Top Strategies To Keep Your Bills Low When Living Off-Campus

By Julia Dunn on January 21, 2018

As a low-income student, my anxiety in college didn’t stem from my course load, extracurriculars, student organizations or even my two part-time jobs. It stemmed from finances.

If I needed financial aid to pay tuition, student fees, on-campus housing costs and every little expense associated with student life (including textbooks and course readers), how in the world would I be able to afford off-campus housing? I knew little about how to keep your bills low, and that was daunting in itself.

I moved off campus after my second year of college. At that time, UC Santa Cruz had revised its housing guarantee policies to accommodate an influx of incoming students, leaving fewer apartments and residence hall spots for juniors and seniors. This kickstarted a race for the best apartments and rooms in Santa Cruz, which were sparse and highly sought-after. Searching for housing felt like its own part-time job or its own 4-5 unit class.

When I finally found a cute apartment in the outskirts of downtown, a one-bedroom place with sky-high rent that I split with my partner, I began to worry about the new bills I would need to worry about. With on-campus housing and on-campus financial aid packages, students don’t need to pay rent every month because they pay for the housing each quarter.

Moving off campus meant I needed to be very intentional about my finances, especially because I do not have financial support from my family (aside from my mother paying for my cell phone, which is fantastic). I created a spreadsheet with specific amounts of money for different budget items, and created all kinds of events in my Google Calendar to remind me to pay rent every first day of the month, but the unpredictable balance of my bills each month contributed further to my stress.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2011 “Pathways to Prosperity” study showed that “just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years. Only 29 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years.” Low-income students are at higher risk of dropping out of college than their more financially-privileged peers; affording the costs associated with attending a university is difficult enough, even before factoring living expenses into the equation.

I’d be surprised if any student, low-income or not, didn’t wish that their monthly bills could be lower. Here are 4 tangible strategies to keep your bills low when living off-campus (plus a few bonus tips to make you into a master bill-minimizer).

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1. Turn off the lights

Your electricity bill will always fluctuate to some extent, but one of the best ways to keep your bills low is to make sure you turn off your room lights when you aren’t actively using them.

It’s easy to dash out the door without knowing you left the upstairs light on, especially if you live in a multiple-story house or apartment. The worst is when you come home at 9 p.m. and realize you left the house at noon—nine hours of unused electricity.

So, what can you do?

Try to use alternative light sources and “hack” your home to find the most natural light. If your home has a lot of windows, open your blinds and curtains during the day to ensure you are using sunlight whenever possible. Think before flipping on the light switch—do I need the kitchen light on if the dining room light is on? Does my task require lots of light or can it be done with just a small lamp turned on? Becoming more conscious of your light use is one of the most immediate ways to keep your bills low.

But how can I encourage my housemates to conserve with me?

It can be a little more difficult to enforce energy conservation when you have other housemates—you can’t really control what they do, or how often they might accidentally leave for work or class without remembering the bathroom light is still on. However, if you’re living with fellow students, you can safely assume they’re interested in keeping their bills low just as much as you are. It’s certainly worth having a group conversation with them to brainstorm ideas to keep light usage to a minimum.

Granted, reducing your light use is especially hard in the winter months when daylight savings steals an hour of sunshine from us. In California, where I live, we’re literally left in the dark around 4 or 5 p.m. around this time of year.

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Don’t feel badly on days when you need a lot of lighting! As long as you are aware of the amount of light you’re using (or accidentally wasting), your newly-cultivated conservation habits will ultimately result in a lower electricity bill. All it takes is a few post-it notes on the inside of your front door that say “did you turn off all the lights?” to get you to think about it before you leave the house.

2. Optimize your laundry routine

Did you know that using warm water in your washing machine results in a higher utility bill?

To keep your bills low, make sure that your machine settings are set to use cold water during the washing and rinsing cycle. Cold water is also great because it’s safe for clothes and isn’t likely to make newer clothes bleed ink onto your other items.

Use of warm or hot water in your machines can often result in your white sheets turning accidentally tie-dye (not always, but sometimes). I also use cold water purely because it means I won’t have to waste time separating whites from colors.

Additionally, when you do laundry, make sure you’ve got a full load; this will conserve water. (The same goes for your dishwasher… don’t run it when it’s half full!) As noted in an article by, “running the dishwasher, washer, or dryer only when there’s a full load ensures they’re operating at their most efficient and you don’t wind up trying to cool your house because the dryer or dishwasher are running hot (instead, you’ll be asleep.)”

