How To Afford College - Housing, Books & More
It's easy to focus on the challenge of college tuition, but that's not the only financial challenge facing today's students. For most college students, more than half the cost of college goes to room, board, and textbooks. Once you add in transportation, healthcare, and in some cases childcare, your college costs can spiral out of control. Don't panic though. It is possible to analyze your living costs, identify corners you can cut, and chart a more budget-friendly path. As with all things in life, affording college demands some compromises. By cutting some expenses, you can significantly reduce your college costs and make a seemingly enormous investment more affordable. Let's look at some moves that can slice your college spending.
By cutting some expenses, you can significantly reduce your college costs and make a seemingly enormous investment more affordable.
The cheapest form of housing is living at home or with a relative willing to host you. If you live near an in-state public college, living at home can save more than 50% off your college bill! That's a significant advantage, and worth putting up with some constraints on your freedom.
If you must arrange separate housing, you have two choices. You can live in the school dorms or share an apartment or house off-campus. Off-campus housing may seem cheaper, but it comes with hidden costs like security deposits, furniture and furnishings, heating, utilities, kitchen and bath ware, internet, and transportation expenses. These “surprise” costs can add hundreds of dollars to what may have initially seemed like a bargain. You have to consider possible damages, apartment security, and possible break-ins, as well as parking costs, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and commuting. The costs add up, and the time spent maintaining your housing rather than studying or working a part-time job takes its toll. For most college students, shared dorm rooms in campus residences will be the cheapest and simplest student housing possible. Dorm prices already include furniture, utilities, internet, security, basic maintenance, and cleaning costs. What's more, students are not responsible for dealing with landlords, rent disputes, broken fixtures, or accidental damage. Some colleges do offer choices between well-appointed versus affordable campus dorms. The cheaper dorms may not yield the best living experience, but if every dollar counts, they may be the smarter pick.
In the end, the choice of whether to live on or off campus is yours to make. The decision does come down to important considerations, however, such as your maturity level, street smarts, and how many furnishings you can borrow from your home. If you can furnish your apartment, cook, and live cheaply on-budget, then living off-campus may be for you, especially if you can find affordable housing close enough to campus to keep transport costs down. Otherwise, shared dorm living might be a smarter option.
It is possible to get help paying for a dorm room. Ask a financial aid officer if your school offers any specific help to pay for the dorm. Sometimes the university may provide a discount, scholarship, or grant to help deserving students afford housing. Many colleges do offer discounts and even free accommodation for upper year students who serve as Resident Advisors, working as den mothers to the dorm. If you want a bit of budgetary breathing room, you might look into being an RA.
Colleges provide different options for their meal plans: there is usually a fixed plan that offers 2-3 meals per day, and another that lets you decide which meals to buy, and charges the price to your account. When it comes to choosing the best option, you should be honest about how much you eat. If you are the kind of person who only needs a light breakfast, consider just buying a box of cereal or some fruit from the grocery. Similarly, if lunch has always been a peanut butter sandwich, just buy some bread and a jar of peanut butter. Eat a well-balanced dinner from the dining hall and have your cereal and sandwich for breakfast and lunch. If you do eat a lot for breakfast and lunch, then the fuller meal plan might be for you. Just remember to keep an eye on your wallet, because those dollars (and calories) will add up.
Once you decide how much you need to eat at the Dining Hall, find out what kinds of meal plans are available. Colleges don't refund unused meal plan dollars, so it might be better to buy a smaller meal plan than a bigger one. You can usually switch plans or add dollars to your existing meal plan if you're running out. If you're in doubt, ask your RA or another college official.
If you live and spend your time on campus, transportation won't be a major concern. However, if you live or have a job off-campus, transportation may be an issue for you. If possible, try to avoid keeping a car, which means paying for gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees and permits, and tickets. Instead, use the public transportation systems found in most college towns, like buses, trains, and even free shuttle services. If you need to travel, consider buying a bike, or evaluate whether the job pays enough to justify the transportation costs. Some campuses have access to Zipcar, a car rental service that charges by the hour. If you need a car, it might be more cost-effective to rent an hourly car with built-in insurance than to maintain numerous car expenses.