College is expensive enough. Don’t make it pricier than it has to be by making choices about financial aid, classes, and college living that increase your costs even more.
Here are nine tips to help prevent simple, but expensive mistakes that can increase your college debt:
1. Not filling out the FAFSA
A lot of students assume that their family will make too much to get any financial aid, but the fact is that skipping the FAFSA is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. If you don’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, you are cutting yourself off from the possibility of financial aid from other sources.
Most schools can’t award additional grants or scholarships until they have a student’s FAFSA information from the federal government.
It’s also important to fill it out as early in the year as possible. Some types of need are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so only the early bird gets the worm.
2. Not applying for scholarships
Along the same lines, scholarships are a great way to help pay the tuition bill, but you won't get them if you don’t apply. Many students don’t take the time to apply, thinking their odds of success are low or it isn’t worth the hassle, but the truth is that $100 million in scholarship dollars go unclaimed every year.
Pick several that sound tailored to you and spend some time contemplating the prompts and seeking out solid references.
Also check locally for scholarships. Rotary Clubs, VFWs and other groups often offer small scholarships for local students. Because you'll only be competing with local students, your chances of actually getting the funds are higher.
3. Taking longer to graduate or changing majors
Many, many students enter college with only a vague idea of what career they want. And while college is a great place to explore options and interests to find a career that is right for you, you also don’t want to do too much soul-searching at the expense of your tuition bill.
For the first few years of school, you have a little more freedom to explore career ideas while taking basic introductory and foundational classes. Switching between similar majors, like biology and pre-med, isn't as difficult because much of the intro coursework overlaps.
But making a drastic change in your major, such as from music to engineering can mean thousands of extra dollars in tuition while you catch up on the classes other students in the major have been taking since freshman year. That’s especially true if you attend a smaller school where certain classes are only offered at certain times of the year.
The upshot: If you're having doubts about your major, it's better to make the change as early as possible.
4. Trying to do too much
Trying to juggle too many time obligations is another surefire way to waste your time and money.
Education is an investment, but if you're too tired to pay attention in class or perhaps even attend all of your classes, are you really getting the full value of your degree?
Over-committing to a part-time job or too many extra-curricular activities could cause you to have take a course a second time, meaning you're paying double the cost to earn those credits. Plus, if you're not fully engaged in classes or spending time on campus and with your professors, you could be missing out on professional opportunities, internships, mentor-like relationships, and other benefits that come along with devoting sufficient attention to your studies.
Still, many people need to work while going to school full-time and, in fact, doing so can even help your GPA. Finding the right balance is key. See: Why College Students Should Work—But Only 12 Hours a Week
5. Buying new textbooks at the campus bookstore
The simplest, but also the most expensive way to stock up on texts and supplies is to go to your on-campus bookstore. Because it’s convenient and also sells fun items like college gear, a lot of people are inclined to just get everything there.
But you can save huge on textbooks by buying used, comparison shopping online or renting your textbooks. In some cases, especially for supplemental books or books for classes you're taking with a friend or roommate, sharing a book is a great option for saving.
6. Living alone
The cheapest housing option while you’re in school is, of course, living at home. If that’s not in the cards, you still have lots of options at lots of different price points.
Sometimes living on campus is the cheapest option, and often schools require students to live on campus with a roommate for at least their freshman year. Later on, some students transition off-campus while others move to swankier dorms where they can live alone and even have their own personal bathrooms.
Just remember, those perks come at a cost. Living off-campus and sharing expenses is one option to lower housing costs. Another is to stay in the dorms, but keep rooming with a friend.
In general, roommates, whether they are parents or friends, are the best way to save on housing expenses.
See also: Is Off-Campus Housing a Good Idea?
7. Getting delivery or eating out
Everyone knows that eating out is more expensive than eating at home or eating in the residence halls, but the allure of pizza is also strong, especially on a Friday night.
That’s why, to prevent unforeseen expenses, it’s good to have a strategy in place. If you're looking for a late-night snack, you could stock your dorm's mini fridge with pizza pockets or other quick bites. Or set aside a Friday night pizza fund by saving elsewhere, such as eating cheaper lunches during the week.
If your friends always want to go out to eat, you could channel your inner Iron Chef and offer to make dinner for everyone at your apartment if your friends are willing to chip in for some of the groceries.
Another way to save is by choosing pick up instead of getting delivery. Ordering from a local place and picking up saves on both tips and potential delivery fees.
8. Bringing a car to school
Sure, having a car at school is incredibly convenient and fun. It also makes traveling for football games or visiting friends or family that much easier.
But it’s also incredibly expensive. When you factor in the cost of a parking spot either on-campus or off, plus the cost of gas, plus the expense of insurance, the yearly costs really add up. And that's without even factoring in the cost of the car itself.
There are also lots of cheap options to get where you need to go without a car. From Megabus to Lyft to rideshare boards on campus, traveling with a little flexibility and creativity can yield really big savings over the length of your college career.
9. Buying a computer without discounts
If you’re planning to buy a laptop or desktop computer for school, don’t rush to buy one. There are lots of ways to save on computers if you're a student.
Many states, like Tennessee, Missouri, Wisconsin and Florida, offer tax-free weekends during which students can buy not only back-to-school clothing, but school supplies like computers without paying any sales taxes. These tax holidays are only offered on certain weekends, typically in August, and may have limitations (such as the price of the laptop) so it's important to read each state's policy carefully. But if your laptop qualifies for tax-free designation, you could save lots of money by buying it on the right weekend.
Many schools also have special relationships with computer companies to offer new computers with significant student discounts.
Doing a little research before you buy your laptop can mean hundreds of extra dollars in your pocket.
Being smart with your money starts when you're a student
Overall, the name of the game is comparison shopping. Before you make any choices with your money, know all your options and all the pluses and minuses before making any commitments.
Spending a little extra time on research and being disciplined with your financial choices can impact your final college budget substantially.
Take your first step: Check out our list of available scholarships and submit your application.