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Bonus Tip: You can also keep your bills low by air drying your clothes. Low on space to drape your sweaters, dresses, and pants? Consider purchasing a small wooden drying rack! This maximizes drying space if you don’t have much room to hang clothes around your house. I like to drape items over my shower doors and towel racks, as well as placing them on clothes hangers and hooking them onto door handles.

Air-drying your clothes can be bothersome if you need them to dry quickly, but it does leave your house smelling pleasantly of laundry detergent (which is a big plus, in my opinion!)

If you can’t resolve to air-dry all of your laundry, start with just half. Half a load will dry much more quickly in the dryer than a full load, which means you might be able to turn the timer to half an hour or 45 minutes instead of the 90 minutes it could’ve taken you to pop a large load into the dryer.

3. Discover and regulate the “phantom” energy-users in your home

Ever heard of a “phantom load”? I definitely hadn’t prior to writing this. A “phantom load” or “phantom user” describes an item that sucks up energy in your home when you don’t even realize it. According to this article by, “75 percent of the energy used by home electronics is consumed when they’re turned off.” Isn’t that nuts? Your televisions, computers, and kitchen appliances could be phantom users if you aren’t good about unplugging them when you aren’t using them. Yes, your coffee pot could be betraying you after all.

Essentially “anything that holds a time or other settings” qualifies as a phantom user. One way to stop these appliances from driving up your energy bill is to plug everything into a power strip (or several–the point is to consolidate your appliances so that they are all plugged into the same location). It’s much faster and less of a hassle to switch off a single power strip than to hunt around for every electrical outlet in every room when you’re going to leave the house. It’s good practice to walk through your house every night to see that everything has been unplugged. You’ll be saving money as you sleep!

keep your bills low, conservation tips, strategies for saving money

Infographic by Julia Dunn

4. Resist house-wide air conditioning and heating

On cold mornings and hot afternoons, it’s extremely hard for me to resist cranking up the heater/air conditioning. The thermostat makes it so easy to adjust your home temperature for optimal comfort…but is it the cheapest way to do so?

Sadly, nope.

When you reach your finger up to the thermostat, think again before pushing any buttons. Could you beat the cold by throwing on a down jacket or a fluffy scarf? Are there blankets nearby? Simply bundling up and dressing more warmly at home can lessen your utility bill, as it does cost more to use your house-wide heater. If you must use a heater, opt for a small space heater to warm you up in one location instead of the whole house.

If your home becomes unbearably hot in the summertime, try using small fans instead of air conditioning. I love to keep a spray bottle around to spritz myself off when the heat becomes bothersome (and if you spray water into the direction of the air blowing from the fan, you get a lovely mist all over). Again, it’s super tempting to just turn on the A/C, but if you’re looking to keep your bills low, there are many ways to stay cool without blowing your bank balance.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever use your heating and air conditioning. As is true with most things, moderation is key! And if you live with housemates and split the cost of bills, a few thermostat uses here and there won’t necessarily kill your finances.

Looking for lesser-known strategies to keep your bills low? Challenge yourself to try one of the following (these tips come from Erin Huffstetler on–check out her great list of ways to lower your electric bill!)

  • Keep your fridge and freezer fully-stocked! “Food acts as insulation and lessens the amount of time that the fridge has to run to stay cool.” Who knew that you could save money by filling up your fridge with yummy food? Sounds like some fun conservation!

  • If you must use your dishwasher, try to turn off the “heat dry” function and let your dishes dry on their own. This feature more of an accessory than a necessity, when you think about it, and the majority of the energy your dishwasher consumes actually goes to heating the water.

In this piece, I focused primarily on saving water and energy: the basics that most students think of when they hear the phrase “utility bills.” However, you may also be concerned with lowering your phone bills, car insurance bills, even your grocery costs (which I don’t typically consider a “bill,” but a general expense that undeniably fluctuates).

If you need to lower something like an insurance bill or even a credit card interest rate, it’s worth your time to actually call a customer service representative from your providers and simply ask for a lower interest rate.

You don’t really have much to lose; the worst they can say is “no.” Often, service workers will grant customers a lower interest rate simply to keep them satisfied and willing to remain a customer of that company. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, to mention that you are a student.

In my experience, bills decrease proportionally to how much conscious effort you make to conserve all of your resources. If you don’t change your lifestyle a little bit, you won’t see much savings at the end of the month.

I’m not asking you to give up your washing machine, dishwasher, television, heating system, or even your all-important coffee pot.

To keep your bills low, all you need to do is become aware of your house-wide footprint and take small steps to modify your use of energy-heavy appliances.

I’ll leave you with that—I’ve got to go turn off my closet light!

By Julia Dunn

Uloop Writer
A writer, editor and educator based in Northern California.

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