Hard Financial Lessons Learned When Paying for College


August 2008 was when I first stepped on Penn State’s campus. I was a brand new “Class of 2012” student ready to take on the world. But because I was the first in my family to go to college, there was so much I didn’t know. When I first logged into my student portal, I noticed two emails from Penn State:

The first email was welcoming me to campus; the second email told me I still owed $20,000 for the year. I naively assumed that everything was going to be taken care of – that was far from the truth.

In reality, the bill was my full responsibility and I found myself unprepared and overwhelmed. Enough so that I was actually kicked out of Penn State in May 2009 because I couldn’t pay my full tuition bill… but the story doesn’t stop there.

I eventually crawled my way back into Penn State, graduated, worked for a couple major Wall Street firms, and now have my own financial literacy company, BetterWallet. Now, almost 15 years later (and after plenty of battle scars), I can teach parents what I wish I knew back then.

If you are a parent with a student attending college in the fall (and have very little saved for it), consider this 3-step strategy:

  1. Finding the Money
  2. Budgeting the Money
  3. Generating the Money

To achieve this specific financial goal, we first need to know how much everything will cost.

Some parents taking this journey for the first time have no clue how the process works, and that can be stressful. Hopefully by the end of developing this game plan together, you’ll find this process less stress inducing.

After your child has been accepted to a college or university, the first thing to do is to determine the total cost of the year. There are both “Direct Costs” and “Indirect Costs”:

Direct Costs can include things such as: tuition, mandatory fees, housing, and meal plans.

Indirect Costs typically include books and supplies, transportation, and personal/miscellaneous expenses.

To estimate college expenses, check the institution’s website or contact them directly. Knowing the cost beforehand can help in planning for your child’s education. Most colleges charge per semester, so check with the bursar’s office to determine what is included in this amount. Is it only tuition and fees or does it include living on- or off-campus? By breaking down the overall goal into smaller milestone goals, it becomes more achievable. Start with the tuition and fees amount as your first small goal.

Finding the Money

Though you should aim to pay for school without borrowing, student loans are a reality for most students attending college.

There are two main types of student loans: federal and private. If you do need a student loan, always go with federal student loans in the student’s name first, as they offer flexible repayment options. To qualify for any federal student aid, however, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). You can find more details and resources at StudentAid.gov. If you plan on applying for a Direct PLUS loan (or Parent PLUS Loan), you will also need to go to StudentAid.gov to apply for a Federal ID before starting the application.

Private student loans are another option offered by online lenders and financial institutions. Do your research to see what options work best for you, but if you’re looking for a private student loan that fits your unique needs, consider College Ave Student Loans. Their private student loans are tailored to your budget and goals, so your child can focus on their studies without the same financial stress I had. Their application process is a breeze, too.

Federal Grants

There are federal grants, including the Pell Grant, TEACH Grant, or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) that you may be eligible for after you complete the FAFSA.

University Employment

Your child can also apply for an on-campus job. If they’re offered a payment plan to cover tuition and fees throughout the semester, working a job can help them with those payments.

Another consideration is working for university housing. In many instances, your child can earn wages as a housing or residence assistant. As a perk, colleges may even cover their housing expenses. This is a strategy I used my junior and senior year in college, and it saved me almost $16k in total!


According to Forbes, the National Scholarship Providers Association reported that an estimated $100 million in scholarships go unused each year due to lack of applicants. So why are students not applying for them?

The most common reasons students don’t apply include: 1) they don’t know where to find them, and 2) they don’t know what to write about in their essays.

So, how do students position themselves for the best chance to receive scholarships? Here’s a summary of things your child can do right away, from one of my favorite books, “Financial Literacy 101 for College Students: How to Find the Money, Budget the Money & Grow the Money”:

First, we need to find the scholarships. There are vetted platforms like Scholly, ScholarshipOwl, and Bold.org that link your child’s profile to a database of scholarships that match your information. The more detail you enter, the more specific the results will be.

Another strategy is to search and type: “[Your child’s major] + Scholarships + [Current Month] Deadline” into your internet browser. This will populate all the scholarships that have a deadline of the current month, regardless of which month it is.

Next, have your child write a “what you will do with the money,” essay or a “degree or career plans,” essay that they can have readily available for scholarships that require them. Once they have written these essays, they can store them in a cloud-based drive (e.g., Google Drive) so they can be easily accessed.

These two steps tackle the biggest challenges. Now, your child knows where to find the scholarships (or have them find you) and essays to pull from when applying.

Once your child has these two challenges out of the way, they can implement the “Two A Day” Strategy: applying for two scholarships each day for the next two months and beyond. After applying this strategy for the next two months, your student will have applied for around 120 scholarships!

One last tip? Apply for 10x more in scholarships than what you need. For example, with $50,000 in college expenses, students will need to apply for at least $500,000 in scholarships. If your child does not get chosen for 90% of the scholarships they applied for, then a 10% success rate is still enough money to cover what they need.

Budgeting the Money

When you have a budget, or written plan, for your money, you will be more aware of how it will be allocated and later spent. This is especially important for those who will be living off-campus. and will be responsible for the associated monthly bills. When living on campus, the housing costs and meal plans are often a one-time payment before the semester starts, so students don’t have to worry as much.

This budgeting worksheet is a great place for all students to start, regardless of their living situation.

Generating the Money

Because we are living in a digital age, there are so many opportunities to take your ideas, passions and interests, and generate a side income from it. If your child has an interest in certain hobbies or has specific skills that they are exceptional at, they may be able to monetize that (meaning, people are making money in that field of interest).

Let’s say your child is brilliant with understanding chemistry. Perhaps they can create a YouTube channel that focuses on “Easy Ways to Understand Chemistry.” Did you know that if a YouTube channel gets enough subscribers and video views, that creator can then be paid accordingly? If you don’t think people can make money with something like that, check out the ER Nurse turned millionaire, Stephanee Beggs. She built her entire business from selling nursing school notes on Etsy and generated a full-time income from it.

The key to this is to pick one thing and stick with it. The purpose of this strategy? To give you a plan of action that you can start today and watch the results roll in over time. You’ll never know if you don’t try!

The Bottom Line

Navigating the complexities of college financing can be a daunting task, especially for first-generation students and their families. However, by learning from the hard financial lessons of others, it is possible to approach the process more confidently and avoid unnecessary challenges.

Understanding the total cost of college and breaking it down into manageable goals is the first step. Exploring various avenues for funding, such as federal and private student loans, grants, university employment, and scholarships, can help alleviate the financial burden. Additionally, creating a budget and exploring opportunities to generate income can provide students with more control over their finances.

By following these steps and taking proactive measures, parents and students can have a less stressful college experience, ensuring a smoother path to higher education.

To learn more how to set up your kids for a wealthy financial future, please message me at thebetterwallet.com or on Instagram @betterwallet.

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