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University grads share their strategies for squeezing a dollar

One day back in university I was faced with a choice: I could go to the bar that night and spend all my grocery money partying, which would leave me with nothing but a large bag of potatoes to eat for the rest of the week; or I could stay home and spend my cash on a well-balanced diet.

The next day, hung over, I made home fries for breakfast. Then for lunch I had the worst potato salad ever, and for dinner a plate of mashed potatoes. Three days later I was considering hitchhiking to Buffalo and selling my blood. Instead, I threw a house party to collect as many empty beer bottles as possible for the deposit. It was enough to get me off the potato train.

University students need to find creative ways to stretch their budget, especially these days.

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"Students are in pretty dire circumstances right now," says Katherine Giroux-Bougard, national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Indeed, in news that's sure to harsh the good times on campus this year, a poll shows that 43 per cent of new college and university students and 35 per cent of returning students feel they can only stretch their spending money as far as the Christmas break. As well, half of all students surveyed expect to run out of money entirely before the school year ends, according to the poll conducted in June by Ipsos Reid on behalf RBC.

What's a hungry undergrad to do?

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"Get friendly with first years," says Samuel Benoit, who graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa last year. "They have a certain amount of free meals on their meal plan, and their only friends are other first years. You don't have to eat for a day if you're going to go to the cafeteria because it's just tons and tons of food."

Others advise hitting up club and committee meetings where there's usually at least a cheese plate for sustenance. The best ones have deli meats and bread, too. Make sandwiches and load up on as many as you can while everyone else is blathering on.

"At certain times of the year – holidays, orientation etc. – you can forage this way for almost all your meals as long as you're not too picky," says one recent university graduate.

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There are also more creative ways to stock your pantry.

"Every second Saturday, my friend Cork would go through all the cupboards in the house he shared with four other people, put every product on the kitchen table and then proceed to call every customer service number on every box and bottle and tell them he found the product unsatisfactory," says one guy who lived through lean years at Dalhousie University almost a decade ago. "He wouldn't really complain, but act the role of the concerned customer, and he'd get tons of freebie coupons in the mail for his efforts."

All good advice. Still, while eating the Kraft Dinner you scored from a free coupon is both frugal and delicious, students need to save in every area of their lives. Those Jell-O shots don't pay for themselves, people.

Thankfully, those who have weathered higher education are glad to pass on tips to the next generation covering everything from entertainment to utility bills to transportation.

Hit up free days at museums, one university grad advises. Use your student status to get discounts at the movies, suggests another.

Indeed, take advantage of as many student discounts as possible, from cheaper coffee to cheaper books to cheaper clothes to cheaper electronics.

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"It can make your money stretch a little longer," Ms. Giroux-Bougard says.

As well, for the English Lit majors out there, consider borrowing your assigned readings from the library rather than buying them. Trust me, that copy of Chaucer will offer no real-world return on your investment anyway.

Others suggest a wide range of tips to save money: "Take" toilet paper from restaurants; get free condoms from the campus clinic; cut your own hair; keep a journal of what you buy to ramp up the guilt factor; clip coupons; go to career fairs to get free swag; ride a bike rather than pay for the bus; throw keggers and charge everyone $10 or $20 to come; always opt for ride-share programs rather than buying a bus or train ticket.

And when you're staring at a truckload of student debt, why waste money on utilities?

One person who was asked for money-saving tips says she didn't turn the heat on until November and instead wore sweaters and sometimes even a tuque around her apartment. Another said she carried mini-heaters from room to room rather than turn on the heat. One guy said he turned off the hot water and bathed with water he boiled in pots.

If you're on your way to frosh week thinking that sounds sad and desperate, trust me: You don't know the hard choices you're about to face. Then again, considering that Ipsos Reid poll, you probably do.

Thankfully, more often than not, university students are smart people, and those smarts will help them find a lot of ways to cut corners and stretch budgets.

Scrimp, save and study hard. And please, take it from someone who ate nothing but potatoes for nearly a week: If you find yourself trying to decide whether to spend what little money you have on Jaeger Bombs or groceries – always, always go for the groceries.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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