Money is an ever-present shadow in college. We try not to think about our loans and pray that we can keep our scholarships. We either have an endless flow of food money from our parents or we carefully ration our ramen to make it through the lean weeks. College is often the first time that we’re confronted with the realities of managing our own finances. I’ve compiled a few tips to help you pad your wallet for the school year ahead and keep your head afloat without a hitch.
1. Review Your Debt and Your Scholarship Awards
College is more expensive than the average American family can afford. Luckily, there are scholarships based on both merit and need…and, if it comes down to it, student loans can save you from the difficult choice between an education and financial security (in the short-term).
However, available aid can change on a dime. Schools often increase the cost of tuition on a yearly basis, which can leave you short on cash. Your government-sponsored or university-provided aid can increase and decrease as often as every semester.
These often arbitrary changes mean that it’s crucial that you make sure your tuition is covered before you deck out your dorm room for the new year. Compile your student aid award letters and make sure they total the cost of your tuition. Scrutinize your student loan terms to make sure you’re not inadvertently signing up for terms that will make you feel imprisoned by your debt—like 15 percent interest rates or 5-year repayment terms on a $30,000 debt.
If your tuition fund is running low for the upcoming year, look for need-based student jobs (many campuses have them) to fill in the gaps. Get creative with your scholarship searches—many exist for those with in-demand majors and unique talents, for example.
And, if your loan terms sound borderline-impossible to meet, reach out to refinancing experts or shop around for better options for the remainder of your time in college.
2. Reflect on How You Spent (and Saved) Last Year
If you found yourself living off of ramen noodles at the end of every month or spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks you barely used, it may be time to reevaluate to lift yourself up from the textbook college struggle.
Despite what advertisers would like you to believe, there are alternatives to the default ways of obtaining college necessities. Ditch the college bookstore and buy your books used on Amazon. If you can only get your books brand-new, talk to your Dean of Studies to see if there’s assistance available to help pay for your books.
If your meal plan has you feeling trapped (we all know that piece of pizza isn’t worth $9.00!), consider getting a part-time job to pay for your own groceries. In many cases, a few hours of work a week can save you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars per year.
What’s the bottom line? You don’t have to struggle as a precursor to being in college. For every problem there is a creative solution.
3. Figure Out Exactly What You’ll Need and Where It’ll Come From
Much of the stress of college can be avoided entirely by planning ahead. Were you barely scraping by last year? Try to find a part-time or full-time summer internship that will allow you to sock away money for fun and necessities during the school year.
Did all of your on-campus job earnings go toward your tuition costs? Spend some time over the summer applying for scholarships to fill in the gaps and pad your pockets.
Look at how much of all of your necessities you need weekly and find the cheapest places to get them. Don’t tell your college I told you this, but…it’s probably the discount grocery down the street and not your college’s on-campus store!
4. Come Up with a Reasonable Plan of Action. Then Stick to It.
Finally, if you’re struggling to make it through the semester with a few dollars to spare, it’s time to implement both a plan and a budget…and stick to them. Figure out exactly what you need on a weekly and monthly basis, and stick to the cheapest places to get those things.
Build in an allowance for fun-money—for trips into the nearby city, pizza nights with friends, and club outings—and be careful not to let that budget bleed into the one for your necessities. Be realistic without depriving yourself.
If you’re having trouble building a budget you can trust, remember that your parents or your friend’s parents or your older cousins are likely using one to get by every day. Just because you’re eighteen, or even twenty-one, doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.
What’s the hardest part about getting by in college for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences.