How to Avoid Debt & Save Money While in College

News flash — college is expensive! Over the past 40+ years, gas prices have increased about 300%, gold has risen more than 1,200%, but the cost of college has outpaced them both skyrocketing more than 1,600%. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2022–2023 school year was $39,400 at private colleges, $10,950 for state residents at public colleges, and $28,240 for out-of-state residents who attended public universities. Remember these costs do not reflect other expenses that college students will incur such as housing, transportation, food, and entertainment.

The exorbitant cost of college has directly led to many students taking out massive loans that they are finding increasingly difficult to pay back. As a result, many young Americans are being crushed by school loan debt, which now stands at $1.75 trillion – America’s largest form of debt other than home mortgages.

The Real Problem

In spite of these rising costs, there is not adequate education, information, or support systems in place to assist students (and their families). The issue is threefold: 1) lack of awareness, 2) lack of resources, and 3) most importantly, lack of financial literacy/education.

Imagine a world where the government was committed to financial literacy as well as wellness and invested more in helping families make smarter college choices. What if our society spent more money, time, and attention on addressing the student loan crisis by educating students before they take on the debt? 

Fortunately, there are a lot of efforts underway to help people with student loans, including a growing number of employers that are committing themselves to financial wellness with college coaching and student debt repayment benefits. Let’s educate young people about risk and reward and provide them with education and tools to make informed decisions about their education and future employment.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt

Paying for college is a challenge for most. There are numerous ways to go about it, and there’s not always one clear path. You’ll most likely need to pool together funds from multiple sources. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true when it comes to avoiding student loan debt. In other words, putting in smaller amounts of effort to earn and save money now, will have a huge payoff later when it comes to being able to afford college.

So how do you avoid loans? Here are some ideas: 

  • Begin working as a teenager – Your teenage years are an ideal time to work and start saving money for your potential higher education opportunities. These years are probably the easiest time to save money because you are living at home with little to no expenses. Working as a teenager will also provide you with valuable skills and real world experience.
  • Take AP classes – Taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school can help you earn college credit alongside your diploma and lead to tuition savings as an undergraduate. AP credits allow students to skip introductory classes once they start college.
  • Dual enrollment programs – Did you know you can earn college credit for classes taken during high school? Yep! It’s one of the best ways to save money on tuition (and time attending college). Classes like this are usually issued via public university credits.
  • Employer tuition reimbursement – There are a ton of employers these days that offer to pay your tuition – or at least help you avoid student loan debt.
  • Apply for scholarships and grants – Each year over $100 million in scholarships goes unclaimed! This is because students simply don’t know they exist. Applying for free money for college can help you avoid costly loans. Quite a few good colleges offer merit scholarships, in many cases for students who meet certain GPA and/or SAT/ACT score cutoffs.
  • Student research positions – To help cover college expenses, students might also be able to work on certain projects as undergraduate researchers. Not only do these types of roles help pay some of the bills, but they also provide real-world experience that can help build your resume for jobsor graduate programs.
  • Work-study programs – Federal work-study programs are mostly offered to students who can exhibit financial need. They are designed to help supply you with an income while you attend undergraduate or graduate courses.
  • Internships – Internships can be a way to build real-world experience while in school. Most internships offer you some type of course credit and in addition, many come with the bonus of being paid.

Top Ways to Save Money While in College

We’ve all heard the mantra, “live like a college student.” This doesn’t have to mean eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and scrounging under your car seats for coins. You can save money in college by simply being mindful, resourceful, and smart with your choices.

Remember, so much of the path to financial success is having the awareness of where your money is going. And the earlier in life you start, the bigger the impact it will have later on. As the costs of college continue to rise, the idea of saving money in college might sound preposterous—but it’s totally attainable. The more cash you can save, the more prepared and confident you’ll be entering the real world.

Here are some ideas to eliminate many of college’s biggest expenses:

  1. Attend an in-state school – This single decision can save you tens of thousands of dollars! The average tuition at a public, in-state school is $10,950 per year, while the average tuition at a public, out-of-state school is $28,240 per year (College Board).
  2. Work while in college – Working during your college years is essential for potentially lowering or avoiding student loan debt.
  3. Ditch your car – If you decide to live on or near campus, you can probably get by without a car during college. According to AAA, the average annual cost to own and operate a new car in 2022 was $10,724, or $894 a month.
  4. Maximize campus and university amenities – Research what your school’s activity and athletic fees cover; you might be surprised! For example, there’s no need to pay $50+ a month for a gym membership if your college has a workout facility you can use for free.
  5. Embrace cord cutting and eliminate cable – Is it necessary to cough up $100+ a month for 300 channels you’ll never watch? Cutting your cable could easily save you $1,200+ a year, or more.
  6. Take advantage of student discounts – Your student ID might be more valuable than you think! Many places offer student discounts at a variety of restaurants, shops, movie theaters, theme parks, and more.
  7. Learn to cook simple meals – Most of the time it’s cheaper to cook than it is to go out and buy premade food. While a dinner for $15 may sound cheap, it adds up over time. You can probably cook the same meal (and prep for future meals) for less than half the price.
  8. Earn your degree in four years or less – Perhaps one of the best ways to save money in college is to create a plan/timeline for a degree. Earning a bachelor’s degree in four years, as opposed to five or six, can save you thousands.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, most folks enter college these days with the expectation of borrowing a ton of money then paying it off later when they get a job. There are plenty of other options to consider (in addition to what’s provided in this article), and they can all lead to a rewarding career.

Odds are, with the soaring cost of college, you’ll require more than just one tactic to pay for your schooling. It bears repeating, millions of dollars of grant and scholarship money go unclaimed each year. Carefully research the cost of attendance at the school of your choice and put together a plan that allows you to meet those costs as efficiently as possible. 70% of college students leave college with debt. Become part of the 30%!


Jason Brown is the author of Margin Matters: How to Live on a Simple Budget & Crush Debt Forever. In 2021, he released IT IS POSSIBLE!: How I Earned Two Debt-Free Degrees…and How You Can, Too. He can be followed at www.yourmarginmatters.com


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