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Commuting to Campus Can Save Money, but at a Price

Living at home can save a student as much as $10,000, but those savings come at a price.
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Living at home and commuting to school is a tempting option for first-year students that can save big bucks on room and board.

But many commuters find that the typical trappings of college — social life, impromptu naps, late-night hangs — are often missed when you don’t live in the dorms.

In fall 2013, an average of 19 percent of freshmen commuted or lived off-campus, according to U.S. News.

NBC News Freshman Year Experience contributor Darian Stevenson, who’s in her first year at Southern Illinois University, chose to commute to save money. Stevenson estimates she saves $10,000 a year by commuting from home, and is paying for school entirely with scholarships and FAFSA.

Though the money savings has kept her from needing to take out loans, Stevenson is putting away cash from her job as a waitress so that she can help pay to live on campus next year.

“I’m a little bit over it,” said Stevenson, who lives in Alton, Illinois. “I did want to have an experience where I got to meet new people and move away from home, and I haven’t had that. It looks like everyone else is having so much fun and I’m on the sidelines.”

Still, there are benefits: a $10,000 savings is nothing to sneeze at, and mom’s cooking sure beats the dining hall.

Thinking of becoming a freshman commuter? Read Stevenson’s pros and cons.

PRO: Commuting is a big money-saver

In addition to the savings on room and board, home-cooked meals are a benefit. “I don’t ever get food on campus,” said Stevenson, who takes in her lunch and has a snack on campus. “It can be expensive. If I had a meal plan, I’d be spending the money I’m making on food.”

CON: Many commuters feel like social outsiders

“I’ve made a couple of friends,” said Stevenson, “but it’s hard, because you can tell hte people who live on campus know each other really well and they’re hanging out all the time. It’s hard to have a huge social life when you’re commuting because it’s hard to make new friends and meet new people when you don’t live with them.”

CON: You never really leave home

Though the comfort of her own bedroom is a draw, Stevenson still has to run errands and deal with the usual family interruptions during study time, for example. “My mom still treats me the same,” said Stevenson. “It doesn’t feel like anything’s changed.”

PRO: Living with your mom means plenty of studying

“My mind’s more on my studies than partying,” said Stevenson. “If I were studying on campus, I would definitely want to be hanging out and being in the social scene, and I would probably be more worried about that on the weekends than studying. I’ve actually been doing a lot of studying, so that’s good for me.”

CON: Group projects are tough to manage

“I have one coming up in December, and we haven’t even met up yet because none of us can seem to find the time to get together. Two of us are commuters and the rest live on campus. it’ll all just depend on when we have time to get together.”

PRO: Sweet, sweet privacy

“Having a roommate sounds fun too but you never get the privacy that I get in my own room. Also in dorm rooms, you can’t tell people to be quiet when you go to sleep. In a dorm, you could have people running around in your room all night bothering you.”

CON: You’re actually more tired than if you lived on campus

In addition to the commute from home to school to work and back, there’s often a long hike from campus parking lots to class. And though college students are notorious for stealing a little nap time during the day, that doesn’t happen if you don’t have anywhere to sleep. “I have this friend who I went to high school with, and he was like, ‘I’m taking a really big nap after this class,’ and I’m like, ‘that’s great. I’m going to go sit in Starbucks until my next class.’ I don’t have a bed I can go to, because I’m not going all the way home just to drive back.”