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5 Tools to Calculate (and Reduce!) College Costs

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When it comes to paying for college, a little financial forethought can go a long way in preparing your budget. You may find that there are a lot of moving parts—like the cost of tuition, room and board, transportation, and books, to name a few.

Everyone's personal situation is different, so what it really comes down to is getting a realistic grasp on the numbers. Luckily, a variety of resources ranging from startups to the federal government, are available to help you make the best financial decisions. Here are four simple tools to help you figure out how much money you need to pay for college.

Selecting a School

How much you ultimately end up shelling out for college varies widely from school to school. Private universities, for example, are generally more expensive than state universities, and out-of-state public colleges tend to cost more than those in your home state. Your annual cost will also extend far beyond tuition alone.

This handy school comparison tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau generates a side-by-side financial comparison of up to three schools at a time. The algorithm considers these five main components:

  • The name of the school
  • Whether or not you have a financial aid offer from the school
  • The program type (bachelor's or master's)
  • Whether you live in the same state as the school
  • If you plan to live on campus, off campus in an apartment, or off campus with family

This tool is powerful because it lets prospective students compare the financial impact of attending different schools. When high school was winding down, I was torn between two schools: the University of Central Florida (an in-state, public university) and Fordham University (an out-of-state, private school). I ended up going with the former and had a great experience—and I'd make the same choice today. Running the numbers for my own education revealed an annual cost of $22,222 for UCF, but a whopping $67,457 for Fordham.

Applying for Scholarships

Locking down a scholarship can make a huge difference when it comes to how much you'll spend on college. They're generally broken down into two different categories:

  • Need-based: These are usually doled out by universities to help students in financial need.
  • Merit-based: These are typically awarded to whomever meets the specific requirements and are deemed the most deserving.

According to our step-by-step guide to finding and applying for scholarships, the best time to get cracking on scholarship applications is the summer between your junior and senior years of high school, but the truth is that it's never too late to get a jump on snagging free money.

College Board has a stand-out scholarship search tool that lets students search over 2,200 programs that total almost $6 billion in scholarship funds. The organization pulls information from its Annual Survey of Financial Aid Programs. You can filter your search by things like keyword, award type, or your major. You can also simply browse around to uncover scholarships you otherwise wouldn't know existed.

Scholly is another scholarship-matching tool worth exploring. Enter in basic information, like your major and whether you're seeking merit- or need-based scholarships, and you'll be instantly connected to a bank of available scholarships that are frequently updated. It'll cost you $2.99 a month, but it's a super convenient platform that's also mobile-friendly.

Paying for School

Accurately ballparking your college grand total means personalizing the numbers. Is the student going to be living on or off campus? Have they received any grants or scholarships? These are significant questions that can help bring your financial picture into focus.

CommonBond's Undergraduate Student Loan Calculator is a free tool that approximates how much you may need to borrow for school, based on information you provide. It's a great start to help you start to understand your total cost based on your anticipated expenses and aid, as opposed to you making a best guess.

Budgeting for School

Navigating college expenses is confusing, especially if you're new to managing your finances. Check out NextGenVest's Money Mentors program, which actually connects prospective college students with current students (a.k.a. Money Mentors) who've been in the trenches and can offer valuable financial guidance. This includes helping them make sense of the most cost-effective ways to pay for school. (Update Dec 2018: CommonBond has acquired NextGenVest.)

The relationship doesn't end there. Once they've begun their studies, their mentors can also support them in learning how to save money and budget effectively. Think of it as a personal finance teacher, right at your disposal, for free. (Pretty cool, right?)

How you'll pay for college is one of the most important financial decisions of your life—it can also be downright overwhelming. The good news is that you don't have to go it alone. These tools should shed light on how much money you'll actually need and, in turn, how much to borrow in student loans. In other words, prepping your budget just got a little bit easier.

For more information on how to take out the loans you need for school, click here.

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