Work part-time, budget, and ditch the car to reduce debt while attending college.
Once you start classes, budgeting for college can keep you up at night—especially if your parents aren’t contributing a chunk to help you. If you think it’s tougher than when they went, you’re right. Grownups can’t work enough hours to pay their own way like GenXers and boomers could. In 1979, paying a year’s tuition required about 182 hours of work. In 2013? 991 hours. And costs are still rising. So when the older generations say you can pay your way, too, you’re not crazy to think it’s harder now. I put myself through college, and it was hard then. I can’t imagine 2017. But you can—and should—take budgeting steps to mitigate debt. Here are tips for living lightly.
Work part-time. Even if a part-time job doesn’t cover tuition, a paycheck helps with budgeting for indirect costs like books, groceries, and personal expenses, and will likely mean fewer loans.
As an extra bonus, studies show that part-time work teaches effective time management skills and leads to better grades. The trick is not working too much because there’s a point of diminishing returns, around 20 hours a week. But if you’re feeling pressure to work more than that, you’re not alone. A 2015 study by Georgetown University found that 70 percent of students work while in school, and 40 percent of undergraduates work at least 30 hours a week. You’ll have to balance how much to work with level of borrowing. Sometimes taking a loan means getting into the professional world sooner. However, finance experts say total undergraduate debt shouldn’t exceed your first year of total annual income, so do the math.
Working also benefits your resume. Continuous employment, no matter how small, is attractive to employers. You may think the job should be in your field—and paid internships are valuable, for sure—but one manager told me recently she looks for customer service when she’s hiring in the health field because she wants to know her employees can work with the public. For young people, all jobs offer new skill sets.
If you qualify for work-study, you can work on or off campus. You may be able to blend a major-related campus job with weekend employment. I tutored for the writing center and taught grammar workshops to students who failed the university exam required to graduate. On weekends, I worked as a breakfast cook at a nearby restaurant, where I also ate meals to keep grocery costs down.
Budget, budget, budget. Sticking to a budget is critical to reducing loans. Living like a pauper isn’t easy, but you’ll rejoice at the lower (or no) loan debt at the end. Remember, it’s temporary. You might need to persuade your buddies, though. A recent Bankrate study shows 54 percent of younger Grownups eat out three times a week, and 51 percent go to the bar once a week. That adds up! When I was a broke student, I found like-minded and like-incomed friends, and we played a lot of ultimate Frisbee (for free), met up for potlucks at each other’s houses, and skipped the cocktails.
Figure out your fixed costs for each month: rent/residence hall costs, utilities, groceries, transportation. Track them in a personal finance tool like Mint. Use the Mint app to connect to your bank so the app can create a personalized budget with your details (check this list for best 2017 budget apps if you don’t like Mint). Decide what you’ll allow yourself each month for a little fun, and then don’t blow it. If that means not hitting the newest brewery, suggest a free alternative so you can still get together with friends—or buy just one drink. Whatever you do, don’t turn to your credit card. If you can’t afford to pay cash, you can’t afford it.
Keep your grocery budget down by planning meals, always shopping with a list, cooking from scratch, buying in the bulk foods aisle (especially spices), eating less meat, reducing out-of-season fruit, and minimizing recipes with boutique ingredients. Keep simple stock items around like rice, beans, and pasta. Skip processed foods—these always cost more than single-ingredient foods. Search online recipes for a particular item in the fridge, like, say, cauliflower if you need to use it up. You’ll reduce food waste and save money.
Ditch the car. If your campus is urban, not taking a car is an easy choice. It’s when the campus is rural or in a city without good public transportation that having a car is tempting. But not taking one saves money on insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking fees. Plus you’ll avoid becoming the de facto taxi. Or perhaps you don’t own a car but having been considering buying one? Think hard. Drivers under the age of 25 pay more for insurance. Other factors can jack your rates, including type of car you drive, driving history, and a poor credit score.
University campuses have active ride-share forums for getting to and from nearby airports or the bus/train station. Campuses also offer shuttles, and there’s always Uber and Lyft. Even more convenient, many universities partner with Zipcar, and have Zipcars available right on campus. Join Zipcar for an annual student membership fee and then pay according to your use, $7.50-$12 per hour, depending on location. That might sound expensive, but car use includes gas, insurance, 24/7 availability, and up to 180 miles per day. Plus, the environment will thank you. When you weigh occasional use against monthly insurance, occasional wins out every time. The best strategy for school? Get a bicycle—and a good lock.
Living on a tight budget can seem like a bummer, but if you’re doing it together it’s not nearly so bad. For my college buddies and me, being broke was a rite of passage no one seemed to mind. Just make sure you’re doing it with the right friends.