5 tips for saving money on entertainment expenses as a college student

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Catherine Landers, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, watching something on Hulu on her laptop.
Source: Katie Creech

Personally, I am not the type of girl to spend hundreds of dollars a month on perfume, clothes or makeup. Where my money disappears is entertainment costs. I love going to movies, baseball games and live theater events. I subscribe to gamers on Twitch, play video games in my downtime, and read a book every night before bed. I’ll go to the occasional concert with my friends, and I love staying in to watch something on Disney+ when I don’t feel like going out.

All these expenses add up quickly. Here’s just one example: I have three roommates and a month into living together, we realized all four of us are paying for a Netflix subscription, when we only have one TV. Not only that, but we have four Prime accounts, three Hulu accounts, two HBO Max, and a Disney+. All added up, as an apartment, we’re paying over $1,500 a year for streaming services alone!

And this is contributing to a greater problem — streaming fatigue. There are so many options now, what with Peacock and Paramount+ and all the other streaming services, after the standard 5 of Prime, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney+. With all these choices, choosing what you’re going to spend your money on is exhausting.

“When streaming first started, it was a wonderful way for people to cut that cable bill. It was a great alternative for people who weren’t watching cable,” said Catie Hogan, a young adult financial advisor and associate financial planner at Element Financial Group. “But slowly but surely, we may have cut cable, but we’ve replaced everything with a million subscriptions and we’re not saving any money.”

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And as college students, we have little enough money as it is! Which just makes everything worse. On average, people under 25 years old earn $2,500 per month and spend $1,730 of that on housing, food, clothing and transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the $770 that’s left, more than $100 is spent on entertainment. That’s a significant amount of the monthly discretionary budget. Fortunately, there are ways to cut down on the money we are spending, and still have all the fun!

Here are 5 tips to help you save money on entertainment as a college student:

1. Make and keep a budget.

Budgeting is one of the most useful tools in any fiscally responsible person’s arsenal. Making and keeping a budget helps keep track of expenses, and when done correctly, can be used to plan for saving, paying down debt, and more.

The first step to making a budget is to determine what goes in it. Make lists of planned and necessary expenses, such as rent payments, car payments, groceries, tuition, etc. Then list out all incoming money, from jobs, scholarships, grants, parental assistance, any way money is ending up in your wallet.

From there, form the budget. There are many useful tools online, from templates to instruction articles. Figure out which one works best for you. My personal favorites are Google Sheets or Excel. Utilizing the built-in tools in spreadsheet software is how I’ve formed and kept a budget for the past 5 years.

“Make a note of everything you spend, keep it in a spreadsheet,” said Catherine Landers, a graduate student studying marketing research at the University of Georgia. “Part of spending less is being aware of how much you spend.”

Landers recommends looking for bundle deals to save money. The first service she subscribed to was Hulu with Spotify.
Source: Katie Creech

2. Identify all entertainment expenses and what you pay for that you don’t use.

If you’re not ready to take the full step of making a budget, that’s fine! Budgeting can be a daunting task, though a necessary one for financial security as one approaches adulthood. A smaller-scale version of this is to determine all entertainment expenses and identify what you’re paying for that you don’t use. If you know exactly how much you’re paying every month, it’s much easier to plan around those expenses and incorporate them into your monthly payments and to cut out anything unnecessary.

“List out everything that you subscribe to, whether it’s streaming, magazines, whatever it is. List it all out, and then arrange that list from what you enjoy the most to the least important that maybe you don’t even remember you had,” Hogan said.

Identify anything and everything that could be called entertainment, not just streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. Music, gaming, reading, sporting events — anything that you consider entertainment or fun — put it on this list.

“I don’t keep a budget, but I do keep track of my spending,” said Colin Toth, a graduate student studying marketing research at the University of Texas Arlington. “I was in a personal finance course, and they emphasized tracking your spending and knowing the data.”

Colin Toth, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, says he signed up for Amazon Prime Student — he likes that in addition to Prime Video, he also gets free shipping.
Source: Colin Toth

And for the purposes of budgeting, assume you’re paying for these every month. Maybe there’s no concert or live musical or movie that you’re going to this month. Maybe the next video game you want to play or book you want to read doesn’t come out until next month. But if you plan for spending that money every month, you’re prepared for it, rather than having to work around it when one does come along.

I have friends who didn’t realize they were paying for two different music subscriptions and friends who pay for streaming services they use for one show. I have friends who pay for movie theater subscriptions and concert tickets only to ask someone else if they want to go because they didn’t have time or didn’t want to go. My freshman year, I had season tickets to the football and basketball games at my university and sold all but 4 of them because I didn’t feel like going. That’s so much unnecessary money spent!

