My wife and I are stereotypically poor college students. I'm working on an M.S. degree, whereas Deb is about to finish her B.S. Between the two of us, we don't have a ton of income so we work hard to make the most of what we do earn. I'd like to share a few tips that have helped us to live within our means.
First, we use a budget. We project the month's expenses based on what we spent during the previous month. We anticipate earning approximately the same income as we did the prior month as well. Setting up a budget helps us to see where our money is going. Are we in the red, or are we in the black? So far we've done pretty well. The first thing we do when we are paid is pay our tithing: 10% of our income to assist in building God's kingdom on earth. Then we figure in some fast offerings, which are voluntary donations we give each month to help the poor and needy. We also make sure to put some money each month into savings. After that we pay our bills: rent and utilities, cell phone, and truck insurance. By using a budget, we are able to wisely manage our monthly expenses and avoid unnecessary debt.
Deb and I enjoy food; we enjoy food a lot. Last Valentine's day, Deb bought me The Joy of Cooking cookbook. Additionally, we have purchased or been given (primarily the latter) a number of other cookbooks. We love to spend time together in the kitchen cooking up good eats. One way Deb and I limit our expenses is by cooking most of our meals at home. Because we like to cook, we eat nice meals and we save money that many spend on frequent fast food purchases.
For breakfast we eat mostly oatmeal, yogurt, toast, wheatberries, and eggs. Because we both go to school we take a lot of "brown bag" lunches with us consisting of sandwiches, homemade burritos, fruits and veggies, and granola bars and crackers. Dinner is where we really excel. We have perfected an Indian dish called saag--pureed spinach with onion, garlic, and spices--that we eat over rice. We always cook extra rice so we can make fried rice on a subsequent evening. We also like to make pasta and use it in a variety of ways.
I think that oatmeal deserves its own paragraphs. I don't want to offend my mother (because she will be reading this), but I hated oatmeal as a kid. It wasn't until I visited my brother, Josh, that I discovered the virtues of oatmeal. If you are also an oatmeal hater, try some of these suggestions and see if your hate doesn't dissipate.
First, Deb and I use the rolled oats from the large tube canister. We're not into those prefab oaty packets that come in a box. There really is no substance in those (though they are handy for camping). I put 2/3 cup of oatmeal in a bowl. Then I cover the oatmeal with 1/2-1 centimeter of liquid. If you want creamy oatmeal, use milk. If you're planning on using brown sugar, use milk or water. I found that by using some 100% juice my oatmeal is both sweetened and exotic; but even when I use juice, I will occasionally add some milk after cooking. Then microwave your oatmeal for 2-3 minutes on high. Once cooked, your oatmeal is ready for some mix-ins. Deb and I regularly use nuts, dried fruits, applesauce, wheat germ, coconut, and chocolate chips, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to create uniquely perfect bowls of oatmeal. If you try this technique and still don't like oatmeal, then I can't help you.
The last tip that I'd like to share about saving money concerns spending money. Deb and I are fortunate to have what I like to call "low-spending personalities", or LSPs. We are not driven to own things. I see many fellow students who have VERY large movie and CD collections and wonder where they get the money to buy such things. Many have vast collections of electronic games and toys. Not discounting the possibility that they could have gotten these things as gifts, I often wonder about the fiscal responsibility of some of my peers.
Admittedly, I am a self-described bibliophile: I love books. I once had a difficult time walking through the campus bookstore without buying a book. However, I came to realize that if I didn't curtail my spending, I would never have any money for the times I really needed it. So here's what I did. I bought a computer program with over 3000 books on it. In one small purchase I satisfied much of my desire to own books for many years to come. Now, most of the books I get are required texts for classes and gifts from friends and family. If I really want to read a book that I don't have, then I go to the library (ours has over 9 million volumes to choose from) and I check out a book for free. The best part is that as a grad student I get to check books out for three months at a time, thus saving me money in two ways: not having to buy the book, and not having to pay late-fees.
Some would have us believe that spending strengthens the economy. That may be true; I'm not an economist. However, I don't believe that it is wise to live beyond one's means. Occasionally, legitimate reasons arise to go into a little debt, namely, purchasing a home, getting loans for an education, etc. But for the most part we could all do a little better, live a litter simpler, and save a little more for that rainy day.