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.