We’ve put together a financial guide to college extracurriculars, including information on what kinds of expenses to expect, how to save money on extracurricular activities and when to use a student credit card to fund extracurricular costs.
You don’t need us to tell you that college can be expensive. The average cost of college, according to the Princeton Review, is now over $51,000 a year. That includes tuition, fees and room and board, but it doesn’t include the cost of college extracurricular activities. If you want to join a club, play an intramural sport or pledge a fraternity or sorority, be prepared to cover dues, equipment costs and travel expenses – plus your share of the pizzas you’ll be splitting with your new friends.
“When I look back on the time and money invested in my engineering student club, it was a great ROI,” says Chuky Ofoegbu, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “The hand-on experience I acquired as an active member of an engineering club was a great addition to my resume.” Ofoegbu now works for Collins Aerospace as a mechanical engineer and is the editor of Sojourning Scholar, a platform that provides higher education advising and career coaching to U.S. college students.
Many students head off to college without thinking about how choosing the right college extracurriculars could change their lives – or how hard those extracurriculars could hit their wallets. That’s why we’ve put together a financial guide to college extracurriculars, including insight on what kinds of expenses to expect, how to save money on extracurricular activities and when to use a student credit card to fund extracurricular costs.
Getting involved with student activities in college
There are two major types of student organizations, explains Alexander Lowry, Executive Director of the Career and Connection Institute at Gordon College, a nationally ranked liberal arts institution in New England. Some organizations, such as chess clubs or intramural sports clubs, are primarily for fun. Others, such as business clubs, help prepare students for future careers. “These types of clubs are designed to help you meet people, build your network and get a job.”
Ofoegbu knows about the benefits of professional student organizations first-hand. “My engineering club allowed me to network with senior engineering students and university professors involved in the club, thereby expanding my pool of mentors and resources.”
Does that mean that you should only sign up for career-building extracurriculars? Not necessarily. A student who is more interested in joining the anime club than the accounting club can still benefit from being part of an extracurricular organization. “Any club can connect you to a network of people,” Lowry explains. From there, you can make the kinds of friendships that can last well beyond your undergraduate days.
“Suddenly you’re in this club of people,” says Lowry, “and then you’re always in that club of people.”
This goes double for Greek organizations. Once you’ve successfully pledged a fraternity or sorority, your network of brothers and sisters can stretch back for generations. Not only do Greek orgs provide a built-in group of people on campus who have your back, but they also connect you to alumni and mentors who can help you find your way forward.
Choosing extracurriculars might be easier for some students than others. If you enter college knowing which career or industry you want to pursue, joining a professional club is a great way to get introduced to other people with similar interests and confirm that you’re on the right career path. If you’re less sure of your career goals, Lowry suggests finding other ways of getting active – literally. “Intramural sports are great ways to get physical activity,” he says, “and they can also help you build a network.”
Paying for college extracurricular activities
A lot of benefits come with college extracurricular activities, including the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills and get connected to people who can help you land your first job. That said, extracurriculars often come with a lot of costs – and students who aren’t prepared to pay for college extracurriculars could find themselves at a disadvantage.
“In terms of managing the cost of my extracurricular activities, I was able to find grants and scholarships from my university that supported members of on-campus clubs,” says Ofoegbu. “Nevertheless, a significant portion of my expenses were paid out-of-pocket.”
Students often don’t realize that there are front-end costs that come with student activities, such as dues or conference fees, as well as back-end or “hidden” costs, such as chipping in on gas when you and your new friends carpool to the conference – and if you don’t plan ahead for both kinds of costs, you’ll either have to pay out-of-pocket or go into more debt.
The cost of student activities
Here’s a short, non-exhaustive list of costs that students can expect when they sign up for college extracurricular activities. Not all activities require students to cover every cost on this list, but these are some of the expenses associated with the most popular extracurriculars:
- Dues and fees (registration fees, new member dues, active member dues)
- Travel expenses (conferences, retreats, spring break trips)
- Clothing expenses (club T-shirts, businesswear, formalwear)
- Equipment expenses (sports gear, gaming rigs, props/costumes)
- Arts and crafts supplies (poster-making, door-decorating)
- Gifts (birthdays, welcoming new members, Bigs/Littles in Greek life)
- Food (formal dinners, informal pizza outings)
There’s one more cost many students don’t consider when signing up for an extracurricular activity – and it also needs to be budgeted for. “The biggest cost is your time,” Lowry explains. “Make sure you can balance your extracurricular activities with your studying and sleep needs.”
How to save on extracurricular costs
“College extracurriculars don’t have to cost a lot of money,” says Denise Thomas, a debt-free-college coach who helps parents and students save money on college costs. “Your fees already cover many leisure activities and clubs at your college. Take advantage of what you are already paying for.”
