How to survive life in college without going completely broke

Pricewatch: Cook your meals, make lists and other tips to help you save money

Things such as getting free wine at gallery openings and buying nearly gone off food can save you money in college.

At the risk of sounding like a poor man’s Monty Python sketch, times were hard for students back when Pricewatch were a lad. Students were as poor as church mice and no-one in third level education, save for the well heeled lecturers and the medical students coming to the end of their college life, drove cars or ate in restaurants or took taxies or went on holidays or drank cocktails unless they were made with the dregs of the drinks cabinet of a parent who had gone away and foolishly left their wayward children to their own devices.

They were lean times but students got by – and had a right old wheeze – on pretty much nothing and a week’s worth of living could be eked out on not much more than 40 quid.

Mind you, it was the late 1980s and early 1990s and rents were manageable. Mobile phones and streaming services didn’t exist which meant they didn’t cost anything and there were no restaurants put there deliberately to tempt young folk to spend money on fancy things like crushed avocados and charcoal lattes and the like.

A bottle of Buckfast was as fancy as it got.


Boom years

Things started to change during the boom years. The cubs of the Celtic Tiger lost the run of themselves and lived like they were Ivy League students. As many as a third of them owned cars.

With the crash came a tightening of the purse strings both on the part of parents and their offspring but as the recovery dawned costs began to climb again and the parents of children heading off to college in the days and weeks ahead can look forward to enormous bills before their mortar boards get tossed in the air in the middle of the next decade.

Anyone with a child about to start third level education will spend as much as €35,000 over the course of the next four years to cover the cost of food, books, tuition and accommodation and perhaps the odd night out.

As that eye-watering figure is a net amount, it means many parents will have to earn €70,000 or so just to cover the cost of one child’s further education. Someone with two young ones heading off to college will have to earn the guts of €150,000 between now and 2025 to set their offspring on their way.

And we are not plucking these figures from the air. They were contained in a piece of research published by Zurich Insurance last month.

By any measure the report made for pretty grim reading for people with children heading to college in the weeks ahead. It put the average total spend for third-level education per year at €4,611 per student. But that figure only applied if they were living at home.

If they have to move out then the costs jump dramatically thanks largely to the frankly ridiculous cost of accommodation in urban areas.

According to the Zurich report, the cost of putting a roof over a student’s head averages anywhere from €3,750 to €4,219 per year with the higher of those figures for students living in college accommodation while the lower is the average cost for people renting private accommodation.


With costs like that is it any wonder that 51 per cent of college students are likely to live at home through college with 19 per cent set to live in student accommodation and 28 percent in other rented accommodation.

And the thing is they are only averages. The costs can be a whole lot higher than that.

“In Dublin at the moment, we estimate that rent for one student in private rented accommodation would cost on average of €574 per month, or €5,166 for a nine-month rental,” Dr Brian Gormley, the head of Campus Life at TU Dublin told this newspaper recently. “Private student accommodation is more expensive.”

He said the university has spaces reserved for TU Dublin students in private student accommodation blocks “and these range in cost from €99 per week for a shared room, up to €220 for a single en-suite room. As these are paid for 40 weeks, the annual cost can be up to €8,800 for a year.”

After accommodation, fees are next with the average cost around €2,316 per year. The average spend on transport is €315 per year although 19 per cent spend upwards of €900 on transport annually.

In terms of getting around, 30 per cent of college students still use cars as their main mode of transport while 56 per cent use public transport and 13 per cent cycle (both up 3 per cent on the previous year).

The Zurich study concluded by saying that 70 per cent of parents consider covering the cost of their children’s education to be a financial burden while 39 per cent of parents said the best time to start saving for their child’s education is when the child is less than one year old.

Assuming that ship has long since sailed and not wanting to focus entirely on negative things, Pricewatch thought we might help parents and children come up with ways to save themselves a few bob over the course of the college year.

More than 50 per cent of students use public transport. Photograph: Alan Betson

1. Work out where the money goes: Keeping a close eye on your finances is dull no matter what age you are but if you are going to budget properly you need to have at least some idea of what you are spending your money on. So, students, early in the new term sit down and establish exactly what your income is and what your outgoings are. Add up the cost of laundry, rent, food, utilities, books . . . and tequila slammers in Coppers if the mood takes you. But there is more to it than that. You will also need to establish what your incidental spending is. So for the first two weeks, you should keep a spending diary of everything you spend money on including takeaway as coffees, chocolate – everything. There is probably an app for that but you don't need that – just put the spending into your phone notes. Only when you understand where your money is going can you understand how to spend it better.

2. Cook more: Don't be in thrall to over-priced takeaways and ready meals. Cook your own food. We're not talking fine dining here, just idiot-proof stuff, such as curries, chillies and pasta sauces. It's not only fun and better for you, it'll save you an absolutely fortune and, once you get the hang of it, it's a great way to impress the opposite – or the same – sex. There was a time when people had to spend loads of money on Jamie Oliver books and the like but now all you need to do is Google recipes and a world of easy to cook recipes appears as if by magic on your phone. Jamie's Instagram account is great as is Nigella's. The BBC food site is pretty fool proof while the is one of many sites that allow you to input the ingredients you have at home so it can suggest recipes you can cook. Although don't expect something amazing if you input potatoes, porridge and a block of mouldy cheese.

