Many of my friends tell me it’s hard to save money as a student, and I couldn’t agree more. Each of us is put into different financial situations, and frankly, the luckiest ones are those who get a monthly allowance from their parents. Oh, you thought everyone had that?
In my three years of study, I’ve met many kinds of people, and many are either willing to or forced to earn a living on their own. If they wanted money, they had to EARN it. Most of them are local students, who luckily have a home to return to and someone to cook meals for them. But it doesn’t mean it’s easier for them… nor for international students who have to make do with any inconveniences that come their way.
Many of the tips I’ve included in the list below WORK FOR REAL. Many of them come from my own experience while others come from the most common and effective strategies I’ve read again and again online. And believe me, I’ve been reading about personal finance since December 2015.
However, these tactics only work if you follow #20. No, it’s not easy to save money as a student. But it’s possible. So here’s how you do it.
1. Open a second savings account.
In general, most students have one savings account which they use for practically everything. And for me, it was hard to look at the money that came in monthly and not spend all of it. I somehow had to get the money I wanted to save out of my sight.
So I opened a second savings account for the sole purpose of saving money. Once I’d put money in it, it was gone. I would only use it in the case of emergencies, for example, if your allowance hasn’t come in yet, but you need to pay rent soon. Or you need a new pair of glasses (not for fashion’s sake) or any medical issue.
If you’re an international student, make sure you are allowed to do this. In Malaysia, I had to submit a form to request a letter that allowed me to open a bank account. But the paperwork was easy and as soon as I had the letter, the bank had no trouble opening a new account for me.
2. Pay yourself first/automate your savings on a monthly basis.
Having a second account is one thing, but you need to put money in it on a regular basis for it to grow (and collect interest, as small as it is). Start with RM50 or RM200 per month; it doesn’t matter as long as you are making an effort. Save as much as you can afford; it can vary from month to month (hello, currency fluctuations).
To never miss a month, always save at the start of the month, or as soon as you receive your allowance. Don’t wait. Pay yourself first. Even better: automate your deposits through online banking (only if you are 100% sure your parents will send your money on time).
3. Write down/digitally record your expenses.
My dad’s best advice on money: record your expenses. Whether it’s on paper or through a money management app, seeing those numbers adding up will hurt (especially if you’re as Asian as me). In the end, you’ll be more mindful of your spending.
By the way, here’s a fun read about your brain on money (hint: money makes you feel good).
4. Set small actionable goals.
Frankly, it’s easy to spend your savings mindlessly if you don’t have a clear goal in mind. So what are you saving up for? A local trip? A new laptop? And how much does it cost? Is the trip worth RM500 or RM2,000?
Having a fixed number in mind helps to predict when you will reach or goal and therefore plan according.
5. Have a greater goal in mind.
This might either contradict the previous point or add value to it.
Thinking long-term also helps a lot. If you’re really serious about money, a common first goal is to build your emergency fund. An emergency fund is 3-6 months’ worth of living expenses that you never use unless there is a REAL emergency i.e. you got kicked out of your house. And in the adult world, it’s a MUST. It’s unlikely to reach such a goal when you are still a student, but it never hurts to start early.
Other long-term goals could be: becoming financially independent, starting a business or even emigrate.
6. Live below your means even when you get more money.
This is a simple one: don’t spend more than you have. Don’t take debt unnecessarily. Here we don’t get credit cards unless we are employed. Which is great. Even if you get more money, try not to be tempted to upgrade your lifestyle. Stay exactly where you are, with the same cheap groceries and rent, and put the rest into savings.
7. Buy generic brands.
Unless you are really sensitive or allergic to certain ingredients, go for generic or nameless brands, or at least the cheapest ones. This applies not only to bathroom essentials but also to food. You don’t need fancy organic vegetables; don’t be fooled by cute packaging. You need to survive.
8. If you’re an international student, bring your whole wardrobe.
When you’re an international student, there’s a lot of things you will have to buy on the spot, like cleaning supplies and even a brand new laptop (if that’s more convenient). But clothes are easy to bring to another country and students are usually allowed more luggage anyway.
