Saving Money At College

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In August, students all over the country are heading to college, so let’s cover tips to save money at college.  Whether this is your first year or sixth, you can make your money go further with some wise strategies that involve more than just pinching pennies.

Saving Money At College – Graduate in four years

Perhaps the biggest money saver is to simply graduate on time.  They are called “Four year colleges” for a reason.  Four years is how long it should take to get enough credits to graduate, but only 1/3 of public school students and ½ of private school students manage that these days!  So how long does it usually take today’s students to graduate from a four year college?  No not five years – SIX!  I have a big problem with this for two reasons:

  1. I graduated with a Master’s degree in only five years by testing out of five courses and taking an extra course in most semesters. Yes, I did too change my major, work part-time during most of those years, and still had fun. (Maybe I didn’t sleep.)
  2. Unless the student is living at home during all that time, they are running up an extra $10,000-$15,000 for each additional year in expenses or debt. This could add a serious and unnecessary handicap to the student’s or parent’s debt.

I recommend you review a college’s graduation stats when choosing a college and discuss this with your student.  (Then maybe throw in some encouragement, threats, and bribes along the way.  “You can play video games during the summer and after graduation.”  “The sooner you graduate, the sooner you can get back to video games.”)  Most colleges require around 120 credit hours to graduate.  This means taking 15 hours per semester for eight semesters – NOT the minimum of 12.  If you get behind or change majors, then you can take 18 hours, go to summer school, or test out of courses to catch up.  Students should plan ahead for required courses and work out a schedule with an academic advisor.  Take introductory, required courses that could work with several majors.  If the student is too far along in one major when the notion strikes to change majors, consider staying the course, but changing their minor, or compromising on a new major that uses most of your courses and doesn’t require adding another year.  If undecided on a major, take some introductory classes your first year so you can better decide upon a major by your second year – especially if they require different required courses.

Saving Money At College – Test out of college courses

Sometime you need to plan ahead as with “Advanced Placement” (AP) courses in high school for which many colleges offer full credit if you get a certain grade on the AP test.  This could get you many college credits for free.  Students can also get full credit at some schools by taking a test to demonstrate proficiency in different subjects.  Find out more about two popular programs:

Saving Money At College – Start at community colleges

In recent years, local community colleges have become more attractive for saving college expenses.  Many students attend their first two years at a less expensive community college and then transfer to a four-year university to get the same degree as someone who attended all four years at the expensive school.  You not only can take your introductory/required courses less expensively, but probably can also live at home.  Note however, that only a small percentage of community college students do actually go on to transfer and graduate.  Improve your odds by seeing if there are any programs in your area that facilitate a transfer, talking to the admissions office at the four year school about transfer requirements, and  getting good grades.

Saving Money At College – Prepay future tuition at today’s prices

You can prepay later years’ tuition at today’s prices.  Many colleges, most state 529 plans, and even private colleges thru provide for this.  Relatively few parents do this when saving for some unknown college, but it is more viable once the student has chosen a specific college.  Consider pre-paying for the junior/senior year when entering as a freshman to avoid the inevitable, tuition price increase.  You may be able to pay in installments.  Some parents use their home equity line of credit to accomplish this, especially if their income and assets are too high to yield much financial aid.

Saving Money At College – Room and board

Room and board can cost around $10,000 per year, is rising faster than inflation, and can be half the total cost of a public college year.  Consider ways to reduce it:

  • Live at home.
  • Start with a cheaper cafeteria meal plan and upgrade it later if needed. (Most colleges offer several options and will let you upgrade, but not downgrade.)
  • Save a couple of thousand dollars, if your college offers a “co-op” that requires a few hours of chores each week.
  • After the freshman year, sharing an apartment with room-mates could save money if the students share most of the cooking rather than eating out.

Saving Money At College – College Text Books

Textbooks are now a major expense for college students.  Many books have almost doubled in a decade and cost more than $200!  You can fight back, or at least save big bucks.  Buy used or electronic textbooks.  Even rent textbooks for big savings.  Comparison shop for them between the college bookstore and online stores like,, Amazon, eBay, GooglePlayBooks,,, and other online textbook discounters.  Compare ebooks, used, and rentals at,, and  To save time searching across many websites, start with these two that do much of the searching for you:

Saving Money At College – Cars

Don’t assume that students will need a car, especially at urban colleges with good public transportation and Saving Money At Collegehigh parking fees.  Students often get a break on public transportation costs.  Use a car-sharing service like ZIPCAR for the occasional need at much less cost.  Get a break on your auto insurance when your student goes to a distant college without a car – notify your insurer.

Work part-time

Many college students work part-time during the year and full or part-time during the summer.  This can not only earn $2000 – $5000, but lead to work and time-management experience.  Work might be work-study, internships, or a wide variety of private sector jobs – especially as your know, in the food service sector.  In addition to the usual job-search resources, students can get help from their college job-placement office.

Saving Money At College – Incidentals

Of course tuition, room, and board aren’t the only expenses students have.  Here are a few ways to save in other areas:

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