College Tuition is Expensive, Planning Ahead Helps Save Money

by Guest Contributor · 15 comments

The price of a college education is going up so fast it is hard to keep track of the expenses. Between tuition, room, board, supplies, texts, and other activities, the final price tag can overwhelm most families. If you have more than one child, the burden is even higher. You really need to find the best money management strategies and ways to reduce costs, and here are a few suggestions that will give you a good start.

State Schools vs. Private Universities

Princeton University, a prestigious private university charged over $34,000 in tuition alone this year. Compare that to University of California at Berkley which only charged $9,000 for the same quality education for in-state residents. This isn’t to say that private universities don’t provide a top notch education for their exorbitant price; it just means that you can get an excellent education at a state school, too, and save a lot of money.

Another good option for students struggling financially is to start out at a junior college. Take two years of classes there before you transfer your credits to a state school. Credits cost much less, you can live at home and work at the same time. You are also less likely to waste huge sums of money drinking and partying: favorite student pastimes at traditional four year colleges.

Editor’s Note: I’ve read that students who go to community college with the intend of transferring do not always execute their plans. This no doubt is a cost saving move, but it has a higher chance of your children not finishing at the university that he/she wanted to attend from the beginning. It’s important to factor this into your decision.

Tax Free Savings

If you know you want to help someone go to college, start saving right away in a 529 savings plan. These funds are tax free and you can save between $100,000 and $270,000 per recipient. With no limitations on age or income levels, you can begin this savings account at any point, no matter how much you earn.

Loans, Scholarships, Grants, Oh My!

The rules for getting college loans have eased up considerably in the last decade or so. It is now possible for just about anyone accepted to a college program to qualify for a student loan of some sort. Grants are often given on a per-needs basis and scholarships are available for everything under the sun. If you are serious about attending college, you generally know this by the time you enter high school. Apply for every scholarship you can qualify for to accumulate funds in advance, and keep those grades up and activities current.

Getting in is the first part of the battle. Once you get to college, you need to continue saving money if you want your stash to last through four years.


One of the biggest unavoidable expenses is textbooks. It isn’t unusual to find yourself assigned several books each running $100 or more per semester. Don’t buy new if at all possible; there is a thriving used book market online. If you can’t purchase the book you need, or it is still too expensive, see if someone else just finished up that class last term and if you can borrow their book. If that doesn’t work, most teachers leave at least a few copies of the text at the library. You may not be able to take it out, but you can read it there.


Many universities require freshmen to take a meal plan as part of their first year experience. After that you have more options. If you still want a meal plan, choose one that matches your eating style best. If you are content with a few meals a week and then snack in your room the rest of the time, a punch card is more sensible than a full meal plan. If you live in an apartment setting, bulk cooking save a lot of money, especially if you take the food you cooked along for lunch rather than buying each day.

Editor’s Note: Before you show your dissatisfaction about the “required” expensive meal plans, consider that everyone eating at the same place every day allows your children to socialize and meet many people than they otherwise would. Being in the cafeteria is also much more money saving than be at a restaurant for instance. The meal plans are expensive, but it’s not all that bad.

In the end, saving money both on getting into college and at college takes some preparation. It can be done, and a quality education doesn’t have to put you in the poor house or in debt for years.

This is another series in the How to Save Money ebook. Have you gotten yours yet? If not, remember to get your free copy through subscribing to the free newsletter.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Clementine Isabella Sophie Florence Cecelia Marie Grace Emily Charlotte Smythe-Worthington says:

    I went to Harvard and Princeton and they are fine establishments to do your degree. Many private schools do have a fine standard of education and since Ivy Leagues runs into the family I only applied to Ivies, I also do not regret this as I got into prestigious higher education institutes. I can afford private for all of my children and would be happy to shell out for them to get multiple degrees at universities where they can receive a good standard of education. Contrary to what somebody else commented you can learn real life skills in a private institute and you are actually taught by educated professors who are part of the real community. So what if my kids don’t handle a job with a degree, what means more is that they actually are doing volunteer work and participating in sports and music and drama and that I and where they attend university are instilling good values. Some instate colleges may be as good, but that does not diminish the fact that many of the Ivie’s are just as good and better. If you actually want to know which are the best look at the rankings and many of the Ivie’s dominate the list.

  • lana says:

    We find that looking up book requirements on line as soon as they become available makes it possible to find the cheapest used books on the market.

    Unfortunately, my kids choose to keep their books for reference. If I don’t buy them early, I end up paying up to $250 a piece.

