Degrees of Frugality: 7 Tips for the College-Bound

It's no secret that affording college tuition and all the related expenses can be a daunting prospect for students and families. According to the College Board in New York, tuition costs in 2010 have increased 6.5% for public universities and 4.4% for private — that's about twice the national inflation rate. Students who are responsible for all or part of these costs are in for a rude awakening regarding debt levels and should prepare themselves for a crash-course in frugal living.

Since graduating from college 18 years ago, I've had the opportunity to work with younger people struggling to pay undergraduate loans, graduate students embarking on a whole new debt load, and my own peers finally making those last loan payments. Though each circumstance is unique, there appears to be a few common strategies that can help contain the financial impact of college. They may not appeal to everyone or always fit in with the idyllic notion of ivy-draped walls or lingering existential exploration, but they can help keep students focused and insulated from some of the worst financial blows. Here are my seven tips for minimizing the costs of college.

1. Get in and get out

The average yearly tuition at a public university is $7,020 and more than $26,000 for private. This is no time to dawdle. Enjoy your college experience, make friends, learn, and broaden your horizons, but do so with intent. More time in college now means more time paying for college (with interest) later. Realize that it's not just tuition that's putting you in the red. Textbooks, housing, lost earnings and lost time invested in actively building your career all impact the bottom line. Beyond getting what you came for (a 4-year degree), get in and get out.

2. Make your adviser your best friend

A college degree is formulaic: By following a predetermined combination of coursework (minding prerequisites and GPA), you're rewarded with a particular number of credits which equal a degree. Done. Your college adviser keeps you on-track for graduation by monitoring your adherence to the formula and informing you of acceptable variables within it. As you meet with him, make certain you have all the information necessary to help him do the job. Take notes, ask questions, follow-up, and double-check the facts. Being an active advisee helps ensure that you don't take courses you don't need or face unnecessary delays on your degree path because of an unforeseen prerequisite. No one's infallible; keep your own spreadsheet of coursework completed and coursework remaining and compare it your official transcripts periodically to ensure accuracy.

3. Don't change majors

College should be a time when you have room to explore interests and some liberty to revise your goals. Use the first two years of your general education coursework to actively explore different fields of study so that you are more certain when the time comes to declare a major. Once declared, realize that any significant change means more coursework, more time and more money.

4. Be a four-season learner

Minimizing the number of calendar years that you devote to college can't be overstated. A well-paced, credit-focused college life that makes room for friends, study and part-time work should be a year-round, uninterrupted endeavor. Summers off-campus disrupt routine and can allow the temptations of life to derail college plans altogether. Summer coursework, though condensed, can give you a head start on credit requirements for the following term with reduced distractions and a quieter campus.

5. Don't discount community colleges

Community colleges may not inspire us to wax nostalgic about our alma mater later in life, but if tuition costs are a real concern, start here. Tuition at community colleges can be significantly lower than even public universities. Explore your options, pay attention to how your credits will transfer, and see if this option might work for you.

6. Avoid the bookstore blues

Getting your textbooks at the campus bookstore may be easier and quicker, but you'll pay for that convenience. Check out or for deeply discounted prices. With a little planning and legwork, the price of those textbooks each term can be a little less stratospheric.

7. Rethink housing

One of the smartest housing strategies I remember from my own college years came from the sister of dear friend of mine. Before her freshman year, her parents made a trip to the town where she was to attend college and purchased a modest two-bedroom mobile home in a quiet mobile home park. The place cost about $15,000, if I remember correctly. She moved in a few weeks before classes started and rented the spare bedroom to a friend. The rent she charged took care of the utilities and lot fee. This situation, with the expected roommate turnover, lasted the entire four years. Upon graduation, the parents sold the mobile home for a couple thousand more than they paid for it. I've always remembered this approach as keenly efficient and pragmatic — essentially zero housing costs for their daughter and some real-life landlord responsibilities and experience to boot. Lovely.

College shouldn't be all science and no art; there are larger life lessons to learn than money management. But at times, the combination of youth, the first tastes of freedom and the array of choices can all conspire to make college more expensive than necessary. These are just a few ideas that can help reign in those costs and keep students on-track. Grants, work-studies, and careers paths that allow for eventual loan forgiveness are all important avenues to investigate too. Prepared or not, Frugality 101-301 become part of the required coursework for both students and parents during these years.

This is a guest post by Kentin Waits. Kentin has written five guest posts for Wise Bread and been published in Backwoods Home magazine. His writings have been featured in other top blogs such as Consumerist and Lifehacker. He’s currently working on launching his own blog; look for it soon.

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Guest's picture

Some additional thoughts:
Another best friend should be the secretaries in your major department. These people are a weath of information about what classes will be taught when and by who (which helps with planning out future courses, especially in smaller majors where all courses may not be taught every term), they can help deal with a majority of problems with registering for classes, getting in contact with professors and may have an in with administrators in other departments including financial aid and the bursar (aka: office which takes all of your money). And, the thing is, most of these people really love to help college students, so it's easy to befriend them.

While taking courses in the summer is a good way to help get ahead and stay on track for an on-time graduation, those must be weighed against opportunities to get real world work experience in your major field via internships, co-op positions and part-time jobs. Even if these are unpaid positions (although paid positions are even better), these can not only help with future course work (through real world learning and helping you see applications of your course work), but also give you experience which makes you more valuable to future employers. It can extend your college career a bit, but in many cases it's well worth it. I co-oped which turned a 4 year program into a 5 year + 1 quarter program. But because it was a paid position, I was able to graduate without debt and with 1.5 years experience. My co-op job led, indirectly, to my first job out of college and I was hired in as an experienced engineer rather than a college new hire. I have a friend who is a photo journalism college student and is working as an intern with the Washington Post. He's assigned to the White house and regularly has his pictures run on the front page of the paper.

For those starting at a community college, look into what and how credits will transfer to the school(s) you're thinking of for continuing your degree. Doesn't save you much if half your credits transfer only as "free electives". Also, be aware that your financial aid status may be affected by being a transfer student as opposed to one coming in as a freshman.

And, for those reading who haven't finished high school yet, if you can hack it, take as many AP classes and tests as you can. Also look into dual/joint enrollment with college in your area. Getting college credit while still in high school (when it's much cheaper) is a great way to decrease the amount of time and money spend in college.

Guest's picture

To me, someone a few years out of college after following many of these tips, this sounds like a recipe for regret and disappointment. Residence hall life is where you develop relationships and have wider opportunities to get involved in the many events and programs that happen on campus, especially as a freshman. Living off campus means that it's more important to have a car, thus increasing costs. Also, while having a sense of purpose is important because of the amount of money you pay to go to school, once you're done, you are in for decades of work, limitations, and obligations that in most cases, you can't get out of. Why rush the last bit of relative freedom you'll have? The right training in college will better prepare you for what you actually WANT to do. Figuring out after 3 yrs. that you don't want a career in your major but sticking with it anyway because of the financial cost right now is not going to get you anywhere productive post-college.

I do agree that textbooks are always cheaper online and that university staff are among the best resources to tap into while in school. However, I think that rather than trying to scrimp to spend less, you should focus on spending smart and realize that college is about more than just getting a degree and getting out.

Guest's picture

This is a very good article. Unfortunately many young adults are graduating college with tons of debt whether it be in the form of student loans or credit card debt. The largest growing age group declaring bankruptcy these days is the 18 to 24 year olds. It is horrible to try to start a career with unmanageable debt or bankruptcy and a trashed credit report.

by Hollis Colquhoun

Guest's picture

Kentin, I think overall these are really great points, however, I think that there are two points that I disagree with.

3. Don't change majors
While I didn't change my major myself, I had many friends in college that did. A few of them even finished within the four years just like I did. Picking a major in college for some is like throwing a dart with a blindfold on. There are people that need college to help steer them in the direction that they want to go.

7. Rethink Housing
It's true that this may be a very pragmatic approach, but I think that it can be very limiting. Although my personal experience is not indicative of every college student, I made a lot of friends in my freshman hallway. In fact, many of these friends I continue to see on a regular basis today. I think that even from the financial perspective, there is value in networking and having connections.

I think suffice it to say, every person is different, what may have worked out wonderfully for me, may be a terrible idea for someone else. I'm glad that you threw all of these points out there, so that people understand their options, because in the end that's what really matters. Great post.

Kentin Waits's picture

Thanks for your comments -- I agree, choosing a major can be difficult. I just wish (in retrospect) that someone had stressed the importance of examining those options early in my college career. It's all about making the most qualified decision possible at the time to avoid too many changes and back-pedaling with credits. Thanks for your input!

