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Navigating Spending Money in College: What’s Worth Spending Money On and What Isn’t

Freshman year, I spent over half of my money on coffee. I wish I was joking.

During my first year of college, I didn’t navigate spending money very well. As college students, we’re forced into money management for the first time when we arrive freshman year. Our parents no longer go to the grocery store for us or cook dinner each night. We no longer even have the privilege of walking downstairs to the pantry to grab a snack whenever we’re slightly hungry. The money we used to have the freedom to spend however we wanted now goes toward the foods or activities our parents used to buy for us — without a spare thought in our minds.

The first–year meal plan provides a cushion for Penn freshmen when it comes to meal spending. However, when you go to an urban school like Penn, there are millions of fun food options that are tempting not only because they’re better quality than dining hall food, but because they present an opportunity for socialization. Eating becomes an activity. Whether you meet your friend to get coffee, go to a new brunch spot, or just grab dinner at a local takeout restaurant, there are endless options for splurging. 

Beyond eating, there are so many other necessities and impulse buys to make when living in a city. Unique opportunities for activities and events present themselves more often than you’d expect. There are professional sports games, concerts, museums, fun stores to explore in Center City, and tons of other activities that are convenient to pursue with friends on the weekends or whenever you have down time. 

Beyond these spur–of–the–moment investments, you also have more expenses than you’d think when it comes to the necessities. As an upperclassman, you need to go grocery shopping because you most likely won’t be on an expensive meal plan past sophomore year. Additionally, if you live off campus after freshman year, you aren’t provided necessary items like toilet paper and soap. Living on your own, you run out of things like shampoo, conditioner, makeup, deodorant, and other toiletries that you use every day. It’s important to remember that these items are things you can’t live without. 

In the moment, especially when you first start college, it is easy to go with the flow and buy coffee or go out to dinner with friends out of desire and impulse. However, what you don’t realize is how quickly your money will run out if you say yes to these activities all the time. It’s important to keep the necessities and their costs in the back of your mind, prioritizing money for them. Because of this, you may have to spread out when you participate in fun activities with friends that involve spending money. 

Though you can’t always go out with friends and spend lots of money, especially in an expensive city, it is still important to allow yourself to do those things every once in a while. You are only in college once, and you should take advantage of the unique and amazing opportunities you have while here because they may not come again later. 

Though many of these opportunities involve money, you don’t have to spend money to enjoy your surroundings and have a good time with friends. In Philadelphia, there are lots of activities to do with friends that don’t involve any money, such as walking on the river trail during a bright sunny day, going to Clark Park or Rittenhouse Square and taking in the views, attending Penn sporting events (which are free to students), and so much more! 

Money management is a very important skill to have, and going to school in a city like Philadelphia has definitely helped me better handle my financial responsibilities. I have learned to treat a coffee run or a restaurant outing with friends as a once–in–a–while experience. Because of this, I appreciate doing these things much more, and I spend more time on campus taking in the student experience, whether that be through studying or socializing with my classmates in academic settings. 

I highly recommend being careful with your money when you come to college, but don’t forget to treat yourself to the occasional Saxbys coffee, too. You deserve it!

Katie is a sophomore marketing major at U Penn. She likes listening to Taylor Swift, watching Netflix, and going to concerts.
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