By Paula Pant, WiserAdvisor contributor
College isn't cheap. And if you're paying your own way, you know that fact better than anyone.
It isn't just the tuition; it's also all those other things that come along with being a college student: food, lodging, textbooks, the occasional midnight pizza when you've been up all night cramming. Costs add up fast, and finding a way to pay for it all can seem overwhelming.
Loans are the first thing most students look to, but they're not the best way to go. The average U.S. student today graduates with around $29,000 in student loans, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research group. That's a lot of money to repay over the course of your working life!
Instead of saddling yourself with tons of debt before you enter "the real world," consider these other ways of funding your college experience. With a little creativity and some hard work on your part, you can enter your brand-new adult life with way more financial freedom.
1. Work-Study Programs
When you're filling out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), check the box that asks if you're interested in student employment. The Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program offers work-study options to students at around 3,400 schools, and this can be a great way to help fund your college expenses.
Work-study jobs are part-time, pay at least minimum wage, and don't require you to be a full-time student to qualify. You may work for your school or for an off-campus employer, and the work will likely be in line with your field of study.
2. Take a Year Off
I know, taking a year off from school can feel like a big risk, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world. "Gap years" only lead to trouble if you find yourself delaying your return to school indefinitely, and you're smarter than that. You're going to have a clear plan.
Instead of spending your year off globetrotting or watching Mad Men marathons, find yourself a job, work 60+ hour weeks and save like crazy. If you can move back home during this period, you'll be able to sock away even more.
A year of serious work can pay for lots of textbooks and midnight pizzas, and when you return to campus, you may find your time off has actually re-energized you to tackle your studies again.
3. Look for Higher-Paying Work
Working while you're in school doesn't have to mean being stuck with the typical "college student" jobs like barista or delivery guy. Leverage your skills and work ethic to score a gig that gives you some serious cash instead.
If you've got great people skills, you could become a server at an upscale restaurant. If you enjoy working with your hands, consider working as part of a construction crew. If you prefer office work, skip the minimum wage receptionist positions and aim to become an administrative assistant in a top-tier law firm.
The same skills you'd use slaving away at minimum wage can easily be transferred to better-paying positions. Build a few basic skills at the bottom of the ladder, but keep working your way up.
4. Don't Apply for a Scholarship -- Apply for LOTS of Scholarships
There are lots of scholarships out there, and you may be surprised to find how many you qualify for.
Devise a system that will help you efficiently apply for a lot of scholarships all at once, such as creating a "toolbox" of five essays you can customize and send to multiple scholarship offers. Set up a spreadsheet that keeps track of key information you'll need for every application and that tracks which scholarships you've applied to so far.
It takes some legwork to search and then apply for them all, but every dollar you can pay for with a scholarship means one less dollar you'll have to earn by some other means, so it's worth the time.
5. Save on Textbooks
Textbooks are ridiculously expensive, and given the awful buy-back rates that most campus bookstores offer, many of them will wind up as very expensive coffee table leg-props once your semester is over. But textbooks are necessary, so shop wisely. Here are a few tips:
- Never buy a textbook new, unless it's a brand-new publication you absolutely cannot get used. (Even then, you can often find a better deal online than in your college bookstore.)
- Share a textbook with your roommate or a friend who's taking the same class. (Don't know anyone taking the same class? Ask your classmates on the first day of class if they're interested in sharing a textbook. It's a great way to meet people and make an instant study buddy.)
- Post a flyer on the student center bulletin board to see if any previous students of the class have books they'd be willing to sell to you. (You'll probably give them a better amount than the buy-back program.)
6. Learn to Cook
Meal plans and cafeteria food are super-convenient, but they're also super-expensive. (And, let's be honest, they're not always the most nutritious option.) Save yourself major cash and take better care of your body by learning to cook for yourself.
Whether you're in a dorm with a hotplate or splitting grocery bills with your roommates, learning to cook some basic, simple meals with healthy, fresh ingredients is way less expensive than grabbing a cheeseburger at the school cafeteria. It's also a skill that will serve you well in your post-college life.
