How to save money in college and reduce student debt? These were questions I often asked myself during my student years. With all these student debt stories, there is a lot of pressure to budget in college while maintaining a normal social life. Here’s my experience, some creative ways to save money in college, and tips on exploring the world when everything is so damn expensive!
It’s no question that we are currently experiencing a student debt crisis. In four years, the average student loan debt for Canadian undergrads is CAD 26,000. The average student in the United States? US 37,172. This amount does not include accommodation, study materials, transportation, events, food or essentials. For most, this debt will follow them for years to come. With all this in mind, it is no surprise that ‘how to save money in college’ has become one of the most important ways of sustaining finances.
I was fortunate. I managed to finish my degree (somewhat impatiently), hop around 15+ countries, 70+ cities and pay off my CAD 31,000 + student debt within a year of finishing college.
As with most, my college years were a blur of sleepless nights, endless papers and Netflix marathons. Despite my tuition being pinpointed at a book value of CAD 28,960, all the hidden cost as associated with living away from home accumulated to no less than CAD 50,000.
That was an expensive piece of paper.
However, it wasn’t until I sat down and started looking at the bank statements that I realized how deep of a financial shithole I was in.
Before I launch into my journey, I want to specify that my situation is not applicable to everyone. I am incredibly privileged to be supported by a family, who have helped me with CAD 13,000 throughout the years, not including all the times I stayed home and raided their stocked fridge.
Aside from that, I paid off CAD 37,000 without treading in deep waters of debt-induced misery. Below are a few creative ways to save money in college, travel, and live debt free.
1. Finding Random Side Gigs
If you search up “how to save money for college in highschool”, you’d come across some random, but legit jobs. They may not be high-income, but most will help contribute to a growing savings account (especially if you are living at home.)
My obsession with working odd jobs started since the age of 14, delivering catalogs in a pushcart with a friend who split the monthly check of CAD 150 with me. Every summer, I’d find myself with another one of Craigslist’s random job search results. While the initial years were way-under-minimum-wage sorts, my options multiplied once I hit sixteen. From photocopying travel expenses as an Accounting Assistant to engaging in the dislikes of Torontonians as a street fundraiser, to serving at restaurants, to on-the-side translation services, I averaged around CAD 8000 in four-months on just-above-minimum wage jobs. Aside from a high school grad trip to China, I worked until the summer before my third year of college, with these paychecks covering my yearly tuition up until then.
Of course, ‘starting early’ is relative in this context. It is never too late to save up for the things you’d want to do.
Go get’em tiger
2. Avoid Loans, Multiply Grants
For most, going to school means taking out a loan. Although Ontario has a student assistance program, these loans start generating taxes six months from graduation. My loan calculator informed me that I’d average CAD 4/ day on interest. That’s CAD 120 a month, CAD 1440 a year, just as a financial reminder of how unfortunate it is you can’t afford school.
Taking out a loan shouldn’t be a fearsome task, but be aware of lending terms. Most importantly, keep the money you receive apart from earned money. Physically & emotionally.
I kept my loans in a separate account.
With some professional financial guidance on a money-saving plan for students, I contributed periodically to a Mutual Funds account. While I still indulged in cheap liquor and patios with earned money, I made sure never to use loans for these ‘luxuries’. It was way too easy to dive right into those couple thousand dollars and spend it within a night’s frenzy.
Most schools also offer scholarships and grants for their students. I’ve learned to apply for anything I’d remotely qualify for, going as far as emailing the admin staff even if I’m slightly off their target audience (which worked, btw). It’s not much when compared to my tuition, but I had qualified for CAD 8,000 in scholarships & government grants by the end of my degree. In addition, student loan repayment plans and student debt relief scholarships should be looked into and better understood before you apply for a loan.
3. How To Save Money In College On Food & Accommodation
Tuition aside, the most significant student expenses pertained to books, outings, groceries and living costs. After the first year, I moved into a house with five others. We had one too many people living in that house compared to the number of rooms, so myself and another happily agreed to share a place. I grabbed a mattress from home and slept on the floor for a good while. I guess this became the prequel to my Couchsurfing habits.
