When I talk to people about their out of control student loan debt, one of the first reasons they give for why is this: they used their student loans to pay for living expenses.
The story usually starts with how excited they were to get into college, but they were bummed out that their family couldn't afford to help them pay for school. So, they had to resort to student loans. The trouble was, tuition alone was already $20,000 per year, and they needed another $20,000 to live on - you know: rent, food, books, and fun. $40,000 per year turned into $160,000 at graduation - and now they have no idea how to pay this back.
To make matters worse, that $160,000 is really about $60,000 in Federal student loans, and $100,000 in private student loans - which are a lot harder to deal with.
So today, I want quickly remind you why you should never use your student loans to pay for living expenses in college and show you some alternatives.
Alternatives To Student Loans To Pay For Living Expenses
Just because you don't have the money saved up to pay for your living expenses doesn't mean should you borrow it with student loans. Yes, many times the financial aid office at school will make this sound like the way to go, but once you graduate, you'll quickly realize it's not.
If you're thinking to yourself that you'll have to borrow student loans to pay for your college living expenses, I strongly encourage you to rethink that. Here are a couple of alternatives.
Work In College
The number one thing that you can do to avoid taking out more student loans than you need is simply to work in college. Too many times I hear this idea dismissed - "there's too much workload" or "you need to focus on your studies". Honestly, that's just plain bullshit.
Working in college is essential for all students, but more so if you need the money. Beyond the money, those who work in college develop awesome job skills that are obvious when you compare them to students who didn't work - communication, problem solving, and time management. If you can't handle working and school, you're probably going to struggle in your first job with time management.
Plus, you don't need to work a lot. You should work backwards from your target earnings - probably around $1,600 per month or so. That's $400 per week. Find a job at $15 per hour, and it's about 30 hours per week. Don't forget that you can supplement a single job with side gigs, like tutoring or becoming a driver partner with Uber. Here's a list of over 100 ways to make money in college.
Live At Home
The next easiest way to save on living expenses is to simply live at home. This can save you on your biggest expense - rent. While living in the dorms or an apartment can be fun, it's also expensive. Not living on campus does have costs - such as transportation or a parking pass - but it's almost always significantly cheaper to live at home than at school.
If you're going away for school, this can be hard, but that's why you might also want to rethink your college choice.
Rethink Your College
Finally, if you're thinking your going to spend a small fortune on living expenses, it might be a good idea to rethink your college. Remember, the end goal is to reduce your student loan borrowing as a whole. If you have to borrow a little to live, it's easier to do that if your tuition is only $7,000 or $10,000 per year, versus $20,000 or $30,000.
Note: Be aware that even in-state schools can charge a LOT for room and board.
Be Smart With Your College Expenses
To avoid using student loans to pay for living expenses, it's also essential that you're mindful with your expenses. The top expenses for college fall into these buckets:
- Tuition and fees
- Room and board
- Books and supplies
- Personal expenses
Tuition and Fees
This all depends on where you go to college. It's essential that you calculate the Return on Investment (ROI) of the college you choose. For many, going to a state school is a better investment of money than going to a private school. However, every person, every major, and every job after graduation will have their own unique ROI.
Room and Board
The key way to save here is by living at home with your parents. If that's not an option, getting a lot of roommates is second best. If you can bunk up with several people, it can lower your rent substantially.
Get creative here - this is the biggest expense that will destroy your future financial life if you let it grow out of control.
Books and Supplies
The costs of textbooks continue to rise every year, and they aren't cheap. One of our favorite ways to save on the cost of textbooks is to rent the ones you really need, and simply checkout of the library the ones that you only sparingly need. We compare all of the major textbook rental sites so that you can know the best one for you.
Like any household budget, your personal expenses can make or break your college experience. Be mindful of what you spend on food and drinks with friends. The great thing about college is that there are a ton of free experiences you can partake in - simply hang out in your college dorm common areas or the quad. From free food and movies, to hanging out with friends, college doesn't have to be expensive to have fun.
The best way to avoid costs here is to not drive. Cars are expensive, and colleges charge outrageous amounts on money on parking permits. If you live at home with your parents, driving might be the only option, but hopefully you can setup an arrangement where you can take public transportation for much cheaper. Many colleges offer discounts on public transportation for students.
Don't Use Your Student Loans To Pay For Living Expenses
As a final reminder, you really need to make an effort to avoid ballooning your student loan debt. Taking out loans for tuition and fees can make sense if you're going to get a good ROI on your school costs, but there is no ROI for living expenses.
I strongly recommend that you get a job in school, and leverage that to offset living expenses as well as gain valuable life skills.
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.