20 Ways to Save On Your Kids’ College Education

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I had zero clue about number 12! So glad I read! 20 Ways to Save on Your Kids' College Education

College is potentially the most expensive line item you will ever pay for in the name of parenthood. As the cost of education balloons, you may be wondering what the heck you can do to stop it.

While you can’t take on the entire higher education industry solo, there are some things you can do to make sure you’re limiting how much money flies out of your own pocketbook. Today we’ll cover twenty ways to save on your kids’ college education depending on which stage of life they are in.


While They’re Young

open a 529 account for your childs college education

  1. Open a 529 account.

    If you are already fully funding your retirement accounts, a 529 account can be a great vehicle to save for your child’s education. You contribute with money you have left over after taxes, but your savings grows with interest tax-free, and will not be taxable at the federal level when you withdraw the money as long as you use it for your child’s education.

    Different states have different plans, and in some cases you can purchase across state lines. Do some research to find the best available plan for your situation.

  2. Encourage their interests, hobbies and activities.

    I was talking with a talented financial planner a while ago about college savings. His biggest advice? It wasn’t 529s…because most people aren’t even funding their retirement accounts to the max.

    Instead, he was big on encouraging participation in activities and hobbies. Those will be the things that earn your kid scholarships and get them accepted into a school in the first place.

    We collectively own a looming student loan bubble here in America. We have no idea when that’s going to pop, or what college prices or funding will look like after it does. It’s not impossible that the college financing landscape will change dramatically between what it looks like today and what it looks like when America’s youngest children hit the halls of scholarship.

  3. Teach them how to budget.

    When your child is at college, they may still be relying on the bank of Mom(s) and/or Dad(s). Even if you don’t plan on providing them with a monthly stipend, you’d be doing them a huge favor by teaching them to budget now while they’re still under your roof. It will save everyone involved some cash as it will reduce overspending and potential money leaks.

  4. Take advantage of K-12 incentive programs.

    Some schools offer incentive programs to students just for graduating. For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has the Pittsburgh Promise which gives students who entered Kindergarten in 2015 or earlier $30,000 for college as long as they graduate high school and are admitted to an accredited institution. If you’re weighing where you want to send your kids to school, incentive programs like these can be what draws the final straw.

    You should be aware, though, that these programs are sometimes subject to change. For example, the classes of 2012-2016 were awarded $40,000 under the Pittsburgh Promise, and there is no guarantee of college monies for those who enter Kindergarten in 2016 or later.

Before Deciding on a School

Pick a college for the best ROI and least debt.

  1. Public vs Private Tuition.

    In general, state schools or public schools tend to have lower tuition rates than private schools. The price difference can be dramatic, and there’s a ton of research out there demonstrating that, over the course of your career, it doesn’t typically matter where your degree came from in terms of salary.

  2. Don’t write off the Ivy League as “too expensive.”

    Ivy League schools, on the other hand, tend to have a high sticker price but generous financial aid thanks to numerous endowments. In these cases, financial aid is sometimes extended to families who make six figures, which could bring attendance costs below that of private, or sometimes even public, universities.

    The Ivy League is the one exception to that salary rule, too—if you’re a minority. While white students don’t see salary bumps thanks to attendance at an Ivy League school if they’re not low-income or first generation graduates, black and Hispanic students do.

  3. Visit the Financial Aid Office on tours.

    You can get a good feel for how much school-sponsored financial aid your child will be able to get simply by visiting the financial aid office on your initial tour of the school.

    For example, the financial aid office at the University of Pittsburgh, perpetually ranked as one of and often the most expensive public school in the country, didn’t even have a binder with scholarship opportunities to look over as of a few years ago. Not only is it notoriously expensive, but it’s also notoriously short on financial aid for its students.

    While Pitt is a fantastic place to get an education, you can find private institutions that charge less and offer more aid. Pitt is just one example, though. Be sure to make the financial aid office a priority when you’re visiting any campus.

  1. Look at foreign options.

    Does your kid want to study abroad? You might want to encourage them to do it for four years. There’s a small movement of students who are relocating to Europe for university, and it’s not just because the idea of studying in France is incredibly romantic.

    Rather, it’s that the cost of tuition abroad can be substantially cheaper. You do have to consider each country and school independently, though. In France, tuition can be had at public universities for as low as $1,000 or less per year. If you look at somewhere like Sweden, however, the costs jump up closer to that of the average American public university.

  2. Community College for the first two years.

    Your student may turn up their nose at this option, but take the time to go over the numbers with them and they may change their mind. If you are a Pell Grant recipient, community college can almost always be fully funded without you dropping a penny out of pocket. Even if you’re not receiving federal grants, one or two scholarships could knock out all of your costs.

    On top of that, your student can stay at home, saving on massive room and board fees. By the time they transfer when they’re a junior, they won’t be subject to the rule many colleges have for their freshman: you must live on-campus in our expensive housing.

    Just make sure your child knows which school they want to go to after the initial two years are up as you want to ensure their credits will actually transfer.

Apply for Aid

Apply for financial aid with Citizen's FAFSA application.

