College Student Spending Habits for 2021

college students studying in library

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College students face a crucial point in their financial lives—it’s the time where most take out student loans and apply for their first credit cards. Very often, they graduate with the burden of debt.

The cost of college has increased 135 percent in the past 10 years for public four-year universities according to the College Board. On top of that, college students face a diverse set of personal obstacles that affect their finances since they vary greatly in age and life experience. While some students are fresh out of high school, others are returning to school after having a child or serving in the military.

The average student spends a lot of money trying to get their degree. Our guide is refreshed for 2021 to reflect the ways things like spending habits and spending power fluctuate over the years. Before diving into college student spending habits, we’ll first take a look at this group’s overall spending power.

College Student Spending Power 

College students had $376 billion in spending power in 2019. The 21.4 million college students in the country earn money in a variety of ways. Most college students make some sort of financial contribution to their education and many pick up jobs to cover these costs. Take a look at the stats below to see how college students earn their money. 

  • College students had $376 billion in spending power in 2019. [Source: Refuel Agency]
  • 67 percent of millennial college students received $2,000 or less from their parents each year in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 44 percent of millennial college students worked every year they were in school in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 86 percent of millennial college students worked summer jobs in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 65 percent of millennial college students had to take out student loans to pay for their degree in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 74 percent of millennial college students contributed to funding their education in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • U.S. households planned to spend around $1,059.20 on back-to-school shopping for college students in 2020. [Source: NRF]

How Much Do College Students Spend on Food?

College students spent a total of $39.6 billion on food alone in 2020. Food costs range from groceries and coffee to eating out. There are several reasons why college students spend so much on food. 

The rise of social media and the need to purchase things for status are a couple factors that encourage students to splurge on Instagram-worthy food when they really shouldn’t. Other reasons include using food as an excuse to socialize or to take breaks from studying. Read on to see how college students spend on food.

  • College students spent $39.6 billion on food alone in 2020. [Source: Refuel Agency]
  • For back-to-school shopping among college students, individual students expected to spend $111.32 on food items in 2020. [Source: Statista]

  • For millennial college students receiving spending money from their parents, 76 percent said they mainly spent it on eating out in 2020. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 53 percent of millennial college students who received spending money from their parents in 2020 said they spent it on drinks and snacks. [Source: OppLoans]

How Much Do College Students Spend on Books and Supplies?

While the amount of course materials students are purchasing hasn’t changed, the cost of them is on the downward trend thanks to more affordable options like renting and digital copies. Read on to see different highlights of college student spending on course materials.

Course Material and Supply Costs

College textbooks vary in price, but can cost a small fortune depending on the degree. Some students go to extreme lengths to afford their textbooks including skipping meals and skipping trips home. Below are the different costs college students face when purchasing course materials and other supplies.

  • For the 2019-2020 academic school year, college students spent $413 on average on required course materials and supplies. [Source: On Campus Research]
  • The $413 average spent on course materials for the 2019-2020 school year indicates a 41 percent decrease since 2007, when the average was $701. [Source: On Campus Research]
  • For the 2019-2020 academic school year, college students spent around $47 per class on required course materials. [Source: On Campus Public Research]
  • The amount college students spent on required course materials for the 2019-2020 academic school year decreased by 6 percent since the 2018-2019 school year. [Source: On Campus Public Research]
  • Of all the different categories of spend that college students planned to budget for in 2020, 89 percent reported school supplies as the top category. [Source: National Retail Federation]
  • Students acquired an average of 7.7 required materials for the 2019-2020 academic school year. [Source: On Campus Research]
  • 30 percent of students said they spent more money on textbooks in 2019 as compared to what they spent in 2018, while 28 percent said they spent about the same. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 40 percent of students chose not to purchase at least one of their assigned textbooks due to its high cost. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]

Types of Materials and Where They’re Buying

College students are frugal when considering where they’ll buy course materials and what types of course materials they purchase. Some options, like renting or buying digital books, save a lot but come with their own drawbacks. Read on to see how college students differ when deciding what materials to get and where to buy them.

