How to Develop Your Financial Savvy While Still in School

Using coffee filters as a substitute for toilet paper and rigging sanitary pads as shower slippers. These are just some ways college students become creative in cutting costs. Steve Harvey says, “College teaches you to live without,” and we couldn’t agree more!

But you don’t have to adopt extreme cost-cutting measures to avoid the debt trap and enjoy the college experience to the hilt. Your common sense, combined with planning and following through with your plans, will suffice. You will also find that it’s never too early or too late to start with your college-saving plans. 

But first, why is there such a strong push for college students to become more financially savvy? The cost of a college education is still a financial challenge for many American families. This is true even with community colleges, public universities, and financial aid options available for college students with modest budgets. Even the seemingly small tuition fee increases over the years add up, particularly with static wages and economic downturns. 

And then there’s the pandemic with its unique set of challenges, including closures of businesses where college students typically work and online learning. If there’s a ray of hope, it’s the decrease in average tuition and fees in public and private institutions for the 2020-2021 academic year. 

According to a US News annual survey, the decrease ranged from 4% for ranked public schools to 6% for out-of-state tuition from last year. Many colleges and universities have also either suspended their annual tuition hikes or offered tuition discounts for the year. 

But these reprieves may be insufficient because student debt remains a significant issue in our times. In 2020, 54% of college students incurred $37,584 in average debt per borrower, and 14% of adults carry student debt. The outstanding student debt is $1.57 trillion, with 6.5% of it at least 90 days past due or in default. 

Again, there’s a ray of hope as the federal government’s actions will lead to about $100 billion in total student loan forgiveness from March 2020 to September 2021.  The passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act resulted in the suspension of student loans. This covered the payments due and accrual of interest related to student loans with federal backing, a move favorable to over 44 million borrowers. 

However, college students are still well-advised to become more financially savvy to graduate with little to no student loans! You will be surprised at the numerous ways that you can save money with a shoestring budget. 

Table of Contents

How To Develop Your Financial Savvy While Still In School

#1 Start While You’re Still in High School

Enjoying the full college experience – more meaningful involvement, less debt – starts planning for it in high school. Your foresight will result in fewer classes taken in college and, thus, less tuition spent. 

  • Take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and get high scores. Many colleges will award credits for AP scores, either as elective credit or a general education credit. You can ask about the possibility of credit transfers through the admissions office of whatever colleges you’re planning on attending. (Note: Brown University doesn’t award credits from AP courses)
  • Take advantage of dual enrollment programs. You earn college credits at your high school or your local community college at a reduced cost or for free.  You will get a head-start on college and access college resources, but you can save money on tuition.
  • Get on a College Level Examination Program (CLEP), a program administered by the College Board and designed to assess college-level knowledge. You can choose from 36 subject areas, such as American literature, financial accounting, and foreign languages, and take the designated tests. If you pass, you can earn college credits for the specific subjects without taking their corresponding college courses. 

Of course, these college tuition reduction measures require hard work, but these are well worth it. You may be able to transfer credits for much general education or elective courses. You can then enjoy hundreds of dollars in saving in your freshman year. 

#2 Plan to Graduate in Four Years or Less

Every college student wants to graduate in four years or less because the longer you’re in college, the more expensive it becomes. You must then plan for it, from taking college-level courses and saving for college to taking on a full course load. Your determination will be tested, but your college costs will be manageable if you stick to your plan. 

  • Decide on a major before your freshman year. You can then determine the classes you’re going to take every semester so you can finish in four years. You may shift majors in your sophomore year, but you may want to consider allied studies, such as shifting from biochemistry to environmental science.
  • Take on a full course load, if possible. Most, if not all, schools have 120-credit bachelor’s degree programs. It usually depends if your school is on a semester or quarter system that you can take 15 credits per semester (five courses) or 12 credits per quarter (three courses). You should also consider summer classes to get ahead of your coursework.
  • Understand your school’s requirements for graduation, including the core courses, majors and minors, and electives. You can use a tracker to monitor the requirements for these courses so you can be on track. 

Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, you should consult with an academic advisor, so you’re on track toward graduation. You can make better sense of the confusing requirements when it’s explained in detail. 

