Education: Creative Ways to Control Your Costs at School

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“A penny saved is a penny earned.” When it comes to paying for your university or college education, that old saying is worth repeating… and maybe even posting on your bulletin board! But how do you put it into action?

I recently asked students and parents how they control costs. Here are some of their top tips.

Start with that school bill. You can’t avoid paying tuition and most student fees, but look closely at the other charges. If you see “health and dental insurance” and your parents or your spouse cover you already, then ask the school to remove that charge. Michael saved more than $100 per year this way.

It’s tempting to spread out your fees but try to pay them up front if at all possible. If you’re paying in installments, some universities charge 14 percent and more in interest – higher than many credit cards! This is huge and unnecessary. If you’re waiting for a student grant or loan to come in, ask for a short-term loan from a relative to cover you for a few months. Even a line of credit from the bank might offer lower interest!

Another big bill is housing. If you can live for free with relatives you’re ahead of the game. If not, sharing an apartment is often cheaper than living in residence or alone. Apartments in home basements can work well for some students as they may have fringe benefits. Sunny found that the family who rented to her often brought her leftover food, drove her to groceries when they were going, hired her for babysitting, and loaned her furniture which saved on buying and moving expenses.

This is a long shot but I spoke to a clerk at a university off-campus housing centre who said they occasionally get offers of rent-free housing for a student willing to provide private tutoring and babysitting. You may even find free housing for one or two terms by taking a house-sitting job for professors who go away on sabbatical and want someone to live in, maintain their property and perhaps look after their pets. Another possibility is getting a free room in exchange for helping out around the house with chores for an elderly person or someone with a physical disability. Check with your family members first, your parents’ friends, community centres, religious institutions and campus housing offices. You could also post your own ads around town or on web sites like www.kijiji.ca.

University meal plans are convenient but costly. If you do buy one, buy the lowest amount. Otherwise you may find that at the end of the year the university will keep the unused balance on your card.

A better option is to cook your own food. Noodles are a student’s best friend because they’re filling and cheap, but they’re not your only choice. Universities often publish handouts on cooking and healthy eating for students who want variety and affordability. Another tip: shop with a roommate or friends, buy bulk food (cheaper!) and split the savings.

Transportation can be costly. Braden has a long drive from home to school in another city, so he plans to keep his gas costs down by grouping his classes into a few long days rather than spread them over the week, if he can. This also frees up full days for his part-time job, and cuts spending on meals out. Car-pooling is another cheap and green option. Even better, if you’re close enough, take the bus, bike or walk.

You can save on clothing by shopping at second-hand stores, where it’s often possible to find near-to-new clothing. I had more brand-name designer clothing when I bought used clothes than I do now.

Textbooks are expensive, so Mandy recommends buying used whenever you can, “no matter how beat up they are!” Just make sure you have the right edition.

Buy used textbooks at campus bookstores, through online booksellers and from fellow students. Consider sharing textbooks if you’re taking a course with a friend.

Remember to sell your old books when you’re done with them, too.

Save a bundle by buying a used computer. If your computer breaks down and you’re short on cash, some  university libraries loan out laptops for a few hours for free. Many computer centres on campus offer free internet access as well.

When it comes to internet and cell phones, compare plans and make sure you won’t get hit with huge cancellation charges if you move during the summer.

Read the contract carefully.

Speaking of moving, try to avoid buying furniture, especially if you’re only renting for eight months.

Moving expenses can be huge. If you can’t rent a furnished apartment, see if you can buy the basics off the previous tenant. If you do need furniture, ask family members if they have anything they can give or lend you, or buy the cheapest used stuff you can from garage sales or from on-line sites.

When you’re travelling, check for student discounts and compare them with other discounts. Book in advance and you might find great savings on seats.

The best take-home message from all the Super-Savers I questioned? Do your homework. That means both your school work AND your research into savings. Those “pennies earned” add up to dollars very quickly.

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