Category Archives: College Money

How to Pick a Major Without Wasting Money

I never would have thought to reach out to potential mentors so early on, but it's a very good point. Great tips for choosing a major.


It’s hard to know what you want to do right out of high school.

Shoot, it’s hard to know what you want to major in even if you go back to school at thirty.

You may think you have it all figured out, but then you get three years into the program and realize you hate the field. And you’ve spent how many tens of thousands of dollars on tuition?

Before you start your course of study, here are some options to consider when exploring your major and potential career path.

Enter as a General Studies Major

Entering as a general studies major allows you to explore a world of courses without being tied down to one.  You can get  your general education credits that will apply to most majors without having pressure from your advisor to immediately start on your major requirements or electives.

I know when I was entering college, I would have scoffed at the following piece of advice:

Seriously consider community college.

I thought I was too good for these “lesser” halls of scholarship when I was seventeen, but in the long term, community college was my saving grace. It’s affordable education that, if planned properly, can transfer to the institution of your choice.

Entering as a general studies major, or really any major, at a community college can save you thousands during your first two years.

Take Time Off

I rarely advocate putting off education.  Many people start down this path with good intentions only to never return to get their degree. It’s a dangerous path to tread.

But out of everyone I’ve met that has taken a Gap Year and subsequently returned to college, not a single one regretted it.

One of my friends spent time discovering herself in Brazil.

I know someone who WWOOFed in New Zealand.

I’m close with several others who just spent time traveling. This time allowed them to examine themselves, their interests, and how they relate to the world around them, all of which can have major impacts on what you decide to study and how you want to work long-term.

Explore Your Interests

Take some time and make a list of things you like to do. You’d be surprised at how many different career paths there are and how you can make a living doing what you already know you love.

Passion in a career makes all the difference in your life and the impact you have at work, though that’s not to say you can always make money by pursuing you passion.

Once you have your list of interests, sit down with a guidance counselor or a career counselor. See what they can tell you about applicable majors, and what potential careers you could have once you earn your degree.

Have an interest that you’ve never explored before? Take a class in it. Whether it’s at your community college, your university, your community center, or even your library, taking a course can give you an idea of if you love the area enough to work in it for the rest of your life.

Talk to Someone in the Field Before Choosing Your Major

Send an email or give a call to someone who works in the field with prepared questions about what you they do everyday and how the future of the industry looks. You’d be surprised how many professionals respond when you seek out their expertise.

Take any opportunities you can to shadow. If you don’t like the job you originally had your eye on, see if they know about any peripheral career paths that may fit your skills or interests better.

This is also a great way to begin networking before you even graduate.

Remember: You Don’t Have to Do Four Years

There are fields that pay extremely well without a Bachelors degree. To learn more about them, check out your local vo-tech school, applying the same strategies as above.

These fields will require some type of training, and usually include an apprenticeship. Another synonymous term you may see pop up is “journeyman fields.” Sometimes the apprenticeship is paid, and sometimes it’s not, but at the end you’ll come out with a skill that–if you’ve vetted the profession properly before starting your program–can earn you a nice income.

Although statistically speaking, those with a four-year degree make more money over the course of their lifetimes than those without, the real key is to make sure you are a trained and skilled professional in a field that has good career prospects.

If you put meaningful effort into the training, whether it be at a four-year school or through a journeyman program, you’ll come out ready to earn.

The Best Money Tip for College Students

This really is a great money tip for college! It's not always fun, but it's how I got through my program without a lot of cash.

College is such an exciting time, no matter what age you enter the halls of scholarship.  You’re learning, expanding your potential, making friends, and exposing yourself to new opportunities every way you turn.

It’s also a time when you’re cramming for exams, spending more money than you ever thought possible, and your available hours to work and earn money are at an all-time low.

The single best money tip for college students isn’t exciting. It isn’t earth-shattering. In fact, it’s pretty boring.  But it’s also incredibly important:

Best Money Tip for College Students? Budget!

I cannot stress enough the importance of sitting down with a pen and paper (or computer and mouse) and getting all of your numbers out in black and white.  I always encourage people to budget liberally and spend conservatively.  It’s better to end up with more money than you thought you’d have than less.

As a college student, you’ll want to do some long-term budgeting along with short-term.

