How to Be Cheap: College Edition

Here’s to all the “poor college students” out there.

I say “poor” because the American definition of poverty is so different from the rest of the world. There are people who are seriously impoverished in America, but even our ghettos are a place of great wealth compared to the slums of India. (Just see the film Slumdog Millionaire, with kids living in the city dump).

I’m not trying to make you poor college students feel guilty, but to point out that you have so much to be grateful for. Are you still covered by your parents’ health insurance? They are saving you $200-300 a month! Do they let you eat their food when you go home? Thank them! Do they ever give you a little cash or help out with an unexpected bill? Don’t count on this, but be very grateful if it happens.

Realize that your run-down college apartment that you share with too many people would look like a mansion to millions in this world. And your beater car is a luxury so many people wouldn’t even dream of owning. Just the opportunity to go to college is a an amazing advantage that you should be so thankful for. Consider yourself privileged. And go to class.

So now that you’re not so “poor” anymore, here’s how to make the most of the money you have.

The BEST way to save money in college is to get scholarships! This advice is important for both high school and college students. You can earn scholarships before and after you start college. In high school good grades are important and activities can be helpful, but the real clincher for many colleges is your standardized test scores. So take that ACT, SAT, and PSAT, and then take them again. Practice really helps, so start your junior year (earlier for the PSAT). The tests cost from $30-50 to take, but compared to the $50,000 or more you could earn, it’s a worthwhile investment.

So put some time into as well. When you register for the tests you should get a practice test booklet. Take the practice. Time yourself, and then score it. Determine your strengths and weaknesses, and then practice those some more. Get off Facebook for a minute and find on-online practice tools. Learn how to take the tests—how much time you have, whether you get points off for wrong answers, and what types of questions are on the test. What formulas are provided, and what will you have to know? Get a list of “SAT words” (I bet your English teacher has a list) make flashcards, and study them.

Scholarships are free money1

I earned $80,000 in one day of high school. It was the day I took the PSAT. I don’t say this to brag, but to communicate that it is worth studying and preparing for a standardized test if there’s even an outside chance that you could go to college for free, half price, or anything less than the astronomical amount college now costs. So maybe I actually spent a week earning that money, but don’t you think it was worth it?

If academics aren’t your strongest suit, look into other scholarships. There are many Internet databases with applications. Write some essays, fill out some forms, and get some letters of recommendation. It’s a hassle, but paying off $50,000 worth of college loans will be a much bigger pain in the butt down the road. Ask your guidance counselor for information and take advantage of every opportunity, including local scholarships. Even $500 can help you buy books. Check out www.finaid.org/scholarships/, www.collegenet.com/mach25/, www.fastweb.com/, and your high school guidance office.

I am not speaking from experience, but sports scholarships seems like a rip-off to me. You have to spend all hours practicing, traveling and competing. I don’t know how you could do that, study, and have a social life. Perhaps your whole social life revolves around the team. If your life is that sport, it would work for you. But if you don’t want that, I wouldn’t recommend pursuing sports scholarships. Music or art scholarships also require a ton of time, but if it’s related to your major then it would be worthwhile.

Here’s an obvious but often-ignored piece of advice: go to the school that offers the best financial aid package (within the region you want to go to school). The best package isn’t necessarily the highest dollar amount for scholarships or loans. Private schools offer big bucks in aid, but they charge even bigger bucks for tuition. But sometimes the more expensive school is the better deal. So do the math and figure out how much you’ll pay in the end, not just how much they’re offering you.

Of course, there are factors more important than money in choosing a school. If you want to live in Kent (perhaps for a ministry house), and Miami offers you the best package, it isn’t worth it. But if you want to live in Kent and Akron offers you a better package, the twenty minute commute is worth it to save thousands.

Most scholarships must be renewed every year. So never miss the renewal application deadline! A simple mistake like this will cost you thousands of dollars. Each year you should also investigate if you are eligible for new scholarships. This is especially important after your first and second semesters of college, when you may prove with your grades that you are worth some dough.

Always fill out your FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You may qualify for federal grants, which is free money that you never have to pay back. And then you can also get federal loans which have lower interest rates. You don’t have to pay them back till after you graduate (or quit school, but don’t do that), and they have deferral options that other loans don’t. So if you’re going to need loans, these are the ones to get. Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov/

Another good option is a community college. These aren’t just for those without top grades or people pursuing two-year degrees. You can get your general education requirements out of the way for half the cost or less. If you want to be on a particular campus during the school year, consider taking a couple summer classes at Tri-C or Kent Stark. Again, you should determine whether the commute times are worth the money you’ll save. They very well may be.

Going to class isn't so bad.

The next best way to save money in college is to not flunk out! Don’t pay $5,000 a semester just to blow off class and party too much. If you just want to party, don’t waste that kind of money on tuition. College is a good investment, but only if you’re getting a useful degree. So go to class, pay attention, take notes, do the work, and study for tests. It’s not that complicated. If you need extra help, ask for it. You’re paying big bucks for every class session—around $25 for many state schools in Ohio, and much more if you’re at a private school. So waste not your tuition dollars, and want not a return on your investment (a degree).

If you have questions about standardized test scores, scholarships, grants, or other related topics, please post them in the comments.

Up next, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of everyday money-saving tips for college students.