How to save money in college, when everything is so damn expensive?
In four years, the average Canadian undergrad will have accumulated $25,000 in student debt. The average student in the United States? $37,172. This amount does not include accommodation, study materials, transportation, events, food or essentials.
Luckily, I managed to finish my degree (somewhat impatiently), hop around 15+ countries, 70+ cities and pay off my $31,000 + student debt within a year of finishing college.
As with most, my college years were a blur of sleepless nights, endless papers and Netflix marathons. Despite my tuition being pinpointed at a book value of $28,960, all the hidden cost as associated with living away from home accumulated to no less than $50,000.
That was an expensive piece of paper.
However, it wasn’t until I sat down and started looking at the bank statements that I realized how deep of a financial shithole I was in.
Before I launch into my journey, I want to specify that my situation is not applicable to everyone. I am incredibly privileged to be supported by a family, who have helped me with $13,000 throughout the years, not including all the times I stayed home and raided their stocked fridge.
Aside from that, I am almost proud to say that I paid off $37,000 without treading in deep waters of debt-induced misery. Below are a few tips on how to save money in college, travel and live debt free.
1. Start Early & Save
My obsession with working odd jobs started since the age of 14, delivering catalogs in a pushcart with a friend who split the monthly check of $150 with me. Every summer, I’d find myself with another one of Craigslist’s random job search results. While the initial years were way-under-minimum-wage sorts, my options multiplied once I hit sixteen. From photocopying travel expenses as an Accounting Assistant to engaging in the dislikes of Torontonians as a street fundraiser, to serving at restaurants, to on-the-side translation services, I averaged around $8000 in four-months on just-above-minimum wage jobs. Aside from a high school grad trip to China, I worked until the summer before my third year of college, with these paychecks covering my yearly tuition up until then.
Of course, ‘starting early’ is relative in this context. It is never too late to save up for the things you’d want to do.
Go get’em tiger
2. Avoid Loans, Multiply Grants
For most, going to school means taking out a loan. Although Ontario has a student assistance program, these loans start generating taxes six months from graduation. My loan calculator informed me that I’d average $4/ day on interest. That’s $120 a month, $1440 a year, just as a financial reminder of how unfortunate it is you can’t afford school.
Taking out a loan shouldn’t be a fearsome task, but be aware of lending terms. Most importantly, keep the money you receive apart from earned money. Physically & emotionally.
I kept my loans in a separate account.
With some professional financial guidance on a money-saving plan for students, I contributed periodically to a Mutual Funds account. While I still indulged in cheap liquor and patios with earned money, I made sure never to use loans for these ‘luxuries’. It was way too easy to dive right into those couple thousand dollars and spend it within a night’s frenzy.
Most schools also offer scholarships and grants for their students. I’ve learned to apply for anything I’d remotely qualify for, going as far as emailing the admin staff even if I’m slightly off their target audience (which worked, btw). It’s not much when compared to my tuition, but I had qualified for $8,000 in scholarships & government grants by the end of my degree.
3. Cutting Major Costs (How to Save Money on Food & Accommodation)
Tuition aside, the most significant student expenses pertained to books, outings, groceries and living costs. After the first year, I moved into a house with five others. We had one too many people living in that house compared to the number of rooms, so myself and another happily agreed to share a place. I grabbed a mattress from home and slept on the floor for a good while. I guess this became the prequel to my Couchsurfing habits.
That year, I saved myself $3000 in accommodation.
Our student body, like most, had an active Facebook page that buys and sells used study materials. When second-hand copies weren’t an option, I’d try the school library. Interestingly, the time constraints placed by the librarians gave me more incentive to read the study material. Looking for free e-books also became a possibility, although the likelihood of finding them was next to none. Since my degree didn’t require any must-buy-new books, I think I spent only $500 in four years on reading materials.
When it came to groceries, I often opt for Chinese/Korean grocery stores. Aside from my love for Asian cuisine, these shops are generally cheaper than other stores. Their options are limited when accommodating different diets, but financially, it was magnificent.
4. Travel for a Reason
You don’t have to travel for a reason. But you should. It can be for the view, the culture, the religion, the understanding. It can be for no reason at all, but that is a reason in itself.
To put it in simple terms, traveling is an investment. Maybe not in the financial sense, but even the cliché understanding of self-discovery can be an associated, useful outcome.
Having a reason gave me justification. It legitimized my fantasies of wanting to travel and pushed me to realize a goal sustained by purpose.
Most importantly, it helped me understand & learn ways of saving money based on my circumstance.
In the second semester of my third year, the opportunity arose for me to spend a semester abroad in France. Thinking Paris to be the epitome of love, freedom and all things good, I readily enrolled. However, after the most bizarre of 4 months, I realized that Paris was just not for me.
Nonetheless, Paris became the stepping stone for my first solo backpacking journey across Europe and into Turkey for a month-long internship that ended in late August.
By December, about 4 months after my first trip, I already enrolled myself in initiatives in Quebec, California, and India for the following year. These were scholarship opportunities flexible enough to accommodate my travel needs. My CA trip covered my travel costs from Canada to China, providing me with the excuse to backpack the West Coast. My India research program’s $5000 grant was split in 2, $1500 of which was spent traveling India while the rest went into decreasing my school debt.
6. Side Jobs while Traveling
Working while traveling is a great way of earning some extra cash while embracing a country’s culture, language.
