100 Budget-Friendly Programs to Add to Your Repertoire

When I was a student activities coordinator, my days were spent scaling the paperwork mountains and fierce binder jungle that was my office and making sure I could stretch every cent of our activities budget.

After talking with many of my colleagues, we realized the best activities to host would be ones where students could have fun but also apply or gain critical life skills without even realizing it; activities that added more value than the typical drive-by pizza station.

According to The Hechinger Report, the amount being spent by the institution per student has dropped significantly over the past 25 years — so much so that nearly half of the cost of public education is being put on students in the form of tuition!

I’m incredibly thankful for the amazing education I received, but looking at my $1,100 monthly student loan payment doesn’t leave that same feeling for my bank account.
Simpsons gif

With the growing cost of higher education, it’s crucial to create events that won’t break the bank for students to participate in or for our institutions to host.

Below, we’ve created a list of programs and activities to help students stay engaged while saving you a few dollars of your programming budget. If you want to go ahead and download the whole list, you can do that through the image below!

Free guide: 100 Budget-Friendly Program Ideas

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Ready? Let’s get started with one we’re all familiar with:

Food-CentricEvents

 

1. Plan a microwavable potluck

Most students have access to a microwave, so this is a great option for a late-night program on campus. If you want to make this hall-specific, you can set-up bulletin boards where students can sign-up to bring their favorite microwaveable recipes.

2. Cake postcards

Most folks like cake, and who doesn’t love a handwritten note? Check out this awesome tutorial by Sandra Denneler on how to achieve the best of both worlds. (Note: Don’t eat this cake, please)

3. Waffle Wednesdays

Ask the dining staff if you can borrow their waffle makers and set-up a waffle bar. This isn’t just a midnight breakfast event — you can do it during the first week of classes, during exam weeks, or any other time of year.

4. Curate a campus cookbook

Battle homesickness with a fun way for students to share their favorite meals from home with their peers. You can use Presence forms to collect recipes, and once you’ve gathered them all, you can let students teach their peers how to make it.

5. Host a tea party

Encourage students to bring their final exams and chat over a spot of tea. To add another layer of fun to this laid-back event, you can suggest a fancy dress code.
corgi tea party

6. Mystery dinner

Theatre, intrigue, and food? Heck yeah! This free option lets you throw in a little Harry Potter magic. This is a great opportunity to team up with your performing arts department and dazzle folks from both on- and off-campus.

7. Grilled cheese party

Grilled cheese can be done one hundred different ways (but that’s another list). Invite students to show off their culinary skills in this Top Chef-style event, but make sure to have some dairy-free options as well!

8. Ice cream social

We used to host an electricity-saving competition throughout all our residence halls, and at the end of the semester, we would throw a Ben & Jerry’s party (gotta love Vermont) for the winning hall to celebrate the winners.

 

Campus programming isn’t all fun and games. With employers looking more often toward students’ co-curricular experiences as an indicator of their job skills, we need to be offering skill-building programs as well. Life skills combined with quirky, unique talents set our students apart in the mad dash for jobs after graduation.

Growth-FocusedEvents

 

9. Create a campus book club

Get input from your literature department faculty and create a campus-wide book club! Create a theme for each semester and have a roundtable discussion to bring the books together.
Essential skill developed: Critical thinking, synthesis, and discussion skills

10. Learn how to compost

While students learn how to compost, teach them about the benefits of composting and how they can compost on- and off-campus. If you have a community garden on campus, you can even get attendees involved in the care and keeping of it.
Essential skill developed: Project management

11. Financial fitness series

Rarely do students learn about the impact of student loans and how to save effectively while in college. Discuss potential on-campus job options for student employment and online jobs that allow students to make money from virtually anywhere, as well as budgeting tools that they can use to simplify it all. Pro-tip: Partner with your financial aid office on this one!
Essential skill developed: Money management

12. Get organized with free tech tools

Organizing is one of my favorite things to do (although my desk could use some serious love). Here are some helpful and free tools to teach students how to better manage their time and busy schedules.
Essential skill developed: Organization

