My husband and I met in college.  We got married a few months after I graduated and he still had a few classes left.  We managed to walk away with two bachelor’s degrees and no debt.  We paid our own way and didn’t have full-ride scholarships.  It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

With the cost of a college education rising, you’ll want to make a plan early for how you are going to pay (or help pay) for your children’s education, or your own.  Looking at the numbers is overwhelming to say the least.  Squirreling away the complete cost of a college education might not be possible, but don’t let that stop you from doing something!

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  While it would be nice to count on a full-ride scholarship, the fact is that most people don’t get one. Diversifying your plan to afford college is the most practical way to make it happen.

Here are six practical ideas to help you prepare for the cost of college.

Choose an affordable school

The cost of tuition won’t be the only factor you’ll take into when choosing a college or university, but it should definitely be near the top. The range of tuition costs is enormous! In most cases, private universities are going to cost much more than state schools. When you compare costs of different schools, look at the big picture, not just the cost of tuition. Be sure to take into consideration the cost of living.

Don’t discount the option of attending a community college, especially if you are unsure of your major. You can get your general education classes for a fraction of the price that you would pay at a larger university.

For my husband and I, going to an affordable school is one of the main reasons we don’t have to deal with student loans from our undergraduate degrees.

Earn scholarships

Encourage your kids to work hard in high school to increase their chances of getting scholarships.  Seek out scholarship opportunities.  Don’t wait for them to come to you.  Apply for local scholarships, as well as national scholarships and scholarships sponsored by the school.

Start applying for scholarships early.  Don’t wait until the last minute.  When the deadlines get close it’s easy to toss the application aside, saying, “Well I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.”

Don’t quit applying for scholarships after your freshman year.  While I only had some small local scholarships when I started out, after doing well my freshman year, I received a scholarship that covered half of my tuition for all of my subsequent years.

Work full-time during the summer

Summers aren’t just for fun in the sun.  During the summer, take a break from school and work your tail off!  Consider getting more than one job if you can.  If you can hack sales, then selling pest control or security systems is a lucrative summer job.  If sales isn’t your thing, (I totally understand, it’s not mine either), find something else that pays well, even if it isn’t pretty.  You can do anything for a couple of months, right?

If you’re living away from home, you can save even more money by heading home and living with your parents for the summer while you save all your pennies. Not paying rent or food while I lived at home during my undergrad summers allowed me to save much more than if I had stayed in a college town. It definitely wasn’t as fun as having roommates, but a growing bank account made the lack of social life well worth it (again, it’s only a couple of months).

Work during the school year

When I started college I was a little intimidated by the idea of working and going to school since I had never juggled school and work before. My first semester, I found a job on campus where I just worked eight hours on Saturdays.

Each semester I added more work to my schedule. At first I was afraid of what it would do to my grades to have blocks of time where I was working during the week.  As it turned out, the more hours I worked (with twenty being the maximum), the better my grades were! I attribute it to having to manage my time better.  I didn’t waste time or procrastinate school projects. I was forced to use all my time well.

Contribute to a 529 college savings account

Neither my husband nor I had a 529 plan to help in our diversified plan to pay for college.  It sure would have been nice to have a tax-advantaged college savings plan in place back when we were still in diapers.

We have started 529 college savings plans through ScholarShare for each of our children, so that they will have one more asset to help them afford college.  We have an automatic contribution set up each month which is so convenient.  Even though we aren’t making huge contributions, we are glad that we actually started!

Live Frugally in College

Don’t underestimate the value of frugal living during college.  Keeping your expenses low can really go a long way to stretch the precious dollars that you’ve saved.

Go without a car.  Most college campuses are very bike friendly and can easily be navigated on foot.  Public transportation can help with longer trips.  My husband and I both survived just fine without a vehicle in our undergraduate days.

Pack your lunch and skip the meal plan.  Buying your own groceries will not only be cheaper, you’ll never be stuck eating whatever the cafeteria is offering that day. Plus you’re more likely to avoid the “freshman 15” if you’re making your own meals versus the all-you-can-eat meal plan.

These are just a few of the frugal habits that save me money during college.  For a more thorough list of how to save money when you’re in college, check out these great frugal living tips for college students.

While saving up the entire cost of college before setting foot on campus might seem impossible, there are lots of useful strategies that, when used together, can prevent you from having to take out loans for college or at least keep them at a minimum.  As we worked to pay off six figures of student loan debt from law school, I can tell you that it’s well-worth the time and effort to do whatever you can to prevent the debt situation rather than deal with it after the fact!

How about you?

  • What did you do to to make college affordable?
  • What other ideas do you have to keep the cost of college down?


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