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The best discounts for college students

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) People check out laptop computers at the Apple Store (AAPL) in Grand Central Terminal in New York, New York.

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It seems like summer just started, but students will be headed back to school in just a couple of months. While many adults say that their 20-something years were some of the best in their lives, being a student is rarely the best time in someone's financial life. Between tuition costs and living expenses, there are plenty of students who are surviving on Ramen noodles while they try to pinch pennies.

In fact, a recent study of college student finances found that 58% of incoming freshman in the U.S. took out some form of student loan, and of students who attended public universities, each took out an average loan of $6,400. What's more, a recent survey conducted by the College Savings Foundation found that only 49% of high school students have started saving for college. While most savers had at least $1,000, that's barely enough to cover the cost of textbooks in a student's first year.

Despite these discouraging financial figures, it is possible for college students to enjoy this time in their lives on a budget. Thanks to numerous student discount programs from top retailers, students can get amazing savings on groceries, travel, and computers. Here's a look at some of the best student discounts and perks we've found, from retailers to restaurants, and everything in between.

Student Discounts on Apple and Tech

While tuition and living expenses make up the bulk of college costs, many students also need to make hefty tech purchases to get ready for school. The main requirement? Not an iPad, but a laptop.

Dell offers students a $200 gift card with the purchase of select laptops over $699.99 (expires September 26; select the "Student & Member" tab to find this promo), which knocks several models to all-time low prices. And while the Dell team suggests using the gift card to buy an Xbox 360 4GB console (which comes with a free 1-month Xbox LIVE Gold Membership), students can also put the gift card towards the purchase of a wireless printer, an external hard drive, or other peripherals.

Similarly, Apple offers college students and their parents up to $200 off a variety of new iDevices. Plus, Apple's up-cycle program means students can trade in their older machines and iPods and receive an Apple gift card to put towards the purchase of, say, the new 2013 Haswell MacBook Air. Last year, Apple eventually also offered a free $100 gift card with student computer purchases, so keep an eye out for that promotion to reappear sometime soon.

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With these manufacturer deals, students should never pay full price for a new laptop. And the same goes for software; we're not talking about piracy, but rather getting discounted or even free software from the university's IT department or computer store. Many colleges offer free anti-virus software for students, which can save them hundreds of dollars. Freeware programs like OpenOffice present another option for students who are looking to pinch pennies where they can. 

Student Travel Deals

Travel may seem like an indulgence, but it's the cornerstone of many student experiences. From spring break to a semester abroad, students are always in need of great travel deals. While Europe is halfway around the world, once you get there getting around is cheap and easy thanks to the Eurail, which offers passengers under the age of 25 a special, second class "Youth Pass." Totaling a 35% off savings on the regular adult fare, a 15-day "Global Pass" with access to 24 countries is $501 ($270 off). As a bonus, the Global Pass currently comes packaged with a free gondola ride in Venice. Fancy!

Fashion Finds for Stylish Coeds

Wearing sweatpants to class isn't any way to be taken seriously in academia. Instead, students should dress the part of the nation's next generation of intellectuals with a new wardrobe from one of many retailers that offer student discounts. And while labels like J.Crew and Club Monaco connote chic style at a cost, these student-friendly clothiers and others, like The Limited, Ann Taylor, Steve Madden, and Target, offer discounts of up to 20% off for students.

Almost Free Lunches

The campus dining hall likely isn't the best place to find a bargain or full-on nutritional values. To sustain mind-body health, students can get groceries from Sam's Club with a $45 membership, and then immediately earn a $15 gift card. And while this may not seem like a huge discount, the additional cost of the membership will pay for itself in product savings, since there are some things you should always buy in bulk to save money. Plus, Sam's Club periodically holds health screenings for the public at their pharmacy locations, which is great for students without health insurance.

Student Discount Cards

Sometimes, flashing a student ID isn't enough to score a deal, but that's where student discount cards come in. With the Edhance cash back service sadly discontinued, the most popular option is the Student Advantage card. Founded in 1992, Student Advantage saves students 10% to 20% savings on travel, top national brands, and even some local restaurants from the likes of Greyhound, Armani Exchange, Amtrak, Book Renter, T-Mobile, and Lenovo. Though the card costs $20 per year (with $2.50 s&h), the potential savings on transportation and necessary purchases could more than make up for the initial expenditure. Plus, new members can currently get $10 back on their first purchase with the card, effectively cutting the first year's fee by 50%.

The real lesson that students ought to learn here is that before buying anything — anything at all — ask if there's a student discount. More retailers are willing to cut students a deal than you might think!

Tucker Cummings is a contributor at dealnews.com, where this article first appeared.

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