7. Consider Alternative Housing
Who says you have to pay through the nose for campus housing? Consider an off-campus apartment and split the cost among lots of roommates. Alternately, see if you can get any special breaks if you're willing to be a Resident Advisor for a freshman dorm. If your parents live closely, move back home and bank the money you'd be spending on lodging. Between classes, work and your social life, you're hardly going to be home, anyway, so a less-than-perfect living situation is a sacrifice you can make for a few short years.
However, Brian McBride, an associate producer at CNN and a 2010 graduate out of Arizona State University, managed to pay off $26,500 in debt in just two years. He explained his plan on CNN Money's website. McBride owed $20,500 in student loan debt and $6,000 for his 2003 Honda Civic. He said he tackled his car loan first to pay down a higher interest rate during a six-month grace period following graduation on his student loans. In his first job out of college as a local reporter in Green Bay, Wisc., he lived frugally while working for $13 an hour. Read more here.
From her story: I started by making a budget for each of my expenses, and then made it a point to look at my bank account and my budgets spreadsheet once a week to categorize all of the money going in and out. I also calculated my monthly expenses, and tried to determine what it would take to put $500 to $1000 extra each month–on top of the $800 in minimum payments I was already making–toward putting a further dent in my loans. Since I couldn’t do it based on how much I was earning, I got creative: - Rent: I gave up my Dupont neighborhood studio and found a roommate in a cheaper neighborhood, which halved my rent. Cable I canceled my subscription, and streamed shows for free on my computer instead. - Gym: Rather than pay $95 a month for health club membership (D.C. gyms are expensive!), I started using the free facility at work, joined a running club on Meetup and streamed free workout videos online during rainy days. - Phone Bill: I limited my data usage and calls, and switched to a plan that cut my monthly bill by $30. I even told friends not to text me! - Entertainment: Instead of relying on happy hours and dinners out, I found free events on Meetup, like hiking trips and book clubs. Or I’d invite friends over for food, and they’d bring their own beer. I also only ate out if it was beneficial to my career, like networking lunches. - Travel: I went to Peru in the winter of 2010, and this year, I’m planning on Malaysia — both countries where the exchange rate is great. I stayed in hostels, and ate where locals do instead of going to pricier tourist spots. Plus, I put a little aside each month, so the expense is built into my budget and doesn’t take away from my savings. (Make travel a Priority Savings Goal in your own budget.) Read the whole thing here.
Kristin Wong paid off $12,000 in a year, despite having only a $10/hour job. In an op-ed for MSN Money, among other things, she said she moved in with her parents and held back from taking a trip or shopping for new clothes.
Sarah Knutson explained how she paid off $30,000 in debt in two years: With her first job, she made $2,000 a month and lived at home. "Each month, I repaid $1500 in debt, leaving $500 of 'fun' money," Knutson explained. She also skipped skiing and snowboarding trips.
Ohio state Rep. Christina Hagan may be an elected lawmaker, but she's waiting tables and working at her family's heating & plumbing business to try to pay off her $80,000 in student debt.
A couple paid off $30,000 in one year by skipping out on having a cell phone at all, and skipped out on having Internet and cable TV packages. "We stuck with dial-up [Internet]," one of them said.
Art Institute of Atlanta graduate Amy Kroezen collectively owed $116,000 with her husband. Neither of them made more than $35,000 a year. They decided they would commit one of their incomes solely to paying off their debt. Among other steps, she took to building her own furniture since they couldn't afford it, constructing a king-size bed, dining table and toy box. She made her own cleaning supplies and grew some of their own food. After four years, they've paid off $103,168 of their student loan debt.
Kent Lister paid off $36,000 in 7 years, saving $2,907 in interest. Tax returns had to go back into his loans, he picked up a weekend job, and then "snowballed" his payments: "When you pay off one loan/recurring payment, add that amount to your next loan. Once that loan is paid off, take those two amounts and put it into your third payment (like a snowball, it just keeps growing). Repeat until all debt is cleared."
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