The college acceptance letters are about to come rolling in. Some of the biggest hurdles in your post-high school journey are behind you! Of course, there's still one other matter that, if you haven't already addressed it, deserves your full attention.
Now that you're on your way to becoming a full-fledged young adult, it's time to talk about money. And the sooner you start, the better off your finances will be. With decision day coming up fast, and tons to figure out beforehand, here's our ultimate college money checklist.
Clarify How Much Money You'll Need to Cover the Costs
This is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. After all, you can't effectively manage your money if you don't have a firm grasp on your expenses.
The first step is to get clear on how much you can reasonably expect to spend on your education from start to finish. From where you stand right now, roughly how much will you ultimately have to shell out when all is said and done?
This means running the numbers and looking beyond tuition. This helpful tool from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should give you a pretty good idea of what you're up against. After plugging in some basic information—like your school’s name, whether you're an in-state or out-of-state student, and if you're living on or off campus—you'll see your total annual costs in black and white. This includes tuition and fees, housing, meals, books, supplies, transportation, and other education costs.
Play around with it, and tweak the numbers to accurately reflect your situation. After accounting for all the details, how much will you be on the hook for?
Make a Plan for How You'll Pay for It
If the exercise above gave you sticker shock, don't fret. There are plenty of ways to help pay for college. Scholarships are front and center, and with good reason as they can dramatically reduce your out-of-pocket costs.
The best part is that they aren't reserved strictly for incoming freshmen. In fact, there are plenty of scholarships up for grabs for current college students too. CommonBond's step-by-step scholarship guide is a great jumping-off point in terms of understanding all the ins and outs.
A key thing to remember is that scholarships come in one of two forms: need-based and merit-based. The former is reserved for those who can demonstrate financial need. Merit-based awards, on the other hand, go to students who meet specific requirements and are chosen for being most deserving.
College Board and Scholly are two fantastic search tools for locating the right scholarships for you.
If you haven't already done so, your next order of business is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which goes directly to the Department of Education. This form determines how much aid you may or may not qualify for.
Since your finances may change from year to year, be sure to do this every academic year. Where locking down grant money is concerned, getting your application in early will also give you a leg up over the competition since it's doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis.
When it comes time to actually apply for your student loans, CommonBond has you covered with simple, competitive-rate options and built-in borrower protections.
A part-time job or work-study
Picking up a part-time job can help bridge the financial gap when it comes to paying for college. Your school's student resource center is a great place to begin your search. Do they offer any job-search resources?
It also isn't too late to inquire about work-study—a federal program that pays active students to work on a part-time basis. It's a powerful way to earn money to help cover your college costs while also getting real-life work experience in your field of study.
Just keep in mind that the program is only available to students who can demonstrate financial need. (Read on here for a comprehensive work-study breakdown.)
Whether you're looking for work through your college or out in the community, take a good look at your course load before making any commitments. How many hours can you realistically put in every week, and how much can you reasonably expect to earn?
Create a budget
Once you have an accurate idea of how much your college education is really going to cost you, and you've got a plan in place for covering the bill, it's time to make a budget.
Budgeting is really just understanding the inflow and outflow of your money—your income vs. your expenses. You can break your bills down like this:
- Fixed expenses: These are bills you have to pay every month, no matter what. Rent, your cell phone bill and groceries all fall under this umbrella.
- Discretionary spending: This is basically your fun money. Things like shopping, eating out and traveling go here.
- Financial goals: This includes building an emergency fund or saving for any other big-picture money goal.
When you subtract your monthly expenses from your monthly income, what's left? If you're breaking even or have any left over, you're in good shape.
No matter what tactic you ultimately choose, remember that paying for college doesn't have to be complicated. CommonBond makes it easy with loans that were designed with students like you in mind.
Ready to get in the financial driver's seat? Start here.