13. Advising “on-the-go”

In 2015, Florida Atlantic University started offering academic advising to commuter students by meeting them in the on-campus parking lot which they called “Drive-Up Advising.”
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication, project management

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14. Words that hurt and why

Host an educational program on language and provide these handouts afterward. It’s a great way to boost awareness in common areas and on-campus.
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication, emotional intelligence

15. Info sessions for non-profits

This is a great way to get students more involved in the local community. Invite non-profits to share their missions while recruiting students to volunteer their time.
Essential skill developed: Communication, planning

16. Careers workshops

What does the day in the life of a __________ look like? Help your students get a handle on their career options with a series of workshops focused on specific roles or fields. These are especially helpful in the early months of the year when students are preparing to apply for jobs and internships
Essential skill developed: Planning

17. Educational Jeopardy

Check out these Jeopardy templates to make your educational events more interactive.
Essential skill developed: Critical thinking

jeopardy gif

18. Lunch & learn

Invite different department chairs to speak about their journeys during brief lunches at the dining hall. You can also encourage students to host lunch & learns on topics that they’re currently researching. It’s a great way to improve their public speaking skills while helping to prepare them to present their research at the end of the semester or at conferences.
Essential skill developed: Public speaking

19. Continuing Sexual Education

Bring in your campus wellness team to share best practices and provide an outlet for questions.
Essential skill developed: Intrapersonal communication, self-care, boundary-building

20. Roundtables

Current events, recent movies, the new bike-sharing program Student Government wants to start — whatever the topic, bring students in and let them know their voices will be heard.
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication

21. Speed Networking/Meeting

Partner with local businesses, staff, faculty, and students and have them spend 3-5 minutes getting to know each other before sharing experiences with a new person.
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication

22. Bringing tutors to different dorms

While RAs are doing their rounds, have them bring along tutors from the academic support center to help with late night study sessions.
Essential skill developed: Research, critical thinking

23. Vision boards

Magazines, cardboard, a little glue, and a bunch of dreams.
Essential skill developed: Planning, creativity
vision board

24. Crucial Conversations

Work with your wellness staff to enable students to learn peer mediation skills, build their conversational confidence, and provide them with a toolkit of how to navigate challenging interactions.
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication, conflict management

25. Debate viewing parties

Wheel in one of those super cool TVs on a cart from middle school and stream current events. You can build a series of events around these during election time, bringing in local politicians for on-campus roundtables and hosting informational sessions and voter registration drives.
Essential skill developed: Critical thinking

26. Condom fashion show

Get outdated condoms donated and throw together your best sex-positive fall fashions.
Essential skill developed: Creativity

27. Study abroad night

Invite students who’ve experienced study abroad opportunities to make small snacks and share their experience with prospective study abroad students.
Essential skill developed: Critical thinking, planning

28. Internship fair

You can set this up speed-dating style, bringing in different local business who are looking to onboard student help. Rather than having full interviews, format this so that students can learn about internships available to them and make smart decisions about where to apply.
Essential skill developed: Interpersonal communication, planning

29. Social media programming

Any sort of social media “live” contest is a great way to introduce staff and student leaders at any point during the year. And with HQ Live reaching more and more people each night, it’s the perfect time to throw in some of your own social media game flare.
Essential skill developed: Critical thinking, technology use

30. Body positive photo shoots

Pick up a few disposable cameras or borrow one from media services and encourage students to share what makes them most proud of themselves. Here are a few body positive shoots that shook up the world!
Essential skill developed: Empathy, intrapersonal communication, creativity

Arts, Crafts, & LeisureEvents

 

31. Board game night

Bring students together with games like Scrabble, Sorry, Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Life, Battleships, Chess, Monopoly, and Twister. You can even create themed weeks and tournaments based on the board games you choose!

32. Fingerpainting

This is an awesome way to engage students with a childhood pastime and have a little messy fun. Painting helps students de-stress and focus on something other than classwork. Canvases can be found at local dollar stores or at Michael’s (make sure you bring your coupons, though).