“As a student, think about what shows are you watching the most often, and what platforms have them,” Landers said. “Evaluate what you use the most and spend your money on those.”

Once you’ve identified the entertainment you spend money on, it becomes easier to cut down on those costs. Pick one music service, whether that’s Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, whatever it may be. Consider buying individual tickets instead of a season pass if you aren’t going to every game or every show. Do you use Netflix for “Seinfeld” or “The Office” and nothing else? Consider canceling the subscription and saving up for a box set or digital copy instead. “It’s super easy to lose track of what we’re spending money on,” said Hogan. “Take an inventory every six months to a year. Figure out what subscriptions you’re using, and what you’re really not.”

Knowledge is power, and if you know what you spend, you can limit what you spend. 

3.    Look for student-exclusives, discounts, and unconventional methods for saving.

Everyone knows college students tend to have, well, no money. So, often times corporate higher-ups take pity on us and don’t make us pay the same arm and a leg they charge our adult counterparts. Personally, I know my university offers discounts on Hulu and HBO Max, and free Xfinity to those who live on campus.

My friends and I love going to the movies, and in the last month, we’re been to 7 different movies at our favorite theater. If we’d paid for tickets each time, we’d have spent at least $125 apiece, before parking, popcorn and all the other expenses.

But we didn’t spend that much. Why? We all signed up for the AMC A-List. For $25 a month, we can see as many as 12 movies, and IMAX, 3D, all the different kinds are included. Once we’ve seen 2 movies, it’s paid for. SO worth it.

Look for these kinds of discounts, and especially education or student discounts, which can often save over half the cost of the service. Look for bundles, like the one for Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+. “The first service that I got was Hulu with Spotify,” Landers said. “Take advantage of bundles and being a student and get these discounts.”

Consider using a service with ads instead of without to save a few dollars. Find subscriptions or season ticket packages that can save you money on things you do all the time. Phone plans that include streaming or music services are another way to save: If you’re paying for a cell phone, chances are you can up your plan to one that includes Netflix, Disney+, Apple Music, or a whole host of other services for much less than what paying for each of these things individually would cost you.

Little things like this can save you a lot of money. Unconventional methods are your best friend, and discounts are everywhere if you’re willing to look!

4.    Go to the library!

This might be my favorite — and the most important — tip on the list. The best discount in the world is 100% off. Go to the library — it’s free! As a broke college student, nothing is better than not having to pay for something.

“I’ll admit I have not used a library in a long time. There’s definitely a stigma that it’s something you do as a kid,” said Toth. “I guess I still think of it in that way. It’s hard to see it as a resource for someone my age.”

Library cards don’t expire for a long time, they’re free to obtain, and they give you access to hundreds of books, games, movies, CDs, and more. I have often checked out a DVD copy of a movie instead of buying a digital or DVD copy of it. I’m an avid reader, and if I bought all the books I get from the library, the cost would be hundreds of dollars. Even video games for consoles can be found there!

Now, all libraries have limits on the number of items that can be checked out at once. But these limits are usually high and not as much of a barrier as they could be. And more and more libraries are doing away with late fees to encourage patrons to take advantage of the services they provide.

Seriously, as a student, the public library is your best friend for eliminating so many entertainment-related expenses.

5.    Focus on value-based spending for entertainment.

“You’re going to figure out what your fixed expenses are. You have to pay your rent, utilities, etc. But you can carve out a discretionary budget,” said Hogan. “With that discretionary money, evaluate what brings you joy, what you spend your money on that’s enhancing your life.”

Instead of trying to set a fixed limit on what you can spend on certain things, try to focus more on why you’re buying something. Will the experience of reading that book or playing that video game bring joy and excitement to your life?

Also, look for services that offer extra benefits.

“The Amazon Prime Video, which came with Prime student, I got because it’s not just the single benefit of TV,” Toth said. “I also get the free shipping, and I kinda viewed that as more of a value offering from Amazon than like a Netflix or some other service.”

Truly focusing on why you’re buying something can help you save money. Personally, when I think through the reasons for buying something, I can save money if I spend a little more time thinking about why I want to get something.

Hogan suggests asking yourself a few questions: “What is it that you are passionate about? What is it that you really love doing, that brings you joy, that brings you happiness?”

“Maximize your discretionary budget on the things that will bring you the most value, what will bring you the most joy,” Hogan said. “It doesn’t matter how much your discretionary budget is. I want you to maximize the joy it’s bringing you. Cut expenses that don’t add anything to your life.” 

CNBC’s “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. MJ Lock is a recent graduate from Indiana University-Bloomington and an intern with CNBC’s primetime promos team, where she works on promos for “Shark Tank,” “Mad Money” and more. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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