Financial aid can be an invaluable resource for college students, helping them pay for an otherwise unaffordable education. But there are limits on how much you can receive in financial aid each semester, and depending on your college costs and living expenses, you may need to take steps to adjust your lifestyle so you can stretch your aid as far as possible.
Here are some steps to consider. Take your time to think through each one and how it might help you cut your costs and avoid taking on too much debt.
How to Make the Most of Your Financial Aid
As you figure out your finances for college, consider these seven ways to cut your costs and maximize the aid you've been given.
1. Get on a Budget
Either way, it's important to track your income and expenses to better understand how you spend your money. Then, set some monthly spending goals that can help you limit unnecessary expenses. That may include things like eating at home instead of dining out, buying generic brand groceries and more.
2. Look for Inexpensive Housing
If living at home is an option, consider that instead of renting an apartment. If you're far from home or your family situation is complicated, research several options, including on-campus housing, living with multiple roommates and other ways to reduce your monthly housing expenses.
3. Buy Secondhand Textbooks
College textbooks are updated with relative regularity, but you could save quite a bit of money if you can find the latest version of a book you need on Amazon, Chegg, Textbooks.com or other websites that sell used textbooks.
Even if you can't find the most recent version, ask your professor if an older edition is acceptable. Depending on your program, newer versions may come with a lot of new information, or they may only come with minor differences, such as changes to page numbers or additional charts and diagrams.
4. Avoid Buying a Car
If you live on or near campus, or you'll be in a city with good public transportation, you may be able to get away without a vehicle, which can cost you money in the form of an auto loan payment, insurance premiums, fuel, parking fees, maintenance and repairs. Even if you want to visit home periodically, check to see if you can use public transportation to meet those needs.
5. Get a Job
Some college programs feel like a full-time job, but if you have room in your schedule, consider applying for a part-time job while you're in school. Depending on what you're studying, you may be able to find a job on campus in your field of study, which may pay better and give you important experience in your field.
You can also explore other job opportunities off campus to see what you can find, or even take on gig work or a side hustle to make money on your own terms and schedule.
Whether or not you can work during your academic terms, try to work full time during the summer months to earn as much money as possible to get you through the upcoming school year.
6. Share Expenses With Roommates
Having roommates can help you save money not only on rent but also on other living expenses, such as groceries, utilities and more. For example, you may agree to trade off purchasing toiletries for the apartment or split grocery costs and cook together. Even if your roommates don't want to share food costs, you could still spend less cooking for yourself than using your school's meal plan.
7. Explore Other Financial Aid Opportunities
Always start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you're eligible for federal financial aid. Then, look for other aid opportunities, such as scholarships and grants offered by your school or fellowships and assistantships if you're a graduate student.
You can also search for scholarships and grants offered by private organizations through websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb. And if you're willing to join the military, you may be able to get up to 100% of your tuition and course fees covered.
The Bottom Line
Paying your way through college can be challenging, especially if you're on your own financially. These steps can help you cut your costs and avoid relying too heavily on student loans to get you through your college education.
While you're at it, consider applying for a student credit card, so you can start building your credit history. While you may not need it yet, it can come in handy when you graduate and start making big financial decisions, such as buying a home or a car. You can use the free Experian Go™ service to help you get started.
Now that you're on your own, the important thing is that you take the time to understand how to manage your money and build your credit. These skills can pay off big time throughout the rest of your life.