33. Motivational posters

Have students bring old frames and share motivational quotes. You can combine this with the fingerpainting event to get some awesome handmade art. Then, hang up your motivational messages around your residence hall. The Muse has some great options to use as…motivation.

34. Make your own landscape garden

Also referred to as a zen garden or Japanese rock garden, creating your own landscape with sand can be therapeutic. Check out this brief history and instructions for making your own by Faena Aleph here!

35. Caricature drawing

Udemy has a written example of how students can create caricatures, and for visual learners, eHow created a helpful video to help teach students.

36. “I Spy” scavenger hunts

At my former institution, we used to have “Duck Days” where our ResLife staff would hide hundreds of rubber duckies across campus for students to find and redeem for small prizes and meal points on-campus.

Free guide: 100 Budget-Friendly Program Ideas

Craft awesome programs on a dime (or penny). Download For Free

37. Starry nights

Set up a projector and utilize the tool Stellarium to view the night sky on a projector screen. You can also contact your astronomy faculty who may have access to telescopes and other cool instruments. If you have an observatory on campus, you can make this event “night at the observatory” themed.

38. Rock-painting party

Pet rocks were cool in the 80s and 90s, so why not bring them back? Think about how much cooler your room will look with some colorful new pals.

39. Coloring night

Break out the Crayolas, run a few copies, and color the night away.

40. Tie-dye party

Encourage students to bring their pillowcases, sheets, old t-shirts, whatever they want and make colorful art. This event could stand on its own, or it could be a precursor to a tournament-style event — just make sure that each team has its own color palette.

41. Upcycling night

Provide hot glue guns, jewels, sequins, velcro, and other odds and ends to repurpose something old into something fierce again.

42. Make your own wand

I’ll never get over my love for Harry Potter, so if you and your students are in the same boat, Slytherin over to this awesome tutorial on how to make your own wands with paper.

43. Playdoh days

Grab a few of those yellow cans of creativity from the dollar store and fidget your stresses away.

44. Toilet paper roll architecture competition

Gather up the leftover cardboard from toilet paper rolls and have students build a structurally-sound bridge. Whoever’s bridge can hold the most weight without crumbling wins!

45. Crowdsourced door decs

Typically, your RAs make all of the door decorations for their hall. Instead, crowdsource ideas (and help!) with this event. Encourage students to help out your friendly neighborhood RA and make door decs for all the residents on your floor — you might even get some fresh new ideas in the mix.

46. Cash Cab

I used to work with our campus shuttle, “Safe Ride,” and every month or so our campus activities board would host “Cash C.A.B.” and surprise random students with trivia and prizes.

47. Bingo

A good ole standard that can be spiced up with different themes — back to school, holiday break, homecoming, and more.

48. Karaoke Night

Remember that cool TV from #25? Bring that back, look up some YouTube lyric videos and sing your face off!

 

Encouraging students to invest in their own health and wellbeing is a big step to take with a lot of great payoffs. Create inspiring events that help your students feel supported in their own health journey and give them the opportunity to work with other students who share that passion. Go get your Olivia Newton-John on with these activities:

Health & WellnessEvents

 

49. Yoga on the quad

Reach out to a local yoga studio or ask instructors from an on-campus gym or wellness office to help you plan an engaging (and relaxing) program.

50. Wellness competitions

Last year, Oral Roberts University tracked students’ fitness through Fitbit devices and integrated the data into their learning management system.

51. Nighttime bike rides around campus

Have students decorate their bikes for awareness occasions or just for fun. If it’s around Halloween, you can make this a moonlit ghost tour of your campus.

52. Peer-to-peer coaching

Invite student athletes or folks who really love to work-out to be part of a peer fitness challenge. This is a great way to help students build connections and keep the motivation to stay healthy up.

53. Ping-pong tournament

Warm up your rec room paddles and let the your inner Forrest Gump out.

54. Pie your RA (or SGA rep, or administrator)

A few cans of whipped cream and some pie tins, and you have a throwback to carnival days. Are you brave enough to join in the fun, SAPro?

