For College Students

How to Pay for College Without Your Parents

If you’re on your own, consider this guide as your roadmap to financially get through college and make it a great experience.


Congrats! You got through High School and are on your way to a better future. Investing in your higher education is one of the smartest decisions you can make. 

While college is a priceless experience, embarking on this journey as a financially independent student can be challenging. To help you reach your academic goals, we’ll walk you through how you can pay for college on your own. With these money hacks in mind, you’ll feel empowered to take on this first step into adulthood and kickstart your college life.

Your Declaration of Independence

Whether you’re an entering freshman or already in your senior year, college students can always benefit from practical money advice. That’s why smartly paying for college can set you up for future success. The savvier you are about personal finance now, the more solid a foundation you will build for your future.

Making Ends Meet

Yes, there will be times when you’ll feel like going out and hanging out with college friends. And that’s definitely an important part of the experience. But remember these wise words: everything is best in moderation. This means trying to limit your partying because, let’s be real, you need your money to pay for books, classes, supplies, housing, etc.

Your parents might be able to send some spending cash or help you buy a computer. But, as a responsible adult, you should try your best to cover those expenses. Not to mention that asking for 20 bucks to go to the movies is not a good look.

Harder still, if you’re a student who has no financial support from your parents, securing (and maintaining) your own finances is truly an essential element to your success in college.

What Type Of School Are You Going To?

Like most money matters, paying for college starts with planning and budgeting. To see how much money you’ll need to pay for your own education, it’s important to determine what type of school you’re interested in attending.

Here are the main types of higher education institutions and their average yearly tuition and fees across the country. This is according to the research organization Education Data Initiative:

  • Public 4-year Institution: $9,377
  • Public 4-year Out of State Institution: $27,091
  • Private 4-year Institution (Nonprofit): $37,641
  • 2-year Public Institution or Community College: $3,862
  • 2-year Out of State Public Institution or Community College: $8,256
  • 2-year Private Institution (Nonprofit): $17,968

Ways To Pay For School

Once you’ve weighed your options, considered the costs and decided on a degree type, it’s time to think about the logistics so you can actually pay for it.

School Loans (FAFSA)

Since time is of the essence, it’s crucial for you to fill out the FAFSA form before the deadline.

This is a big process. 

If you need help sorting through your FAFSA, reach out to your high school counselor and ask them to help you sort through this famously long and stressful form.

108 pages of the FAFSA is no walk in the park – especially if you’re handling this alone without help from your parents. But you can tackle this! Just get yourself mentally prepared, take some deep breaths, turn on your favorite meditation playlist on Spotify, and get started:

Step 1: Gather Important Documents

To simplify this process, it’s best if you (and/or your parents) gather all the important financial documents you need. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Your Social Security number (it’s important that you enter it correctly on the FAFSA form!)
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number, if you have one
  • Your Alien Registration number, if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information, tax documents, or tax returns, including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married) and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
  • IRS Form1040
  • Foreign tax return or IRS Form 1040-NR
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (but not including the home in which you live); and business and farm assets for you and for your parents if you are a dependent student

Remember to take pics and keep these records! You may need them again.

Step 2: Fill Out the FAFSA Form

You can find the FAFSA form on the Application’s Welcome Page.

Here, you’ll be asked three sets of questions:

  • Personal information: This includes your name, email address, marital status, and schools you’re interested in
  • Financial information: Such as income and any assets that you may own
  • Legal parents’ information: If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to provide your parents’ financial info

Please keep in mind that you will need to have some idea of the colleges and universities that you hope to attend. Yes, even if you have not applied yet or received an acceptance letter. That’s why deciding on a type of college is crucial to the process. But don’t sweat it! If you’re unsure, you can always update your school list later.

Step 3: Submit the FAFSA Form

If you submit a form online, you should expect an email confirming that they’ve processed your application. Any school you listed on the FAFSA will automatically receive a copy of this information. If accepted, the schools will contact you with an award letter.