Long-Term Budgeting in College

The financial decisions you make in college can have a major impact on the rest of your life. Make sure you pay attention to long-term financial decisions such as:

  • How much is my tuition going to cost me each semester?  How am I going to pay for it? Loans?  Scholarships?  Working a job?
  • How much can I realistically expect to make when I graduate to pay back any loans?  How long will it take me?
  • How much can I expect my books to cost each semester?
  • How much will membership dues for any clubs/fraternities I’m in cost?  How often are they due?
  • How much will my room and board cost?  Is getting an apartment more or less cost effective?
  • How will I handle transportation?  How much will it cost me each month to either keep up a car or pay to use public transport?
  • How much do I need to be setting aside to build a healthy emergency fund for if WHEN something unexpected comes up?

Short-Term Budgeting for College Students

Once you’ve got the long-term budgeting issues taken care of, break them down into short-term solutions. These are the little decisions you’ll have to make at least once year–some of them should get attention no less frequently than once per month:

  • How much is my rent/room and board this month?
  • How much are my books this semester?
  • How much do I need to spend on food?
  • Where is my next check coming from?
  • How much do I have allotted towards entertainment? If you’re not eating this month, your entertainment budget is probably too high. If you’re not enjoying a single moment as a student, it’s probably too low.
  • What other day-to-day bills do I have to pay and when are they due? Don’t miss due dates; late fees are a waste of your hard earned money.

Tips to Fix Your College Budget

Writing these numbers down can be scary.  If you’re like most students, you’re probably seeing more red than green.  But having them written out helps you see the reality of your situation. Once you’ve started facing reality, you can focus on ways to handle and improve your situation.


Money in college isn’t easy.  Budgeting isn’t usually exciting.  But it is the best way to make sure the financial decisions you’re making now are setting you up for success rather than failure later in in life.

Save Money by Refinancing Your Student Loans

Student loan debt in our country is insane. I managed to dodge it through grants and scholarships, but many of my peers are drowning in it.

It’s gotten so bad that it has eclipsed both credit card debt ($74 billion nationally) and auto loan debt ($1.14 trillion nationally.) The grand total nationally for student loans sits at $1.28 trillion.

That’s insanity. There are ways to bring that number down. Presumably, later this year, the first of the Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) loans will be forgiven. Some states and cities will pay off your student loans simply for moving in. And certain professions in certain states will garner you some forgiveness, as well.

If you don’t fall into an advantaged program, though, one of the quickest and best ways to lower the amount you owe and end up paying over the course of your loan is to get a lower interest rate.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this infographic from PenFed featuring real people:

I'd like to be like Marissa--smart move on refinancing her student loans!

How Marissa Saved On Her Student Loans

My favorite example here is Marissa. By refinancing, she lowered her average interest rate from 7.50% down to 4.29%. That’s a reduction of 3.21%

On top of that, she shortened her loan term. When you pay a loan over longer terms, you almost always end up paying more in interest, simply because you’re paying it for a longer period of time. By shortening your term, you can cut down how much you pay in interest.

That’s what Marissa did.  Over the course of her loan, she saved an incredible $144,281 in interest. That’s almost as much as the original refinance amount of $148,000.

Head turning.

Finding the Best Interest Rates

As with any purchase, the best way to find a good interest rate is to shop around. There’s been quite a stir lately as states have started opening or reinstating state refinancing options. Some are good. Some are meh. Some are open to the entire country while some are open only to residents who attended school in their home state.

The lowest fixed interest rate I’ve seen offered through these programs is 3.99% in Kentucky. While they’re open to several states, they’re not open to all—including my home state of PA.

That’s why I was super excited when I saw PenFed’s announcement last month that it is now offering interest rates on student loan refinancing as low as 3.50% fixed. They’re also open nationwide. All you have to do is join PenFed, and applying is super easy to do.

Granted, with either program you have to meet certain eligibility and credit criteria to get the lowest rate. But there is more possibility for saving with PenFed’s interest rate floor.

To find out your rate estimate, you can answer three simple student loan refinancing questions here. It takes less than 30 seconds. Seriously.

A Word of Caution on Refinancing Federal Student Loans

Before refinancing any Federal student loans, research your options. There are several advantaged programs, like income-based repayment, PSLF and REPAYE just to name a few. These and other programs offered by the federal government can save you a ton of money over the course of your loan, and you lose access to them permanently if you refinance with either a state program or a private financial institution.