  • Karen Foster says:

    As an adjunct professor at a community college in South Jersey I can tell you there is amazing value in the community/junior college experience. Just like a four year university the students socialize and have access to up-to-date technology. Unlike a four year university, students are often taught by real-world members of the community rather than exclusive professors more concerned with publishing articles. In addition, students at a community college often manage a – job – gasp, along with their schoolwork, helping them to learn time management skills and emphasizing “real world” knowledge in conjunction with “book” knowledge.

  • Kristine says:

    Starting a 529 plan is well intended, but has many disadvantages. This plan, just like a 401k and other qualified retirement plans, it’s really easy to put money in. However don’t forget the most important thing about these plans, “How can I get the money out?” What if your child does not go to college? That money is earmarked solely for college costs. Factor in taxes, plan provisions, and other penalties. You may soon realize who this plan really benefits.

    We just had our first child in October 2009, and have started planning for his college education. We use whole life insurance policies as part of our strategy. Advantages of this strategy include tax deferral, liquidity without penalty, no stock market losses, no income taxes, no lost opportunity costs, and peace of mind.

    The cash value and dividends grow in the policies, and we can borrow money against it as collateral. Even better is we can apply for federal loans or a home equity line of credit (as these options are tax deductible), and use our cash value to make the payments.

    College funding comes from an integrated plan, not necessarily one product. If there was one product to solve the college funding problem, wouldn’t we all be doing it?

  • CD Phi says:

    You are so right. The costs for college are endless nowadays and only seem to be going up more and more. I’m currently in junior college and I can’t even begin to tell you how much money I am saving. Because I am able to live at home and go to school locally, I get to work as well. And for those who get lazy and slack off which results in not transferring, that’s really on them.

  • says:

    I have a 15 month old son and I am already worried about college. We started a 529 plan for him right away, but I can easily see that college is going to be an expensive venture.

    I did goto a private school, but honestly I wish I had just taken the public school route. I do not think in the long run it made a lot of difference to me. Also, I like the idea of the junior college route, but I do not believe I would risk a lot in that. I would prefer my son going to a 4 year state university and just staying there.

  • Ken says:

    Great tips. With all that you suggested nobody should have to pay full price for books.

  • Rick Vaughn says:

    College can definitely be a huge expense but better to have it than not to have it. Certainly, junior college may not be ideal for some people but many schools offer the same benefits socially as others.

    Does anyone else think that congress should regulate the cost of school books? I’m kidding but seriously has to be on of the biggest rackets going.

  • Aaron says:

    Is this directed at parents or their kids? Some of the stuff you say, like choosing a state school or a private school isn’t up to the parents to decide. It’s going to be hard for you to tell your kid he/she can’t go to Harvard and should go to UVA instead because it’s cheaper. Just the same, how are you going to tell your child to go to community college instead of directly to Cal if that’s the school of her choice? It’s good that you mentioned the intangible costs of communal dining, but also consider the intangible costs of those first two years of college. Those are the years you make the closest friends, and trust me, there’s certainly a stigma as a transfer student.

  • Ted says:

    I think the hardest part about saving for college is all the extra costs. How much will gas cost? What about books? What about food? Housing costs? The tuition is at least somewhat trackable the rest gets funky. When I was a year out of college and newly married is when gas just rose incredibly high. It put us in a huge bind and was a part of the early stages of us falling into debt. The last time I did some math to figure out how much we needed to put away, I was blown away. And I added in extra to cover expenses (not that we can get there but just in case we get a lot larger unexpected income in the next few years). Phew.

  • Ginger says:

    I have a bunch of articles on loans and the FAFSA on my blog as well as some tricks to get more money. An issue people need to remember is that the FAFSA counts the income but not the out going, so pay off debts for college.

  • Alcoholic Millionaire says:

    for textbooks, look to craigslist, ebay,, and amazon. By shopping all of the above you will save anywhere from 50-75% off bookstore prices. Then when you are finished with the semester, relist the books and hopefully recoup most if not all of your purchase price. My wife has had a couple of semesters where she actually pocketed a few dollars after all was said and done.

  • The Rat says:

    I think planning for education well in advance can make the process extremely less painful. My brother now has a young boy and he has already started saving small amounts for his education so by the time he reaches his teens and head to post-secondary, a large chunk (or all) of the necessary funds will be in place. On top of it all, education isn’t getting any cheaper.

    Nice thread.

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