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A post on youngandthrifty about how your living arrangements (living at home, on campus, near campus) affects your post-secondary experience.

Hello fellow personal finance readers. I go by the pen name “Teacher Man” due to the fact that I recently graduated from university and am in my second year of teaching high school. About 9 months ago my partner and I started a website called My University Money. It is aimed at helping young people (with a specific focus on post-secondary students) and just talking about financial and student lifestyle issues in general. Young & Thrifty was one of the first bloggers to really reach out to us and give us a little recognition when we were just starting off. When I read that Y & T was hitting a busy patch in life I offered to do a little staff writing for her, and she graciously accepted. Hopefully you readers don’t notice THAT much of a drop-off from the typical high quality posts you’ve come to enjoy here!

Y&T’s Note:  Thanks Teacher Man!  Haha, are you being sarcastic about the high quality posts? LOL.  Hey, when I first noticed your site, I was blown away by the amazing content.  Thanks for being my new staff writer as I plug away at post-grad university life 🙂 My dear readers, you’ll probably see Teacher Man here on Y&T.ca a few times a month- I’m looking forward to reading more of his great writing.

There are few bigger decisions for prospective post-secondary students than choosing where they will live while they attend school. Will you live on campus or off? Will you find an apartment with a friend, or search for a house to rent with buddies? Are your
parents going to be able to help you financially? What can you afford, and what is the cheapest option? These are all questions that swirl around the head of many high school graduates, and people returning to school from the workforce every year.

For individuals that are focused on doing the economically responsible thing, there is little doubt that going to the local school and living at home is by far the best route.  Even if your parents ask you to pay rent (entirely reasonable) I can almost guarantee that you will save bucket loads of money on everything from toilet paper, to internet bills.  For the many students that live far away from a post-secondary institution, this option does not exist. Many other students feel the social need to “branch out” a little and live independently, while still others wish to travel to go to school. How you approach this task can greatly determine what path your life will take within the realm of post-secondary education.

Advantages of On Campus Life

For the majority of students who decide for one reason or another to leave the nest and live away from their parents while going to school, the main choice becomes to live on campus or off. There are certainly arguments to be made for both. I personally would strongly recommend living on campus for a year or two to begin your post-secondary career. The social advantage alone is a strong enough factor that it almost outweighs any other considerations. Living on campus is simply the best way to meet new people, get involved with a nearly infinite amount of groups activities, grow comfortable with the campus, and build an endless network (both social and professional) that will be invaluable to you for the rest of your life. Being close to your classes and all the resources that are centered on campus are also a key consideration.

Off Campus Options

Some students decide that on campus life is not for them. There are a few different options for students that live off campus. Some key considerations include how many roommates (if any) you would like to live with, how far away from campus you wish to live (generally rental units close the university are fairly pricey), whether you would like to move into an apartment or a house, and whether you will own a vehicle or not.  The ability to customize your living arrangement to a more personal level comes with the added pressure of making the right choices. One interesting strategy I have seen successfully pursued is for the parents of a student to purchase a house close to a post-secondary area, and then have their child and their friends rent it from them. The rent provides a nice income stream (more than enough to offset the mortgage) and when the post-secondary career wraps up the parents can choose to sell it (houses close to  schools are always in demand) for a healthy profit, or continue the arrangement with their child if they want to keep the house.

Isn’t On Campus Living More Expensive?

