College would be a lot easier if it was just about acing tests. The reality is that it's also a major financial drain, and those who succeed are usually forced to learn a few financial lessons along the way. With that in mind, here are 10 money-saving tips to help you pay for college in 2013 and keep your finances afloat after graduation.
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Tip 1: Understand the long-term consequences of debt
Before you enroll, take a good look at the projected costs and figure out how much money you'll likely borrow over the next four years. Graduation will creep up on you faster than you think. When it comes, you'll need to start paying that money back.
"It's a terrible burden to come out of college with a huge backpack of school loans," says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action. Sherry says college debt is particularly tough since most students don't know exactly how they'll pay it. "Even if your life doesn't go as you want it to, you're still paying off these loans."
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid information resource FinAid.org, has this rule of thumb: Make sure your total college debt at graduation is less than what you can expect for a starting salary. If your dream job doesn't pay very much, you may need to be more cautious about taking on debt.
This is one of the biggest financial decisions you'll ever make, Kantrowitz says. "You just need to enter with your eyes wide open."
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Tip 2: Keep an eye out for scholarships, grants and work-study programs
There's a lot of free money out there for college students. You just need to look.
One of the best places to find scholarships and grants is your school's financial aid office. Community centers, religious institutions and other clubs also offer scholarships.
And then there's the Internet. You can find a plethora of online databases that will link you to scholarships and grants. The more personal information you provide, the more matches you'll get, Kantrowitz says. He adds that it's probably best to avoid sites that charge a fee, and never agree to share your information with a third party.
When looking, understand what sets you apart from your peers. There are plenty of scholarships tailored to brainiacs, athletes and students with major financial needs. You can also snap up cash for more obscure reasons. For example, you can score money for making your prom dress out of Duck Brand duct tape. Tall Clubs International offers a $1,000 scholarship for men and women of above-average height. And for vegetarians, you could score a $5,000 scholarship from The Vegetarian Resource Group, which offers two of these college scholarships per year.
Tip 3: Stick to federal loans, be wary of private loans
When faced with a choice between federal loans and private loans, reach for federal loans first.
They're cheaper, more available and come with better repayment terms. Federal loans also offer more options such as income-based repayment plans and public service loan forgiveness, Kantrowitz says.
"Maximize your federal loans all the way," says Ben Mangan, co-founder of Earn.org, a San Francisco nonprofit aimed at helping low-income people save money. Mangan says his group's research shows that it's very difficult to negotiate terms with private debt lenders.
Sherry agrees that private loans offer limited flexibility. "If you take private school loans, and your life goes the wrong way, and you want to try to get forgiveness by working as a schoolteacher in the inner city, these options aren't there for private loans."
Tip 4: Take a look around you
Your classmates will soon be your peers in the workforce. So, make sure you're forming the right friendships.
It's a crucial consideration, says Mangan, who views your college social network as something that could last "for the rest of your life." The right network can set you up with the right job, which can help you start off your adult life with a steady income to pay off debt and save for the future.
A desire for a strong network of colleagues played right into the decision-making process of Jessica Goodman, a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She saw the New York-based school as a place that would open doors and connect her with future leaders of the industry.
"I think I'll probably realize that many months after I graduate, but I can already see the seeds being planted," says Goodman. "You're open to so many more opportunities."
Tip 5: Talk to graduates about their experience
The point of college is to prepare you for the real world. So in addition to weighing the cost of various schools, find out how graduates fared after tossing their caps and entering the job market.
"Use social media," Mangan says. "Put a call out to people and ask what their experience was like. Get a range of answers and make a measured choice."
Did the graduates in your field have trouble finding jobs? Did they feel well-equipped and competitive in the industry? Are they having trouble paying off their debt? Their answers may be instructive in making the right choice.
Tip 6: Get a part-time job
Debts have a nasty habit of growing faster than you expect. One way to keep your college debt in check is by finding a part-time job.
