Ok, whoa. College is about four years away, and you’ve got big dreams but need a strategy to achieve them. First of all – breathe. It’s entirely possible to save for college in four years as long as you have the proper perspective. For starters, college can cost anywhere from $30,000 – $50,000 per year. And chances are you won’t be able to save for the entire thing by yourself on part-time work. That said, there are dozens of ways for you to have substantial savings by the time your first semester starts. Here’s how to save for college 101.
5 Strategies to Save for College in 4 Years or Less
Scholarships, grants, and financial aid are the most popular ways of adding to your college fund. And although filling out the paperwork can be a hassle, the good news is you do it over 4 years. Your primary goal should be applying to a series of partial scholarships instead of one big one, mainly because many small scholarships have easy qualifiers like being from a particular state, ethnic group, or academic level. Plus, scholarship applications often include a cover letter and written essay about why you should deserve it. By applying to small ones, you get a chance to hone in on writing an effective cover letter, thus making you more likely to be approved by other scholarships.
Start by researching scholarships specific to your state and narrowing down the ones you qualify for. Then approach your counselor, parent, or mentor about starting the application process.
It’s worth noting that scholarships are almost always tied to your grade point average both during application and throughout your college career. That means you’ll have to ensure a certain level of academic success. If you plan on attending college but struggle in a classroom environment, you’ll need to tackle slightly different scholarships. In addition to studying and seeking a tutor, focus on scholarships with lower GPA requirements.
For example, let’s say you’re great at math but lag in other subjects. Apply for scholarships that prioritize math skills or enter into mathematical scholarship competitions to gain an edge.
Another option with scholarships is to seek one out that offers a direct pipeline from school to active employment. That means you’ll start your career shortly after college, generating an income and paying off any debt immediately.
Leveraging Your Work History
Getting a part-time job is a great way to start saving money. But don’t forget you can apply to higher-wage jobs in your field. Let’s say you start a job as a waiter and make $10 an hour. After a year, you’ve got more waiting experience than ever. Update your resume with your new experience and apply to a similar job that pays more. This skill will serve you well in adulthood, but it’s tricky to get the hang of.
First, don’t quit your job until you have a new one lined up. Second, don’t mention applying to other businesses until you’re hired at the new job. Third, always give your two-week notice in case you have to return to your previous employer. And remember not to switch jobs too frequently if you can help it. Switching between too many jobs in a short amount of time can be a red flag to an employer. Plus, remember to factor in the quality of life as well. Sometimes, one job pays more, but the working conditions aren’t as good, making every shift miserable. In that scenario, keeping your old job and protecting your mental health is better.
Lastly, add up any additional transportation costs to make sure you’re not spending the extra money you’re making just getting to and from work.
Budgeting is more of a skill than a plan, but any effective financial plan will lean heavily on good spending skills. Here are the steps to budgeting for a college savings plan.
Do The Math
Figure out the approx value that college is going to cost you. Since budgeting is a matter of figuring out how much you have vs. how much you’ll spend, only consider guaranteed money. In this context, guaranteed money are scholarships you’ve been officially approved for, money in your bank account, etc. Don’t add theoretical funds into your budget. For example, let’s say you’re in the running for a scholarship that covers about 50% of your overall tuition. It’d be a less than stellar idea to add that potential money into you over budget as you may end up overspending with the expectation that you’ll be approved only to find out, for one reason or another, the scholarship has fallen through. Always remember, theoretical money doesn’t pay bills.
Calculate a Monthly Savings Goal
After you figure out a monthly budget, you’ll come to an approx value of what you can save per month. Play it smart and try to meet or increase that approx goal every month. Monitor your savings deposits to make sure you’re meeting that goal monthly.
Stick To It
A budget is only effective if you’re committed to it. Stick with your budget for at least a couple of months at a time, track all your spending, and adjust accordingly.
Go Fund Me
Consider starting a GoFundMe or something similar to pay for large chunks of your college tuition. You can run multiple GoFundMe campaigns over the years. Remember, you’ll need a parent or guardian to access the funds.
Admittedly, starting a small business isn’t easy. You’ll need a business idea and a way to bring that to life. Thankfully, with the internet and modern opportunities, it’s easier than it’s ever been to start a business and turn a profit. Keep in mind as well that you don’t need to build a Fortune 500 company to turn a profit. You can start business mowing lawns, dog walking, babysitting, making art, etc. Even if it’s inconsistent income, it’s still income and helps you further develop your business and saving skills over time.
How to Track Your College Savings
The best way to save any large amount of money is by putting it in a savings account. Banks and credit unions insure your money against fraud, so it’s a great way to protect your funds. Plus, with an actual savings account comes monthly statements and year-end reports that you can use to develop a deeper understanding of your long-term spending habits and ways to change them.
If you prefer more offline options, consider keeping a money diary of all your expenses and then balancing them at the end of the month.
How to Calculate How Much You Need to Save for College
The first step to any long-term savings goal is figuring out how much you have to save. For college, take some time and find a field or degree you want to work towards, and then research the amount of schooling and pay it’ll take to earn an associate’s degree. Add approx $10k to whatever number you come up with. That way, you’ll have room for error should something be more expensive than you initially thought.
College Savings Calculator
A college savings calculator is great for building a solid budget. You’ll be able to figure out exactly how much you’ll need to save per month to pay for college. We recommend Fidelity’s calculator for this purpose. It’s easy to use, offers additional college-focused calculators, and is free.