When you’re in undergrad, being independent from your parents is practically a far-fetched dream. For a couple of very unfortunate souls (myself included), it’s a hundred percent forced reality. For most, being independent just means racking up thousands and thousands in debt. We all know the next crisis is student debt. We all know that higher education is more expensive now than ever before. But, beyond political debate, there is very little said about how students can save money on a micro level. But, you can go to undergraduate education in USA without being in debt or having your parents pay for everything. You can even do it without eating Ramen every night. I know because I do.
Now, to be fair, I have a pretty generous merit scholarship to my school that fully covers my tuition and then some. But, I promise, you can too. I’m not sure about every school, but my school has tons of scholarships (small ones, sure, but every penny counts) that go without anyone applying to them or even without anyone realizing they exist. So, apply to some scholarships when you’re in school. If you get it, it’s the easiest you’ll ever earn money. Pro tip: Scholarship season is either in September/October or in April/May. Go wild.
When you’re just entering college, you’re in the best position to get merit scholarships. If your grades weren’t that great or your SAT score was nothing to brag about, don’t worry. You can still swing a merit scholarship. If you already received a scholarship, you can probably get more. Once you’ve been accepted, but haven’t committed, you reach out to financial aid, the scholarship office, and every office in between to beg for money. Explain that you don’t have much money, you really want to go to XYZ school, and you’d really appreciate more help from the institution. You might want to reiterate some reasons on why you’re awesome. If it doesn’t work, apply to the small scholarships and you lost nothing at all trying. If it works, that’s great!
So, scholarships aside, what can you do to save money? Well, ditch your meal plan as soon as you can have access to a kitchen. Yeah, you’re probably too lazy to cook (like me), but you can make it work. You will literally save thousands because school meal plans are a huge rip off and often come with terrible food. Plus, ditch on campus housing. I personally stayed on campus my whole time in undergrad (because my school is in some random mountains and you literally cannot get around without a car), but if you can, move to off-campus housing. It’s so much cheaper and you’ll probably have a nicer place, but definitely get some people to share with because it’ll be super expensive alone for rent and you can carpool!
You can also go the traditional route and get a part-time job. I’ve had about four or five in the last couple of years and always stayed a full-time student (even when I was working 35 hours a week). It’s really rough and you’ll probably hate your life, but at least you’ll have enough money to buy booze for weekends. I’m just kidding. The weekend is when you’ll do homework because you will have zero time during the week.
But, the easiest way to hate your life and save the most money during college is joining residence life as an RA. Now, I know there are mystical creatures in the world who actually like being an RA but they almost always work with freshmen and I’m 87% sure they’ve deceived themselves into thinking they like it. During my brief time as an RA in senior apartments, I learned that fleece panda pajamas during incidents at 3am are a great look and that pretty much only RAs and people who want to be RAs will show up at events with no food. But, hey, at least I got free housing and meals (a $ 5700 deal at my school). So, do it. Also, you’ll make friends with other poor people whose whole lives revolve around school and work.
So, think on scholarships, housing and meals, a part-time job, and the ultimate cash cow, namely residence life.