#3 Decide Well on Your College of Choice

Your choice will be influenced by your ability to pay for the cost of attendance (COA) year in and year out. You may get a significant pass on your tuition and fees, thanks to financial aid, but you have other expenses to consider. 

You can keep your COA low by considering these options:

  • Attend a public college or university. Public schools are more likely to be less expensive than private schools, particularly for-profit ones, before applying for financial aid.

But even in public schools, there’s a substantial difference between tuition for in-state and out-of-state students! The latter can pay as much as $11,000 more than their in-state counterparts; on average, the out-of-state tuition and fees are $21,184 on average at ranked public colleges in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Fortunately, there are ways to pay in-state tuition, even if you’re an out-of-state student. These include tuition reciprocity agreements between states, regional tuition exchange programs, and legacy scholarships. 

  • Consider Ivy League universities and other prestigious schools but look at their financial aid options. Princeton University, Yale University, and Harvard University may be renowned for their selective admission and expensive sticker prices. But these institutions also offer generous financial packages that slash the tuition by nearly a third! Harvard University even offered $58,902 in financial aid to undergraduates, an amount that exceeded its $51,925 tuition and fees for 2019-2020. 
  • Go to community college first and then transfer to a four-year university. Community colleges typically have much lower tuition and fees for their associate degree programs. You may then transfer the credits to a bachelor’s degree program. 

Again, consider the pros and cons of as many colleges as possible before making your choice. But if you’re dead-set on a specific college, you must work with an academic advisor. 

#4 Consider a Career in the Military

The military takes care of its own—starting while you’re in college! You have several options, including: 

You will not only be getting a free college education, but you have a sure path toward viable employment after graduation. 

#5 Apply for Financial Aid

Even if you believe that you don’t need the financial aid or are not qualified for it, apply for FAFSA! There’s no income limit, so it doesn’t matter whether your family has high or low income to qualify for federal student aid. Many factors, such as your year in college and your family size and income, are considered in your eligibility. 

If you’re not filing FAFSA, you’re leaving money on the table that could have been used to pay for your college education! Keep in mind that federal grants don’t have to be repaid, and federal student loans have more favorable terms. The work-study programs are also an excellent way to build your resume and fund your education. 

Furthermore, your situation can change during your college years. Your family’s finances, for example, may have been affected by the pandemic, and college expenses become more burdensome. You can appeal for more federal aid and submit new supplements to support your request. 

You must also be careful about filling in the FAFSA information as it can make or break your financial aid package. Prepare to submit the form early, too, preferably as soon as it’s available on October 1 every year. This is because many schools use the FAFSA in their allocation of need-based grants and scholarships. 

#6 Negotiate Your Financial Aid Package

Take note that your financial aid package isn’t static since it can change based on newly discovered or experienced special circumstances, such as salary deduction or job loss. You can appeal your financial aid in a process called a professional judgment review. 

Since money is involved, planning is a must for success. Here are a few tips to remember: 

  • Review the financial aid letter, so you have an idea of the best way of putting into words your request. Need-based and merit-based aid are two different animals and, thus, requesting an increase will require different approaches.
  • Make sure you have a general idea of the rules, such as combining in-school and external scholarships. Be prepared with the numbers in dollars, so you and the financial aid panel have a common point of reference.
  • Call the financial aid office about your plan and inquire about the next steps. You can gather more information about other grants and scholarships, too. Be sure to ask about the appropriate forms, process, and deadlines – and follow them! You must respect the process, particularly as you’re not the only one in line.
  • Keep a trail of the process, including your letter of negotiation and other documentation. You should mention in your negotiation letter the reasons you’re appealing for an increase in financial aid.

Don’t hesitate to follow up on your request if you haven’t heard from the financial aid office after two weeks. You may or may not receive additional aid, but it was worth a shot, not to mention that it’s an experience you can learn from. 

#7 Look for Local Scholarships

Did you know that there are over $7.4 billion in private scholarships and fellowships just waiting for the intrepid student to win them? Even better, many of these opportunities are available on the local level! 

Admittedly, national scholarships are attractive because of their high-profile reputation and generous amounts. Examples include the Elk National Foundation Most Valuable Student Scholarship, the National Merit Scholarship, and The Gates Millennium Scholars Program. But these are more competitive and selective, which translates to lower chances of winning for an average student. 

You must then also look for local scholarships since their small amounts will add up and cover most of your college expenses. Here’s how according to US News: 

  • Ask your high school guidance counselors or academic advisors in college about local scholarships. These professionals make it their job to know about these matters. But spread your net, too, by researching past winners of these scholarships.
  • Take advantage of community networks. The local chambers of commerce are great places to start since they likely have lists of local businesses. Then, use the Internet to search for local businesses, churches, and other organizations like the Rotary Club with scholarship programs. You may also ask your parents about scholarships offered by their employers. 

You will be surprised by the scholarship opportunities waiting for your discovery! Your consistency and persistence will be tested but keep at it because the reward can be a nearly free college education. 

#8 Consider Tax Breaks

Even a generous financial aid package may be insufficient to cover all your college expenses. Consider tax breaks that can decrease your tax bill and, in turn, increase your discretionary fund. You and your parents have to discuss these tax credits where applicable. 

  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) allows for a $2,500 per student per year tax break on undergraduate tuition, fees, and books. You can claim it for four years by filling out IRS Form 8863 along with your tax return. You can file it if you’re filing your tax returns, or your parents can claim it if you’re a dependent.
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) allows for up to 20% of the first $10,000 paid for tuition, fees, books, and equipment in the previous year as a tax break. Undergraduate, vocational, and graduate students can also avail of it, and there’s no limit to the number of years a qualified person can claim it. But you can only claim either the AOTC or LLC in the same year.
  • The tuition and fees deduction allows for up to $4,000 of tax break from your taxable income. This covers qualified higher education expenses, including tuition, fees, and books. Look up Form 1098-T from your school to determine the qualified amount and submit IRS Form 8917 along with your tax return.
  • The student loan interest deduction program is available for undergraduate students interested in a qualified student loan, a federal and a private student loan. But be sure to check that your parents or guardians didn’t claim it if you’re a dependent.
  • The 529 Savings Plans can also provide tax breaks that can be used for your college education. You and your parents will like the tax-free earnings and withdrawals from the plan.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, student loans that have been forgiven are now tax-free! 

Keep in mind that these tax credits and educational deductions have specific rules and regulations confusing. Talk to an accountant so you can take full advantage of these tax breaks. 

#9 Set a Monthly Budget

Now, we’re getting to the meat of becoming a financially savvy college student – setting a monthly budget and sticking to it! Unless you already have solid spending and saving habits, you will find it challenging in the first few months. But if you find yourself getting over your budget in the first two months, you can rectify your mistakes in the third month. 

  • Gather information about the possible monthly expenses you will likely incur. These include tuition and fees, room and board/rent and meals, and incidental expenses. You can talk to experienced college students, the office of student affairs, and your parents, among others.
  • Set a monthly budget. We suggest the effective 50-20-30 rule:
  • 50% for living expenses, including rent, utilities, transportation, and food. 
  • 20% for savings and investments like an emergency fund and debt payments 
  • 30% discretionary fund or things that you want but don’t need, including travel and entertainment
  • Track all your spending for the first two months, and we mean everything, even if it’s a $0.50 purchase. 

You will then determine how well you’re managing your finances and which parts need improvement.

#10 Use a Budgeting Software

If you’re having issues sticking to your budget and seeing which parts you’re failing in, you may want to consider budgeting software. Not only will it make tracking your expenses easier, but it will also make you feel more motivated to continue! 

A few budgeting software we recommend: 

  • SplashMoney 
  • iBank 6 
  • PearBudget Online 
  • Nickel Tracker 

You may also use the old-fashioned but still effective pen-and-paper method. Do what works best for you! 

#11 Keep an Eye Out for Discretionary Spending

While the 50-20-30 rule gives more financial freedom since 30% of your budget goes to discretionary spending, you shouldn’t be complacent about it. You must also limit your discretionary spending as the dollars can fly out the window faster than you think.

