A Non-Traditional Student Budget: You Can Do This!

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non-traditional student budget

My husband and I have been at this school thing a long time.  Or at least it feels that way.  As we’ve gone on with our education, our world and lives have changed.  But there are some staples in our budget that have stayed pretty stable.  These line items are things that you don’t typically see in a traditional college-student’s budget.  These are the things that make it hard to get everything balanced between books and tuition.  This is our non-traditional student budget.


We live in an apartment that’s really too small for the size of our family.  But upgrading isn’t an option right now.  I think back to my initial foray with traditional college.  I think about living in the dorms.  I think about the options that were available to me as a young, single adult, like renting out a room in someone’s house for a pittance or sharing a huge expensive place with 10 other roommates and dividing our bill.

For the non-traditional student, these things are sometimes not options.

The Meal Plan

My meal plan combined with my dorm room in college cost less than what we pay for rent right now.  Now we have to add food onto that.  For us and the little ones.  And as much as I may wish someone would cook it for me included in the cost, that definitely does not happen.


I know, I know.  People don’t need cars.  Except that we do if we want to have our jobs.  We both have to be very mobile and very quickly if we want to make money.  Public transport doesn’t cut it, and often doesn’t go to the places we need to go.

So there is one car payment in our two car home.  Plus gas.  Plus maintenance.  We actually keep all of these costs pretty low considering.  We are way lucky to have a mechanic in the family.  We use rewards on gas, but we still have to use so much it makes me sick.  The car payment I’m willing to deal with.  It keeps a rotating line of credit open, we can afford the monthly payment, and the cars we are able to afford with that payment have very low maintenance all things considered.  I used to drive beaters, and they cost me far more money each month in repairs.  Not to mention the headaches.


I can’t wait until everyone in our house is potty-trained.  But I’m not holding my breath.  Until that day, we have to buy diapers, which are not a cheap line item.  We also have to buy things like sippy cups, shoes (right now we’re in a stage where we’re buying new ones once a quarter for each kid as they grow so quickly,) wipes, and other miscellaneous items that get destroyed yet are necessary for keeping  your kid healthy and clean.

Health Insurance

This isn’t the greatest example, as we’ve oscillated with our coverage as opportunities have come and gone for insurance over the years.  (Our kids have always been insured, though.)  When you’re a non-traditional student, you’re not covered by mom and dad’s plan.  Unless you’re under 26.  So get ready to negotiate with doctors’ offices, wave your cash in front of their faces to convince them that just because you’re self-pay doesn’t mean you’re going to flake out on the bill, and pray that nothing horrific happens until the next time you can find affordable coverage.  Or fork over ~$200/month.  That’s what we were looking at for one of us in our area for a next-to-bear-bones policy the last time I had to check.


It would be ideal to just go in and get everything cleaned up so you never got cavities.  We’ve actually done that over certain courses of our non-traditional college days.  But sometimes you still get them.  Dentist appointments/cleanings for self-pay in my area are around $100, and then getting those dang cavities filled are around $120/pop.  X-rays are around $70 for four of those bite things.  I’ve also looked into purchasing dental insurance independently.  There’s no way we can afford it at this point.  We have used student clinics at certain points, but the only advantage we’ve found with these is that they are more flexible in when  you pay them.  How much you pay them is pretty much the same.


Yeah, we’re real grown-ups and still have to pay coin-op to wash our clothes.  It adds up quickly, especially when you’ve got messy creative kids like mine.


So we have a lot more bills to pay.  We have much bigger needs to work jobs.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t do this.  We are doing this.  We’ve been doing this.  At times it’s sucked.  But at others it’s been incredibly rewarding.  I walked.  I finally walked.  He’s almost halfway done with his degree.  Our earning potential just keeps inching higher.  This is worth it.  This is possible.

And it’s not just possible for us.  It’s possible for anyone.  And it’s possible without incurring debt.  Many traditional college students go into tens of thousands of debt.  As a non-traditional student, you have the option of doing the same thing.  But there are so many other options for you, and so many financial doors that are open to you because of your unique situation.

First of all, if you’re in enough of a financial state to consider returning to school, odds are you’re going to qualify for all the money you can possibly get through the FAFSA.  If you’re 24+ (or meet any of these other contingencies) they don’t count your parent’s income anymore.  Which is a major win for you when being awarded grants.

You also have many other life experiences and motivators for completing your schooling.  This is great fodder for scholarship essays.  You’ve lived more life, and therefore had a greater opportunity to meet and overcome many challenges.  Find out what the scholarship board is looking for, and then sell it.

You can get grants and scholarships to cover your tuition.  And sometimes you can get enough that they can help meet those day-to-day expenses.  Like housing.  Like daily meals.  Like diapers and sippy cups and car maintenance and cavities.  It’s not easy, but you can do this.

I know you can, because we are.

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31 thoughts on “A Non-Traditional Student Budget: You Can Do This!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Thanks, Emily! The funny thing is that these expenses are mostly just a part of life as an adult. Where it can get tricky is figuring out how to pay for tuition and books when you have more to take care of than just a college lifestyle. Yay for scholarships and grants!

      And here’s to potty training wrapping up soon!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Aw, thanks, Mrs. Frugalwoods! It is so not easy. But it is doable. Things in our house are kind of crazy most of the time, but we’ve got the end game in mind. Hoping someone else thinking about making the decision to go back will be able to see that it is possible, despite all the obstacles that are in place.

