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 extra aid.
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.
If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you could be preventing yourself from receiving thousands of dollars in extra funds for college.
2. Not applying for scholarships
Along the same lines, scholarships are a great way to help pay the tuition bill, but you can’t get any if you don’t apply.
Most people know that scholarships exist, but most also don’t take the time to apply, thinking their odds of success are low or it isn’t worth the hassle.
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, students have more freedom to explore while they take their basic introductory and foundational classes before starting harder material that is more focused within their field of study in their junior and senior years.
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 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.
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?
Overcommitting to a part-time job could lead to a failure in the class, meaning you would have to pay to take the course all over again.
On the other hand, if you find yourself needing to devote more time to study for a challenging class or you have to skip out on too many work shifts to finish up a term paper, you could lose the revenue stream you need to afford school in the first place.
Working too much while in school can also just in general reduce the amount of benefit you get from your degree. After all, going to school is about much more than just grades and a diploma.
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 your full attention to your studies.
If you need a job to help pay for college, consider taking a gap year to save up before going to school instead of trying to balance both at the same time. At the very least, make sure you aren’t working too many hours.
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.
But, of course, 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 for meals
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.
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.
Or set aside a Friday night pizza fund by saving elsewhere, such as eating cheaper lunches during the week.
Another way to save is by choosing pick up instead of delivery. Ordering from a local place and picking it up saves on both tip and potential delivery fee.
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.