlude with the boring stuff, let’s talk about furnishing your new apartment. (Sorry, is this still boring? I’m just enthusiastic about this kind of stuff.) For those of you whose parents don’t hoard things, who have never gone on craigslist, or who’ve never stepped foot into a goodwill… this will be harder for you. Some apartments come furnished, but lots don’t. I’m using my bed from home, my old desk and my desk chair. I’m stealing an old couch, end table, kitchen table, kitchen chairs, and coffee table from my parents. I got an entertainment stand from craigslist for free and I’m stealing an old TV from my parent’s basement. My mother bought a dresser and nightstand set for $30 on craigslist (I would have used my own, but they’re oak and huge and weigh a ton) and so the combined price of most of my furniture totals $30. Granted, I yearn for a coat rack and I have yet to find one, but other than that I’m pretty much set. Kitchen supplies is where things might really cost you. I got a set of dishes for $3 from craigslist, I got pans and cooking sheets for Christmas, and all the other little things I’ve been getting here and there plus stealing from my parents. Now is the time to convince your parents to get new pots and pans so that you can steal their old ones. Also keep in mind that these are things you can use when you move out for real, so it isn’t just wasting money.

Finally is rent and utilities. I budgeted for 12 months because I have a year-long lease, though some places do school year leases that are cheaper. Since this is college, it’s likely that you won’t be living alone (and if you are you already know that it will be more expensive). Living with at least one other person drastically reduces the strain of living off campus. I budgeted $50 for utilities because I’m only paying electric, everything else is included in the rent. Here is a map of electricity cost averages per state if you need an idea. I don’t know if it’ll even be that high considering how small the apartment is (plus I’m spliting rent with my boyfriend, so he’s paying half of the electric bill), but even with that considered it’s still not more expensive. Also, while I put rent as $400, mine is actually only $375, which is actually kinda expensive. In a college town the average rent per person is going to be $250-$400. If you hadn’t realized, landlords actually want tenants. They know that college students aren’t going to shell out big cash for shitty student housing. The exception is when your college is in a big city. My friend is trying to get a house for her and her friends in the middle of Pittsburgh. They started early and they still haven’t found a place. When they do, it’s going to be at least $600 a person and they’re going to have to share rooms. If that’s the case for you I highly suggest adding a little commute time to get cheaper housing. If you’re in New York City, don’t talk to me. I can’t help you.

Tips for finding a good place:

  • Start early, don’t wait till it’s summer to find somewhere to live.
  • Know who you want to room with. If you only have a single roommate, try to look at two-bedroom apartments before getting a four-bedroom and begging people to live with you.
  • Try starting with a real estate company in your area. They’ll have more to offer and they know what they’re doing.
  • Check the boards around campus as well as craigslist for individual landlords who are renting out. You can also just walk around to find “student housings” signs and take note of all the phone numbers.
  • If going with a landlord, check with previous tenants to see if they’re reasonable. I’ve heard of landlords issuing $50 fines for opening the windows and $25 fines for letting someone spend the night.
  • Try to find a place that includes most utilities into the rent. The rent might be higher but it will be a lot easier to just pay only one or two bills when first trying to be an adult.

I hope some of you find this to be a helpful guide. To any of you who are in a college that don’t allow you to move off campus until a certain year, I have an extra tip for you. Two of my friends go to Kent State. The policy there is that you must live on campus freshman-junior year. Both of them got out after one year by going to their doctor and asking to write a note for their headaches/allergies that (they claimed) the dorm aggravated. You can just go to one of those Med Express places and get a note for headaches and it is that easy to get out of it. You’ll have to file whatever special permissions form that your school has, but they can’t deny you if you have a medical excuse.

Good luck to everyone who’s in college!

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