That year, I saved myself CAD 3000 in accommodation.
When considering how to save money in college, you can’t neglect food. When it came to groceries, I often opt for Chinese/Korean stores. Aside from my love for Asian cuisine, these shops are generally cheaper than other stores. Their options are limited when accommodating different diets, but financially, it was magnificent.
4. How To Save On Textbooks
Our student body, like most, had an active Facebook page that buys and sells used study materials. When second-hand copies weren’t an option, I’d try the school library. Interestingly, the time constraints placed by the librarians gave me more incentive to read the study material. Looking for free e-books also became a possibility, although the likelihood of finding them was next to none. Since my degree didn’t require any must-buy-new books, I think I spent only $CAD 00 in four years on reading materials.
5. Travel Scholarships
You don’t have to travel for a reason. But you should. It can be for the view, the culture, the religion, the understanding. It can be for no reason at all, but that is a reason in itself.
To put it in simple terms, traveling is an investment. Maybe not in the financial sense, but even the cliché understanding of self-discovery can be an associated, useful outcome.
Having a reason gave me justification. It legitimized my fantasies of wanting to travel and pushed me to realize a goal sustained by purpose.
Most importantly, it helped me understand & learn ways of saving money based on my circumstance.
In the second semester of my third year, the opportunity arose for me to spend a semester abroad in France. Thinking Paris to be the epitome of love, freedom and all things good, I readily enrolled. However, after the most bizarre of 4 months, I realized that Paris was just not for me.
Nonetheless, Paris became the stepping stone for my first solo backpacking journey across Europe and into Turkey for a month-long internship that ended in late August.
By December, about 4 months after my first trip, I already enrolled myself in initiatives in Quebec, California, and India for the following year. These were scholarship opportunities flexible enough to accommodate my travel needs. My CA trip covered my travel costs from Canada to China, providing me with the excuse to backpack the West Coast. My India research program’s CAD 5000 grant was split in 2, CAD 1500 of which was spent traveling India while the rest went to reducing school loan debt.
6. Side Hustles While Traveling
Working while traveling is a great way of earning some extra cash while embracing a country’s culture, language.
In Paris, I worked as a caretaker for two little boys. Not only did the job cover a month of my heinous rent, but speaking with the kids also upped my broken French.
In India, I worked as an event promoter for several weddings and functions. These gigs were definitely interesting. An hour of ‘namaste’ and greetings was around US 15-20. Subtract the crazy Delhi traffic that easily took up 3 hours of our lives, an average night would be 4 hours of paid work in dresses standing around smiling and socializing.
As cliché as it might sound, minimalism is critical in maintaining a tight budget. I don’t mean the branded pastel colors you see on insta, but genuine material minimalism whereby shopping for goods only happen when necessary. Then again, I have the worst style- so I can happily live on the same three shirts for a couple of months.
Aside from clothing, do you need to lease a brand new A6 just for school?
Do you need to rent a fancy bachelor pad right downtown?
If so, go for it.
If not, why bother?
Now, categorizing living arrangements within minimalism might be a bit of a stretch. However, after finding a job that lets me work from home, I’ve merely accepted the fact that moving in with my parents is the biggest money saver of all. As the first time in five years that I had stayed home long-term. I was happily put in my old room and saved thousands financially.
Of course, this is a temporary solution to Toronto’s expensive housing market. But it has certainly given me a head start in working towards my goal.
8. hustle Hustle HUSTLE
When I landed in Canada in December 2016, I had managed to preserve the majority of my government loans.
Let’s backtrack a little.
CAD 50,000-13,000 (parents)-10,500 (school &program scholarships & government grants) =CAD 26,800.
CAD 26,800- CAD 8000*2 (summer jobs)-CAD 2000 (previous savings from jobs) = CAD 8800.
This CAD 8800 was my loan. Accordingly, I needed to earn CAD 8800 to start from 0.
