Student Housing: Living On Campus vs Off Campus

Student discussing tips for choosing to live on or off campus.

What are the pros and cons of living on campus and off campus?

As the school year draws to an end it can be tempting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and push everything except exams to the back of your mind.  One major decision that you should carve out some time to think about however, is where you will live next year and what your ideal housing scenario looks like.

There are many pros and cons to weigh when trying to decide between on-campus residence and renting a place away from campus.  While cost is obviously a large factor, trying to find the right personal fit includes several other considerations.  Taking the time to make the right decision now, will go a long way towards getting next year off on the right foot.

Should I live in residence or off campus?

At first glance, living on campus can seem quite expensive relative to finding a house to rent with several of your friends.  Canadian colleges and universities vary widely on their residence fees, but a quick online search of their websites revealed that across the country, residence fees, including meal plans, internet, and all associated utilities can range from $8,000 to $14,000 for an 8-month stay.

Don’t forget that these fees cover the expenses that you’d have to pay for separately if you lived off campus. Such as:

  1. Rent (duh)
  2. Groceries
  3. Furniture
  4. Electricity
  5. Water
  6. Internet
  7. Cable
  8. Utility hook-up fees
  9. Commuting costs

In order to get a true cost comparison, make sure that you factor in all of these additional expenses.  Again, it is difficult to nail down a precise Canada-wide number for living costs because there is such a wide disparity between living in downtown Toronto vs Antigonish or Saskatoon.

A hypothetical example might look like: four students renting a townhouse together for $1,800, plus utilities and internet fees adding up to $50 per person, $250 in grocery costs and a $75 bus pass (if it’s not included in student fees) – bringing our 8-month off-campus Canadian student costs to $6,600.  Remember though, this isn’t adjusting for one-time furniture buys or utility hook-up fees.

Depending on where you live and which school you attend, you can see from our above example that it’s possible to save $5,000+ per 8-month school year by living off campus and really cutting expenses such as rent and groceries to the bone.  It should be noted though, that the level of commitment it takes to shave that much off of your budget is considerable. I’ve personally witnessed many students who decide to live off campus believing that they will save money, and eventually end up spending more than it would have cost them to live on-campus.  This is often due to increased expenses such as owning a vehicle, wanting to live with fewer roommates, or eating out too much due to poor grocery shopping habits.

While $5,000 is a considerable amount of money, you need to honestly decide if you’re the frugal type that will take advantage of the savings opportunities presented by living off of campus, or if the convenience and amenities of on-campus life make it a great deal despite the price tag.  It’s important to think realistically about your needs, lifestyle and study-style, when you’re weighing your options.

Living off-campus: what to consider

Another cost consideration involves your summer plans.  If you plan on going home for summer or travelling to pursue employment opportunities, then getting locked into a 12-month lease on a house means that you could be stuck paying rent in two places, or going to the trouble of subletting for the summer months.

While it is possible to find 8-month leases in some housing markets, in my experience it is much more common for landlords to demand 12-month leases for any housing option remotely close to major campuses.

If you’re renting – read your lease carefully and keep in mind you could be hit with a big expense right away. Often, landlords will ask for both first and last month’s rent up front. Some universities even offer lease review services, so it’s worth checking it out.

On-campus and off-campus housing pros and cons

Looking ahead to next year, some questions you might want to ask yourself when it comes to determining your preferred living arrangements include:

  • How important is it to me to get to choose the people I live around and share a bathroom with?
  • What sort of premium do I place on the time I save by not travelling to and from school, not making my own meals, not doing my own grocery shopping, and not cleaning a lot of shared living spaces?
  • Do I prize the option to limit the noisiness and distraction where I live, or am I cool with walking to the library in order to study?
  • Is living close to a wide array of campus activities, clubs, sports venues, and general facilities something that I am likely take full advantage of?
  • Am I the type of person to save money by comparison shopping on rent, groceries and other necessities – or is convenience worth paying slightly more for?

Ultimately, it’s impossible for anyone else to determine whether the cost of staying on campus is the best fit for your pocketbook and your lifestyle.  Weigh your options, expenses and always read the fine print when it comes to finding your home sweet home.

Kyle Prevost

Kyle is a teacher by day and personal finance blogger by night. When he isn't limping up and down a basketball court, you can catch him on his soapbox at Birtle Collegiate or providing the answers to Gen Y’s questions over at YoungandThrifty.ca and MyUniversityMoney.com. He is also the co-author of a critically-acclaimed book for Canadian students: More Money for Beer and Textbooks and has written for several of Canada's premier publications including the National Post, Globe and Mail, and Metro News.

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