Learn more about programs for Federal student loans here.


Have you ever refinanced your student loans? Tell us about your experience in the comments!


*This post is in collaboration with PenFed Credit Union. The views expressed in the article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pentagon Federal Credit Union.*

Why Study Abroad is More Than a Vacation

Definitely want to make sure my daughter does her study abroad term right so she can reap these career benefits.

By Lauren Davidson, a freelance writer specializing in personal finance

Students are constantly offered chances to sign up for study abroad experiences. In fact, these days many colleges allow students from other schools to sign up for their study abroad trips, with pre-approved credit transfers to their own school. This has increased the availability of locations and programs for students to choose from when deciding on a study abroad trip.

Common concern for students include price, amount of financial aid available, and whether study abroad trips are valuable investments in their futures or just glorified vacation plans. After all, studying abroad is by no means cheap. Most trips range from around $2,000 to $7,000 depending on where you go. This is a sizeable amount of money, requiring you to find additional funding. I recommend trying to find some specific study abroad grants or scholarships before turning to student loans to pay for your trip.

Although it’s true that there are some programs that put more emphasis on the “fun” than on the “fundamentals,” most study abroad programs are serious about putting students to work to earn their credits, all while simultaneously providing them with an enjoyable cross-cultural experience.

From a student’s perspective, it’s important to find the right program which will provide both an enjoyable time and a learning experience. Booking the right types of programs will add luster to your resume in today’s increasingly global economy by adding skills and experiences that employers value.

Use study abroad as a chance to learn or improve upon your second language skills.

England is a popular study abroad destination in part because visiting and studying in a country where the citizens don’t speak English as a first language is daunting to many American students. However, this means a lost chance to learn or improve in a second (or third!) language. The longer your study abroad program runs, the more benefit you will get from immersing yourself into a foreign language.

To get the full immersion experience, request to be placed with a host family instead of a dorm room, if possible. Living alongside natural speakers will aid you in increasing fluency. If you have some sufficiency in a second language, even if you took classes back in high school, this is an excellent opportunity to beef up your conversational skills.

Listing on your resume that you took Mandarin in high school isn’t likely to lift the eyebrows of employers, but if you combine that with a half-summer in China then your claim of fluency just became much more impressive. For students who have not taken classes in a foreign language, it is still very much worth considering a program in a non-English speaking country.

It’s been proven that the fastest way to learn a new language is full immersion. Even slight conversational skills in a foreign language can be a very valuable skill set when job hunting. Employers are much more likely to take into consideration your knowledge of a foreign language if you have actually spent significant time in the country.

Choosing research programs abroad can expose you to new learning methodologies.

No matter the country or program that you choose, taking part in research programs abroad are an excellent chance to learn methods that aren’t being employed in your home university, or even in the United States. There are dozens of study abroad programs that give American students the chance to engage in research alongside students in the program country and this unparalleled chance to engage in cross-cultural research projects is viewed in high esteem by potential employers. These experiences can highlight a student’s ability to work across cultural boundaries, as well, which is another attribute that employers consistently rate highly.

Studying abroad makes students appear well-rounded to employers.

Studying abroad is a chance for students to step outside of their comfort zone, no matter what they choose to study or where they choose to go. Those that travel or live in another country are often viewed as more well-rounded than those that have never left the U.S. because of the diversity of experiences that traveling brings.

While it’s important to remember that study abroad trips are not simply an excuse to go on an extended vacation—most programs represent research opportunities and have significant credit hours included—simply the fact that someone has spent significant time in another country can put their resume to the top of the list.

Of course, this benefit is somewhat dependent upon the type of job. For example, many large U.S. law firms have foreign departments, especially in Asia. For a student hoping to one day live and work in another country after graduation, prior experience abroad can help them to land the job of their dreams.

How to Qualify as Independent on the FAFSA

Great tips on how to qualify as independent on the FAFSA--and what to do when you just can't.

The first time I went to college, I received no grants.  No aid.  No nothing.  Not from the government.  Not from my parents.  Not from my school.

