College students in the US are at a pivotal point in their journey as budding individuals. Often still funded by parents (but starting to earn their own incomes), they are setting out on their journey to develop consumer preferences, make financial choices, and prepare to enter the workforce. The spending habits of college students are just beginning to form.

The brands they gain affinity for and the purchases they start to make for themselves will guide their consumer behavior in the longterm – and with college students wielding $780B+ in spending power, brands simply cannot afford to miss out on making this crucial first impression. 

However, you may be wondering: What are the spending habits of college students? As students budget their funding, start to make purchasing decisions on their own, and navigate their lives – what do they prioritize spending their money on?

Luckily, we’re here to tell you all our secrets so that you can tailor your college marketing campaigns with the power of our data and research. Ready to find out how much money college students spend? Let’s get started. 

spending habits of college students

About our college marketing research

At Refuel Agency, our research guides everything we do – and it’s why we’ve conducted regular proprietary research on the college market for over 30 years. Marketing campaigns without data to support it is just guesswork, and we’re here to give you the best chances for success.

The College Explorer™ offers large-scale market research on college students. Our focused study examines the spending habits of college students, digital media consumption, advertising perceptions, shopping patterns, and educational plans. 

Using Qualtrics, the most trusted enterprise research platform in the world, we gathered data from thousands of college students to elicit the most valuable and up-to-date college advertising insights available.

spending habits of college students

Read next: 3 Experiential Marketing Strategies for College Campuses

What do college students buy the most?

Are you wondering about the top discretionary spending category that college students spend in (besides room and board, tuition, and books)? Our College Explorer Series found out, and the spending category that gets the majority of college student spending is: food and groceries. Coming in at $78.3 billion in spending, this spending category has seen a $9.6B increase in the past year alone. 

Coming in second in the discretionary spending category for college students is automotive purchases at $57.3 billion annually. College students are experiencing the freedom of both living away from their parents and owning cars for potentially the first time, so their car purchases matter. If we look at automotive maintenance, total car spending increases to $73.8 billion annually. 

The following categories for college student spending include smartphone and smartphone plans, transportation (including ridesharing), clothing and shoes, eating out, home improvement, travel, video games, furniture and appliances, streaming services, electronics, and personal care coming in last. 

Read next: 5 Reasons Your Brand Should Offer Student Discounts

Who is paying: college students or parents?

Interestingly, our most recent research found that college students are increasingly paying for their basic needs themselves – versus their parents footing the bill for their living expenses. At least 45% of students are paying for their own internet, cell phone plans, and streaming subscriptions – and that percentage bumps up to nearly 60% of college students paying for electronics, auto maintenance, books, food / drinks, and shoes / clothing.

Considering that college students are funding the majority of their purchases, it’s even more important that brands are making a good impression on college students as they start to make these purchasing decisions. A good first impression through strategic, omnichannel marketing strategies results in brand loyalty that could last in the long-term.

Read next: How to Advertise to College Students with Email Marketing

Why advertise to college students?

While college students might not be the first target market you think of to target with your next marketing campaign, the benefits of marketing to college students might surprise you. The over 21 million college students enrolled across the country boast a whopping $593 billion in spending power—and that’s before they’ve entered the workforce full-time. 

When teens leave their parents to go to college, college campuses quickly become their new homes, learning environments, and social world. College students are surrounded by like-minded peers, respected professors and mentors that influence students in a time when they are learning what they think, what they believe, and how they will navigate the world. 

The college campus is where young minds are shaped—and your brand needs to be a part of that. Advertising to Gen Z is nothing without making an impact in their real-life environments – and that’s on college campuses. 

Read next: The Ultimate Guide to Marketing to Gen Z

Are you ready to get your youth advertising campaigns off the ground? At Refuel Agency, we’ve been crafting strategic youth advertising campaigns for over 30 years, and we’re invested in ensuring your campaigns make an impact. Contact us today to get started.

Christina O'Toole

Christina is a data-driven, full stack marketer with over 20 years success leading marketing in technology, higher ed and publishing industries. Christina has developed hundreds of marketing campaigns and built all facets of programs including lifecycle journeys, creative direction and lead generation. She now heads corporate marketing at Refuel Agency.