55. Minute To Win It

MTWI was a staple of my orientation program and this list is sure to be a hit with your students!

56. Paint slip & slide

Remember to have students sign their waivers before participating in this one. This is a great event to host on its own or after your local Color Run.

57. Twister on the lawn

Sprinkle some lawn chalk or grass-safe paint on the ground and have as many students join as can fit. Right hand on fun!

58. Dance marathon

In the words of Lady Gaga, “Just Dance!” (for as long as you possibly can).

59. Cornhole tournament

Some beanbags, a few wooden boards, and lots of sunshine make for the perfect spring or early autumn activity.

60. Pool party

Host a free swim in the campus pool and invite the campus radio station to feature their DJs for a splash of funk.

61. Glow in the dark capture the flag

Bring your glow sticks and paint for a quick pick up game with a new twist. This works for any outdoor game, not just capture the flag.

62. Nature walks

Organize time for students to take a break from the hustle and bustle and walk through your beautiful campus. If you have a botany department, reach out to the faculty and see if they’d be interested in leading a guided tour.

63. Duct Tape bowling

Instead of just trashing your bulletin board, roll the remains into a ball and play some hallway bowling.

64. Dodgeball tournament

“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” Don’t forget those tie-dye shirts you made earlier!

65. Life-size Pac-Man

A leveled-up version of tag! Have your ghosts wear headbands made of scrap fabric and build a course with some rope.

 

When students feel like they belong on-campus and are connected to the community, they’re more likely to stay at their institution. Plus, they become invested in making sure their fellow students stick around and have a stellar experience! Invest in your campus culture with these relationship-building programs:

Relationship-BuildingEvents

 

66. Picnic day

On a nice day invite students, staff, faculty, and administration to pack a lunch and enjoy the sun. This is a great opportunity to build a strong sense of community and create a space for casual conversation. You can even take a page from the 5-college consortium’s book and have the President of your institution declare a campus-wide day off to celebrate great weather.

67. Host a drum circle

Drum circles are a simple way to bring people together. Drum circles can be engaging for the people participating and watching by communicating through nonverbal cues and feeling the dynamic rhythm of the group. Plus, you can make a drum out of just about anything.

68. Lounge sleepover

Don’t bring your mattresses! That’d be a nightmare for the custodial staff and the RDs. Instead, bring a few blankets, pillows, and some scary ghost stories.

69. Start a mentor program

Have students come to a monthly event where they’re partnered up and get to make new friends.

70. Campus clothing swap

Before breaks in the academic year, encourage students to clean out their closet and swap for new and exciting items.

71. Practicing Gratitude

When we’re overwhelmed with work, it’s hard to take time to practice gratitude. Set-up a group event where people can honestly voice what they’re grateful for. You can also make this a passive event with a chalk wall or whiteboard.

72. Post-It note wars

#SpreadTheLove and fun with these cool works of awesomeness around campus.

Free guide: 100 Budget-Friendly Program Ideas

Craft awesome programs on a dime (or penny). Download For Free

73. Poetry slam

An evening for students to share their creative side in a judgment-free arena of fearlessness!

74. President’s snack stop

Set-up a stand or table to hand out donuts, lemonade, hot chocolate — whatever is appropriate for the season. Create a chance for students to connect with the college President or other administrative staff who could use more time “on-the-ground” with students. Offer a suggestion box to allow students’ voices to feel heard.

75. More Love Letters

You can write letters to these humans listed on their site under “Letter Requests,” or you can host your own for other students on campus who need a pick-me-up.

76. Drag Show

Celebrate various gender expressions with a drag show! Amateur performers in the area who are looking to help campuses get started typically don’t mind performing for free, but if you want more experienced people, it will be more expensive. Or even encourage your students to participate. Option to create this as a charity event and donate partial proceeds to Campus Pride.

77. Future roommate mixer

Housing selection is stressful enough as it is — use this event to allow students can get to know each other over refreshments.

78. Open mic night

Once every few weeks, invite students and community members to perform for a live audience.