  • 26 percent of college students used free methods to obtain course materials in 2020. [Source: On Campus Research]
  • Of all course materials college students purchased in 2020, 54 percent were bought from a campus store. [Source: On Campus Research]
  • 49 percent of students opted to purchase used textbooks instead of buying them new in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 31 percent of students purchased a combination of used and new textbooks in 2019.  [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 47 percent of students who purchased at least one used textbook in 2019 said they chose an older version of it for the sake of affordability. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 29 percent of students said they only bought one digital version of an assigned textbook in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 30 percent of students said they didn’t buy any digital versions of their assigned textbooks in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 65 percent of students who opted for digital textbooks purchased them individually, while 29 percent reported purchasing them through a subscription in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 58 percent of students bought at least one assigned textbook on Amazon in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 51 percent of students said they bought at least one of their assigned textbooks at their campus bookstore in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • Only 17 percent of students made online textbook purchases directly from the publisher in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]
  • 30 percent of students said at least one of the textbooks they purchased online was not from Amazon in 2019. [Source: FlatWorld Knowledge]

How Much Do College Students Spend on Clothing and Personal Care?

College students spent a combined $9.5 billion on clothing and accessories in 2019. The rising trend of natural, eco-friendly products is one factor that is possibly driving purchases up in this sector. Take a look at the stats below to learn how much money college students sacrifice for clothing and personal care.

  • College students anticipated spending a combined $67.7 billion for the 2020 school year on clothing and accessories, food, electronics, personal care items, and furniture. [Source: Statista]
  • Individual college students anticipated spending around $148.37 on clothing and accessories for the 2020 school year. [Source: Statista]
  • Individual college students anticipated spending around $64.91 on collegiate branded clothing and accessories for the 2020 school year. [Source: Statista]
  • 59 percent of millennial college students who received spending money from their parents said they would primarily spend it on clothes in 2019. [Source: OppLoans]
college students planned to spend $235 on electronics, $148 on clothes and accessories, $120 on furniture and $65 on collegiate branded gear for the 2019–2020 back-to-school season.

Take a look at what individual college students planned to spend during the 2019-2020 back-to-school shopping season:

  • Electronics: $234.69
  • Clothes and Accessories: $148.37
  • Furniture: $120.19
  • Collegiate Branded Gear: $64.91

How Much Do College Students Spend on Rent and Transportation?

College students spend an average of $11,140 on living accommodations and $2,800 on transportation over the course of their time in school. The cost of rent, room and board, and transportation for college students depends greatly on where they attend. Costs can greatly differ between in-state and out-of-state colleges and between private and public colleges. Learn more about how these costs differ and how much students pay for rent and transportation alone.

  • Students pay an average of $11,140 for room and board at a public four-year university. [Source: Credible]
  • Students pay an average of $12,680 for room and board at a private four-year university.[Source: Credible]
  • College students spend an average of $2,800 on transportation during their time in school. 
  • Around seven to 12 percent of the total U.S. rental housing market is taken up by student housing rentals. [Source: NHMC Research Foundation]
  • The average cost of rent for student housing is $637 per month. [Source: NHMC Research Foundation]
  • Students will spend an average of $1,050 to $1,800 on transportation costs alone annually. [Source: College Board via Edmit]
  • College students planned to spend an average of $129.76 on dorm or apartment furnishings in 2020. [Source: National Retail Federation]

  • More than 70 percent of college students say the high cost of living is their main concern at school. [Source: Chegg]
  • The cost of living for college students varies greatly based on location: New York University’s room and board costs for 2020 are around $19,244 per year, compared to $10,196 per year at University of Nebraska Omaha. [Source: Credible]

Typical College Student Budget

While the exact details of every college student’s budget are different based on where they attend school and the costs of living associated with different locations, there are some trends in the main categories of spend. The main cost difference is found in tuition, which is more than double for out-of-state students compared to in-state students.

