Congratulations! You are going to college. But unlike the average class of 2016 graduate, let’s hope you don’t graduate with $37,000 in debt. In this article, we will cover ways to minimize your costs as a college student, so you can start your adult life on the right foot.
Should you go to college?
This is a legitimate question to ask yourself before you spend $400,000 on tuition right? College is the norm these days, and few people question it. But there are lots of careers that do not require years of studying and pay well. Can you take an online course to learn programming? How about becoming a bank clerk and moving up the corporate ladder?
Instead of going $100,000 in debt for a four year degree, say you start working right after high school and make $20,000. After four years, you have made $80,000 and are $180,000 ahead of the graduate six figures in debt. Even if you make $10,000 less than they do, it would take 18 years to make up for the cost of college.
Before anything, think about the career path you are aiming for and whether college is the best, most cost effective way to achieve your goal.
Picking the right college for your budget
The first thing when it comes to going to college is actually picking said college. You probably had favorites, and now that you have your admission list, let’s sit down and think about it from a financial standpoint. College is an investment. You are going to spend a lot of money on tuition, housing, food and so on for the next four or five years. What is your grand total for each college?
You want to include all your costs:
Tuition, minus scholarships for each institution
Monthly rent, food, utilities, car costs,…
One off purchases such as books, furniture or a new laptop
The cost of going home if you study out of state
Storage unit if you can’t keep your stuff at your parents’
Think about what your new life will be at each college and write down how much it will cost.
Looking at the tuition fees is very important, but also look at the cost of living in each state you are considering. Saving $50 on rent isn’t going to look like much when you end up paying $600 to fly home for Christmas, so focus on your overall costs when drafting a budget.
Investment vs potential earnings
Now that you have your costs written down, what kind of money are you expecting to make once you graduate?
Maybe you discarded a second choice college that would cost you a grand total of $50,000, because you would only make $40,000 a year after graduation.
But is it worth it to spend $150,000 instead so you can make $60,000? It will take you five years for that extra $20,000 a year to offset the extra $100,000 in tuition. Assuming you have the discipline to use it all to pay off your student loans.
And after five years, the college you graduated from will not matter as much as your performance in the workplace. So yes, assuming you put the same amount of effort into your work, after five years, you will make more money if you started with a $60,000 base instead of a $40,000 one.
But if you work as hard as you can, take every opportunity, change companies for a salary bump and pursue additional education on the side, you could make just as much money as if you had an expensive degree.
There is also less risk in taking less debt, meaning you are more likely to be audacious in your career move than if you are saddled to a six figure debt.
Save on tuition
When you wrote down the real cost of going to college, tuition fees were probably the most expensive line of your budget. There are many ways to save on tuition. The first one is applying for dual enrollment to earn college credits while you are still in high school. This is not available in every state, but can save you a lot of money! Make sure your credits can be applied towards your degree.
Then you need to get as many scholarships as you can. A quick online search will list all the scholarships you are eligible for. Get to work and fill in the applications. Start months early so you can meet all the deadlines. Some scholarships don’t have lots of applicants because they offer small amounts or are little known. Don’t rest until you try them all. An afternoon spent giving a $500 scholarship a shot is a great use of your time! It would take over a week to earn that kind of money if you worked on the side.
Non conventional places to look for tuition money include your parents’ employers, your church, any organization you are part of, your city, county, etc.
A great way to save on tuition is to go to a community college for the first two years, and then apply for an equivalency at a more prestigious college. It works the same way if you stay in state for the first few years, then move out of state for your last year. Your employer will see where your degree is from, not the path it took to graduate from there. That little hack alone can save you tenth of thousands of dollars. So research your dream college, and find out their acceptance program. You will also be competing with less students than for first year admission.
And finally, know that you can earn college credits by examination instead of taking classes. Tests are much cheaper than classes and can help you graduate early.
Working while in college
Once again, whether you should work while you are in college depends on several factors.
Will a job affect your grades and prevent you from graduating on time or early?
Is a minimum wage job more valuable today than potential earnings in the future if you graduate with better grades?
Are there paid internships in your field to gain experience?
Is a free internship worth it instead of graduating early and working straight away? Would you make more with that experience?
Should you work during the whole year or during the holidays only?
Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and if you want to eat, you have to work. But if you can afford to, run down the numbers and decide on working or not with clarity.
