How to Pay for College by Yourself

Getting a college degree is still considered to be one of the best paths to starting a career and making a great living. In fact, according to data from the Hamilton Project, the average earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree is more than twice another person with only a high school diploma.

However, college isn’t cheap. And if you’re the one who is going to be paying for it, then you’re going to need as much help as you get. In this post, I’d like to share seven ways you can pay for college by yourself.

1. Fill out the FAFSA

The FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the first step you’ll want to take towards reducing your college expenses. This is a merit-based program where the U.S. Depart of Education will review your financial situation and determine if you qualify for any assistance.

The FAFSA can help connect you with the following types of financial aid:

  • Grants (such as the Pell Grant)
  • Federal subsidized loans
  • State-based financial aid
  • Other types of loans

Your college of choice might also use the information contained in your FAFSA to see if you meet their specific requirements for need-based scholarships or other forms of support. This could be additional aid beyond what the government will extend to you.

The FAFSA should be filled out every year that you go to college. Funds are generally available on a first-come-first-serve basis, so the earlier you apply the better. Plus your eligibility to qualify for certain types of support might change if your financial situation also changes year to year.

2. Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible

Outside of the FAFSA, there are millions of private scholarships available to students each year. It’s been estimated that those opportunities are worth as much as $7.4 billion

However, just like the FAFSA, the only way you’ll ever have a chance at qualifying is to apply to them. The best way to do this is to make a list of potential opportunities and then apply to as many as you can. This could be as many as 1 to 10 per week. The more applications you fill out, the better your odds of getting one becomes.

There are lots of places to look for scholarships. The main two will be:

  • Local scholarships – Check with your high school, the college you’ll be attended, and community websites. Even your employer or parent’s employer might have a scholarship you can apply for.
  • National scholarships – Check out sites like, and

3. Live at Home and Commute

One of the biggest expenses that come along with the cost of school is living expenses. Once you’re no longer living at home, you’ll have to pay for things like rent, food, transportation, etc. and that can really strain your budget.

According to the site, living expenses actually cost more than the cost of tuition itself. Whereas the average 4-year in-state tuition costs $9,580 per year, students will spend an estimated $16,284 per year trying to cover their living expenses.  

By contrast, if you continue to live at home and just commute to class, you can eliminate the need to pay for rent and food. Your costs will reduce down to just the basics like tuition, fees, and transportation.

4. Enroll in Online Classes

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities are now offering the option to attend your classes online instead of in person. If you’re trying to afford college on a tight budget, then this could be a great way to save.

Just like living at home helps you avoid expenses like rent, utilities, and food, taking classes online eliminates another big expense: transportation. You’ll save a ton of cash by not having to pay for gas, parking, and other auto maintenance.

5. Claim Tax Credits

If you file your own federal tax returns, then the IRS may have some educational tax credits you can use to your advantage.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is used for qualified education expenses by the student for the first four years of higher education. The maximum credit is $2,500 per year. What’s even better is that if your tax bill is $0, then they’ll refund up to 40 percent ($1,000) of this credit back to you.

Another one is the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). This is worth up to 20 percent of the first $10,000 spent on qualified education expenses (maximum $2,000). Unfortunately, if you don’t’ use it all, then it’s not refundable back to you.

6. Start Up a Side Hustle

College students are always encouraged to work part-time to help pay the bills. But sometimes the scheduling and logistics of traditional employment can be problematic.

Another great way to earn money and do it on your own timetable is to pick up a side hustle. A side hustle can literally be any activity that generates money.

Lots of students have turned their interests and passions into side hustle opportunities. In this interview with CNBC, one graduate student turned her love of fashion into an Etsy shop earning a profit of $250 per month.

There’s always a side hustle for whatever you’re into. Other good ones for college kids to try include:

  • Website or app tester
  • Housesitting
  • Selling advertising space on your car

You can find even more great ideas here.

7. Take Out a Loan

When all else fails, you can always take out a loan to pay for college. Loans can be divided into one of two categories: Federal and private.

Federal loan opportunities are generally made available to you after filling out the FAFSA. Because they have a clear understanding of your financial need, the loan amounts and interest rates will generally be tailored to your personal situation. The terms are often very flexible such as waiting until you get a job to start repayment or having a payment amount that’s based on your income level.

Private loans from big-name financial companies are also an option. However, these types of loans are usually less flexible in their terms. Plus, they aren’t eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program like federal loans are.

If you’re trying to figure out how much loan you can afford or how you’ll pay for college in general, then you’re going to need to make sure that every dollar of your budget counts. This is where an app like Buxfer can help.

Buxfer connects to your bank and credit cards and then provides you with a detailed report of your spending habits in real-time. You can use this app to find out when you’re overspending and where some cuts might be necessary.

Click here to find out more about how Buxfer can help your budget.

Image credit: Unsplash

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