You probably already know that college costs can be pretty intimidating. If you’re on a budget when it comes to paying for your degree (and most people are), knowing how to save money in college can make a big difference.
Here, I’ll talk a little bit about what college expenses you should be prepared for so that you have a better idea of what to expect. Then, I’ll discuss strategies for saving money before you get there, in addition to strategies for saving as a college student.
Let’s get started!
How Much Does College Even Cost?
Before we get into strategies for how to save money in college, let’s talk a bit about what an undergraduate degree actually costs for students in the US.
First, some key terms:
- Cost of Attendance (CoA) - Total amount of money it costs for an average student to attend a particular school for one year. This figure includes everything you could think of: tuition, room, board, transportation, books, personal expenses, etc. You could also call this a school’s “sticker price” - it’s what a student would pay if she didn’t get one dollar of financial aid. Keep in mind this is an average figure - if a student lives especially far from the school and pays more in transportation cost, for example, his CoA might be higher.
- Net Price - Total amount of money a student actually pays to attend a particular school for one year. This is what you actually pay out of pocket, after accounting for grants and scholarships. Put simply, Net Price = Cost of Attendance - (Grants & Scholarships). This figure matters way more than a school’s CoA because it’s what you actually have to budget for. The lower your Net Price, the better off you’ll be.
When students first start research on college expenses, they tend to look at the CoA, or the sticker price. This isn’t necessarily a bad place to start, but a more sophisticated way of looking at prospective schools is to consider your likely Net Price instead of the schools’ CoA.
This information will be important when we get into cost-saving strategies.
Facts and Figures
Now that we’ve gotten that background info out of the way, we can talk about what the current college cost landscape looks like. All the prices in this section are sticker prices, or what costs that make up a school's CoA (so, not the average student's Net Price - don't freak out yet).
The biggest expenses you’ll need to consider are tuition & fees and room & board.
Average Tuition & Fees
For the 2014-2015 academic year, average tuition & fee costs were…
- $31,231 at private colleges
- $9,139 for state residents at public colleges
- $22,958 for out-of-state residents at public colleges
Average Room & Board
For the 2014-2015 academic year, average room & board costs were…
- $11,188 at private 4-year colleges
- $9,804 at public 4-year colleges
You’ll have to account for some other minor expenses as well - these costs will depend on more variable factors. For more detailed information about expenses, check out our complete guide to college costs.
These expenses can be really overwhelming for one year, never mind for four. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to increase your available income and decrease your expenses, both before and during college.
4 Ways to Save Before You Get to College
As with most things, saving for college is easier if you give yourself more time to get started.
The earlier you start budgeting for college expenses, the better. More time means more opportunities to tackle and plan for large expenses in your future.
There are two main ways you can deal with these big costs:
- You can work on increasing your income/available cash
- You can work on decreasing your expenses
Both strategies effectively do the same thing. In order to be most effective, you should concentrate on both increasing income and decreasing expenses. Here are the best ways to do that before you matriculate:
Increase Your Income
#1: Apply for Scholarships
There are so many private scholarship programs available, from small local awards to huge national and even international competitions. Scholarships can be based on any number of criteria: financial need, academic merit, sports performance, volunteer work, ethnic background, professional interests, and more. Half the work is finding scholarships that would be a good fit for you.
It’s great to apply for those well-known national scholarships (like the McDonald’s, Gates Millennium, and Coca-Cola awards), but they tend to be very competitive, so it’s smart to have backups in place. Look for local or state scholarships (like the Florida Bright Futures scholarship), or for scholarships that match your unique interests and background.
Start by checking out our guides to scholarships for high school juniors and seniors. Do your own research by googling any important descriptors - like your location, interests, or sport of choice - + “scholarship.”
#2: Get a High School Job
This might be the most obvious way to increase your income before you leave for college. The tough part is figuring out whether a job is right for you - you don’t want to sacrifice your grades or extracurriculars, especially because high school jobs aren’t likely to pay very much. Learn more about figuring out whether getting a job learn more about whether a job might be a good fit for you (link out - should you get a job)
- If you work full-time during the summers, you can get both professional experience AND a more substantial paycheck to save up for college
- e.g. If you work full time at $9/hr for eight weeks, that comes to $2880 (before tax). That could cover your personal and textbook expenses for a whole year if you budget carefully
Decrease Your Expenses
#3: Apply to the Right Schools
Different schools will be able to offer you different sized financial aid packages. If you’re strategic about where you apply to school, you’ll do yourself a favor by reducing your costs right off the bat.
- If you’re applying to public schools, you should focus on those located in your home state. Public school tuitions are often much higher for out-of-state residents. (There may be exceptions to this rule if you think you'd qualify for high amounts of merit aid).
- Know what schools offer the best aid, whether it’s need-based or merit-based. Even though a school’s sticker price might be high - private schools often have higher CoAs - you might end up with a better Net Price if the school has generous financial aid policies.
- The most important thing to remember is that CoA isn't very helpful when it comes to choosing cost-effective schools. What you should care about is your estimated Net Price at a particular school. Spend some time doing Net Price calculations (it’s easy - get more info in our article on college costs) to figure out which schools may offer you the best out-of-pocket price.
#4: Focus on Your Grades and Test Scores
One of the best ways to get a good Net Price is to get into a school that offers generous financial aid, as I mentioned above. So what types of schools give students the best Net Prices?
Well, schools that offer generous financial aid are often well-ranked private schools (they tend to offer a lot of need-based aid), or private schools that are trying to attract more competitive students (they tend to offer a lot of merit-based aid). In-state public schools also tend to be affordable for state residents.