79. Talent show

This can include some big prizes or a stellar trophy that gets displayed in the student center.

80. Random acts of kindness

Start a random act of kindness chain with a token or coin, have students “pay it forward,” and record the journey of good deeds via social media.

81. Trivia night

Find a super charismatic person on-campus to be the MC for monthly quiz bowls.

82. Student of the month

Have students vote on who they believe best showcased school pride that month. If your institution is particularly large, you can restrict this to particular colleges or residence halls.

83. Motivation Mondays

Every Monday, invite students to talk about their goals for the week and how they plan to achieve them.

My former college President used to say, “Make a change here so you can go out and make a change in the world.” Once a student feels ownership of their role on-campus, it’s part of our responsibility to support them in sharing their talents with the surrounding communities. With these easy-to-coordinate events you enable them to flourish in a new place and gain crucial skills for when they leave.

84. Showcase alumni success

Have students vote for an alum to come back and speak on campus.

85. Museum day

Find out if your city (or your nearest city) offers a Free Museum Day to locals. And if you have a museum on campus that’s free to students, set-up an evening event to encourage students to visit!

86. Visit a nursing home

Organize times to volunteer with meal service, visiting hours, or even tech workshops.

87. Campus and community clean-up

During our orientation we would work with local businesses and homeowners and have student groups clean up their lawns to give back to the community.

88. Shuttles to volunteer opportunities

Offer a few campus vehicles to bring students to various opportunities in the community.

89. Letters of gratitude to armed services

Whether it’s the holiday season or any other time of the year, set-up a letter writing station to send thanks.

Holiday-ThemedEvents

 

90. Valentine cards

Organize a valentine creativity station where folks can write cards, poems, or hand out those chalky candy hearts.

91. Carving pumpkins

If you have a local farm nearby whose pumpkins are close to past due, ask if they’d be willing to donate them and have an impromptu carving contest.

92. Candy cane grams

Everyone in the 2000s wanted to be Glen Coco. We could probably still make “fetch” happen with this event.

93. Egg hunt

Hide small things like trinkets, vouchers for the cafe or bookstore, or even better, candy!

94. Holiday ornaments

Bring it back to fourth grade art class and whip up a Model Magic holiday ornament to rule them all.

95. Turkey trot

After the dining hall hosts its awesome Thanksgiving dinner, encourage students to take a trot around the block. If your community is hosting a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, organize a group of students, faculty, and staff members to participate.

96. Haunted house

This was my favorite event every year! Our theatre department would team up with folks in our fine arts center and put on the best scare on campus (and for a really cheap price).

97. Indoor snowball fight

This mom has the right idea: no slush, no frozen fingers, just lots of fun.

98. Beach party luau

Once again, moms know how to throw a party! Get your luau on with these cool tips and games.

99. Sledding party

Growing up in New Hampshire, I soon realized pretty much anything can be turned into a sled with enough creativity – just add a snowy hill.

100. Gingerbread House Competition

Build and eat!

BONUS:

Life skills classes (like how to do laundry, taxes, and sew clothes)

To be completely honest, I didn’t really know the “correct” way to do laundry in college my first year (basically, I owned enough clothes to last a month and then would go home with it all). Last year was the first year I filed my taxes completely on my own, and now I’m my coworker A.J.’s personal seamstress, thanks to my costume classes. Help your students out a bit with a Life 101: Back to Basics workshop series.

Thanks to the fierce folks of our campus outreach team, a few of my former colleagues (Allie, Bre, and Chelsea) and the super cool people of the internet for helping me curate this list!

I’d love to hear what some of your favorite low-budget/no-budget programs have been and which ones on this list you’re looking forward to implementing — continue the conversation with me via twitter @MegAHakey and @HelloPresence!

Free guide: 100 Budget-Friendly Program Ideas

Craft awesome programs on a dime (or penny). Download For Free
Meghan Hakey

About the author: Meghan is an Engagement Specialist at Presence. She loves theatre, superhero movies, creating awesome student experiences, and will forever be an Orientation Leader at heart. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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