  1. Apply for the FAFSA.

    The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the gateway to almost all other financial aid. It can get you Pell grants (which you never have to pay back,) work-study opportunities, and access to federal student loans (which you do have to pay back.) Schools require the FAFSA to be filled out before awarding your child with school-sponsored aid.

    Filling out the FAFSA can be overwhelming. You will need your tax data as the parent or guardian from the prior-prior tax year. So for the 2017-18 school year, you will need your 2015 return. You can fill the application out for free on the government’s site, but as mentioned, it can be a cumbersome process with little guidance.

    If you think you make too much money for the FAFSA, apply anyways. The worst that can happen is that you get zero aid. But in years past, there has been money leftover because not enough families applied.

    Even if you don’t qualify for grants, you’re still likely to qualify for Federal loans, which are more often than not infinitely more desirable than the loans you’ll find in the private sector. Besides, if you use Citizen, applying is going to be easier than you anticipated.

  2. Encourage work-study opportunities.

    On top of Pell grants, another way to fund college is through work-study, which will also be a result on your child’s FAFSA. The job they are offered will either be at the school or somewhere off campus, and they can request that their paychecks be applied directly to their tuition and fees.

    Studies show that working on-campus actually improves students’ grades. The same is not true for off-campus positions, and students from low-income households tend to fare better when they do not work, but focus 100% on their studies.

  3. Apply for state grants.

    After you’ve filled out the FAFSA with Citizen, look to your state’s department of higher education. They typically award grants as well, and they can easily save you four figures per year.

  4. Apply for scholarships.

    Scholarships are another area where not enough people apply. This is money you will never have to pay back, yet many go unawarded each year for lack of applicants. To find scholarships appropriate for your child, you can check both obvious and bizarre places. Get started by encouraging them to write a scholarship resume.

  5. Apply for special allowances through DPW.

    If you come from a low-income household, check with your state’s Department of Public Welfare to see if they offer any special allowances (SPALs) for students. For example, in Pennsylvania eligible students can get assistance paying for their books through a DPW SPAL.

  6. Consider potential loan repayment options.

    If your student has applied for the FAFSA through Citizen, applied for scholarships and state grants, exhausted SPALs and still doesn’t have enough money for college, it may be time to look at student loans.

    Hopefully they’ve been offered options through the Federal government. I use the word hopefully because these loans tend to have a variety of options for repayment that can be advantageous—as long as you have the right kind of loan and payment plan.

    For example, if they want to enroll in Public Service Loan Forgiveness, where their loans will be forgiven after making minimum payments for ten years, they will have to have Direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans, or Direct consolidated loans. If you are the one applying for loans and you work in the public service sector, you may qualify for this program, too if you have Direct PLUS loans.

    The Revised Pay as You Earn program (REPAYE) requires students to have any of the Direct loan products, though parents will not qualify with PLUS loans. Students can also qualify with any of the following types of loans as long as they are consolidated:

    -Federal Perkins Loan
    -FFEL Consolidation Loan that wasn’t used to pay off a parent loan
    -FFEL Loans made to graduate/professional students
    -Subsidized or Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans

    There are several other programs, and each one requires you to not only have a specific type of loan, but to be on a specific type of payment plan, as well. You can learn more at the Federal Student Aid website.

Once They’re Accepted

National program to get student loans forgiven

  1. Carefully consider meal plan options.

    You don’t want to overspend on food, but you don’t want your child to go hungry while they’re away at college, either. Carefully consider meal plan options, which often include some combination of meal credits, “dollars” to be spent at school-sponsored restaurants and cafeterias, and specific days of the week allotted for dining. Often, credits cannot be carried over from one semester to the next.

    If you buy a big meal plan, encourage your student not to eat outside of the school’s dining halls very often—if at all.

    If you know they’re going to anyways, purchasing a smaller meal plan may be a smart idea as you let them manage the rest of their food budget on their own.

  1. Consider meal plans & on-campus housing vs cooking for themselves & off-campus housing.

    Housing and meal plans make up a surprising portion of college costs. Some schools will not allow freshmen to live off campus. However, if your child’s school does, look at nearby off-campus housing options that might allow them to cook at home. Even if this isn’t an option as a freshman, it may be an option a little later as they work their way into upper classmanship.

  2. Discourage buying from the bookstore directly.

    Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, discourage your student from purchasing through their campus bookstore. Prices are marked up beyond outrageous, and there are other options.

    We have found the best value to be purchasing physical, used textbooks outside of the bookstore and then reselling them at the end of the semester, but you can also rent physical or eTextbooks for a comparatively low price.

    If the book has been printed as a special edition just for your child’s campus or was written by their professor, have them check out Craigslist. It’s likely that students who took the class last semester are looking to unload their copies, and there’s no one who is going to buy them save other kids on campus—like your child.

  1. Encourage use of library reserve.

    One of the best-kept secrets at college libraries is the reserve section. In it, your child will be able to find a copy of every single required text the school currently has issued. The catch? There’s only one copy, and you can’t take it outside of the reserve area.

    If they only need the text to do some light homework, and there’s not a lot of competition for that single copy, they can go to the library and use it there without paying a cent.
    If they need easier access to it, they can take a photo of certain pages on their smartphones for free. Many libraries will allow you to copy pages from the text, but this will almost always cost money.