Stephanie Kuo, who recently graduated from the University of Texas, Austin, spent some of her school breaks working at a movie theater.
"I pulled crazy shifts," says Kuo, 22, who sometimes worked 13-hour days. "In a month I'd get maybe $2,500. This was the kind of money I used for my personal expenses."
Think strategically about where you are working, as you could reap other kinds of savings. A job at the gym can get you a free membership. Daily shifts at the library can help you earn cash while you study. Better yet, internships in your target industry can help you build valuable connections and open doors for future employment. Work-study programs also can set you up with a steady income and valuable job experience.
"You have to be quick about going to the student employment office to see what's available," Kantrowitz says. "Better, more desirable jobs are snapped up first."
Tip 7: Be careful when using those credit cards
You're going to see a lot of credit card offers in the mail and on campus over the next few years. Watch out. Credit cards will heap more debt onto your existing student loan debt, and they'll charge high interest rates and demand a quicker repayment.
If you get a credit card and consistently pay it off on time, you'll build good credit. But if you have too many credit cards, frequently hit your credit limit or consistently miss your payment deadlines, you'll damage your credit score.
"I personally think no one should have a credit card until they are 21," Mangan says. "As someone who personally got into terrible credit card debt that began in college, I was way too young and did not have the financial grounding I needed to manage that."
Tip 8: Build smart money habits
In many ways, college lets you test-drive adulthood. It gives you the opportunity to form small habits that will lead to responsible adult living.
Start by thinking of small ways to save, such as buying books for less online, scaling back your mobile phone plan and ordering plane tickets early to avoid holiday prices. Then, look at your larger expenses such as housing and meal plans.
"People tend to opt toward living in dorms, but if you live with housemates off campus, it can be a lot cheaper," Mangan says.
"I never lived in a dorm," says Henry Gass, a recent graduate of McGill University in Montreal. "I lived off campus all four years, which in Montreal is really cheap."
For Goodman, who was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania, off-campus housing helped her save money on rent and food.
"I lived with seven other girls in a giant house," Goodman says. She avoided campus meal plans and saved money by making her own food. She and her housemates pooled their money together on weekly potlucks and household essentials such as toilet paper. "It was much cheaper than living on campus or living in a small apartment."
Tip 9: Make a budget, track your spending
You've heard this before: Your spending adds up. But in the moment, that $10 pizza seems minuscule. As do those $3 coffees and $4 beers. Before long, you've blown through your weekly budget.
"One-hundred dollars seemed like a ton of money when I was younger," Kuo says. "Now, I buy three $15 meals and I'm almost halfway done with it. It goes fast. That's what I've learned."
So make a budget, and prioritize your spending. What's more important to you: buying pizza every week or saving up for a study-abroad program in Paris? And if you want to buy a new laptop, can you make up for some of the cost by curbing spending on other things?
Once you have a budget, keep track of your spending. There are many online budgeting tools available, but using a spreadsheet or notebook will do the same thing. At the end of each month, take a look at where your money went and compare it with your financial goals.
When Goodman lived in New York City for a summer, she tracked her spending carefully. "It made me realize just how much I didn't have," she says.
Tip 10: Spend your summers strategically
Summer break is a precious gift, something that disappears (for most of us) with the onset of real adult life. And though it may be tempting to spend these months poolside, summer breaks are essential to setting up a bright future.
"Find the right jobs that will position you for employment," Mangan says. "Be very strategic about the types of internships you should take so you optimize your ability" to find a job.
Kantrowitz suggests getting a side job during the school year and taking community college classes in the summer. And make sure the credits transfer to your college. "It's getting harder and harder to get credit" from other places, Mangan says.
If the credits do transfer, you could save money. "The goal is to reduce the amount of time you spend at college, which reduces the cost to you in tuition and living and gets you finished sooner and with less debt," Kantrowitz says.
Copyright 2012, Bankrate Inc.