6 Ways I Saved Money On College Costs

How much does college cost? This is a question many wonder. There’s rarely a week that goes by where I don’t receive an email from a student or parents of a student who are looking for ways to cut college costs. That’s why today I want to talk about college costs and how you can…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: March 17, 2024

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Check out this list of ways to save money on college costs. This is a great list!How much does college cost? This is a question many wonder. There’s rarely a week that goes by where I don’t receive an email from a student or parents of a student who are looking for ways to cut college costs. That’s why today I want to talk about college costs and how you can create a college budget that works so that you can save money in college.

College is very expensive – there is no doubt about that.

However, I want you to know that it IS possible to get a valuable college degree on a budget!

The average public university is over $20,000 per year and the average private university totals over $45,000 once you account for tuition, room and board, fees, textbooks, living expenses and more.

Even with how expensive college can possibly be, there are many ways to cut college expenses and create a college budget so that you can control rising college costs.

Continue reading below to read about the many different ways I cut college costs. While I was not perfect and still racked up student loan debt, I did earn three college degrees on a reasonable budget.

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1. Take classes at a community college to cut college costs.

Whether you are in college already or you haven’t started yet, taking classes at a community college can be a great way to save money.

Earning credits at a community college usually costs just a small fraction of what it would cost at a 4-year college, so you may find yourself being able to save thousands of dollars each semester.

There is a myth out there that your degree is worth less if you go to a community college. That is NOT TRUE at all. When you finally earn your 4-year degree, your degree will only say where you graduated from and it won’t even mention the community college credits at all. So this myth makes no sense because your degree looks the exact same as everyone else’s’ who you went to college with. You might as well save money because it won’t make much of a difference.

I only took classes at a community college during one summer semester where I earned 12 credits, and I still regret not taking more. I probably could have saved around $20,000 by taking more classes at my local community college.

Also, you are most likely just taking general credits at the community college, so it’s not like you would be missing much by taking classes there instead of a college that has a better reputation for the major you are seeking.

If you do decide to go to a community college, always make sure that the 4-year college you plan on attending afterwards will transfer all of the credits. It’s an easy step to take so do not forget! You should do this before you sign up and pay for any classes as well as to make sure that ALL of the classes will transfer successfully.


2. Take advantage of high school classes to lower your college budget.

Many high schools allow you to take college classes to earn both college and high school credits at the same time.

This is something I highly recommend you look into if you are still in high school, as it saves time and is one of the best ways to save money on college costs.

When I was in my senior year in high school, nearly all of my classes were dual enrollment courses where I was earning college and high school credit at the same time. I took AP classes and classes that earned me direct college credit from nearby private universities. I left high school with around 14-18 credit hours (I can’t remember the exact amount). This way I knocked out a whole semester of college. I could’ve taken more, but I decided to take early release from high school and worked 30-40 hours a week as well.


3. Take all the credits you can to stay within your college budget.

At many universities, you pay a flat fee. So whether you take 12 credit hours or 18 credit hours, you are paying nearly the exact same price.

For this reason, I always recommend that a student take as many classes as they can if they are going to a college that charges a flat fee tuition.

If you think you can still earn good grades and do whatever else you do on the side, definitely get full use of the college tuition you are paying for!


4. Apply for scholarships to lower your college costs.

Before you start your semester, you should always look into scholarships, grants, FAFSA, and more. You usually have to turn in any paperwork around spring time for the following semester, so I highly recommend doing this right now if you are going to college in the fall.

Another myth will be busted right now. Many believe that all scholarships are impossible to have or it means you have to win a contest. That is just a myth.

I received around $16,000 a year in scholarships to the private university I attended. That helped pay for a majority of my college tuition. The scholarships were easy for me to get as they were all just because I earned good grades in high school and scored well on tests. I received scholarships to all of the other colleges I applied for as well just for good grades, so I know they can be found as long as you do well in high school!

There are other ways to find scholarships as well. You can receive scholarships from private organizations, companies in your town, and more. Do a simple Google search and I am sure you will find many free websites that list out possible scholarships for you to apply to.

Tip: Many forget that you usually have to turn in a separate financial aid form directly to your college. Don’t forget to do this by the deadline each year!


5. Search for cheaper textbooks to lower your college budget.

Students usually spend anywhere from around $300 to $1,000 on textbooks each semester, depending on the amount of classes they are taking and their major.

For me, many of my classes required more than one book and each book was usually around $200 brand new. This means if I were to buy all of my college textbooks brand new, I probably would have had to spend over $1,000 each semester.

I saved a decent amount of money on college textbooks by renting them and finding them used. Renting them was nice because I just had to pay one fee and didn’t ever have to worry about what to do with the textbook after the class was done, as I only had to return them. There was no worrying about the book being worthless if a new edition came out, which was nice! Buying books used was nice occasionally as well just because sometimes I could make my money back.


6. Skip the high price of living on campus to cut your college budget.

To save more money, I decided to live on my own. I didn’t have the option of living at home after high school and living on campus would have cost me a ton of money.

Instead, I found a very cheap rental house (the house was VERY small and probably could have been considered a tiny home) and was able to somewhat easily commute to work and college from it. I probably saved around $500 a month by living on my own instead of on campus, and I learned a lot by living on my own at a young age as well.

If you can live at home though and want to save money, I highly recommend it if it’s an option for you. You can save thousands of dollars a semester by doing this!