In Paris, I worked as a caretaker for two little boys. Not only did the job cover a month of my heinous rent, but speaking with the kids also upped my broken French.
In India, I worked as an event promoter for several weddings and functions. These gigs were definitely interesting. An hour of ‘namaste’ and greetings was around $15-20. Subtract the crazy Delhi traffic that easily took up 3 hours of our lives, an average night would be 4 hours of paid work in dresses standing around smiling and socializing.
As cliché as it might sound, minimalism is critical in maintaining a tight budget. I don’t mean the branded pastel colors you see on insta, but genuine material minimalism whereby shopping for goods only happen when necessary. Then again, I have the worst style- so I can happily live on the same three shirts for a couple of months.
Aside from clothing, do you need to lease a brand new A6 just for school?
Do you need to rent a fancy bachelor pad right downtown?
If so, go for it.
If not, why bother?
Now, categorizing living arrangements within minimalism might be a bit of a stretch. However, after finding a job that lets me work from home, I’ve merely accepted the fact that moving in with my parents is the biggest money saver of all. As the first time in five years that I had stayed home long-term. I was happily put in my old room and saved thousands financially.
Of course, this is a temporary solution to Toronto’s expensive housing market. But it has certainly given me a head start in working towards my goal.
When I landed in Canada in December 2016, I had managed to preserve the majority of my government loans.
Let’s backtrack a little.
$50,000-$13,000 (parents)-10,500 (school &program scholarships & government grants) =$26,800.
$26,800- $8000*2 (summer jobs)-$2000 (previous savings from jobs) = $8800.
This $8800 was my loan. Accordingly, I needed to earn $8800 to start from 0.
I was determined to pay it all off before my 23rd birthday in late March.
During the first month, I applied to no less than 100 jobs. Whether it be one click applications or the ‘fill out your profile’ type, I kept it moving. We all know how bizarre the job market is nowadays, demanding a masters degree, 3-years of experience while the ability to hula hoop around the office and balancing a chair on your nose for an entry-level, minimum wage position.
With an all too common social sciences degree, I knew I needed a strategy.
To pass time? I waitressed.
While serving part-time, I was hired by an interpretation company. The job allowed me to work from home, which gave me loads of flexibility that resulted in my accepting two other positions. These assignments not only eliminated transportation costs but also allowed me to continue researching other opportunities both in Canada and abroad. (Keep the dream alivee)
By mid-February, I was working on several projects, on top of having four jobs.
8… But Find Balance
The 12-hour day schedule was not always fun, as it became a blur of multitasking and managing stress. As someone who never strategized, I was pushing myself to limits never even attempted at school. I suddenly found myself learning information & software my Liberal Arts Degree never taught me.
Instead of slowing my pace, the heap of work energized me to work even more. I began revitalizing my blog after a year of inactivity. From Bluehost to WordPress to Siteground, from Dreamweaver to ready-designs to customizing, I somehow managed to kick it alive.
I quickly burnt out. The social media and readership, software and weekly updates became a constant stress maker. My other jobs also ate up my social life.
I became unrealistic with my capabilities and went way over my comfort limit. Quickly, I had to take a breather from my site.
Now, I understand more than ever how important it is to maintain a balance between work and personal life.
9. Short-Term Goals Long-Term Goals
Goals are crucial to motivation. Of course, mine are all travel-related.
Of course, it is essential to have Big Picture Goals, which focuses on the outcome or the end state, as well as mini goals. The latter focuses on smaller steps that get us to the end state.
Goal setting needs to be:
- Specific: the goal needs to clearly define our objective. What are you looking to achieve? In my case, it was to erase my student debt.
- Measurable: Our brain likes to see milestones and trust me when I say success breeds success. Having weekly earning & saving goals are extremely helpful.
- Attainable: Yet, the goal must be realistic and attainable. It shouldn’t be too difficult, but it should be too easy. Reevaluate your goal every two weeks and readjust it accordingly. I transfer $500 to my High-Interest Savings Account every month and $100 to my RSP. This amount varies if there is a drastic change in my paycheck, but I try to maintain the structural pattern.
- Relevant: Remind yourself why the goal is important, why it is something you have to accomplish. You need it or need to want it.
- Time Bound: When? Create a timeframe for which it’s going to happen. Reevaluate and revise these goals frequently.
In the upcoming months, I have three domestic trips planned. Whether it be out camping or to another city, I think I’ve conditioned my mind to relapse into joy just by being on the go.
Bigger trips happen once a year. I try to find something outside the country such as conferences, events, or projects. These functions become my objective, an ‘excuse’ that draws me towards the destination.
And I keep on mentioning it until it can’t be said anymore. As opposed to being a goal, it becomes fact.
I am going to Russia for FIFA next year. I am going to Russia for FIFA next year.
10. Eat Well, Workout
11. Have Fun, Be Fearless
Take joy in what you have accomplished. No matter how far you are along the way, how busy you are, never forget to have fun! Always give yourself an opportunity to enjoy the seemingly mundane tasks. Read a book, watch a movie, have a drink, sleep.
Invest in yourself, your brand, your voice.
The present is a present.
After paying off my tuition, I took on a new project, got my evenings & weekends back, caught up on Netflix and have started planning for the next chapter.
Financially: Started from the bottom and now still here.
Felicia student debt.
-A Free Bird