How to Save Money in College: Top Alternative Housing Options By Alexa Paikowski

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College – it’s an amazing place, an incredible education, a great learning experience… and not to mention a huge expense. The cost of tuition alone is enough to break the bank. But then, there are the extra expenses such as books, meal plans, clubs, and of course, housing.





Many on-campus dorms have jacked up prices to reach pretty expensive rates for a small and crowded space. The average cost of room and board for the 2016-2017 school year has reached $10,440 at four-year public colleges and $11,890 at four-year private universities.

And even though it’s more often than not cheaper to live off-campus, rent for an apartment can stack up pretty high too. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has estimated that the average U.S. renter spends $8,798 annually on rent alone. And this doesn’t even include other necessary expenses such as utilities, groceries, and transportation costs.

Students and their parents have plenty of things to worry about without finding a way to pay an unnecessary amount on a living space. So in order to help keep costs down, many students have begun to look for alternative housing.

From signing up to be a dorm resident advisor to living in an RV, there are plenty of out-of-the-box options to look into if you are looking to save as much money as possible.

Dorm Resident Advisor

Though it can be exciting to live in your first official apartment off-campus, it’s hard to beat the convenience of living in an on-campus dorm. Students who prefer to live on campus after their freshman year but don’t want to break the bank can look into becoming dorm resident advisors, or RAs.

As an RA, you’ll be responsible for enforcing housing rules, providing support to other residents, and acting as an experienced resource for peers on anything from classwork to social life. In most cases, RAs have their room and board paid for by the university so the cost is virtually nothing. Even better? It’s a great opportunity for some resume-building experience!


  • Very affordable (can you get any cheaper than free?!)
  • Opportunity to gain real-life experience in management, marketing, and more
  • Convenient time-saver (your commute is virtually gone and you’ll often have the chance to study while at work)


  • Great deal of responsibility
  • Need to be readily available to all other students living in your dorm area (read: you need to be home a lot)

Living with Relatives

If you happen to have a relative that lives near your campus, living with them could be a convenient and affordable way to go. For some, this option can feel like a step backwards. After all, isn’t a huge part of college going out on your own and gaining independence? But if your budget is tight, this might be an option for you to consider.

If you are lucky enough to have relatives nearby, it’s best to set up an arrangement ahead of time. It’s important to discuss compensation expectations upfront. Do they want you to pay a monthly rent? If so, discuss what this amount will be.

Or perhaps they prefer you help out around the house and take on a few chores instead. If this is the case, take time to discuss what they would like you to help with and how often they expect you to help out.

Though having these discussions can feel awkward, it’s really important to talk through the details beforehand to avoid headaches and disagreements later on.


  • Ability to discuss a payment option that fits within your budget
  • Avoid living with strangers
  • Have the supportive environment provided by family members readily available


  • Lose some of your independence
  • Lose out on some college experiences, such as living in a dorm or participating in other on-campus events
  • May mean a longer commute to class

Housing Cooperative

A housing cooperative, or co-op, is a very unique alternative housing option. To sum it up, these are not privately owned residences. Instead, they are based on membership that’s gained by purchasing a share of the cooperative. As a shareholder, you are allowed access to a housing unit owned by the co-op.

Similar to rent, shareholders pay a monthly fee for the costs of maintaining the building. But these monthly fees are often cheaper than rent because you’re sharing costs with other shareholders. However, you’ll still often responsible for covering other costs such as utilities.

This concept can be a little confusing, but co-ops are common in some college cities. For example, the 21st Street Co-Op in Austin, Texas is an example of a co-op community dedicated to college students.


  • Lower monthly costs due to shared expenses
  • Opportunity to live alongside a diverse group of people


  • May end up living alongside people you don’t really want to be living near
  • Costs can be hard to plan for as they can change on a monthly basis
  • Can be difficult to become a community member, as you often have to go through an approval process


Feeling a tad adventurous? You might consider living in an RV as a money-saving college housing option.

You have some flexibility when it comes to your costs here too. First off, you have the option to either pay a monthly rent on an RV or purchase one upfront. RVs have a high depreciation rate, so you can often purchase a very basic, used model for $10,000 – $12,000.

I know that sounds like a huge chunk of change, but when you consider that living off-campus in an apartment can cost upwards of $35,156 over the span of four years, it begins to sound like a lot less.

Additionally, the costs for living on RV campground sites are typically pretty low, averaging somewhere between $500 – $900 per month. In some cases, your utilities are already included in this monthly fee, helping to cut down on costs even more. For instance, this RV park located near the University of California Santa Cruz offers monthly rent between $591 – $659.


  • Unbeatable convenience (live where you want, when you want)
  • Your housing situation is already set up for you after you graduate college
  • Costs of utilities and maintenance often come in packages that are much cheaper than those offered by university dorms and off-campus apartments


  • Responsible for maintenance and general upkeep of the vehicle
  • Campground fees often vary, so you may have to shop around to find one that fits your budget
  • Must be prepared to live alongside others in close quarters who may not be college students

Tiny Houses

The tiny house trend is in full swing, and college students everywhere are jumping onboard, as they’ve found it’s a viable option for saving money while still in school.

Tiny houses measure less than 300 square feet in space, while still offering all of the features of a full-sized house, including a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Even more, many of them are built to be movable, allowing for extra flexibility.

Similar to purchasing an RV, there are some high costs upfront. University of Michigan student Christopher Cerk estimates he paid around $15,000 to construct his tiny home. But again, these costs still pale in comparison to the huge costs of dorm and apartment living that add up over time.

Additional costs to keep in mind with this option are those associated with monthly utilities as well as the cost to “park” the house. Finding an affordable place that’s still near campus can prove to be a challenge in some cases.


  • Your housing situation is already set up for you as you graduate college
  • Many are movable, allowing for a fantastic level of flexibility
  • You have the opportunity to own where you live


  • Small space (read: you really have to cut back on what you take with you to college)
  • High upfront costs associated with construction or purchase of an already-built unit
  • Can be difficult to find an affordable place to “park” that’s also close to campus

The costs associated with housing in college are alarming. But with a little creativity, you can find more affordable ways to live while you’re still hitting the books.