So bring everything you have in your wardrobe, or at least your favourite pieces, and most importantly, bring staple pieces. For example, bring a pair of sports shoes, another pair for fancy parties, a fancy suit, a coat, a summer dress, an autumn one, you name it. I brought a few evening dresses that I ended up using for the annual balls and new year/Christmas/fancy holiday parties.
No need for last minute shopping. Never had to spend RM200 on a dress.
9. Learn how to DIY your way out of it.
This can be applied in so many scenarios, but the most common one I had to face was when I had to buy new shorts: I ended up cutting old pairs of jeans instead. Luckily, Malaysia’s weather doesn’t give much room for long pants.
10. Be up-to-date with discounts.
There is at least one app in every student-friendly country that offers discounts. Even my telco company’s app does! I once paid 99 cents for a cup of coffee worth RM6. Use Google. Be in the know.
11. Be open to alternatives, especially regarding transport.
Talking about discounts, Uber and Grab (taxi apps) always have discount codes for their users, but when they don’t, there’s always the option of taking public transport. Some people can’t stand it but if you want to save money, you either suck it up, or you don’t travel at all.
In Malaysia, if you use public transport frequently, I’d suggest you get a Touch ‘n’ Go card, not only because of convenience but also because the fares become cheaper!
12. Hang out with people whose lifestyle fits your budget.
This is extremely important. I prefer to hang out with people who don’t go clubbing or go on a weekly shopping spree. People who have a low budget. It makes it easier to be frugal, and we always end up being very open and honest about money and saving. The best way to learn is to learn from your peers.
13. Refrain from buy groceries when you are hungry.
Or you’ll end up with unnecessary crap that you might end up wasting.
14. Reduce your meat intake.
I couldn’t believe it when I decided to go for that delicious soy meat curry to replace chicken at the cafeteria (just because I wanted to taste it) and saw that my meal ended up costing RM3 instead of RM5! Unfortunately, I realised it only in my last semester. This trick would have helped back then during the first few months.
Even when cooking your meals, deciding not to include meat reduces your grocery bill significantly! Frankly, I don’t cook meat or chicken anymore, unless my boyfriend is here.
15. Pay with cash, and withdraw money ONLY when your wallet is empty.
This is easier in countries where cashless payments have not been implemented everywhere, like in Malaysia.
16. Leave your debit card at home.
Do it unless you are planning to go far.
17. Have a waiting system when you want to buy ‘luxuries’.
By luxuries, I mean things you don’t need but instead buy for pleasure, such as expensive clothes or an expensive dessert.
By a waiting system, I mean that if you want to buy that RM100 shirt, keep it in your wishlist and give yourself a span of 2-6 weeks (depending on your patience; I’ve done three months too) before making the purchase. If, after the elapsed time, you don’t want it anymore, congratulations, you keep your money. If not, go ahead and buy it.
18. Go paperless.
Are you really going to use all those cute notebooks you bought? Or will you end up taking notes electronically? After all, universities have everything online now. Think twice before splurging on beautiful books.
19. Work out at home or the free gym.
Free gym? Yes, your school has probably given you access to a gym or a sports centre for free. However, if you are shy and self-conscious, like me, I’d recommend working out at home. YouTube is home to many fitness channels, and they are effective if all you are interested in is just to be healthy and fit.
20. Finally, be self-motivated.
This piece of advice is the one that you have to focus on if you want to commit long-term to managing your student finances. To save money as a student, you have to self-motivate yourself. This will then lead to you being committed to and consistent in your saving methods.
Saving money is easy if you are disciplined and focused on your goals. It’s feasible if you know how to meet deadlines and expectations that have been made by you.
If you can’t be self-motivated, you will struggle and probably fail multiple times, even if you keep on searching for the most effective strategies to save money.
Nevertheless, keep on trying. If you need a friend to hold yourself accountable for your financial decisions, sure! Your university life is the best period to learn and grow. Get up and start again.
Your turn: Which trick would be more effective for you? Share your experiences below!
D. K. Waye.