If you decide to go the working route, find the best paying jobs you can. Tutoring younger students generally pays well, and working for the college in exchange for free tuition can result in great savings too. Other ideas include selling your skills, so if you are learning to program, start making websites on the side, if you can teach a language, sports, etc. find students and get to work! These jobs tend to pay more per hour and allow you to work an hour here and there around your hectic schedule.
Don’t lose a year, instead, try to graduate early
Sometimes, for the sake of working on the side, students end up graduating a year late. That is generally not a good idea, and here is why: the extra year you spend in college is costing you a TON of money. You still need to pay rent, eat, and live your life for an extra year. Even on a tiny $1,000/month budget, that’s an extra $12,000 your college experience is costing you. And, an extra year of “adult” earnings you are missing out on.
So instead of making $40,000 a year post college, you are going to spend a year flipping burgers for $12,000 and that year is going to cost you $28,000 in missed earnings.
The best you can do is try to graduate early in order to save thousands on college costs. Pick up extra classes and study as hard as you can. Graduating even a semester early will greatly improve your financial situation.
Should you get in debt for college?
The short answer is: as little as possible. Paying for college for years after you have graduated is going to be a source of frustration, especially when it prevents you from achieving other financial goals, such as buying a house or affording for one parent to stay at home once you start a family. Borrowing $37,000 to pay for the average class of 2016 graduate’s debt will cost you $410 a month if you repay the loan over 10 years at 6% interest. That is 10 years of your life paying the equivalent of rent in a small town! Try to limit your debt burden drastically.
Getting your first credit card with a small credit limit is great to learn how to manage credit, and build a good credit score. Having a good credit score can in turn save you thousands of dollars when you get a low interest rate mortgage in a few years. Having a dozen credit cards that you max out each month and only make minimum payments on is not going to help your credit. So start with one card, learn to manage it and pay it in full each month to avoid paying double digit interest rates.
As far as student loans are concerned, you want to take them only as a last resort, once you have applied for all the scholarships you could, and gotten a side job. Asking your parents to help with your college tuition is putting them in a tricky situation unless they can comfortably afford it. They need to be saving for their retirement, and there are no scholarships for retirement. So try to cover your own expenses as much as possible.
Minimizing your daily expenses as a college student
Whether you live on campus, off campus or with your parents, there are a number of expenses that you are going to be responsible for. Let’s see how you can reduce them and spend less every month.
The obvious way to minimize your housing expenses as a college student is to live with your parents for a few more years. Some parents will ask you to start paying rent, some will not. Sit down and discuss your options, and what rent would be if you are required to pay it. Bear in mind that if you move out, you will have to pay for utilities, home insurance, etc. on top of your rent.
Another way to live cheaply is to share a house with a few roommates. While the rent will be cheaper, you need to pick the right people to live with. Make sure you have similar lifestyles and academic aspirations. Having to go to the library every night or not being able to sleep because of a party will get old.
Living on campus is often a popular option for your first year, while you get familiar with your new college. It comes at a premium compared to having roommates but you will save time on commute, which in turn frees up your schedule to study, graduate early, or make extra money on the side.
Some alternative options you may want to look into include living on campus for free in exchange for a few hours of work every week, living with older people and trade a room for chores and company, and discounted housing offered through networks like Rotary Clubs, churches, etc.
Furnishing your first house
Buying furniture can put a serious dent in your budget. Look up sites like Freecycle for free used furniture. Buy Nothing groups are local Facebook groups where you can also request pieces of furniture, pots, pans, and everything you need for your first house.
Craigslist has cheap second hand stuff, and if your college has a paper or an ad board, this might also be a good place to look. If you can store things, shopping in June when seniors are moving out can be much cheaper than shopping in September.
Being a broke student doesn’t mean you have to eat ramen every day. Yes, it is a cheap solution, but you can eat much healthier and stay on a budget. Try to avoid convenience food as much as possible. Coffee to go is sold at a high premium, buy a nice insulated cup and brew your own at home. Instead of take out, cook larger portions of food and freeze them so you always have some emergency meals when you don’t feel like cooking. Try one pot meals, such as stews and stir fry.
