Budgeting 101: How to spend less on college

As families look at saving money in this recessionary economy, they need to realize that going to college is an investment that will pay off in the long term. Securing a college degree opens doors for one’s future. It’s where you build your professional and social networks. Over their lifetime, those with a four-year college degree earn at least half a million dollars more than high school graduates.

With that in mind, here are some tips that can help students save money while applying to and attending college.

Make a budget for applying
Many families only save for college tuition, but forget about the costs involved in applying to college. By using the free Application Budget Calculator, families will see that the average cost of applying to college is $3,500!

Make a testing planKnow which standardized tests to take and when. If you are spending $45 on an SAT, be prepared for it. In fact, applicants should make a budget for test preparation. It can be as affordable as the cost of a test-prep book up to several hundreds or thousands of dollars for test-prep courses or one-on-one tutoring. If you want to avoid the costs of standardized tests and test prep altogether, consider some of the 815 test-optional colleges at

Visit schools wiselyThere are ways to learn about a school without breaking the bank on travel. Think about visiting a campus just once, instead of several times, and interviewing locally with an alumnus or college admissions officer. When you visit, it’s always less expensive if you can buddy up with a friend to split the cost of gas and lodging.

Apply onlineApplication fees can add up, especially now as students are applying to more schools than ever. I recommend applying to 10-12 colleges. Luckily, some schools waive the application fee if you apply online.

Once you are in college, there are more ways to keep costs down. The average cost of attending a private four-year college (including tuition, fees and room and board): $136,528. For students attending an in-state, public four-year college, expect to pay approximately $57,332. Some tips to save money:

Graduate early
Students can graduate a semester or even a year early by taking the maximum course load each semester or taking community college or online classes over the summer that will transfer for credit. A high school student can get a head start by taking Advanced Placement (AP) tests. A score of 3 or higher often results in college credit. Think about the savings — each AP test is $86. So, eight AP classes add up to a year’s college credit, and $688 in AP registration fees could save you a year in college tuition!

Negotiate financial aidIf a student receives a financial aid award that does not make paying for college feasible, I recommend that their parents work personally with their college’s financial aid officer. If a student receives a better financial aid award from another school, share this information and negotiate. Overall, it does not hurt to ask for a reevaluation. Financial aid officers can counsel students and their parents on how to make paying for college feasible.

Research scholarships
With more than $3 billion available annually, students should visit Web sites like or to take advantage of scholarships that they may be eligible for.

Live like a student
It’s important to live within one’s means while in college. Be frugal. By purchasing used books, choosing the appropriate dining plan (e.g., very few students take advantage of a full dining plan, especially breakfast) and sharing living expenses by living off-campus, students can attend college without compromising their academic and personal experiences. Recently, I have advised students to take advantage of softening rental markets to find cheaper accommodations than on-campus housing.

If students and parents follow this advice, students will be able to enjoy their wages when they are in the work force. Otherwise, living beyond one’s means while in college may lead to a life of living like a student years after graduation.

Dr. Kat Cohen is a well-known expert on college admissions. She is the founder of IvyWise and and the author of “The Truth About Getting In” and “Rock Hard Apps.”