Depending on your future career goals, you may need to advance your education with a college degree. A degree can open up pathways to better-paying jobs, a more stable lifestyle, and an increase in your overall happiness.
What might not make you so happy, however, is trying to find a way to finance your education. According to USA Today, the average annual cost of attending a private American university in 2018 was $48,510. To complete a degree at a private university, you would be paying around $194,040. And that is just for tuition! You would also have to factor in the costs for room, board, books, and other miscellaneous expenses.
It is also important to note that some trade industries can provide you with a stable income without the costs associated with a degree. You should always explore all of your career options before committing to college. High school students should always talk to their guidance counselor about possible career options, while non-traditional college students should talk to a professional career counselor.
Once you’ve explored all of your options and are committed to a college degree, it is time to start thinking about how you’re going to finance your education. Here is some advice to keep in mind.
Don’t rule out community college
Community colleges in the United States are designed to allow you to complete a certificate program or to get an associate degree. Most people overlook community college because they assume that it is better to go right to a four-year college so that they can immediately begin taking classes for their bachelor’s degree.
What you might not realize, however, is that certain community college classes will meet the prerequisites for upper-level classes at a four-year college. Most four-year colleges are going to require you to take entry-level classes before you can move into the coursework required for your degree. And a four-year college is going to charge you more for these entry-level than a community college would.
Consider going to community college for a year or two to get rid of those prerequisites. Then, when you transfer to a four-year college, you can immediately start taking the coursework required for your degree.
Carefully review your financial aid package
All the colleges you apply to will offer you a financial aid package. This package will contain information about any funds you’re receiving from the Federal Student Aid (make sure you fill out your FAFSA to gain access to these funds!), as well as any scholarships, loans, or grants that the college wants to offer you.
You’re going to want to carefully review each and every package you receive to figure out how you’re going to fund your education. If needed, take the time to sit down with the financial aid department at the college.
Chatting with a professional at the college will allow you to better understanding your package. They’ll be able to explain the various grants, loans, and scholarships so that you know exactly what you’re going to have to pay out-of-pocket now and what you’ll have to pay back later.
Make smart decisions regarding loans
Most people end up needing to take out some sort of loan to pay for their college tuition. The first loans you’ll want to use are the federal student loans that the college offers you. Federal student loans are specifically designed to help make college education more affordable. They have lower interest rates and you won’t have to start paying them back until after you graduate.
Sometimes, you may also find yourself needing to take out a private loan from a bank or a personal loan. If you end up taking out one of these loans, make sure to pay attention to your interest rates. Often, you’ll need to start paying back these loans immediately, instead of waiting until after college.
Learn to live frugally
Have you ever heard the phrase “live like a college student”? Most college students have to live frugally because they don’t have the money for frivolous experiences. Learning to live within your budget now will set you up financially for the future.
You’re going to want to learn how to live as cheaply as possible. That way, when you do need money for books or school, you’ll have it. Some general suggestions are buying your clothes from thrift stores, learning how to coupon, buying inexpensive products, and learning how to cook for yourself instead of eating out.
While there is nothing wrong with occasionally treating yourself to a new piece of clothing or to a night out, it isn’t something you’ll want to do all the time. Make sure the majority of your money is going towards your education or towards your basic needs.
Find a part-time job or side hustle
Balancing your education with a job can be hard, but it is worth it. Not only will you gain some extra money to put towards your education, but you’ll also gain job experience. When you graduate from college, employers are going to want to see that you have work experience, and a part-time job can help you develop valuable interpersonal skills that can’t be learned in the classroom.
Some colleges offer campus employment options that allow you to work right on campus. This is extremely convenient because you can leave class and immediately go to work without fighting traffic.
If your school doesn’t offer campus employment, consider getting a job at a local restaurant or store. These types of employers are often very flexible and will work around your class schedule. Or, if you don’t want the commitment of a full-time job, look for a flexible side hustle, such as babysitting, tutoring, or freelancing.
Apply for scholarships
Your college might automatically grant you scholarships based on previous academic achievements. However, you’re not limited to these scholarships. There are plenty of other scholarships and grants out there that you can apply to. Simply searching for the word scholarship on the internet will help get you connected to foundations and organizations that are accepting applicants.
The nice thing about scholarships is that you don’t have to pay them back. Whenever you take out a loan, you will eventually have to repay it. But whatever money you receive from scholarships or grants is yours.
You should take applying for scholarships very seriously, and you don’t have to wait until you have decided where you will be going to college as there are even scholarships for juniors in high school available. However, remember there are other students out there that are trying to get the exact same scholarship as you are. You’re going to want to present yourself in the best possible way in your application materials. This means you’ll want to have a friend or a mentor proofread all of your materials.
Start paying off interest ASAP
Even if you take out a federal student loan that doesn’t need to be repaid until after graduation, you’re going to want to make sure it isn’t accruing interest. Some of those loans start accruing interest while you’re in school, which means that you could have thousands of dollars of interest waiting for you after you graduate.
However, if you pay off the interest each month, it will be much less overwhelming. The amount of interest will depend on how large your loan is, but generally, interest rates on federal student loans are low enough that you should be able to afford to pay it off while you’re still in college.
If you’re not sure what the interest rate is on your federal student loans, talk to your financial aid office. They’ll help you figure out how much interest you’re accruing each month and will show you how you can begin paying it off.
Plan to pay off loans immediately after graduation
Even if your loan payments don’t kick immediately into effect after you graduate, you should still prepare to begin paying them off. Basically, what this means is that you should have some sort of job lined up for after graduation.
Some people wait to begin their job search until after they graduate. The problem with this is it can start several months of applying and interviewing for jobs before you get hired. You could spend the summer after graduation without any form of income.
What you’re going to want to do is start your job search in the fall before you graduate. Talk to the career center at your college to get your resume ready. Most colleges will also host job fairs or mock interviews, which could help you secure a job before you graduate. Starting to work immediately after graduation provides you with the necessary income to start paying those loans off.
If college is on your list of things to do, start thinking about how you’re going to finance it. It is never too early to start building up savings or to start talking to financial advisors. Going to college is expensive, but if you take the time to plan your finances, you can find a way to make it affordable.