  • Swap your clothes and other personal belongings except for underwear and the like. You will find that new clothes aren’t necessary for a meaningful college experience. You’re not in high school anymore, where every day seems like a fashion show with the harshest critics ever.
  • Skip the salon treatments and beauty products whenever you can. There are plenty of at-home beauty treatments, and you can find coupons for beauty, hygiene, and grooming products that result in significantly reduced prices. Use coupons on all purchases if you have to! 
  • Distract yourself from the urge to shop. You can take a walk outdoors, clean your room or do yoga, whatever works to clear your mind of the shopping impulse. Be sure to leave your debit and credit cards when you go out, so you don’t use them. 
  • Shop generic brands and discount items if you must absolutely buy essential items. The small savings can add up over the long-term period. 

And if push comes to shove, ask yourself, “Do I need this item? Will it make me truly happy, or am I keeping up with the Joneses?” Think about the benefits of delayed gratification, too. 

#12 Share with Others Whenever Possible

Split your expenses with other college students whenever possible. You don’t have to be a prick about it since there’s a limit to sharing costs, perhaps even letting others pay for your share. You can establish rules, for example, with your roommates about sharing the rent, food expenses, and utilities. 

Ask your roommates about their opinion regarding cost-sharing schemes. Keep in mind that you’re not just planning for sharing in terms of dollars, although it’s likely the primary consideration. You must also plan for the related tasks – who will do the grocery shopping, cook, and clean on what days. The time and effort to perform these related tasks will eat into your schedule if you’re the primary person responsible for them. 

#13 Watch Your Food Costs

If you already have a meal plan included in your college payments, it makes sense to take full advantage of it! The food may not be gourmet, but if it’s filling, nutritious, and tastes good, then it’s A-okay. Your mind and body will be as nourished with cafeteria food as restaurant food, and you save more bucks in the end. 

A few more things to keep your food costs low whether you live on- or off-campus and yet live a good life in college: 

  • Attend events where food and drinks are served for free! Large colleges and universities have student organizations that offer pizza, soda, and beer, for example, to attract participants to its events. You may even have many of your weekly meals enjoyed in this manner.
  • Cook your own food. There’s an abundance of easy-to-make dishes that cost a fraction of their pre-made versions and restaurant meals. Even a bowl of instant noodles can be spruced up with fresh veggies!
  • Be on the lookout for coupons, promos, and discounts from restaurants. You will be surprised about the many ways that groceries and restaurants use to attract student traffic. 

And don’t be snotty about getting food at the clearance counter or discounted food nearing their expiry date. These are just as good as the food in the main aisle.  

#14 Save Money on Textbooks

According to a College Board survey, college students spent an estimated $1,240 on books and supplies (2019-2020). In another survey, 40% of students decided against buying one of their textbooks due to the high cost. 

But you don’t need to skip textbooks because you can’t afford them! Here are ways that will cut your textbook costs: 

  • Buy used books for a substantial discount. You can even buy older versions of textbooks since their contents are still similar, if not the same, as the new editions.
  • Apply for textbook scholarships. Many schools offer them, such as the University of Dayton, Indiana State University, and Folsom Lake College.
  • Check for bookseller discounts where students enjoy price reductions on textbooks by virtue of their universities’ partnerships with booksellers. Examples include the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee-eCampus.com and the University of Missouri- McGraw Hill partnerships.
  • Take advantage of library resources. University libraries maintain an extensive collection of required textbooks, books, journals, and e-books on a comprehensive range of subjects. Why buy when you can borrow books?
  • Rent or buy e-books since these are cheaper than their paper counterparts. 

#15 Live It Up in College on a Budget

College is a time to live it up, and we have numerous movies and shows that celebrate college life as the best time ever. But entertainment in college can be a burden on your budget! The good news is that it takes a little creativity, lots of friends, and a willingness to party to live it up, and here’s how. 

  • Attend free events, house parties, and other student activities for free. Name it, and your university will likely have it – concerts, sports games, and plays, as well as the fraternity and sorority-sponsored events. You will not only meet people, but you may even get free food!
  • Use the gym and other fitness facilities. Why bother with gym membership fees when the oval track, campus gym, and basketball court are all for free?
  • Cut the cable and go online instead. You will not only get more options, but you’re also paying less for entertainment and information. 

Your circle of friends matters most when it comes to living it up in college. Even a simple camping trip can result in great memories. 

