College Millennials Tighten Belts Overall, But Splurge on Fashion, Technology

According to a recent back-to-school survey of 1,420 U.S. college students by college marketing agency Fluent, the co-ed generation's belt-tightening continues, but with somewhat more openness to spending in certain areas over others. Similar to last year's survey results, nearly 80 percent of students described themselves as "more cost-conscious this year than a year ago."

However, students said they are willing to make an exception to the low-spending rule and anticipate spending "more than they should" in select categories, specifically clothing, technology, and dorm room accessories.

The Fluent survey was conducted Aug. 13-21, 2014, among undergraduate college students across the U.S. "The recession has made a strong impression on this generation, so there is an overall cautiousness when it comes to spending," said Michael Carey, executive vice president of Fluent, an agency that specializes in "translating" brands for the college world. "They want to make economically smart choices, but at the same time, there are certain items that play heavily into their social capital, such as the right clothing and technology. Consequently, we are seeing a slightly more open attitude to discretionary spending in those categories."

Following are key highlights from the survey:

Sunnier summer for earnings, but caution still the order of the day
  • Although only 33 percent of students said they met or exceeded their earnings goal this summer, down sharply from 45 percent a year ago, the vast majority (62 percent) said they earned either more or at least the same amount as last year.
  • When asked if they would describe themselves as either MORE or LESS cost-conscious than last year, 78 percent of college students answered ‘more' (down a point from August 2013), while 22 percent answered 'less.'
  • When it comes to meeting their expenses this year, College Millennials reported relying on the following funding sources in this order: 1) summer job earnings, 2) support from parents and family, 3) student loans, 4) off-campus work during the school year and 5) work/study program. Interestingly, off-campus work fell from the top spot on last year's survey, to the fourth spot this year.
Targeting their dollars
According to the Fluent survey respondents, the five top items on students' spending list this year are grounded in the basics (ordered according to ranking):

1) Text books
2) Transportation: car/bike expenses
3) Clothing,
4) General school supplies
5) Computer software.

When it comes to products on which they are likely to "spend more than they should," dorm room decorating scored surprisingly high, shooting up 27 points, again indicating that discretionary spending might be on the rise. The top three categories selected by students were (ordered according to ranking):

1) Clothing – by a wide margin, nearly 70 percent of students selected this category
2) Technology (including computers, software and mobile) at 53 percent, and
3) Dorm decorating at 30 percent.

It's August or "whenevah"
August remains many college student's biggest back-to-school shopping month (37 percent), but nearly an equal number (38 percent) said they have no fixed start or end date to their shopping; instead, they indicate stocking up throughout the year for what's needed.

The three most important purchasing influences? Friends, friends, friends
Although friend suggestions still reign as the top influencer, students appear to be getting savvier about checking third-party product reviews for information as well. The top purchasing influences rated as "very important" were:

1) Friends' recommendations, either one-to-one or via social media (a full 93 percent of respondents selected this category)
2) Coupons, both online and mobile, and
3) Product review sites/blogs, which replaced last year's third-place influence: in-store test-drives.

The three purchasing influences rated least important by college students remained virtually the same as in 2013:

1) Online product demos,
2) Pinterest and other visual sharing social channels, and
3) Magazine articles and other editorial pieces.
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