A tin of tomatoes, a bulb of garlic and an onion will cost less than a euro; a jar of processed tomato sauce with much the same ingredients costs three times more – six times more if you want to go high end – and will taste nowhere near as nice.

3. Shop better. If you are going to shop like a ninja you need to have a list, And you need to stick to it. Don't use paper. Use your phone and at the risk of repeating ourselves there's an app for that. Loads of them in fact. Never shop hungry or hungover and don't rely on the big name retailers. Oh and supermarkets are not always the cheapest place to buy food and if you live close to a street market you can source fresh fruit and vegetables for a lot less. Bear in mind that the food you buy on such stalls will need to be cooked quickly. One of the reasons much of it sells so cheaply is because its shelf life is short.

Buy own brand and you will see your shopping bill fall by around 30 per cent. Two litres of milk from Avonmore costs is €1.89 while two litres of Tesco milk costs is €1.49. cents. Find out when your local supermarket discounts food that is about the go off (if you don’t want to ask in-store, ask online). The big retailers sell a lot of food that is about to pass its use-by date every evening after 5pm, so if you time your shopping right, you will do well. Buy produce that it is loose rather than already wrapped and keep an eye on the unit price rather than the price on the shelves. Oh and try not to do your weekly shop in Spar or Centra. They are grand and everything but you will spend more than you need to.

4. Make sure to sign up to the most well-organised club or society in your college even if you have only the most passing interest in what said club or society does. The big societies and clubs have the biggest budgets and they are likely to have the most regular parties and events, Some of them may even have food and alcohol. You might even get to meet a whole bunch of potentially nice folk into the bargain.

5. Make sure you are on the mailing list of every gallery in your city. There will be openings and at those openings there will be wine – and maybe cubes of cheddar cheese on cocktail sticks if you are really lucky. You will also be exposing yourself to a bit of culture – what's not to love about that? Just don't get absolutely hammered at such events. You will stand out something rotten if you are fall down drunk at the opening of an exhibition of local artists. Trust us on that one.

6. Look at utilities. If you have to pay your own electricity bills, make sure you are getting the best value for money. If you live in rented accommodation it can be hard to make the switch to the cheapest provider yourself, but you can still find out what deals are out there via or If you find a provider that is cheaper than the one you are on, get your landlord to make the switch.

7. Resist the allure of a regular credit card. They are a curse and best avoided for as long as possible. If you need a piece of plastic to book tickets or whatever get a Revolut card. They are very handy and don't allow you to spend money you don't have.

A ticket to the Trinity Ball can be an expensive item. Photograph: Dave Meehan

How to survive four years of college in Dublin

If there is one lesson I can safely share after the four years I have just spent in college in Dublin it’s that it is going to cost you, and dearly.

Each year before even setting foot in a lecture theatre, I parted with my student contribution fee. This included a fee for a sports centre membership I would never use.

Investing in a laptop at the start of my studies was practically compulsory, with so much learning and college communication taking place online. I wish I’d known to wait before investing in expensive textbooks – I made the mistake of buying an exorbitantly priced French-English dictionary recommended on a book list. The free online version was faster and several kilograms lighter.

Living in student halls my first year was costly, but eased confusion with utilities like electricity, internet and bins incorporated in my rent. My largest financial responsibility on a weekly basis was making sure I had extra coins prepped for laundry.

Making the leap to the madness of Dublin’s private rental market brought a brave new world of expenses. With most leases lasting a minimum of twelve months, I had to continue to pay rent over the summer months. Moving into a room not specifically equipped for a student also meant forking out for basic furnishings like a desk.

Newly responsible for my own utilities, I learned to shop around to find the cheapest electricity provider. One property I moved into had a pre-pay electricity meter installed, and I had to negotiate to switch to another provider with a much lower rate that would save hundreds per year.

In a house with a small number of people shouldering the cost of internet, I found it more cost-effective to skip on broadband. I instead used the personal hotspot and unlimited data I was already paying for on my mobile phone plan to connect my laptop.

Some costs flew below my radar until they declined to work without the input of my bank details – music subscription services, cloud storage to back up college work, and of course, Netflix.

Though Dublin is full of temptation – Deliveroo – I found my wallet thanked me when I spent some time in the supermarket and cooked for myself. You pay for convenience when it comes to groceries, as smaller city centre shops are often far more expensive than less central options. Thankfully there was no real need to invest in recipe books, with so many available online.

While people like to reprimand millennials for reckless spending on coffee and avocado toast, I liked to budget for what brought me joy – and sometimes the only thing that got me into the library on a cold morning was a foamy latte, making sure to take advantage of a KeepCup discount.

Socialising is an integral part of the college experience, and a costly one between drinks, taxis and tickets to bigger events like the Trinity Ball. I saved where I could with a bit of planning, like using apps that reserved free entry to venues and taking advantage of student offers.

There were necessary evils each year, like the cost of Dublin Bus. My student card and its discounts got me far throughout it all – it helped ease the expenses of food, travel, clothes, and even entertainment. Sarah Mooney