I understand that some are against this because it may impact your “college experience,” but I think most people would be fine not living on campus, especially if it’s not in the budget. You could probably save around $40,000 over the years on your degree by living at home.

How did you cut college costs and control your college budget? How much student loan debt did you have when you graduated?

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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Taking a scholarship during college is definitely a big help for the students. During my college years, I borrowed some books from my friends who were a higher level to me, in that way, I didn’t need to buy some books anymore.

  2. All great suggestions, Michelle. A few years ago when I took a some additional classes, I purchased all my books used through Amazon and Barnes and Noble – both helped reduce my book costs. Ebay is another great textbook resource.

    I think you have written about it in other posts – I would encourage anyone with loans to pay them off early. I paid my loans off early and it is a great relief once they are paid.

    1. Yes, paying off your student loans is always a great idea!

  3. Petrish @ Debt Free Martini

    So far Uncle Sam has been footing the bill for my education so I’m good there. For my child one thing that I plan on doing is to help her be sure of what she wants to do before she goes off to college. I plan on having her do some on the job training of whatever area she is interested in so she’ll be sure. I hope it works. That way she’s not changing majors and wasting her time and my money.

    1. That is a great idea! So many switch majors multiples times while in college.

  4. Amy @ DebtGal

    These are great tips. The cost of books can really add up! I would also recommend shopping off-campus for most things, including computers, groceries, etc. These things are generally convenience-priced on campuses.

    I think college can be a time of great intellectual and personal development, so I probably won’t encourage my daughter to complete it under four years, but the idea of taking basic, core courses in high school or at a community college, sounds good. Freeing up time to take advantage of leadership, research, and/or internship opportunities on- and off-campus can really help strengthen students’ resumes. (Take it from someone who works in a college career center!) And like someone said above, I’ll encourage my daughter to get focus on her career goals as early as possible. Then she can spend her time in college working toward them, so she’s well-positioned to find a job when she graduates.

  5. I took a bunch of courses at community college. I didn’t really have a choice because that was all I could afford at the time. It doesn’t really make a difference in the long run and most courses transfer easily to a four-year school!

  6. Great tips! I bought all my books brand new from the book store in my first year – what a rookie mistake! I never did that again!! I definitely also recommend working through school if you can. I always had more money than my roommates and scheduled my time a lot better than those who had a ton of free time with no work 🙂

    1. Yes, working through college is always a great idea. I worked full-time and it helped somewhat – I was bad with money back then so I definitely could have done better.

  7. I did most of these to lower the cost of college. I did 2 years at a community college and applied for whatever scholarships I could when I went to a university and saved a ton.

  8. Thanks Thomas! How many classes do you need to take?

  9. Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore

    The only thing to be careful of is to make sure classes from community college transfer well. I’m so tired of hearing people in my part of the world saying “well my advisor at community college didn’t tell me that it wouldn’t transfer to university X”. All that info is online so you can easily find that out for yourself! Its just laziness that they didn’t. I did that all myself so I didn’t have to worry about classes not transferring and wasting money by taking the same class multiple times. Another one, don’t fail a class and have to re-take it, that’s just silly. Ask for help if you need it and most teachers will help you so you don’t fail!

    1. Yes, I believe I mentioned this in my post. Making sure they transfer is very important. Usually all you have to do is get a piece of paper from the college you plan on transferring to.

      1. Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore

        Yes, you did. But here you have to plan it out ahead of time. If you’ve already taken the class before finding out if it will transfer, you might be in trouble! That’s what a lot of people my age did and then they were upset about it later when they should’ve been responsible enough to check it out for themselves. Great post as always Michelle!

        1. Yes, that’s what happened to a lot of people I know as well. I should add this detail to the blog post. I don’t know how I forgot to add it. Thanks!

  10. Allison @ Frugal on the Prairie

    Love this article. Wish more college age kids would read it! I spent 2 years at a community college, which saved me money AND made me eligible for Transfer Scholarships. While at University I got my textbooks only through Campus Book Rentals and applied for scholarships like they were going out of style. I saved almost $20,000 doing it that way!

  11. Great tips! I did my first two years of college at a community college and got a fullride there. It saved me a LOT of money in the long run as did getting around $17,000 in scholarships every year. Another thing that helped was to split my summer job earnings-half to tuition and half to live off through the school year.

  12. These are great tips Michelle. One thing that makes me sad about posts like this, though, is that most people reading it are likely already done with college. There’s a lot of great advice in this post so I really hope it gets in front of some high schoolers.

    1. My hope is that parents will give posts like these to their children 🙂

  13. All of this, and more!

    I worked 40-100 hour weeks, structuring my school and work schedules to fit snugly against each other.
    Bought my books used from Amazon when they were a brand new site, sold most back as soon as possible to get the most value back. (Renting your books from Chegg is an option now!)
    Applied for merit scholarships and need based financial aid.
    Kept myself on an aggressive plan to graduate in four years: no slacking off, one summer school session, no failing or retaking classes.
    Lived at home, carpooled, and shared the cost of the parking passes.
    Rarely ate out, packing lunches and dinners for school days and work nights.
    End result:
    I graduated in four years with $5000 in savings. Not much compared to some people but no debt! I was pretty proud of that.

  14. DNN

    Congratulations on graduating from college Michelle. You did the transformation work and stayed on track with your side hustle millionaire goals! 🙂