    Just don’t have them tell too many of their classmates about it, or they may have trouble getting their hands on that psych book the day before midterms.

  1. Research professor reviews to increase odds of passing.

    Just as we’ve all had that one favorite teacher who impacted our lives in momentously positive ways, we’ve all had that one professor who was an absolute nightmare. They didn’t grade things until the very end of the semester, so you never knew where you stood with course material. They rambled on about their cat for an hour instead of teaching any formulaic chemistry. Sometimes, they didn’t even have a firm enough grasp of the subject matter to be teaching it themselves.

    It can be difficult to pass a course in this type of environment, and the more often your kid has to retake a course, the more money their education is going to cost. Have them be smart about which section of a course they enroll in by having them research professors prior to registering.

Do you have any tips to save on your child’s education? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!


*This post is in collaboration with Citizen.*

13 thoughts on “20 Ways to Save On Your Kids’ College Education

  1. Done by Forty

    Lots of good stuff here. Do you have any thoughts on the 529? I haven’t been that enamored with the benefits…but it’s possible I’m not seeing them. It seems like you can get some tax free growth and a little tax deferral (on state income taxes) but that’s in exchange for earmarking all the dollars specifically for education.

    If you had tax efficient investments (i.e. – an index fund) would it be less risky to just invest in a taxable account, in case the kids get scholarships/grants?

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Yes. Great question. So with the 529, if your kid doesn’t end up going to college, you can pass it on to another family member, but if you take the money out for anything else, even if no one in your family wants to go to college, you lose those tax benefits.

      I’m hesitant to say which is less risky as I’m not a financial advisor, but I think you’re onto something with this train of thought. One thing I would say is to shop around. You’re not limited to your state, so the investment schedule for stock/bond mixes will be different for each fund, as well as the geographic locations in which you can use them. And possibly, state taxes. So your option of using a taxable account with index funds may be “safer,” but it would really depend on which state you purchased through, and, within that state, which fund you purchased. Safe being relative here. As we all know, past performance does not predict future returns.

      One thing I do frequently hear advisors say is that in the last couple of years before they enter college, you want to hold onto some of your assets in cash. Bonds are great, but cash is safer, and at that point, you’re working with an extremely short-term investment.

      Another option is the Coverdell, which has much stricter contribution limitations, but can be used for K-12 educational costs as well as post-secondary, so your spending options aren’t quite as restricted.

    1. femmefrugality Post author

      Glad you enjoyed, Meredith! And we have to now, amiright? So crazy how much the price of school has ballooned—I don’t even want to know what we’re in for when our kiddos get there. A sick part of me hopes that advisor from #2 was right.

  2. B

    The FAFSA now uses the prior-prior year taxes, so the 2017-2018 FAFSA is again using the 2015 tax information (which was used fort his academic year). For 18-19, it will use the 2016 taxes. The FAFSA used to become available in January of each year, but that changed this past year and is now available each October for the following year, causing the change in tax year info.

  3. Jax

    These are great ways to save on education. I am a huge proponent for community colleges-especially for students who aren’t sure what they want to major in. It’s a lot cheaper to “shop” majors at the junior college than it is at the university.

    Other things I would add to the list-becoming a Resident Assistant (RA) if already planning on living in the dorms. They usually come with free board and a stipend, plus it’s a good way to add leadership skills to a resume.

    Getting another on campus job-particular in food. It’s not the most glamorous, but on campus eateries will definitely work with the student’s schedule and usually include a free meal per shift, which can cut down on food costs.

  4. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    Great comprehensive list of ways to save at different times!

    One of the tricks to save money on textbooks is to ask your professor if you need the newest edition. If he or she will let you use one edition back (and often they’re teaching from old editions anyway), it can be the difference between $150 book and a $15 book.

    With scholarships, tell your kid not to just swing for the fences. There’s a lot less competition for smaller scholarships, and if a kid spends 20 hours filling out applications for 10 $500 scholarships and gets 2, they’ve still made $50 an hour and maybe saved more on future interest payments.

    1. Femme Frugality

      Absolutely on all counts! I got away with no text book more than once. And the focused scholarships are where it’s at. That’s a lot of what the scholarship resume focuses on identifying.

      Thank you for the awesome tips!

  5. Harmony@CreatingMyKaleidoscope

    This is an awesome list of tips!! We have a ways to go until our brood starts applying to colleges, but you’re right about things to consider even now, wile they’re still young.

    I really like the idea of community college to start. There are so many classes that you need for your degree, that aren’t necessarily related to your major. It could really help kids save money to knock off those general education courses at a cheaper price – while living at home to save on dorm and food expenses.

  6. Tracie

    If you are the parent of girls, have them join Girl Scouts of America. If they stay in until their senior year in high school, they qualify for a scholarship from Girl Scouts. I did that with my daughters and now my grand daughter is girl scout too.

  7. Chonce

    These are all such great tips! I have a little over 10 years to plan with my son, but I think the earlier the better! I don’t want him to make the same financial mistakes I did in college.


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