Monday, September 8, 2014

How to Save Money on College Expenses

Here are some tips for going back to school without going broke!

  • Don't use your college bookstore if you can help it. In my experience, they all price-gouge like crazy. Whenever possible, I buy my textbooks through Amazon, usually at half the cost. Sometimes less, if there are loose-leaf versions available!
  • Consider e-texts. Something I've noticed since going back to school, is that with many classes migrating to online homework systems at the publisher's website, you may not even need to buy the textbook. If you purchase the online access code for the homework, you'll usually be able to access an online version of the textbook right there online. Even for classes that don't make use of the internet, many textbooks are available on Kindle now for a fraction of the cost.
  • Speaking of Kindle, what about just renting your textbook? Often, you can rent hard copies of textbooks even in your campus bookstore, but I've been wary of this because of the possibility of being price-gouged for any damage or wear that occurs to the book. If you rent an e-book, they're risk free! (Don't have an e-reader? You can download one to read e-books from your desktop or laptop computer. Bingo!)
  • Make money off your used textbooks. Personally, I don't do e-books -- I just need something with actual paper pages that I can flip back and forth. During my first college experience in 2007-08, I sold my used books on . .It was kind of labor intensive, and I had to pay to ship them to people, and if my asking price was too high I got stuck with them. . .Well, Amazon has been my solution to THIS problem, too. (I'm sorry if you're an Amazon hater, but it really has been crucial to my frugal college-going endeavors.) Check out their Trade-In Program! If you type in the ISBN for virtually any textbook you have, on the right-hand side of its Amazon listing you will see a trade-in quote right below the regular price/purchase buttons. If you elect to trade your books in for the quoted price, you will be able to print out a pre-paid shipping label, and Amazon will give you a virtual gift-card for the quoted trade-in amount after they have received your books and verified their condition. If you continue to purchase textbooks through Amazon -- hey, that's money towards next semester's books! Or maybe some Christmas shopping?
Okay, I'm done tooting the Amazon horn for now, but remember -- even if your tuition bill is the one giving you nightmares, textbooks are still a big deal, too! This semester, I spent about $700 on textbooks -- but if I had bought them through my campus bookstore it would have been more like $1200. That's not just pocket change!

Some other things to keep in mind. . .

  • Fill out the scholarship applications. Even if you don't think you're eligible for anything. Even if you don't feel like you have the time. Trust me, nobody feels like they have time to write scholarship essays. Know what that means? Most people don't. So if you do it, you automatically have an edge. -- And, hey, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. My college has a generic application that you fill out to apply to all of their university-wide scholarships. . . .I did that this semester, not expecting much -- but my efforts were rewarded with $1500 extra for this school year! And you know what? It only took me about twenty minutes. Twenty minutes for $1500 -- compare that to my $9.00/hr day job.
  • If you CAN pay your tuition in full, go for it! You'll save the interest payments on student loans, obviously. And even if your university offers a semester-long payment plan to stretch out the agony, those usually come with fees as well, so why not bite the bullet up front? If you're just a few hundred dollars short in cash on hand, would it make sense to put that amount on a credit card so you have a one-month reprieve to come up with the amount?
  • Exercise caution with your credit, though. Did you know if you regularly use more than about 20% of your available, it can take a toll on your credit score? It may be tempting to temporarily max out your cards, especially if you can justify it with cash back or points and know you can pay it off right away. . .But if your cards are often approaching their spending limits, you might want to think twice.

Last but not least,

  • Don't get so overwhelmed by the massive bills coming your way that you forget your regular budgeting! 
I made this last mistake. I've been back in school for a year now, and while I HAD been using Mint for my personal budgeting, I let it fall by the wayside. Partly because it was having trouble communicating with the bank I switched to when I moved up here, and partly because having $3000 go out the window in one lump sum every semester really messes up your monthly budgeting.

But I just got my Mint account back up to speed. Even if I don't feel like I can effectively "budget" when I'm showing a monthly deficit of thousands of dollars whenever tuition is due, it is at least INVALUABLE for tracking my spending and staying vigilant.

Yes, this frugal blogger has had a year of sloppy spending. Don't let it happen to you!

(If you're new to Mint, I wrote about it once before HERE. I'm thinking about writing another post on it, just because it's so awesome!)

Have you struggled with college student expenses? Share your stories here!