They are easy to prepare, cleaning is minimal, and the dishes are healthy. Pick a base, such as rice, beans, potatoes or chick peas, add a little meat or bacon for flavor, and all the vegetables and spices you like. Cook in a pot or a slow cooker and voila! Portions should come to under $1 per meal. Take turns with your friends to cook once or twice a week each instead of going out.
Reuse and repurpose leftovers to avoid food waste. A roasted chicken can turn into chicken salad, chicken sandwich, chicken stir fry and more! Freeze dishes that are about to go bad.
Scour the supermarket for reduced products with a short lifespan, and shop at the end of the market for ripe discounted produce.
Saving on utilities is common sense.
Wear an extra layer in winter to keep the thermostat a little lower, and open the windows to stay cool in the summer.
Close the tap when you brush your teeth.
Limit your time in the shower.
Share internet, Netflix subscriptions and cable packages with your roommates or neighbors if you can.
Stay on the family plan for your mobile and pay your parents.
And always compare the offers from competitors to make sure you are getting the best deal. A phone call to ask the company to remain on the new customer discount after the first year has lapsed can save you hundreds per year! Don’t hesitate to switch if you are paying too much.
Do you really need a car? Then let’s figure out how much it is going to cost you. There is the purchase price, or the car loan every month, the insurance, maintenance, gas, parking space, and so on. We are going to be looking at around $700. Is having a car really worth $20+ a day?
You can rent a Zipcar by the hour in many cities, or get a traditional rental if you need to move your stuff or go away for the weekend. That is probably going to be cheaper. And if you live far from campus to save on rent, make sure the extra expense of commuting is worth your time and effort.
If you are going carless, you can find cheap bicycles on Craigslist and Ebay. Fall brings bargains as people are done with their summer cycling. You can also get bus passes with a student discount in major metro areas.
Books and supplies
Students from previous years will sell their books at the end of the school year. Look for used books, and any materials required to attend class.
You can buy cheap pens, notebooks, etc at the dollar store.
This is college and you want to look your best. No need to break the bank! Thrift stores are your friends for a unique look on a budget. Garage sales also have treasures, and Freecycle/Buy Nothing groups again come handy if you need specific items like winter jackets or snow boots. Sports stores like REI have garage sales a few times a year, and if you are only going to go skiing once, try borrowing gear from friends.
When it comes to health, car or home insurance, it is probably going to be cheaper to stay on your parents’ plan, until you have a track record and good credit. Ask them if you can pay your share instead of going out on your own. Always shop around for insurance and don’t hesitate to switch to a cheaper plan.
College towns are full of free and cheap activities. Have a look at your college’s cultural calendar for concerts, art exhibitions and more.
You can also browse Meetup for social gathering with likeminded people, such as running clubs, hiking clubs, etc.
Some local restaurants and bars will have happy hours, student nights or discounts if you subscribe to their email list or like their Facebook groups.
Ask older students for their best tips to go out on the cheap.
Organize your own events like potlucks and game nights. Often people go out to spend a lot of money for lack of other things to do. How about going to someone’s place and having a barbecue instead?
For the holidays, you will want to go home or away with your new friends. Find out early in the year when finals end and holidays begin, so you can book your flights and accommodation as soon as possible. Book your Christmas trip home in summer. Same for Thanksgiving. Tickets will be so expensive at the last minute you may not be able to go home.
Join the airlines loyalty programs and hotel chains newsletters to know when they go on sale.
Going to college does not have to be that expensive. Try to resist peer pressure to have the nicest car, the biggest house, or spend $100 on a night out. Think about your future self, and avoid lifestyle inflation. You are young and resilient, these little sacrifices will set you up for a bright financial life.
Go to college to learn, build your skillset and enjoy the experience of meeting people from all over. Have fun and keep your budget in check.
If you manage to live on less, you will for example be able to pick your future job because you like it, even if it pays a little less, because you will have little or no college debt to pay off.
Even better, if you can keep living like a student for the first couple of years after college, and save $500 every month for 24 months, investing that sum in the markets at 8%, and not one extra penny for the next 35 years will give you a nest egg of $181,319.37 for retirement! (Use a compound interest calculator for more projections). Yes, $500 a month is a lot of money, but if you were living on $1,000 as a student and suddenly make $2,500 at your first job, that should be feasible, before you start having a family and a much tighter budget.
Your future self will thank you.