I was determined to pay it all off before my 23rd birthday in late March.
During the first month, I applied to no less than 100 jobs. Whether it be one click applications or the ‘fill out your profile’ type, I kept it moving. We all know how bizarre the job market is nowadays, demanding a master’s degree, 3-years of experience while the ability to hula hoop around the office, and balancing a chair on your nose for an entry-level, minimum wage position.
With an all too common social sciences degree, I knew I needed a strategy.
To pass time? I waitressed.
While serving part-time, I was hired by an interpretation company. The job allowed me to work from home, which gave me loads of flexibility that resulted in my accepting two other positions. These assignments not only eliminated transportation costs but also allowed me to continue researching other opportunities both in Canada and abroad. (Keep the dream alivee)
By mid-February, I was working on several projects, on top of having four jobs.
9… But Find Balance
The 12-hour day schedule was not always fun, as it became a blur of multitasking and managing stress. As someone who never strategizes, I was pushing myself to limits never even attempted at school. I suddenly found myself learning information & software my Liberal Arts Degree never taught me.
Instead of slowing my pace, the heap of work energized me to work even more. I began revitalizing my blog after a year of inactivity. From Bluehost to WordPress to Siteground, from Dreamweaver to ready-designs to customizing, I somehow managed to kick it alive.
I quickly burnt out. The social media and readership, software, and weekly updates became a constant stress maker. My other jobs also ate up my social life.
I became unrealistic with my capabilities and went way over my comfort limit. Quickly, I had to take a breather from my site.
Now, I understand more than ever how important it is to maintain a balance between work and personal life.
10. Short-Term Goals & Long-Term Goals
Goals are crucial to motivation. Of course, mine are all travel-related.
Of course, it is essential to have Big Picture Goals, which focus on the outcome or the end state, as well as mini-goals. The latter focuses on smaller steps that get us to the end state.
Goal setting needs to be:
- Specific: the goal needs to clearly define our objective. What are you looking to achieve? In my case, it was to erase my student debt.
- Measurable: Our brain likes to see milestones and trust me when I say success breeds success. Having weekly earning & saving goals are extremely helpful.
- Attainable: Yet, the goal must be realistic and attainable. It shouldn’t be too difficult, but it should be too easy. Reevaluate your goal every two weeks and readjust it accordingly. I transfer $500 to my High-Interest Savings Account every month and $100 to my RSP. This amount varies if there is a drastic change in my paycheck, but I try to maintain the structural pattern.
- Relevant: Remind yourself why the goal is important, why it is something you have to accomplish. You need it or need to want it.
- Time Bound: When? Create a timeframe for which it’s going to happen. Reevaluate and revise these goals frequently.
In the upcoming months, I have three domestic trips planned. Whether it be out camping or to another city, I think I’ve conditioned my mind to relapse into joy just by being on the go.
Bigger trips happen once a year. I try to find something outside the country such as conferences, events, or projects. These functions become my objective, an ‘excuse’ that draws me towards the destination.
And I keep on mentioning it until it can’t be said anymore. As opposed to being a goal, it becomes fact.
I am going to Russia for FIFA next year. I am going to Russia for FIFA next year.
11. Eat Well, Workout
Healthy bodies & positives minds.
Use that school facility!
12. Have Fun, Be Fearless
Take joy in what you have accomplished. No matter how far you are along the way, how busy you are, never forget to have fun! Always give yourself an opportunity to enjoy the seemingly mundane tasks. Read a book, watch a movie, have a drink, sleep.
Invest in yourself, your brand, your voice.
The present is a present.
If you are looking for ways to reduce your student debt, you can’t neglect ways on how to save money in college. Whether it be small jobs or shopping cheaply, there are viable methods that will help you budget expenses. It may not always be easy or comfortable, but it’s much better than only taking notice of the debt after you’ve graduated.
After paying off my tuition, I took on a new project, got my evenings & weekends back, caught up on Netflix and have started planning for the next chapter.
Financially: Started from the bottom and now still here.
Felicia student debt.
-A Free Bird