With fall in full swing, it's time to begin preparations for a new year of school. That's right; it's time to put away your party hat and hit the books -- whether you're ready or not.
But studying isn't all you have to worry about. With college costs at an all-time high, you also need to make sure the financial decisions you're making will improve your life -- both during and after school. In other words, you need to save as much as you can, when you can, and avoid as much debt as possible. Got it?
"It is important to recognize that half of college costs are in the living costs, not the tuition," says Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid expert and publisher of Edvisors.com. "Live like a student while you are in school, so you don't have to live like a student after you graduate."
According to Kantrowitz and other experts, a little bit of good, old-fashioned common sense will go a long way when it comes to saving money on college. For example, one way to save is price shop schools and choose one you can afford without taking on mountains of student loan debt. (See: Cheapest Online Colleges.)
"It is always better to reduce college costs than to take out more in student loans, which is why students should research grants and scholarships they can apply for," suggests Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of LexION Capital Management.
Still, there are ways to save that extend beyond the common sense suggestions most people are already aware of. As you look for ways to save on college, consider this list of life hacks that can save not only money, but time -- and quite possibly your sanity.
Tip #1: Eliminate your Latte Factor®.
According to David Bach, author of "Start Over, Finish Rich," the term Latte Factor® is "based on the simple idea that all you need to do to finish rich is to look at the small things you spend your money on every day and see whether you could redirect that spending to yourself."
If you want to eliminate your own Latte Factor® and save as a result, pinpoint a few money drains in your life. If it's coffee on-the-go, for example, learn to brew your own at home. If you don't have a coffee maker, you can even use a coffee filter wrapped over a bottomless paper cup with a rubber band! But really, just ask for a coffee maker for your birthday, OK?
Tip #2: Take advantage of social couponing sites.
Online coupon sites like Groupon and Living Social can help you save a boatload of money on items or services you planned to purchase anyway. However, it's important to only take advantage of deals if you truly planned to spend the money regardless. After all, you're not really saving money if you use these sites to overspend.
Tip #3: Buy used textbooks and resell them later.
Thanks to the Internet, buying and selling used textbooks rather than buying new is easier than ever. To find used textbooks, scour college message boards for individuals trying to unload their materials from last semester. Also check online sites like Craigslist to see if the books you need are available.
Sites like Amazon and eBay are also excellent resources for popular books in many areas of study. Once you find the books you need and use them, you can simply resell them in the same manner you purchased them.
Tip #4: Skip the credit card, or at least vow to use credit responsibly.
If you want to avoid additional debt on top of any student loans you take out, it might be wise to avoid credit altogether until you graduate. And if you do decide to open up a credit card account during the college years, avoid the temptation to charge things you can't pay off right away, says Clare Levinson, author of "Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better."
"The last thing you want to be doing is paying for college expenses well after you've graduated," she says. If you don't have the money in the bank to make a purchase, you can't afford it. Period.
Tip #5: Get app-savvy.
Modern students don't have to do everything the old-fashioned way. Thanks to technology, a slew of apps are there to not only help you accomplish everyday tasks, but help you save money as well. Some apps you should look into:
- Mint -- Use Mint to track your spending and net worth. See which categories you're spending most on, and use that information to rein in your discretionary spending and stick to a budget once and for all.
- WhatsApp and Skype -- Keep in touch with friends and family back home via text, voice, or video, all for free.
- Uber -- Using your smartphone, you can get a ride to any place at any time for a lot less than the cost of a cab.
- AirBNB -- Going away for the weekend? Instead of paying for a pricey hotel room, use AirBNB to book a cheap vacation rental or condo. Even better, use the on-site kitchen to prepare your own meals instead of going out.
- TaskRabbit -- If you need something done in a hurry, turn to TaskRabbit. With the website and mobile app, you can hire people to run errands, pick up supplies for school, or perform any other task that would make your life easier.
Tip #6: Buy used furniture -- or create your own.
Even if you want new furniture, you probably can't afford it. Fortunately, college is a time when you can generally get by with cheap, used furniture bought on Craigslist or at garage sales.
Can't find anything used? Just repurpose what you already have instead. Remember, it doesn't have to look fancy. A large desk, for example, might be the perfect place to set up your TV. And those old TV stands you have could work as bedside tables or end tables in your living room.
Tip #7: Don't assume you need anything, and get creative instead.
While you may think you need everything your friends have, chances are, many items you already have will work in their place. For example, instead of a TV, you could consider using cheap adhesive hooks to hold your iPad up to a wall. Voila! You have a small TV. More examples: Instead of a laptop riser, try rubber doorstops. And instead of iPhone speakers, put your phone in a glass to amplify the sound!
Tip #8: Learn to use your microwave to make everything.
If you crave takeout frequently, it might be wise to master the art of microwave cooking to make all your favorite dishes. With the right strategy, you can use your microwave to make everything from bacon and eggs to hamburger helper.
The Bottom Line
Whether you're heading to school for the first time or the last, it's important to make your education dollars count. Fortunately, with the right attitude, you'll find plenty of ways to cut down on the overall costs of your education.
Because remember, full-fledged adulthood is next. And while all those dollars and cents don't seem important now, you're going to need them.
1. Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of LexION Capital Management, interviewed by author via email on 8/7/2014
2. Clare Levinson, author of "Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better", interviewed by author via email on 8/7/2014
3. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com,interviewed by author via email on 8/7/2014