How COVID-19 has changed student spending habits

How COVID-19 has changed student spending habits

Social distancing guidelines have changed the kinds of items students are purchasing, as well as how much they spend per week at college.
Published: December 9, 2020
Credit card purchase at cafe table

College students are notoriously broke.

They will go to a random campus event for five minutes just to snag a free t-shirt, scour recreation tables for the person handing out free Dunkin’ coupons and may sometimes even sneak a few snacks into their pockets before leaving the dining hall.

On top of academic and living expenses, having a social life in college can be expensive. Hanging out with friends almost always includes food or alcohol and some sort of transportation to get there.

Syracuse University estimates that students attending school from 2018 onwards spend nearly $1,800 on these personal expenses each school year.

Non-billable costs tend to add up in college, so it is no wonder that students routinely complain about not having a single penny to their name.

Over the past nine months, however, COVID-19 seems to have changed the college experience and what students are shelling out money for.

The four-year college experience, which used to be about meeting new people and making lasting connections, has shifted to remote and hybrid learning models that limit social interaction in order to contain the virus. As a result, pandemic guidelines have significantly disrupted student lifestyles, therefore affecting their social lives and spending habits.

Further, many students have lost their campus work positions due to the pandemic as campus shutdowns have reduced the number of work studies and teaching assistantships.

Last spring when the pandemic first moved the university online, SU lost more than $35 million and was forced to undergo a hiring freeze. This hiring freeze primarily affected those positions held by part-time employees such as students.

Narrowing budgets and the accompanying financial stress has forced some to be more mindful about their semester spending.

SU students have been encouraged to stay on campus and keep their circles small in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. This has meant no date nights, 21st birthday drinks at Lucy’s or overcrowded tailgates on football game weekends. Whether stuck at home or on campus, many students are spending less money than they were pre-COVID. Others have noted that even though their spending hasn’t changed, the items they buy certainly have.

During previous semesters, students spent the majority of their money on alcohol, according to an informal survey taken by 32 SU students. This fall, students are spending the more on food, including groceries and take-out meals.

Siobhan O’Donovan, advertising graduate student, said she has noticed a considerable difference in her spending habits compared to when she was studying at Syracuse as an undergraduate only one year ago.

“Last year, I spent so much money on going out to dinner with friends,” she said. “I would buy alcohol almost every weekend as well, and that would really add up. This semester, I never go out so I have definitely saved, but not as much as I would have liked.”

O’Donovan spends anywhere from $100-$200 online shopping each week. She has two jobs, one as an instructional assistant at the Newhouse School and another as a sales associate at J Michael Shoes. O’Donovan said she works in order to have extra money to spend on personal activities, and since there have been few parties and off-campus events, a big chunk of her paycheck goes toward fueling her clothing shopping habit.

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O’Donovan received at least one clothing package per week at her off-campus apartment during the fall semester.

Syracuse students have noted an overall increase in their free time. Online classes have meant lighter workloads in some cases, which frees up opportunities for many more distractions.

For this article, O’Donovan kept track of everything she bought for the week from Nov. 8-14. She was surprised to realize that although she is spending less on food and alcohol than last year, her overall spending total has remained about the same.

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O'Donovan kept track of her spending for one week in November.

Other SU students expressed similar sentiments.

Mia MacGregor, international relations sophomore, said that although she spends roughly the same $50-$100 each week as she did when she was a freshman, more is going toward takeout and online shopping rather than dining at restaurants.

Online ordering and delivery have made it easy for people to continue purchasing what they need and want throughout the pandemic. Since March, the number of Gen Z and millennial shoppers who order online weekly has increased from 48% to 62% since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were first instituted. They’re using services from Amazon, Target and other single brand retailers to purchase everything from groceries to clothing to household supplies.

Some students, however, are actually saving money during the pandemic.

Mitch Karpe, entrepreneurship and real estate senior, has rarely gone to downtown bars and restaurants this semester. Rather, he and his four roommates order in food and buy alcohol in bulk from the store. Generally, his weekly spending has dropped from $200 down to $100 since the pandemic because there aren’t as many opportunities to go out with friends.

In addition to restaurant and bar spending being down, so is transportation spending. Some students noted that they used to pay up to $20-$30 a weekend for Ubers and Lyfts to take them across campus or downtown.

Iris Li, advertising graduate student, has never had a car at Syracuse. She has always relied on friends or ride-pooling services to get her where she needs to go. The COVID-19 outbreak has created anxiety around ride-sharing, so she has shifted to online ordering through delivery services. Li estimates she is spending the same amount on groceries and household items without having to pay for transportation.

In a post-COVID world, she said that she will certainly consider using delivery instead of in-person purchasing because it is a more efficient and convenient option.

Student spending priorities have also notably changed during the pandemic as people are spending money in different areas than they were pre-pandemic. For instance, 47% of survey respondents claimed that they spent most of their money on alcohol before the pandemic. This semester, 60% noted that most of their budget has gone to food.

“I’m spending more money on groceries but less on food and drinks from restaurants which are more expensive anyway,” said Christy Arango, public policy graduate student. “I don’t do takeout that much but will when I am with my friends because it’s fun and usually easier.”

Ultimately, Arango said that she is saving money.

The spending patterns of SU students surveyed mirror a larger consumer trend that suggests people are buying more household-related and personal items compared to social, experience-related items such as food, alcohol and travel.

One of the variables of student spending is that most college students are not entirely financially independent. Whether parents pay tuition or phone bills, many students receive some sort of help in financial support during their college experience. And as the pandemic disrupts the economy as well as general lifestyle priorities, a handful of students have been advised to be more mindful with their money.

In some cases, student spending has gone from social to necessity-based or in-person to online. In other instances, spending has decreased overall.

“For students who are experiencing online learning this fall, remote instruction might offer an opportunity for students to control variable costs, rein in their daily spending such as transportation, eating out, and in many cases, room and board depending on if students are living on campus or staying home with families,” Daad Rizk, director of the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center at Pennsylvania State University-University Park, told U.S. News & World Report.