7 Creative Tips for Programming on a Shoestring Budget

As more universities return to operations in person, students are looking forward to getting back to “normal.” 

They can’t wait to hang out with their friends on campus, attend class together, and get those freebies at campus programming. With budgets continuing to tighten, however, you may be expected to deliver such programming without the financial resources you previously had. Or perhaps you are at an institution where money never really flowed freely to begin with. 

Fortunately, employing a little creativity can allow you to meet high student expectations and deliver exciting programming on the cheap (or even free). The following tips can help.

1. Use what you have

When you’re personally trying to save money, you likely eat in, entertain yourself with what you already own, and say no to outside opportunities. Well, the same rules can apply for your office budget! 

Raid your closets for all the swag from pre-COVID times. Chances are, you have leftover t-shirts, water bottles, or phone chargers from programs past, or maybe even for programs you planned for spring 2020 that were eventually canceled. These items are all fair game for give-aways. For your first- (and possibly second-) year students, these items will seem brand new. Supplies might also be found in your breakroom, supply closet, or storage spaces. 

2. Ask around

Reaching out to peer offices can be another way to collect items for giveaways or to offset your supply shopping list. Other student affairs offices may have branded swag they can donate! 

But student affairs isn’t the only place to ask. You might also consider reaching out to athletics, your campus marketing/PR office, or even the campus bookstore to see if they have any items to donate to your effort. Perhaps campus dining will be willing to donate food, drink, or meal vouchers. Any items you can collect will save you money, and the students probably won’t notice (nor care about) the difference. 

3. Partner with a student org

While our departmental budgets are continually constricting, many institutions may still have robust student organization funds available for programs planned by student orgs.

Reaching out to a student organization or two to co-sponsor your event may not only provide a much-needed financial infusion, but it can also help save you a bit of shoe leather.

Including students in your event planning can help drive attendance, as students are more likely to attend events put on by their peers than by administrators. Students are also often better at advertising and hyping events than administrators, due to students’ unique insight into their peers’ habits and motivations.

4. Embrace the take-to

Oftentimes, we are so focused on planning our events that we remain unaware of other campus events that are scheduled for the same time. We may even mistakenly plan programs about the exact same topics as our colleagues. In doing so, we cannibalize each other’s available audience. 

So, taking students to other events on campus — rather than planning your own — is yet another way to maximize institutional resources and save yourself time. Other organizers are sure to appreciate the additional attendance at their events. Check your campus calendar, student engagement portal, and the social media accounts of other offices to see what’s planned this week. 

5. Recycle

Group challenge programs are a great way to promote engagement, especially when students are required to employ creativity to build objects, structures, or even apparel. 

Using found objects can be an innovative way to up the ante challenge-wise while keeping the budget at a minimum. Consider holding a bridge-building competition, a fashion show, or a holiday-themed diorama challenge. You can challenge students to use only newspapers, materials found from the recycle bin, or discarded items in the office supply closet. The students will appreciate the unusual challenges, and you will appreciate that you pulled off an entire program for free. 

6. Check your local newspaper

Most cities have a free local arts and entertainment publication that comes out daily, weekly, or monthly. Not only can you check these pages for events and festivals that you can take students to free of charge, but you can also use the pages for inspiration to plan your own event(s). For events that charge admission, consider calling the organizer to see if you can get a  group rate. 

Or maybe you saw a headline for an event that wasn’t exactly what you were expecting, but it sparks an idea to put on your own program that would have met your expectations.

7. Get thrifty

Consider a trip to the thrift store or dollar store. As you peruse the aisles, imagine the possibilities. What are you seeing that you could employ for a challenge, a stress reliever, or a team builder? 

Play-Doh can give inspiration for a modeling challenge. Old 78 records might ignite an idea for a frisbee golf tournament. Seeing a badminton racquet here and some discount dish soap there might make you envision giant bubbles on the quad. 

You never know what you’re going to run across that can turn itself into an off-beat, fun campus event. The point here is to let your mind wander while using your surroundings as fodder for fresh ideas. 

100 Budget-Friendly program ideas - download the guide for free

We all want to drive attendance at the events we plan, and common wisdom is that every student needs a free t-shirt and a slice of pizza to even come through the door. Despite this, there are a variety of other ways to encourage students to relax for a moment, enjoy an unconventional activity, and socialize with their peers — without breaking your bank. 

What other tips do you have for programming on a budget? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus and @Russcular.

Dr. Russ Smith

About the author: Dr. Russ Smith (he/him) is the Director of Residential Education at Hofstra University. He's a proud graduate of NYU’s Higher Education and Student Affairs MA program, as well as the Educational & Policy Leadership Ed.D. program at Hofstra University. He's passionate about advocating for first-generation students and loves films of all types. Learn how we can help get your students involved.