For a lot of students choosing where to live will come to down to a matter of cost. While we established that living at home is probably more economical by a wide margin, things get a little more grey when we compare on campus housing options to those available off campus. In my experience, most people believe that living off campus is substantially cheaper; however, when I crunched the numbers I found them very comparable. It is very difficult to do a direct comparison because housing costs and on campus living expenses vary from region to region. When I looked at all the major universities across Canada, on campus housing ranged from $4,5000-$9,000, with of an average of around $7,000 when meal plans were included (this includes extra costs of internet hook-up etc, that were standard at some places, but not others). This comes out to $875 per-month.  When I calculated out my rent, hydro, water, internet, TV, and grocery bills, and then added in the extra gas I burned going to and from university everyday, it came out to about $800 a month. I’m a big guy who eats a lot of groceries, but Winnipeg was also a fairly cheap place to rent in, so I figured it balanced out. In any case, I’m fairly certain the per-month premium you would pay for living on campus is between $50-$100 in the majority of cases. For people that move for a summer job, or back home for the summer, this is easily cancelled out by the fact that most rentals require you to sign leases for 12 months at a time, whereas the on campus housing is usually purchased in 4-month terms.

What Option Is Right For Me?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of where a specific person should live while going to school. For students who have families, or want to live at home, the decision is fairly straight forward. I would definitely recommend paying the small premium to live on campus for young students as I believe the incalculable hidden benefits are well worth the price tag. I met my significant other while living in residence though, as well as nearly all of my best friends, so I am definitely quite bias!

What were your top priorities when looking for housing accommodations while attending post-secondary education? When I moved off campus with a couple of friends, our house was 20 feet from a beer vendor… can you say, “Location, Location, Location!”

Readers, what would differently you do if you could re-live your college accommodation experience?

Article comments

NR485 says:

One thing I’ll have to do here is put in a plug for Memorial University. Located in St. John’s, NL, we have ridiculously low tuition rates (~$1500 / full course load semester), frozen tuition fees, decent up-front provincial grants which most NL citizens are eligible for, and the cost of living in St. John’s is also very inexpensive. The average “student-suitable” apartment here will cost you $325 – $450, utilities included.

On a side note – excellent blog! I’m a big fan.

young says:

@NR485- NL whaddup!! I haven’t been to NL but I want to! That’s really cheap! Especially the student suitable apartment. For us, $325 won’t even get you a Single Resident Occupancy room in the notorious Downtown Eastside lol.

Mikhaila says:

I moved from BC to Alberta for University, and I’m still live in the city where I went to school. True, I didn’t have the option of staying at home while I went to school, but if I had lived in off-campus housing, I don’t think I would have made it through the year. I also met my significant other and the majority of my closest friends in residence (my SO is currently rooming with someone we met in rez). I’m an only child and had never shared a room with anyone, so when I was placed with a roommate who was less than tidy, I was forced to deal with it and adapt. If I’d been in off campus housing, I’m sure I would have transferred universities by the end of the first semester because of my tendency to isolate myself (it’s not possible to do that in a dorm). I agree with other commenters that the forced meal plan option is a downside, but overall I wouldn’t trade it for the world (but again, like Teacher Man, I’m a little biased :))

young says:

@Mikhaila- Thanks for sharing, Mikhaila! (PS love your name). it’s great to hear that you had such a great experience. +1 dorms!

@ MD – It truly is once-in-lifetime. I had so many great experiences and honestly met over 100 awesome people that I hope to have some contact (even if it is only Facebook and Christmas cards) with for the rest of my life.

@ Helly – Most undergrad course loads here will cost 3-7k, with obviously escalating costs for professional and graduate faculties. Dorm rooms cost about 5-9K almost everywhere (for the 8 months).

@Kellen – Really, more parties when you lived off campus? I found a very nice balance at the U of M where I went to school!

young says:

@Helly- Yeah, my tuition this year is about $5,000 which is not bad at all, considering for the same masters program in the states it’s like $50,000 per year..!

Kellen says:

We have “Resident Assistants” here, who get paid to live in dorms and do a little policing of the rules. It’s a way to live as cheaply as possible for minimal work hours (a lot of your hours simply require you to be “on call” and in the building for the night, but you can spend most of that time studying/watching tv/etc.)

I found that off campus was FAR cheaper than on campus at my university. However, a bigger social factor than dorms was access to the dining hall. You had to go all-or-nothing on dining hall access, so people either could get in or they couldn’t, and it could keep someone from being able to really hang out with a particular group if they couldn’t eat meals with them.

