The numbers would frighten you. Being in the situation yourself would paralyze you. I'm talking about college student debt and the crippling effect it is having on the lives of young Americans for decades after they've graduated.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a college fund from their parents, and that is when we turn to student loans as the only means to get an education. But whether you're in college now, or planning on going in the near future, these tips will make it a hell of a lot easier to get by and possibly graduate without any debt to your name.
When it comes to money, there are really only two ways you could end up having more: save more of it, or actively make more of it. Let's go over both of these areas and lay out a path that will help you come out on top after graduation.
The Frugal Freshman
From the day you first accept your student loan, you must have saving in mind. The only way to do that is to be frugal at every turn you make. This doesn't mean being cheap, or that you can't have any fun. The college experience is said to be the best years of your life, but that doesn't mean it has to be made with rash financial decisions.
Start with choosing wisely on where you actually attend college. Where you decide to study could actually mean the difference between tens of thousands of dollars in loans. Maybe the local college will cost less and even allow you to live at home, saving you thousands in rent. Sure, it may not be the party school all of your friends are going to, but the tradeoff always comes with a price. Doing a bit of research will reveal many options for your college career; it will even outline the ability to transfer seamlessly to a more affordable school (after your first year of fun, of course).
Another benefit of looking into other schools is discovering the hidden costs, which students often overlook. When I first started, I completely forgot that I actually had to purchase multiple textbooks, manuals and e-access materials per course! Ask current students and see what they are paying on average per course. Where I went to school, the professors wrote their own textbooks and changed "editions" every year, essentially allowing them to charge hundreds of dollars for books that you couldn't buy used or elsewhere.
Another area that really allows you to save is in your small expenses. These are little purchases you make everyday that you tell yourself won't affect your bank account. The reality is that the $7.42 you spend on spicy fries, pizza and a large coke everyday really will add up. Change your mindset to find other areas that you could benefit from eliminating or cutting small expenses. Think beer, taxis, bar cover and the fancy multi-colored pens at the bookstore.
It's crucial to have this frugal mindset when you knowingly take on an enormous debt that you understand can cripple you in the future. Make as much money as you may, but without these habits engrained, it won't really amount to anything.
The main takeaway here is to not go in blind. This is four plus years of your life that can impact you for 10 to 40 years financially. Write out all of your options and do the math. What it comes down to is proper budgeting and allocation of funds. Once you have a monthly, or even daily, budget, you can work within, it becomes a lot less stressful to manage funds and eases your mind. Use automated tools such as Mint.com to see what areas you are spending in and be alerted when you are approaching your budgets.
Exploring Income Opportunities
It should be your plan from the get-go to have some sort of income during your time at school. Most people know they have to save more and be frugal, but what it really comes down to is paying for the expenses that you do have and can't shave off. This is where getting creative will separate you from other students in massive debt. It doesn't just come down to finding a part-time job.
First off, part of your research above should have revealed whether the school offered any sort of financial grants. Often if your grades are good and kept up, you can benefit with a discount on school or special cash grants. Otherwise, apply to as many scholarship opportunities as you can. These exist in the form of academic, corporate, government, etc.
Picking up a part-time job is your next best opportunity, but often not so practical. Finding one that is practical, flexible and has decent pay is often impossible. Look at student job openings on campus for your best bet.
Alternatively, do you have any hobbies that you can monetize? Some require a good amount of brainstorming to come up with, but start with writing down all the things you are good at. Do you own a DSLR and like taking pictures? Try some freelance photography. Are you doing really well in one of your classes? You'd be surprised at how many struggling students are willing to pay for extra help. Don't push away anything that comes to your mind. Post your services on social media and put posters up around campus.
There is also a great demand for student work by local and online businesses. The most popular jobs involve writing and research positions. These are usually one-off jobs, but these are invaluable skills to pick up before you graduate and it will definitely help build your personal brand and value if you ever decide to continue those services on your own or at your future job.
The best way to find these opportunities is to go out there and search. Letting people know you are available is part of networking and can only help you with your income. I managed to land a great part-time position through a business club I was in that had connections to a local software company. I took online courses and freed up time to work more hours a week. Having a great summer job lined up for you is another great opportunity that you should start searching for around December.
The same way being frugal and saving was made possible with monthly budgeting, creating revenue streams should be approached with a similar mindset- setting income goals. If you could effectively bring in as much money as you are spending on school and other expenses, then you are eliminating your debt altogether. I would always set a target income goal for the month that offset my expenses. If I needed more money, I would get creative and take on more freelance gigs after work. Don't skip this important step. Getting lazy and not accounting for your money will come back to bite you at the end of four years.
Bringing It All Together
The reality is that only you know how dedicated you are to graduating debt-free. Our brains have a fascinating way of pushing things off when we know we can make the future more stress-free. Don't assume that a high-paying job is waiting for you the moment you graduate (44 percent of graduates are underemployed and 22 percent are working jobs that don't require a degree).
At least now you can consider yourself prepared, but it doesn't mean much until you take action. It's either that or you'll be better off financially not going go to college altogether. The choice is yours.