Grants or Scholarships

After you’ve submitted your FAFSA form, put that to the side for a bit, and let’s focus on applying for the good stuff – a.k.a. free money!

With so many federal scholarships and grants available, there’s no reason not to give these resources a shot! Especially considering that most don’t require repayment. Remember to also check for grants available through your State.

Imagine a world where you can fully fund your schooling with grants? This would allow you to avoid school loans and set you up for a debt-free future. 

Remember: School loans should only be taken out if you’ve already tried to secure funding like grants or scholarships.

Wondering who else offers scholarships? Here are a few of the most common organizations to kickstart your search:

  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Local and national businesses
  • Professional associations in your field 


The Federal government also offers work-study to certain students. This is when you can earn money to help pay education expenses. The program encourages community service work and work related to your course of study. For those who qualify, it’s a great resource to help pay for your college education.

Federal & Private Loans

Federal and private student loans are other options to help you pay for college. Loans should be entered into after lots of thought, as the terms of these loans can make repayment challenging and lengthy.

Loans should only be considered if you have no other option available to you.

Types of Loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans

For more information on college loans, go to

Money-Making & Money-Saving Hacks

Of course, tuition and school supplies aren’t the only college expenses. There’s also food, entertainment, housing, and personal items. The list could go on and on, but we’re trying to keep it frugal here!

The following are some good ways to earn money while in school and cover the costs beyond tuition:

Becoming a Resident Assistant (RA)

In many colleges, becoming an RA will allow you to get free room and board and healthy monthly earnings. This might be the best college money hack of all.

In 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics, RAs earned an average hourly wage of $18.96, or $ 39,430 per year.

Want to know how to become an RA? Most of the time, it’s like getting any other job. You fill out an application, submit your resume, and get interviewed. Some of the skills you’ll need to be successful in this role include:

  • Organization
  • Discipline
  • Leadership
  • Sense of community

Community College for General Education Requirements

There are some general education courses that every single college student must take, no matter what school you attend or your major. So, why not take these at a community college for the first two years and then transfer to the college of your choice?

Doing this will literally slash your 4-year college tuition in half, and in the end, you’ll still get a degree from the 4-year-institution.

Some 4-year universities have acceptance programs with local community colleges to fast-track their students. Just make sure the requirements are transferable! Not quite sure? Feel free to reach out to the transfer/enrollment office at the 4-year college to ensure you’re taking classes they will eventually accept.

Side Hustles

In today’s gig economy, you can do plenty of things to earn extra cash. These are some side hustles you can do around your class schedule that can make you a good deal of money:

  • Dog walking/dog sitting
  • Helping people move
  • Deliver food and groceries
  • Tutoring
  • Babysitting
  • Take online surveys

If You’re On Your Own (Independent)

If you are 100% on your own and can’t ask your parents for help, you should complete the FAFSA as an independent. Independent filers are not required to include information about their parents’ income or assets. As a result, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be very low and you are more likely to receive a generous financial aid offer.

According to, for the 2022–23 award year, the following types of students qualify as independent:

  • Born before January 1, 1999
  • Married
  • Graduate or professional student
  • Veteran
  • Member of the armed forces
  • Orphan
  • Ward of the court
  • Someone with legal dependents other than a spouse
  • Emancipated minor
  • Someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

Still unsure if you’re Dependent or Independent? Check out this worksheet.

You Can Do This!

Even though many aspects of the college application process can feel daunting, keep in mind that millions of students complete this process every single year. If they can do it, you can too!

With our pointers and hacks, you can prepare and make this time in your life as stress-free as possible. Remember that going to college is worth all the paperwork because you’ll earn a degree. A degree that you fought for. A degree that wasn’t handed to you. The Future You will thank you for making this happen.

About the Author

Lucia Caldera

Lucia Caldera is a writer who specializes in personal finance. Her goal is to create approachable content that sparks financial wellness and unlocks personal growth. Lucia's work reflects her passion for financial education as the key to reducing the wealth gap for future generations.

Last updated on: August 23, 2022