As for social life in dorms… all of my friends were in a different dorm, so I pretty much lost the benefits that living on campus provided. I went to many more parties when I lived off campus. Just my experience.

Helly says:

Oooh… free dorm living in exchange for service– now that can’t be beat! I have not heard of such programs in the States, at least not in California. And yes, you’re certainly right in that I’m biased against dorm living because it’s so different here: dorms = expensive, you HAVE to share with a roommate, and it seems like parties are more prevalent?

On a side note– how much is the average tuition at both a public and a private university in Canada?

Md says:

It’s an interesting debate. I lived at home and was able to save lots of money. This money allowed me to travel and buy a condo.

Now the big problem is this… I missed some amazing parties! I now find myself visiting my younger brother who moved away for college. It’s an amazing once in a life time experience.

Helly says:

Ah, that certainly makes a difference, then! Here, there aren’t that many single dorm rooms available, and what few there are are 1) only available to juniors and seniors and 2) exorbitantly expensive. I guess the universities feel even more strongly about the social side of things than you do! 😉 In fact, I know of a few that don’t even ALLOW their freshman to live off-campus, which I personally find a bit too dictatorial, and in a way, monopolizing the housing/food market (a lot of places make you buy a dining hall food plan that covers at least a few meals per week, as well) for first year students.

young says:

@Helly- I think there’s a huge difference between universities/ colleges up here in Canada than down in the USA 🙂 I don’t think there’s as much partying, though that could have just been my own experience here in BC. One way to save money that I know if (not sure if it exists in the states) is that you can ‘volunteer’ or start working for your local university student body. Oftentimes if you do that, the rent for oncampus dorm living is free! 🙂

Helly, thanks for commenting. I’m fairly certain the norm up here is single rooms now. Not to say there are not options for double occupancy, but I’m fairly certain almost every campus has a lot of single occupancy options. the numbers I used were for single occupancy vs splitting living arrangements somewhere else (house or apartment).

As far as a social life, I’m sure if you’re outgoing, you’ll make friends no matter where you are. I just think it is much more difficult to “hole up in your room” living in residence. It gives you an initial friendship group to take on new activities with (it always seemed to me that it was easier to make new friends if you already had solid support group).

Helly says:

Interesting article. Definitely agree on how much more economical it is to live at home. It’s one of the reasons my parents chose to buy a house where they did– it was within reasonable driving distance from many colleges and universities.

However, (and maybe it’s different in Canada) I think you left out a really key factor that can tip the scale of on-campus vs. off-campus living, especially if the cost factor is comparable: when you live on-campus, especially your first couple of years, you HAVE to share that tiny dorm room with another person. You wind up actually “paying” even more to live on campus, because for the same amount of money (assuming you’re economizing by renting a room in someone’s house– you still get your own room!) you’re only getting about half the space, you also lose your privacy and have to deal with sharing that small space with someone 24/7. For some people, like me, the roommate issue can make a HUGE difference.

As for advantages of living on campus: I disagree that where you live has that much of an impact on your social life. There are plenty of clubs and organizations and activities on campus where you can meet people, regardless of where you live. But mostly, it depends on the student him/herself: if you’re the type to hole up in your room and study or play on your computer all night, then it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it on campus or off. Conversely, if you’re a natural social butterfly, you’re going to make friends with everyone in your class before midterms, even if you drive home, 20 minutes away, every evening. Social advantages are more a factor of someone’s personality than where they live, and while a dorm may provide more *opportunities* to meet other people, I don’t think that fact alone makes up for the other disadvantages of living on campus.

young says:

@Helly- Good point- however, I think that some people who want that extra push to ‘become’ social butterflies would probably benefit from living on campus. You’re just much more exposed to the parties available etc. if you live on campus and you might not hear of the same parties if you lived off campus. But who parties after first year anyway, right? 😉