Guest's picture

another inexpensive bookstore is I buy the international version, which is printed on cheaper paper, using cheaper ink and costs alot less. A $40 or more book costs about $10 for the international version NEW!

Guest's picture

There's no escaping the fact that college prices are rising. When I was in College, I sent myself to school all by myself and it was kinda hard. I took the easiest major and finished it for 4 years. I worked at the same to support my needs and projects. I really felt so tired but I have to do it since I really want to finished my studies.

Guest's picture

As a college professor one of the biggest money wasters I see are students who drop courses and take them over and over because they find a professor boring or a course too much work. I tell students, "Stick it out! You don't want to tell people that getting your four year degree was six of the best years of your life." Too many students waste time and money 'professor shopping' --looking for the easiest courses. Spending too long getting the degree also looks really bad on a resume.

Guest's picture

I really like these tips. The "don't change your major" one especially. I've changed mine several times and it's cost me. There are a lot of little things you can do while you're in college, too. For instance, you've gotta eat, so there are a plethora of ways to save, especially when grocery shopping. You should check out
The site has a lot of fun little money saving tips for groceries, virtually free leisure activities and a lot more!

Guest's picture

My motivation for staying on task and finishing college in four years? A partial, four-year renewable scholarship.

So I was tickled pink when my daughter earned a partial, four-year renewable scholarship! Yes, she's on target for graduating on time too : )

Guest's picture

I'm definitely coming into this discussion delayed, but I suppose better late then never, no? Unfortunately, that's one of the more defining phrases of my college career! (Though I did graduate on time, this past May, and got laid off from my part time job a week later...)

One huge tip that I can offer is to do everything in your power to not buy textbooks. This does NOT mean that you shouldn't have them (textbooks are pretty important, no matter what everyone else tells you!!), just be careful about which you buy for yourself and which you do not. Frequently, college professors publish their textbook list online through the college bookstore. Students then access these lists as soon as they are published and rush to the internet to buy all of their books as cheaply as possible (I did this for the first three years of college.).

However, frequently things change between when that text list is published and when classes begin. Sometimes the professor will change, the class will be unexpectedly canceled, or a professor will accidentally include a book he or she didn't mean to on his/her order list. All of those things have happened to me. Even if you ignore everything else I say, please consider waiting until the first week of classes to buy your textbooks. Get the syllabus and listen to what the professor has to say about the assigned readings before you shell out any cash.

And then I started reading an article ( about getting textbooks for free. It changed my senior year of college. The library and Inter-Library Loan (Something I discovered that most of my fellow students knew nothing about!!) were my best friends. My city also has a public library that is free to residents and university students--that was another real lifesaver, since not a lot of students used the public library! Sometimes professors will put copies of the textbook on course reserve to allow students to access it for a few hours at a time or overnight.

As a polisci major, a lot of my textbooks weren't really Textbooks(TM) per se, but instead original documents and political theory tracts. (Plato's Republic, the Federalist, etc.) Most of these are public domain and found online for free (bartleby, etc.) or easily found in a discount book store (think Goodwill or a local flea market) for fifty cents or so.

Another great resource is the bookstore at the END of the school year. In the spring, my university has a huge discount book sale of all of the old editions of textbooks that they found no longer useful. I found a ton of nice, brand new text AND tradebooks for a dollar or two. I impulsively picked up an Intro to Linguistics textbook for two bucks and lo and behold, found myself taking that very class a year later.

Also, trade with your friends! If you have friends in your major/minor/academic track, you'll be taking some of the same classes (albeit not always the same semester! Besides, sharing textbooks can be a hassle unless you live in the same building). Trade your Intro to Philosophy texts for his/her Modern Ethics texts, and so forth. The same can apply for Gen Ed requirements.

If it's an extremely important core textbook or what will probably be a Very Difficult Class (Although I didn't buy any textbooks for the two capstone courses I was in and got A's in both...), you should really consider actually shelling out the cash. Also, these directions don't work very well for most science majors, or so I've heard. But any social science, language, or humanities major should consider these options.

Guest's picture

Thanks, Nicole -- these are all great insights and tips. Thanks for passing them along!

Guest's picture

#3 and #4 were how I made it through my 4 year degree in 3 years.

I had a very fulfilling college experience and don't feel I missed out on anything PLUS I saved an entire year's worth of added expenses (housing, food, missed work, etc).

Good advice!