College Life: Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck

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  • It’s no secret that college is expensive, and living on a tight student budget can limit your ability to enjoy the social aspects of college, like going out with friends, joining sports teams, or participating in other activities that cost money.

    But that doesn’t mean your college life needs to be completely restricted by your budget. There are many ways that you can save money while you’re in school.

    By carefully budgeting and making wise spending decisions, you can stretch your budget so that you can live your college life to the fullest without breaking the bank.

    Take Out Loans Carefully

    It’s typical for college students to go into student debt during their education, and overcoming large amounts of debt can be a challenge. While you may need to take out loans to finance your education, you should take steps to minimize the amount of money that you have to borrow so it will be easier to repay those loans after you graduate.

    The average student loan debt for college students who graduated in 2016 was $37,172, and over 2 million United States students have accrued over $100,000 in student loan debt during their education. Paying back $100,000 in student loan debt, especially if you don’t have a high-paying job out of college, can restrict your ability to buy a new car, buy a home, or have children. That’s a situation you’ll want to avoid.

    If you need to take out student loans to finance your education, you’re not alone. A whopping 44 million United States college students have some form of student loan debt. The key is to be wise about how much and what money you borrow.

    When financing your education, start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine what financial aid you may qualify for. There are many different types of financial aid available. Federal student loans include:

    1. Direct Subsidized Loans, which are made to undergraduate students based on financial need.
    2. Direct Unsubsidized Loans, which are made to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students but which are not based on financial need.
    3. Direct PLUS Loans, which are made to graduate or professional students to cover education costs that aren’t covered by other types of aid. A credit check is required.
    4. Direct Consolidation Loans allow students to roll all of their existing federal loans into one single loan.

    Federal grants are also available, including:

    1. Federal Pell Grants.
    2. Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants.
    3. Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education.
    4. Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.

    In some cases, you may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This program forgives remaining federal student loan balance for students who work for government organizations, not-for-profit organizations, and other types of tax-exempt organizations. You must work full-time and make 120 loan payments on the income-driven repayment plan to qualify for loan forgiveness. This program is complex and many factors can affect whether you will qualify, so be sure to carefully read the program’s details and restrictions.

    Your college may also offer its own scholarships, grants, and work study opportunities. Taking advantage of these opportunities can help to minimize the amount of loans that you will need to take out. Talk with your school’s financial aid office as well as the head of your major’s department, since schools often have both scholarships for the general student population as well as scholarships reserved for students pursuing a particular major. 

    If you do need loans to finance your education, always take out Federal or government-issued loans instead of opting for commercial loans, which often have higher interest rates and less repayment flexibility. Be sure that you thoroughly read all of the contract language associated with any loan, and if you have questions about repayment, interest, or other factors, ask those questions before you sign any paperwork.

    You don’t want to lock yourself into a loan where you’re penalized for repaying the balance early, where the interest rate is so high that you won’t be able to handle the monthly payments. You also don’t want to be forced to continue making payments even if you aren’t able to find a job right out of school.

    Create a Budget

    To better manage your money and spend less, sit down and create a budget. Outline all of your expenses on a monthly basis (it may also be helpful to add up all of your expenses across a semester, too). Your budget will identify your total expenses so you can determine how much you will need to rely on your savings or student loans. Depending on your financial situation, you may decide that you should get a job while in school.

    Once you’ve established your budget and know what you can spend every month and every semester, it’s time to find ways to stay within that budget. You should also save up an emergency expense fund so that you can cover unanticipated bills and needs, like if your computer breaks and you need to have it fixed.

    Consider Working During College

    In order to minimize the amount of money you need to borrow through loans, consider working during college. If you decide to work, start by visiting your school’s career center. Often, career centers offer curated lists of local employers willing to hire college students. These employers usually advertise positions that are suitable for college students and that can accommodate your busy schedule. If you qualify for work study through your school, you may be able to find a job right on campus. Your school may also hire residential advisors, and often give you free housing in return.

    Many students successfully balance both work and school, and if you’re disciplined and have excellent time-management skills, you can do the same. A job can also make it easier to stay within a tight student budget and can give you some spending money so that you can participate in sports teams or enjoy time out with friends.

    You may need to find creative ways to bring in extra money. There are nearly countless ways you can make money online, from being a virtual assistant to completing small gigs on Amazon Mechanical Turk or TaskRabbit. If you have a car on campus, you could drive for Lyft or Uber. You might also offer babysitting or pet sitting services to local neighborhoods near your school. Think about your talents, whether you’re a great graphic designer or love crafting items, and find ways that you can monetize those hobbies.  

    Working while you’re in school can be important financially, but it’s important not to overwhelm yourself. When you’re a freshman, try to avoid working during your first semester or work only minimal hours while you’re still adjusting to the pace of school. You need to get value out of your education and do well in your classes, so look for a job with a schedule that allows you to do that.

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    Find Additional Ways to Save Money

    There are many additional ways that you can cut down on college costs. Housing is a significant expense in college, but more affordable alternatives exist. If you’re attending a local school, try to live with family so that you can save on housing costs. Most colleges require students who don’t commute to live on-campus for their first year, but after that, you may be able to find an affordable off-campus apartment that you can share with other students.

    Some other common methods to save money include:

    1. Alternative transportation: Many college students assume that they need a car on campus, but the expenses of having and maintaining a vehicle can quickly add up. Instead, consider alternatives to owning a car, such as taking public transportation or riding a bicycle. Your school probably has plenty of transportation options prepared for students who can’t bring their cars to school.
    2. Buying used books: You can also save money on textbooks by buying your books used. Some schools have textbook rental programs that cost less than buying the books outright, and if you take online courses, your textbooks may even be available online, saving you even more money.
    3. Using your college ID: Your college ID can also be a money-saving tool. Businesses in college towns often offer student discounts. Your student center should have a list of local businesses that offer student discounts.
    4. Extending the life of mobile devices: Avoid upgrading your mobile devices every time a new iteration comes out. While it can be tempting to justify the expense of getting the latest and greatest tech gadget by claiming it’s for your education, you should try to extend the life of your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. If you absolutely must upgrade, be sure to properly dispose of the old device in order to avoid data or identity theft.

    As you get used to college life, you’ll find additional ways to save money. By carefully saving and avoiding unnecessary expenses, you can get the most bang for your buck during your college experience.

    Image Credit: Pixabay

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    Off-to-College reference:

    GUIDE: making the move to college

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