Learn more about the different budget trends for students attending college in-state and those attending out-of-state for the 2020-2021 academic school year. [Source: Statista]

Yearly Budget for College Students: In-State

  • Tuition and fees: $10,560
  • Room and board: $11,620
  • Books and supplies: $1,240
  • Transportation: $1,230
  • Other expenses: $2,170

Yearly Budget for College Students: Out-of-State

  • Tuition and fees: $27,020
  • Room and board: $11,620
  • Books and supplies: $1,240
  • Transportation: $1,230
  • Other expenses: $2,170

College Student Debt

Student loan debt is at the forefront of the news and many outlets are reporting on the struggles millennials, baby boomers and everyone in between face. Other everyday costs like food and housing also contribute to the list of expenses college students need to cover while taking classes.

We found that most Americans would rather attend an affordable college than a highly ranked school. This shows that college students are highly aware of the costs of attending college and the financial sacrifices they may need to make. Read on to learn about the impact of college student debt.

Student Stress and Debt

Students feel a lot of stress from their finances. Many students feel the pressure of piling debt and many cite financial stress as even more impactful than stress felt from academics. To get a better idea of these stressors, take a look at the stats below.

  • Student loan debt has reached over $1.67 trillion as of August 2020. [Source: Bankrate]
  • The total student loan debt is higher in 2020 than it was in 2019, when it averaged $1.598 trillion. [Source: Credible]
  • College students carried an average student loan debt of $33,654 individually in 2019. [Source: Credible]
  • College students paid an average of $393 per month towards student loans in 2019. [Source: Credible]
  • There were 43 million student loan borrowers in 2019. [Source: Credible]
  • 2.8 million students who borrowed loans in 2019 owe $100,000 or more. [Source: Credible]
  • 67 percent of students said that finding a job that provided them with financial security was a primary concern in 2019. [Source: Chegg]
  • For every five students, four report the high cost of education as the primary issue impacting them in 2019. [Source: Chegg]
  • Over 50 percent of students said mental health was a primary concern throughout school in 2019 due to financial strain and academic pressure. [Source: Chegg]
  • Women hold nearly two-thirds of student debt in the country, totaling nearly $929 billion in 2020. [Source: AAUW]
  • First-generation college students are burdened with more debt when they graduate in 2020.  [Source: AAUW]
  • The cost of a college education has increased by 103 percent since 1987.  [Source: AAUW]

Family Sacrifices

College debt often causes stress not just for students, but for their families as well. Many parents choose to sacrifice things like recreation and retirement to financially support their children. Take a look below at all of the ways debt also impacts families.

  • 91 percent of millennial college students said they spent money responsibly in 2019, but 29 percent of their parents disagreed. [Source: OppLoans]
  • For millennial college students who received spending money from their parents in 2019, 45 percent report spending it “very responsibly,” but just 18 percent believed their parents would agree. [Source: OppLoans]
  • 51 percent of students’ parents anticipated increasing the amount they spent on virtual learning tools for their kids in 2020. [Source: PR Newswire via Deloitte]
  • 50 percent of low income families are worried about their ability to afford upcoming tuition payments in 2020, compared to 30 percent of families overall. [Source: PR Newswire via Deloitte]

  • 52 percent of families had a plan for how they’d pay for their kids’ college tuition for the 2019-2020 academic school year. [Source: Sallie Mae]
  • Around $30,017 was spent by families on college for the 2019-2020 academic school year. [Source: Sallie Mae]
  • 44 percent of college costs were paid from parents’ income and savings in 2020. [Source: Sallie Mae]
  • 8 percent of college costs were paid with borrowed money by parents in 2020. [Source: Sallie Mae]
  • 20 percent of parents borrowed money to cover their kids’ tuition in 2020. [Source: Sallie Mae]

The financial choices college students make can follow them for years after graduation. We’re all aware of the student loan crisis, but other financial decisions like late payments and maxed out cards can also take a significant toll if not immediately addressed. It can get particularly overwhelming if you haven’t checked your credit report in a while and feel unsure about what’s on it.

You should regularly check your credit report to ensure all of your information is accurate and fairly reported. If you need help tackling negative items you find on your credit report, you can get in touch with the team at Lexington Law to learn about how credit repair might be able to help clean up your credit report.

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