If your grades and ACT/SAT scores were relatively high for a particular school, chances are good that you would:
- Get accepted to the school
- Be offered need-based financial aid (if any was available)
- Qualify for merit-based aid (if any was available)
You may also qualify for merit scholarships if you were recruited for a particular sport.
You can see how you stack up to other applicants and calculate your chances for admission for almost any school. All you have to do is Google "PrepScholar [school name] admissions" for more information.
7 Ways to Save Money in College
I do not recommend saving money by using a belt instead of a backpack.
Once you get to college, you’ll have a lot on your plate - classes, friends, extracurricular activities, and more. Managing your finances and saving money should become a part of your daily routine if you want to be successful in the long run.
These next strategies will help you manage your income and spending on a daily basis once you’re a student. While you’re reading, think of other ways you can increase your income and decrease your expenses.
Increase Your Income
#1: Keep Applying for Scholarships
As you hone your academic and professional interests, you may be able to find scholarships or grants that are a good fit for your goals. You don’t have to be a high school student in order to qualify for many scholarships (the Tylenol scholarship is a good example of this).
Check with your academic department and/or career center for more information about possible scholarship awards. Also, Google is your friend! Use both general and specific search terms to catch as many award options as possible (e.g. "healthcare scholarships" versus "dental school scholarships for women").
#2: Get a Job On Campus
Campus jobs are great options for college students, especially for those who have work study awards. They’re often conveniently located, pay better than jobs available to high school students, offer better personal and professional connections, and align better with future career goals.
If you work 15 hours/week at $10/hr for two 20-week semesters, you’d make $6,000 per year. You could obviously make way more than that if you work during summers or long breaks. For more information, check out or guide to on-campus jobs (coming soon).
Decrease Your Expenses
#3: Make (and Stick to) a Budget
This approach might take some trial and error, but it's totally worth it in the end.
Start by thinking - realistically - about how much money you spend each month in different categories (e.g. food, transportation, clothing, personal grooming, entertainment, etc.). Add all of these expenses to come up with a total amount. If this total amount is more than your expected monthly income, start cutting non-necessities from your budget.
Read more about crafting a budget on a strict income.
Ultimately, budgets only work if you adhere to them. You can manually tally the amount of money you spend each month, but that can get pretty tedious. Free money management tools like Mint can help streamline the process and help you be more successful in saving money.
#4: Be Smart About Your Textbook Purchases
The average student spends about $1,200 a year on textbooks - yikes. The good news is there are a lot of things you can do to try to keep your textbook costs well below this average:
- Shop around - don’t just buy what’s available at your campus bookstore. Check prices on Amazon to see if it’s cheaper to order online.
- Buy your textbooks used, either from campus bookstores, online, or from a friend or classmate.
- Take advantage of textbook rentals if they’re offered at your school.
- Sell books back to the bookstore (or online via Amazon) if you won't be using them again. Alternatively, you can sell to classmates who need to take the class after you're done.
- Don’t buy books at all! See if they’re offered at the library, and if so, if it’ll be hard to get your hands on them (this can be the case if all your classmates have the same idea). If there’s too much competition for books at the library, it’s better to just buy or rent.
#5: Look at Your Rooming Options
Living on-campus can sometimes be more expensive than living off-campus, especially in areas where the average cost of living is pretty low. If it’s an option, consider looking at alternative housing options where you can split rent with a bunch of other students.
Don’t forget to take other possible expense increases - like paying more for food and transportation - into account when calculating off-campus saving options.
#6: Take Advantage of the Summer
There are a lot of ways to use the summer months to your financial advantage.
If you’re living off campus and are committed to paying rent through the summer (i.e. if you’ve signed a lease), you’ll want to make sure you take advantage of that housing:
- If you'll be staying somewhere else for the summer, try to find someone to sublet. Students taking summer courses often need short-term housing options.
- Alternatively, stay in your housing for the summer to take summer classes yourself. By earning extra credits, you can possibly graduate earlier.
If you live on campus and have to figure out housing plans for the summer, look into programs that might give you subsidized or free room and board. Summer RA jobs might be a good place to start.
#7: Seek Out Student Discounts
On and around college campuses, restaurants and retail stores often offer small student discounts to college kids who have their IDs handy. A 10% discount is pretty standard - helpful, but not necessarily huge.
You can also check out this list of national retailers and restaurants that offer special deals to college students.
This tip only works if you’re sticking to a budget, as outlined above. Discounts can sometimes entice people to spend money they wouldn't usually spend, so only seek out deals you would purchase anyways.
Student discounts are great .. as long as you don't turn into this lady and buy everything you see on sale.
Thinking about saving money over the course of four years is overwhelming, to say the least. Although it'll help to have the above strategies for how to save money in college - especially as you make big financial decisions - it's OK to take things one day at a time.
To be honest, the big financial decisions are going to be the ones that affect your finances the most. If you make prudent decisions when it comes to choosing your school, housing option, and food plans, it'll be much easier to budget for those day-to-day expenses.
Finally, just because you're a college student on a limited budget doesn't mean you can't spend money on anything fun. As long as you don't go overboard (and you stick to a budget, as I mentioned earlier), it's OK to indulge in small treats like a movie, a new sweater, or a night out with friends. Don't forget to budget for college experiences like these!
Making smart financial decisions before and during college is important when it comes to your financial future. If you want to be even more prepared to tackle your education expenses, check out our complete guide to paying for college - it'll cover some bigger points about how to budget for the next four years.
If you anticipate that covering all your expenses will be an issue, you should read our post on how to get student loans. But don't take out any more loans than you have to - see if you can get scholarship awards to help with those costs! Start with our lists of the top scholarships for high school juniors and seniors.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.