A post-secondary education is an expensive undertaking. Once you have chosen your school and your program it's time to plan your budget. There is little control over the cost of your tuition, compulsory fees or books but there is flexibility when it comes to planning what you will spend on food, transportation and your accommodation.
Living on Campus
If you are in first year, living on campus is often the default choice. It can cushion the transition to this new phase and is a great way to meet fellow students. You will also be close to your classrooms and other campus amenities. Unfortunately, sometimes there can be long wait lists and little choice in the accommodation that is available e.g., no single rooms and/or no say in your roommate. If you do get in you may have a tiny room and a grim shared bathroom. Residence is expensive and because of the high cost, the lack of availability, choice and space, it is worth looking at other options such as living off campus.
One of the benefits of being on campus is the proximity to classes and all the other facilities a student uses. You probably won't need a car and will travel by foot or bike. Cars are often discouraged on campus and what limited parking there is can be expensive. If you need a car investigate the parking rules and restrictions on your campus.
If you are living on campus a meal plan is usually mandatory. The small communal kitchens found in residence halls are not intended for more than preparing late-night mac and cheese. A meal plan alleviates the need for grocery shopping and personal meal planning.
The food services at colleges and universities offer meal plans that are flexible and provide options like different locations, variety of food partners (e.g. fast food outlets, cafes), or different payment methods. In this attempt to be all things to all students it almost takes a degree to understand how to best use your food budget. Top-ups, flex dollars, installments, overhead amounts, taxable items, non-taxable, basic dollars etc. are all terms that you will need to learn when you have a student meal plan. Despite this flexibility many students lose track of their spending and end up needing to add money onto to their food plan. A first semester's food budget could be gone by Thanksgiving.
Living off Campus
In most cities it will be easy to find apartments near campus. You can live close by but you will spend less on rent and have more control over your living space and meals. An apartment will also give you more privacy, independence and overall fewer distractions. If you want to make things even more affordable, consider having a roommate. Not only will your rent be less, you could also save on food and other bills by sharing the expenses.
Location Location Location
When looking at ads for apartments you might notice a Walk Score and this measure will give you a sense of the amenities nearby. If you find an apartment with a score between 70-100 it is worth a visit. Some of the other features you should check are parking (for bikes and cars), extra storage facilities, laundry facilities, security, and included and excluded costs.
If you are living close to campus, biking may still be your best transportation option. You may not be biking all year, so make sure you are on a good public transit route. Students can get discounted public transit. If you are a car owner, an apartment is more likely to have parking included in the rent. If you only need a car occasionally another option is a car-sharing service. These services are available 24 hours a day and usually have a low annual membership fee and reasonable hourly rates.
If living off campus, choose a place that is close to grocery shopping. You will be able to control what you eat and share expenses with a roommate. You can work within your budget without the confusion of figuring out a complicated meal plan.
Where to live is a big decision and it's crucial that you do your research. Your school can provide information on the costs of on-campus accommodations and meal plans. Keep in mind your study habits, your tolerance for distraction, and your food likes and dislikes. Review your budget and make an informed decision about what would be best for you. Living off campus does not mean you won't be able to participate in campus life, it just means you can do it on your own terms.