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College can be expensive—probably not a shocker, right? But paying for your post-high school years is totally possible with a little planning.

“High school students should start thinking about a college budget as soon as they start seriously thinking about college,” says Amy Marty Conrad, director of the CashCourse program, part of the National Endowment for Financial Education that helps students and parents plan for college costs.

To start, you’ll want to think about what type of college you want to attend: a community or two-year college, a four-year college in state, a four-year out-of-state college, or a private university? Even if college applications still feel far away, figuring this out early is an important part of determining what you can afford and what types of financial aid or scholarships you may need.

“You might have a dream school that comes with a cost that may not be worth it,” says Leslie Tayne, Esq., college financial planning specialist and author of Life and Debt. “Your dream school can become a nightmare when you’re paying off loans.”

Once you have an idea of the types of schools you’re interested in, you can start implementing some simple saving strategies. Then use our insider’s guide to money-saving hacks (below) to help figure out how to save cash once you’re in college.

The cost of college

To make a college budget game plan, you need to figure out two things: how much money you’ll have (including any help from your parents, money you’ve saved from after-school jobs, and money from loans or scholarships) and how much money you’ll need to cover expenses—from tuition to textbooks.

Orange piggy bankCollege tuition varies a lot by state and by school, but below are the average costs, according to the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges.

  • Two-year community college: $3,500 per year
  • Four-year in-state college: $9,500 per year
  • Four-year out-of-state college: $25,000 per year
  • Private college: $33,500 per year

This cost usually varies according to two things: 1) Whether you live on campus or off; and 2) The overall cost of the town or city you’ll be living in. From community college to private institutions, the average annual cost of room and board ranges from about $8,000 to $12,000. This mostly covers rent (or the fee you pay to live in an on-campus dorm), but it also covers your meals and any apartment furniture or dorm essentials you’ll need.

College textbooks cost a small fortune—we’re talking $1,200 to $1,300 every year. Read on for tips on lowering this cost.

Transportation costs can vary widely depending on whether you live on or off campus, whether you’ll be commuting a lot, paying for parking, or if you’ll have to make long plane or train trips home. Depending on your plans, factor in about $1,000 to $2,000 per year.

“The earlier you make this budget, the better,” says Conrad. “You can always adjust the spending plan once you get to school and see what your needs are.”

How to start saving in high school

The best way to save cash for college is by starting now. “If you don’t have a checking or savings account yet, ask a parent or guardian to help you set one up. You can use your new account to deposit money from work or gifts,” says Conrad. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 15 percent of high school students said they were already saving for college, and 60 percent said they plan to start saving soon.

Conrad recommends putting 10 percent of any paychecks from summer or part-time work into a savings account “no matter what” and keeping it up through college. The money you save can go toward your typical college costs or to other big purchases such as a car.

“Senior year is a good time to think about taking on a part-time job during the school year, or a full-time summer job, so you can start [freshman year of college] with a good chunk of money in a savings account,” says Conrad. If you choose your employer wisely, it can pay off long after you start college—here’s how.

1. Summer jobs

Ask your summer employer whether there might be an opportunity for you to come back next year. Knowing you’re coming home to a steady paycheck the summer after your freshman year of college can make budgeting way less stressful.

2. Working during school breaks

The same goes for asking your boss if they’re open to your coming back over winter break or other school holidays. If that’s not possible, plenty of retailers, cafés, and Christmas tree lots are looking for extra help over the holiday rush. If you find yourself strapped for cash during the year, working for a week or two when you’re home for break can make a huge difference.

3. Chain locations

Tayne recommends starting a job in high school with a company that has many locations. There’s a good chance there might be a branch near your campus that you could transfer to during the school year—this way you won’t have to start your job search over again when you get to college (if you’re planning to work).

Once you’re ready to start a college savings account, ask your parent or guardian about setting up a 529—a special type of tax-exempt savings plan, operated by your state or a university—that helps families save for college. In a nutshell, a 529 account will make the money you save for college go a little further by investing your college cash in a mutual fund (a stock portfolio that can earn you some extra cash while you continue saving). Here’s how they work.

Ask your school counselor to help you get started on applying for financial aid and scholarships.

  • Start looking at scholarship and financial aid applications early—the more you can get the better. Step one is to fill out a FAFSA. 
  • Keep your grades up. “While many financial aid programs are based on your financial need, there are scholarships available for students with excellent grades,” says Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma. “Even after you have your admissions letter, focus on ending your last semester strong.” If your grades aren’t the greatest, there are tons of other scholarship options. Check out more ways to score scholarship money here.

Your insider’s guide to money-saving hacks in college

Once you start college, there are lots of awesome hacks to help you save money on campus.

“Look online first for books and supplies,” says Emily, a sophomore at Southwest Minnesota State University. Many sites offer used books for cheaper than you can get them on campus, and some places even allow you to rent for the semester. “I would start with Amazon and eBay and then go to the campus bookstore,” she says. You can also ask classmates if they have books you can borrow or check your school’s library. Another tip: Check to see whether an e-book is available for the class, as these can be more affordable. Just make sure the e-book includes all of the pieces you’ll need, such as a digital access code for supplemental online content.

Best sites for book deals, recommended by current college students:

“You don’t need all the fancy things for your dorm or apartment,” says Mary, a second-year undergraduate at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Rather than buy expensive new furniture, shop around on sites like Craigslist and Offerup (just make sure you’re putting safety before a good deal—try to meet in a neutral, public location and take a parent, friend, or other adult with you). Some schools even have social media groups where students can buy, sell, and trade old stuff.

“My first couch was threadbare and hideous, but it was free and a neutral slipcover made it work in my apartment.”
—Emily, fourth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Canada

Waiting a couple of weeks to get school supplies can mean scoring major deals—most retailers put dorm goods and school supplies on clearance right after school starts. Patience pays off here.

Meal plans can be one of the pricier items on your list of college expenses (the cost typically falls in the $1,000 to $3,500 per semester range and is included in the “room and board” estimate above). Many colleges offer a range of meal plan options. To save a little cash, consider getting a smaller plan and prepping some meals in your dorm or apartment.

Find some delicious dorm-proof recipes here.

“Depending on where you go to school, living off-campus with a few roommates could be less expensive than living in a dorm. At other campuses, dorms are the best value,” says Conrad. Before you commit to housing, do your research. Some schools require students to live in dorms while others offer off-campus housing. Living at home might also be an option and could save you a lot of money.

“Bulletin boards on the school campus always offer different options for housing like renting a room, needing a roommate, [and] cheaper apartments or studios.”
—Alexander, fourth-year undergraduate, College of the Desert, Palm Desert, California

Is a car a need-to-have or just a nice-to-have for grocery runs at the colleges you’re looking at? Parking permits on campus (not to mention gas, car payments, and insurance) can add up fast, so consider ditching your wheels for public transit. When you do occasionally need a car, car-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft can be a much cheaper alternative.

Tons of stores offer student discounts—saving 10 percent here and 20 percent there can make a big difference when you need to buy things. Before you pay, always ask if the retailer offers discounts with a student ID.

“For school supplies, you really don’t need to buy new ones every year,” says Hattie, a forth-year undergraduate at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Keep what you can (e.g., binders, pens, leftover index cards) from high school to save some cash when you go to college.

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Article sources

Amy Marty Conrad, director, CashCourse, Denver, Colorado.

Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate, Credit Karma, San Francisco, California.

Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., founder, Tayne Law Group, author of Life and Debt, New York, New York.

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