Most college and grad school students can relate to times of financial "bootstrapping" and hardship. These are times that require hard choices about how to allocate precious few dollars when to pay for tuition, books, rent, food, drinks and - if you're lucky - a life.
Whether you attend a public or private college, the pursuit of an undergraduate degree can run young adults tens of thousands of dollar in debt; for those who pursue post-graduate studies, that number will grow even larger. (For more on education costs, see Five Ways To Fund Your College Education.)
Here we provide some tips and tricks for emerging from college with a minimal amount of debt. But be forewarned: succeeding at this takes planning and discipline. Good luck!
Ways to Improve Your Finances
Stress and responsibility are part of the growing pains of adulthood. It isn't easy, but those who make a commitment to attend to their financial lives at an early age can easily land themselves far ahead of peers who bury themselves in debt with the vague notion of getting a job some day and paying it all off.
Let's take a look at a few ways in which you might be able to improve your financial situation while in college or grad school.
Sure, many freshman want to get out on their own in the world, but they forget about one major benefit of living at home: it's cheap. If you attend university in your hometown, you should seriously consider living with your parents. You can save hundreds of dollars a month in rent, food, laundry and a variety of miscellaneous expenses. You can organize your semesters so that you only commute for Tuesday and Thursday classes. Even if your parents charge you rent, it's likely to amount to less than living on your own. (To learn more, read Top 4 Reasons To Not Leave The Nest.)
If the distance between your home and college is prohibitive, apply early for residential assistant (RA) positions in the various dorms and student housing apartments around campus. Apply everywhere, and be persistent! RAs typically receive free housing, food allowances and a modest stipend in exchange for part-time residential work at the dorms. This is a great way to earn and save money, as well as to meet new friends in an environment very close to campus. If on- or off-campus rent runs around $500 per month, you will save $4,500 per year by using the RA position to your advantage. This figure does not include savings on food and commuting expenses, which could be significant. Also, dorm housing typically has free internet and cable, so you won't have those added expenses to deal with either. (For related reading, see College Dorms: Good Value Or Ripoff?)
If you do rent an apartment, get a roommate - or several. Living with other people can be tough, but it's generally much cheaper than renting your own place. Plus, keep in mind that you don't have to spend a lot of time with your roommates. College students are often so busy, they only come home to sleep.
College students are notorious for their junk diets, but it's hard to blame them when fresh produce costs twice as much as the nearest burger joint. However, there are some alternatives to the cheap, unhealthy hot dogs, hamburgers, noodle soups and chips. You'll need energy to tackle the challenges of constant exams and papers, so why not sign up for monthly discounts/coupons offered to students through youth organizations or food shelters. Some stores will offer meat at a discounted rate to students once a month, others will always offer a 10% discount on fresh fruits and vegetables. Find out what is offered around you and take advantage of it. (For more insight, see 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
Being in college often comes with recruiting events, social functions, club events, student body elections, religious study groups and pep rallies - which can mean one great thing for a bootstrapping student: free food! Take a glance at the many fliers floating around campus and plan your study groups around the free offerings. (For more on how to cut living expenses, see Squeeze A Greenback Out Of Your Latte.)
It sounds too good to be true, but you can get paid to study. These jobs dot college campuses: security guards, class/exam proctors, receptionists, computer lab administrators etc.. Colleges receive federal dollars to hire student workers. Many of these jobs have tons of down time when there is literally nothing to do. You are expected to be absolutely nothing but a warm body at your post. Use this time to do your homework. In addition, when you interview for a your chosen career after your graduate, you'll have a few additional lines on your resume showing that you worked while also taking classes. One word of caution: This experience will only help you if your grades don't suffer, so use your time wisely.
4. Other Expenses
When it comes to less essential expenses, the first thing a frugal student needs to do is assess which ones to cut out. Do you really need to drive that car and pay hundreds of dollars a month on insurance, gas and maintenance? Even though you might not want to give up the "freedom" that comes with your car, it might be more prudent to live closer to campus, bike, take the bus, or walk to class. The economic freedom that will come from no longer being tied to a car and all its added payments can get you further ahead in other areas of your life - like savings, debt repayment or even a little fun! (For more insight, see The True Cost Of Owning A Car.)
If you get a part-time job, working on a few evenings and weekends accomplishes three things: (1) you earn a paycheck, (2) you avoid most of the weekend expenses (bar hopping, clubbing, expensive drinks, etc.), and (3) you won't be hung over, so you'll gain time by being able to wake up early and tackle your homework early, and move on to some the fun perks of being in college, such as joining clubs, playing sports and making new friends.
Some students, depending on their professional objectives and academic discipline, will seek aid from companies and government agencies. Business and engineering students, for instance, can work at internships or co-ops that enable them to earn money and gain experience - and there may even be a job for them at the end of it. Some even have a portion of their tuition reimbursed. (For more on this read, Start Off On The Right Foot With An Internship.)
Joining the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC), a recruitment and leadership training program provided by the different branches of the military, can help students earn tuition discounts (out of state students may earn in-state eligibility), monthly stipends for college costs (including textbooks) and a guaranteed job after graduation.
The Bottome Line
It is possible to avoid going into major debt during college years, but it takes planning and discipline. However, those who work to keep their debt low will emerge from college with much more freedom to move forward in life, whether that means accepting a more promising but lower paying job, working toward buying a home, or stretchign out college life a little longer by moving into post-graduate studies.
For more tips of saving in college, read Pay For College Without Selling A Kidney.