I was a good student, but so was every other kid I graduated with.  Inflated GPAs meant the students at the top of the class had 5.0 GPAs. (Yes, that’s out of 4.0.) The students who took all the easy, non-honors, non-AP courses had a higher GPAs than other students who actually tried to challenge themselves with a more rigorous course load.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I wasn’t at the top of my class, but I had also challenged myself. My GPA was by no means abysmal, but it also wasn’t a 5.0. I received no merit-based scholarships. Too much competition.

My parents weren’t able to help. FAFSA formulas did not work in my favor. Who cared if I was supporting myself with three jobs? Who cared that my parents were going through a divorce? Or that they each held debt which impacted where their salaries were spent?

Filling out the FAFSA with Divorced Parents

If your parents are divorced, on the FAFSA you only have to provide one income:  the income of the person who you lived with for a majority of the past 12 months.

If you lived with them both equally, you have to provide the income of the person who contributed more financial support to you.

Unfortunately for me, my parents weren’t technically divorced yet. Because there is no such thing as legal separation in the state of Pennsylvania, I had to provide both incomes.

How to Qualify as “Independent” for FAFSA Purposes

My situation isn’t unique. There are a myriad of reasons students don’t want to or feel they shouldn’t have to provide their parents’ incomes. The biggest reason is usually that they are supporting themselves.

That alone is not good enough of a reason for the FAFSA. Here are all the ways you could qualify as a dependent. Some of them you can’t help. And the ones you can, I wouldn’t recommend doing solely to get grant money.

  • Be 24-years-old+ at the time you are filing the FAFSA . You can’t help this.
  • Be in the military or a veteran. Please don’t join up just to get grant money.  Or GI money for that matter.  This is a serious commitment that could literally cost you your life. At the very least it will change your lifestyle. I am so thankful for the people that fight for us everyday so selflessly, but make sure you’re willing to do it for the right reasons–not just college money.
  • Be an orphan/ward of the court. You can’t help this.
  • Be in graduate school.
  • Be married. DO NOT GET MARRIED TO GET COLLEGE MONEY! There are so many other reasons to get married. And so many reasons not to. This is a lifelong commitment you’re talking about. A personal relationship. The decision to get married should not be based on how much money you can get from the government.
  • Have legal dependents of your own. DO NOT GET PREGNANT JUST TO GET GRANT MONEY! College is a full-time job. Being a parent is a full-time job. On top of all that you’ll probably have to get a full-time job even with all the grants in order to support yourselves. You don’t need three full-time jobs. You need to get a degree.
  • Have your school’s financial aid administrator change your status from dependent to independent due to unique circumstances. This is the best way to go.

Changing Your Status from Dependent to Independent

If you don’t naturally qualify for any of the first six reasons, I would highly recommend going to your school’s financial aid administrator. They have the power to change your status, but note that they cannot do it simply because you want them to.

Even if your parents do not claim you as a dependent on their taxes, you are still their dependent on the FAFSA. Even if you work 80 hours a week and pay all your own bills including rent at a location separate from their home, you are still their dependent on the FAFSA.

An extraordinary situation may convince your financial aid administrator that you should be considered independent. For example, if you’re 20 and haven’t talked to your parents in 3 years, you may have a case.

Go in and talk to them with confidence and assertion, but not anger or cockiness. You want something from them, and while you don’t want to get trampled, you do want to show that your case is legitimate.

Take with you any and all paperwork and/or documentation that may somehow apply to proving your point. Going in prepared not only ensures that you have the right paperwork that day, but it also shows your administrator that you’re serious, and perhaps more importantly, that you are, indeed, a responsible adult.

When You Cannot Qualify as Independent for FAFSA

Most people simply won’t qualify as independent until they’re 24. It stinks. It puts a lot of people who work hard and really want to attain their goals in a bad situation.

If you want to go to school without any debt and the government grants could help you do that, it may just be worth waiting. Work a couple years to save up money, then on your magic birthday get the most out of your age.

Only do that if it is right for you. Putting off education is never a good thing, and your salary in the early years of young adulthood may end up paling in comparison to that of your peers.

But taking on a ton of debt to finance a degree that may or may not provide you with a solid return on investment isn’t for everyone. In a world of crippling student loan debt, it’s smart to run your numbers and see which option is best for you: student loans or waiting it out until you’re twenty-four.

Whichever way you choose to go, make sure you apply for scholarships along the way, too. Like grants, they’re free college money that you will never have to pay back.