  1. Mel

    Wow – you’re pretty incredible, FF! I can’t imagine going through school with a family. It was rough enough when I just had to worry about me.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Yeah, it’s insane. But I’m glad we’re doing it. And in a way I’m glad the traditional route didn’t work out the first time around… so much debt! Since we waited, we’re able to do this debt free and even make a little money by going to school. Worth the insanity!

  2. Toni @ Debt Free Divas

    Wait – you’re in school…have kids in diapers…work and still maintain a blog (& do laundry). Wooo, I’m tired just thinking about it. Bless your heart! Thanks for helping me keep it in perspective. Hope you have a little downtime over the next couple of week. I’m potty training too…I’ll just say this of the process…I’m not a fan! LOL!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Well, I’m not in school anymore. Graduated last year. But the husband is. We took turns. 🙂 I’m still tired a lot. But it will all be worth it in the end! Best of luck with potty training! It’s the pits!

  3. Vickie

    Oh you guys are so good …I’m glad you’ve went back to college and debt free is fantastic! I’ve always wondered about the dentistry school savings that’s good to know.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Thanks, Vickie! I should add that this is just for our dentistry school in Pittsburgh, and we’ve not had to have any major operations. I don’t know if those two factors influence it.

  4. kay ~ lifestylevoices.com

    I always thought that dental school procedures were free, just like beauty school services. That’s a bummer. Man, Ms. Femme, you sure are a busy woman! Just reading this post made me want to take a nap! Best wishes on everything in your world! 😀

    1. Femme @ femmefrugality

      Maybe at some schools they are, but not at our local one. I guess the local beauty school doesn’t administer drugs and holds a lot less liability, so it kind of makes sense. But I was surprised, too, that there wasn’t a huge difference in the prices.

      I heart naps! And miss them dearly! Thanks, Kay!

  5. donebyforty

    I really enjoyed the candid & open tone of the post. My wife and I are still embracing a lot of our ‘student ways’ still: renting out a room in the house, sharing one car (but rocking a scooter too…scooters are college-y, right?), board-game nights and house parties instead of fancy dinners out, and, yeah, the occasional pizza.

    I think the big change will be when we have our first kid. That’ll change everything: no roommate, probably no more scooter, maybe a different house altogether…

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      It really does change so much! Some of it is in wonderful ways, but some of it requires major lifestyle adjustments. But those adjustments are different for every person. For example, right now I’d love a house with a yard and tons of space, but we’re in our tiny apartment. And we’re still alive and functioning. So while that lifestyle adjustment would be soooo nice, it’s not necessarily necessary.

      Scooter solution—> Sidecar with car seat attachment.

      (Kidding. Please no one try that.)

  6. Budget Loving Military Wife

    You and your family are doing amazing, making all those sacrifices! It’s so incredible you are both getting degrees DEBT FREE!!!

    I couldn’t believe how much tuition had increased. I finished my under grad 10 years ago (yes, that make me feel old LOL) and when my husband started at a new university in 2013 I was shocked at the prices. I thought maybe he was just going to a “special” school but nope the tuition of my “cheap” Alma mater had more than DOUBLED!!! We are so fortunate for tuition assistance with the military. We end up paying for books, and small fees. But your article has made me realize my husband should try to get financial aid or scholarship. I would think on one-income we should qualify for something. Best wishes!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      This made me think. I wasn’t sure that what we are doing could be labeled as sacrifices. They seem to be more of a necessity. But I guess we could be taking out loans to do this. Which would mean sacrifices later. I’m happy to get the necessity out of the way today to make tomorrow a better future!

      And I know! The husband’s books cost at least double what mine did, and I graduated in 2013!!! It’s insane. You guys should definitely apply for scholarships/aid. I don’t know how it works living overseas, but apply for state grants, too. There’s generally good money in those for military members/vets. Military service is going to look great on an application!

  7. Suburban Finance

    Looking back at my college days, now I realize how convenient it was. Room and board were in one package, and usually prepaid at the beginning of the semester so I didn’t have to worry about it later. I didn’t have to cook because I had a meal plan, and I only did laundry for myself, so I could postpone doing it until I ran out of clothes (lol!) I think you’re doing an amazing job balancing everything!

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      I totally did that with my laundry when I was living in the dorms! Only did that for one semester, but I totally hear you on how convenient it was. And thanks! We’re trying at least!

  8. Ginger

    I’m a grad student with a kid, so I totally get this. Time and money is always in short supply. It can get hard, but the more you learn the better you can do! Never stop trying and you can succeed.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Kudos, Ginger! And those are some very true and inspiring words! I have a feeling I’m going to like your site. 🙂 Going to check it out now.

  9. Tyler @ Debt Reckoning

    I went back to school after my wife and I had our first child. It was tough being a student and a family man, but we made it work. I found it was a little easier to save money being a non-traditional student, because when I was in school previously I thought I HAD to buy books at the bookstore, eat on the meal plan, not contest any fees, etc. When it was my own money I was trying to save, I found myself far more motivated to look for ways to save.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      I was the same way with books when I went the traditional route…or tried to go the traditional route. It took me a semester to figure out…so much wasted money!

      I also found that I was a lot more serious about my studies this time around. Something about having someone’s life and future depend on you brings a whole lot more gravitas to everything.

  10. Rebecca Elizabeth

    Wow this is really inspiring. I’m getting married in my senior year but I can’t imagine raising a family as a student. I agree with having a family (even just a spouse) makes you grow up and be so much more serious about your studies

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