It's not news that college is expensive. Between tuition and fees, plus room and board if you're living on campus, and one semester can cost you several grand. Worse, many students and their families make missteps that either cost them more or leave money on the table that could help reduce your student loan debt.
Here's what you need to know to not be one of those people.
1. Not filling out the FAFSA
Every single college student and prospective college student should fill out the FAFSA. No exceptions. Why? Because the FAFSA is not just about Pell Grants and federal aid.
Some students assume their family makes too much to get any financial aid, but the fact is that skipping the FAFSA is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. 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 complete the FAFSA as early in the year as possible. Some types of aid 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. The truth is that $100 million in scholarship dollars go unclaimed every year. And you don't have to be valedictorian or a star athlete to qualify for many of them. There truly is a scholarship out there for everyone, if you just look hard enough.
Pick several that sound tailored to you, get solid references, and spend some time ensuring you put together a solid application and/or essay. You can also seek out scholarships that don't require an essay.
Also check locally for scholarships. Rotary Clubs, VFWs and other groups often offer small scholarships for local students. Because the pool of applicants is much smaller, your chances of actually snagging the prize are better.
3. Taking longer to graduate or changing majors
Many, many students enter college with only a vague idea of what career they want. College is a great time to explore your options and interests to find the right career for you, but you also don’t want to do so much soul-searching that you blow up your tuition bill.
For the first two years of school, you have a little more freedom to explore career ideas while taking introductory and foundational classes. Switching between similar majors, like biology and pre-med, isn't as difficult because much of the intro coursework overlaps. More drastic changes, say, from art history to engineering will require more classwork and more time — and thus more money. That’s especially true if you attend a smaller school where certain classes are only offered at certain times of the year.
That doesn't mean you have to stick with your first choice career path — no need to set yourself up for an unsatisfying career. But if you are having doubts about your choice of major, be aware that the earlier you settle on a course of action, the easier (and cheaper) it will be for you. if you really aren't sure what to do, consider a session or two with your school's career counseling office. They can help you find the right path and discuss options to ensure you're taking classes that will be worth it in the long run as you figure things out.
4. Trying to do too much
Trying to juggle too many 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 worse, you start skipping classes) are you really getting the full value of your degree?
Overcommitting to a part-time job or too many extracurricular activities could mean you to have to retake a course — essentially, you'll be paying double to earn the same 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 relationships, and other benefits that come along with devoting sufficient attention to your studies.
You may not have a choice but to work during school. And that's fine. Just make sure you're spending your time on the things that matter most —and giving yourself some mental downtime so you can perform well at work and school. It's all about finding the balance.
5. Buying new textbooks at the campus bookstore
The simplest (and 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
If it's an option for you, the cheapest housing while you’re in school is, of course, living at home with your family. 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, some students transition off campus while others move to swankier dorms where they can live alone and even have private 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 eating out is more expensive than eating at home or in the residence halls, but the allure of pizza delivery or a dinner out with friends is pretty strong.
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 "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
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.
It’s also incredibly expensive. When you factor in the cost of a parking spot (on or off campus) plus the cost of gas, insurance, and maintenance, the yearly costs add up. And that doesn't even include the cost of the car itself.
There are lots of cheap options to get where you need to go without a car. Whether you're traveling near or far, you can get most places you'll need to with services such as Megabus and Lyft and rideshare boards on campus. Depending on the size and location of your school, it may offer a free on-campus shuttle or you could use local public transportation to get around.
Using a little flexibility and creativity for travel can yield 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. Another option: Check with the manufacturer of your preferred computer to see what student/educational discounts they offer.
For example, Apple’s Education Store offers education pricing on their laptops, accessories and services, as well as some other student-centric perks. Have older Apple devices you’re considering upgrading from? You can also trade them in for credits to snag even better deals on your shiny new tech.
Doing a little research before you buy your laptop can mean hundreds of extra dollars in your pocket.
Build good money habits 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 pros and cons before making a commitment.
Spending a little extra time on research and being disciplined with your financial choices can impact your final college budget substantially — and that can set you up for an easier start to your post-college life, too.
Take your first step: Check out our list of available scholarships and submit your application.