#16 Be Savvy About Transportation

College students can spend as much as $1,760 per year on transportation, an expense that can largely be avoided by adopting cost-cutting measures. 

  • Use the free transportation options provided by your college, such as free shuttles and buses. These modes of transportation run on time, safe and clean, and reliable, too, which is one more thing off your list.
  • Take advantage of a student pass. Ask about student discounts on local transits, buses, subways, and trolleys, and these discounts add up over four years. You may not even want to own a car since it requires maintenance costs.
  • Live close to the campus or avail of on-campus accommodations, if possible. While the rent may be higher, you’re saving on transportation costs, especially if you can walk to your classes. 

If one of your roommates has a car, you can also carpool and share gas expenses if it’s more convenient and cost-efficient on both ends. 

#17 Get Hold of Student Discounts

You will likely only be a true-blue college student once, so you may as well enjoy the perks! And one of these perks is student discounts, many of which are generous to save money faster. You have to ask about student discounts and be surprised that several establishments want to attract student business. 

A few examples include: 

  • Apple stands out for its special student freebies and prices for its back-to-school season. Freebies include free AirPods, 5% on most items, and $200 off on eligible Mac purchases.
  • Dell offers discounts on its desktops, laptops, and other gadgets and accessories.
  • Microsoft offers great student discounts, including $194 off on Surface Pro 3 and a 10% discount on accessories.
  • Lenovo offers student discounts on its desktops, laptops, and tablets through its Academic Purchase Program.
  • Sony’s Student Store membership offers up to 10% on products for students.
  • Norton has student discounts on its antivirus software and security apps.
  • Evernote, an organization and productivity app maker, offers 50% off on its premium plan. It costs $7.99/month.
  • Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness app that students can benefit from, costs $69.99/per year, but students can get it for $9.99/year.
  • Pottery Barn Teen offers a 15% discount for décor items.
  • Samsung’s Education Discount Program offers a 10% discount on eligible laptops, phones, and tablets.
  • Greyhound Package Xpress gives students up to 40% off on package shipments, while Greyhound’s Student Advantage Discount Card can result in 20% savings on walk-up fares and online tickets. 

You get discounts on insurance by getting good grades, too! Check out Allstate, Geico, State Farm, and Farmers for more details. 

#18 Request for Emergency Aid

There will be times when you’re still short on cash, and it’s a common experience among average college students. You may have encountered an unexpected expense that your savings and earnings can’t cover. Don’t despair, as you can request emergency financial aid from your college! 

You can ask the financial aid office or the office of student services about an emergency relief fund set aside for students with an urgent need. In the pandemic, there’s federal funding available for students affected by it, too. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 mandated direct aid for students, but the process varies by institution. 

You must then coordinate with concerned university officials since availing of the financial aid may mean completing the FAFSA or a separate application. For example, the University of Wisconsin – Madison plans on distributing $1,000 in federal emergency aid to Pell Grant-eligible students. Funds will also be set aside for enrolled students experiencing emergency financial difficulty with applicants submitting an online Emergency Support Request form. 

#19 Use Cash

Using a credit card and a debit card for purchases has its pitfalls. You will find it so easy to swipe your cards because you do not see the dollars leaving your wallet. 

You may even adopt the mindset that you can manage your credit card debt, and you’re on top of it. But like an addict, you’re in denial, and your credit card debt will balloon faster than your student loan debt. 

The bottom line: Use cash on your transactions so you can keep track of your expenses! 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use credit cards since these have their uses, too. You must use a credit card – we suggest sticking to just one card – for emergencies only. You should also double-check your credit card bills so you can cancel unused services and cut back on purchases. 

Here’s a tip: Avoid using your credit card to pay for tuition, fees, and housing fees since you’re paying for the service. Most cards impose a 1.75% fee, which can be substantial on large payments. 

#20 Earn Money

Last but not least: keep a side hustle or a job that will pay your bills! Even if your tuition, fees, and textbooks are covered by financial aid, you have other bills, products, and services to pay for. Your side hustle will not only pay these bills but also bring more money to your savings account and beef up your work experience. 

College is a blend of learning and living, a time when you can enjoy your youth while preparing for adulthood. And adulting demands financial responsibility, which you can work on even before you set foot in your first college class.