If you want to sign up for a club, professional organization or extracurricular that isn’t covered by your college fees – and there are many groups and activities that fall onto this list, including nearly all Greek organizations – it’s worth asking yourself what you hope to get out of the experience and whether the benefits will be worth the cost. This is especially important if you plan on adding your extracurricular expenses to your current debt load.
“You should weigh whether an extracurricular is really worth it before financing it with debt like credit cards or student loans,” explains Sam Zelinka, a personal finance expert who runs an early retirement blog. “While an amazing spring break trip with a student organization may seem like a great way to network with other students, you could end up paying for it many years after you’ve graduated.”
Lowry, on the other hand, encourages students to consider how extracurricular activities can continue to benefit them after graduation – because if extracurriculars can help you get a good job after graduation or land a position in a top-ranked graduate program, it might be worth investing the time and the money.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your investment:
Save and budget
This may sound like Personal Finance 101, but making a budget is still one of the best ways to manage college costs and cover the expenses associated with extracurriculars. If you already know how much spending money you’ll have every month, you can figure out how much of that money can go toward extracurricular activities – and how much needs to be set aside for other common college expenses, such as getting coffee with your study group or buying textbooks every semester.
It’s also a good idea to save any extra cash that comes your way, from birthday checks to tax refunds. While it might be tempting to put these small windfalls toward a new outfit or a nice dinner, saving your money now can help you fund extracurricular expenses later.
Get financial assistance
Many colleges and universities offer financial assistance to help students cover the costs of extracurriculars. In some cases, the club or organization will distribute information about scholarships, grants, fundraisers and other types of financial assistance to new members. In other cases, you won’t know this assistance is available unless you ask.
“Ask for help,” Lowry says. “Colleges often want to help students subsidize the cost of extracurriculars, especially first-generation college students and students from marginalized or minority groups. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.”
Ofoegbu agrees. “Students interested in extracurricular activities should look for funding opportunities from their university,” he told us. “Some of the scholarships and grants I received covered travel-related expenses for students attending competitions and conferences.”
Look for discounts and deals
Many young people don’t realize that their college student status and extracurricular involvement can help them save money in other areas of their budget. Geico, for example, offers car insurance discounts for people who are members of Greek organizations or honors clubs. Amazon offers student discounts, as do many other retailers ranging from big-name box stores to locally-owned coffee shops. Your organization might even have a list of all the places where your status as a student or member can save you money – and if they don’t, maybe you can volunteer to create one.
Earn extra cash
Many students already have part-time jobs or are involved in work-study programs, but if you have extra time and want to earn a little extra money, Thomas suggests picking up a side hustle. “Tutor students in a subject you are particularly good at,” she suggests, “or teach a skill you’ve already learned, such as how to play guitar.”
Thomas also recommends making a visit to your childhood bedroom to see if there’s anything that you could sell for extra cash. “You may have left a lot of stuff back home in your parents’ house. What can you get rid of that you really don’t need? Books? Sporting equipment? Look around your old room the next time you visit.”
Snag rewards using a student credit card
If you want to save money and build your credit at the same time, consider applying for a student credit card. The best student credit cards offer rewards on student-friendly spending categories like restaurants, gas, Amazon orders and Lyft rides – and once you’ve earned your rewards, you can redeem them for statement credits that lower your monthly credit card bill. Plus, some student credit cards offer cash back bonuses for good grades or give out extra rewards to students who pay their bills on time every month.
Taking out a student credit card while you’re in college is an excellent way to begin building a positive credit history, which, like your extracurricular involvement, comes with benefits that last long past graduation. Starting your post-college life with a good credit score already in place can give you a significant financial boost when it’s time to get a job, rent an apartment or apply for a car loan.
That said, a student credit card could also lead you on a path toward credit card debt – so make sure you only make purchases that you can afford to pay off. “Having a credit card and building your credit is only wise if you have a J-O-B with a steady income and you will set aside the funds necessary to pay it off every month,” Thomas explains.
Zelinka agrees: “While credit cards are a convenient and safe way to pay for extracurricular activities, you should make sure before you charge an extracurricular activity that you have the cash to pay it off when it hits your bill.”
Many students are going back to school this August – which means many young people will be deciding which college extracurriculars to add to their schedule. If you’re considering signing up for a club, organization or college activity, talk to current members about what kind of expenses to expect and whether financial aid is available to help you cover the costs. (If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your financial situation with your fellow students, consider reaching out to a faculty advisor, residence hall director or financial aid representative.)
Once you’ve chosen your college extracurricular activities and developed a plan to help you manage the expenses, focus on making friends, getting involved and – most importantly – having fun. “Take advantage of the clubs, groups and activities that interest you,” Lowry says, “because you’ll never get to do this again.”