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15 Money-Saving Tips and Tricks for College Costs

To help keep costs under control during the school year, here are 15 things that parents of college students can think about trying.

It’s back-to-school time, and if you have a child starting or returning to college, no doubt tuition costs are on your mind. Hopefully you’ve been saving up for years, but even if you haven’t, here are my top 15 tips and tricks for minimizing costs and avoiding costly mistakes.

Paying for School

1. FAFSA.

If your child is applying for federal loans or grants, a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) must be completed each year of college. Even if you don’t think you’d qualify for federal aid, it’s worth it for college students and their parents to complete the FAFSA, because schools often use the information for other aid. So, if your child has not done so yet, work together to renew the FAFSA before the following deadlines:

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  • For attendance from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, forms can be submitted from Oct. 1, 2016, to June 30, 2018. It’s important to note that many states and colleges have earlier deadlines for applying for state or institutional financial aid. State deadlines can be found at https://fafsa.ed.gov/deadlines.htm. Check with individual schools for their deadlines.
  • For attendance from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, forms can be submitted from Oct. 1, 2017, to June 30, 2019. But the amount of aid available is limited and it’s given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s best to apply as early as possible.

2. Free money.

Explore grant and scholarship opportunities through the college or affiliation sites (e.g., veteran, firefighter, church organizations).

3. Don’t despair.

Don’t assume you won’t qualify for aid or low-cost loans. Many assets, like homes and retirement accounts, are not counted in the aid/loan calculation. If you have other children in college, that might also lower your expected contribution. It’s worth applying to find out. Make sure to document qualified education expenses if utilizing college saving plans (e.g., 529) plans or Education Savings Accounts) or IRAs to pay for college.

4. IRAs.

Remember that withdrawals from qualified education accounts and IRAs used to pay for qualified expenses must be made in the year the expense is incurred. Withdrawals made in a different year are considered non-qualified withdrawals subject to taxes and penalties.

Staying Out of Debt

5. Build a budget.

Work with your child to set a budget and strongly encourage her to stick with it. Don’t forget to include travel expenses between school and home.

6. Credit concern.

Instruct your child to avoid on-campus credit card sign-up booths and discuss the negative impact of high-interest debt.

7. Control spending.

If your child already has credit cards, discuss the importance of controlling usage. When your child uses a credit card for a discretionary expense, have her save the same amount in a savings account.

Managing Expenses

8. Go used.

Purchase used books and classroom materials. Most campuses have online sites for sale/exchange of used books and materials.

9. Go off-campus.

Buy school and household supplies off-campus. Such products are usually cheaper at off-campus budget stores or chains.

10. Go car-free.

Leave the car at home. This will save on parking fees, gas, maintenance and possibly insurance costs. Uber, Lyft or a bike can be more affordable ways to travel.

11. Be smart about gifts.

Have your child request money or campus bookstore gift cards from family/friends for holidays and birthdays.

12. Get cooking.

Research school meal plans to save on food. If your child does not know how to cook, help her learn a few quick and healthy recipes.

13. Get a side gig.

Have your student consider applying for an on-campus job. Certain jobs, such as note taking for disabled students for classes your child is already enrolled in, can allow your child to earn extra money without affecting her studies.

Medical Costs

14. Explore nearby options.

If your child is covered under your medical plan, make sure to go over the plan to identify in-network doctors and facilities near campus.

15. Save those receipts.

Have dependent children save receipts for any medical expenses that may be reimbursable through a health Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or deductible on your tax return.

Hopefully these pointers will help you get your college-bound students off on the right financial footing and teach them money-management skills that will extend well beyond their college years.

See Also: 2 College Finance Conundrums Clarified

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About the Author

Daniel Fan, J.D., LL.M., CFP

Director of Wealth Planning, First Foundation Advisors

Daniel Fan serves as the Director of Wealth Planning for First Foundation Advisors. Mr. Fan is a Certified Financial Planner™ and holds his Juris Doctorate and Master's in taxation from Pepperdine University School of Law and Golden Gate University respectively. He earned his Bachelor's degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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