As student loan debt continues to climb, students and parents alike aren’t using all available resources to save money on college.

5 minute read

Saving enough money for college without getting yourself thousands of dollars in debt may seem like an insurmountable feat. But there are plenty of resources for making college affordable that people don’t take advantage of.

Because parents and students aren’t filling out FAFSAs, applying for scholarships, or using tax-free savings plans, they’re still relying on loans to cover 24 percent of college costs, says a study from Sallie Mae.[1] And they could be saving thousands more toward getting their degree.

Here are a few ways to make college more affordable, so you can rely less on student loans.

1. Pay off existing debt

The biggest barrier to saving for yours or your child’s college fund is going to be your existing debt. Not only are your monthly payments eating up a big chunk of your income, but interest continues to add up if you don’t pay it off.

Focus on paying off your former student loans, credit cards, and other debts first. Once those are paid down, focus on saving for college.

Having standing student loans also makes it harder when going back to school. Filling out a FAFSA can be problematic when you have existing debt. The Stafford loan, a federal loan program, has a limit of $31,000 for dependent students and $57,500 for independent students, according to the Department of Education.[2] If you’ve reached those limits, you won’t be eligible for another Stafford loan.


2. Take advantage of a 529 plan

More than two-thirds of Americans don’t know there’s a tax-free way to save for college, even though it’s been around long enough that kids born when it debuted would be in college by now.

State-sponsored 529 plans are the least likely option to be used by people considering college, according to a study from the financial services firm Edwards Jones.[3]

The plan can be set up by parents, grandparents, or really anyone else to fund a child’s post-high school education. Your money goes into the account after taxes and the funds, including earnings on the investments, are withdrawn tax-free as long as the money is spent on certain “qualified” school-related expenses such as classes, dorms, books, or student fees.

“Proper education can prevent individuals from solely relying on scholarships or financial aid, as these strategies can be unpredictable,” says Edward Jones’ Danae Domian. “Incorporating a 529 plan into an overall college savings strategy will help with long-term planning and allow for flexibility in both annual contributions and recipient eligibility based on individual lifestyle.”

3. Apply for as many scholarships as possible

The Sallie Mae study says scholarships will cover 28 percent of college costs. But there are a few ways to make that money stretch further.

Apply for every scholarship you’re eligible for (and that’s more than you probably think, because quite a few have no qualifications). And there are some weird scholarships you can apply for, and earn up to $30,000 (if you’re talented – or tall – enough). Here are some of the weirdest:

  • The Tall Club Scholarship: this offers $1,000 to female applicants over 5-foot-10 and male applicants over 6-foot-2.
  • The Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest: this awards $4,250 to four winners for the best duck calls.
  • The Wholesale Halloween Costume Scholarship: this offers $500 to the best pumpkin carver

Paying for school with a scholarship allows you to put more of your savings toward other expenses like food, rent, and books.

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4. Fill out the FAFSA

With student loan debt climbing every year, you’d think new students would find more ways to get scholarships and grants to cover growing college costs. But they don’t.

In fact, even fewer are looking for free money. In 2017, 1.2 million high school grads didn’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – better known as FAFSA, the form that gives recipients access to grant and scholarship money for college. NerdWallet says the dip in applicants left $2.3 billion of money behind.[4]

NerdWallet says that of the 1.2 million grads, more than half of them would’ve been eligible for the Pell grant – the government-provided grant that students qualify for when they fill out the FAFSA. Students could’ve gotten about $3,583 dollars each if they would’ve filled it out.

“Missing out on free financial aid could mean taking on more debt to pay for college or graduate school,” NerdWallet says. “The less debt you take on to pay for college now, the less money you’ll need to repay later.”

It’s true: student loan debt is mounting to more than $1.5 trillion – the largest debt Americans face after mortgages. While you have to fill out FAFSA to get federal loans anyway, it’s a sign of how expensive college has become.

5. Buy real textbooks

No self-respecting college student would be caught dead with a knockoff iPhone. Now a textbook company is hoping the same is true for its books.

Cengage announced a “major initiative” to keep students from buying cheaper “inferior” and “counterfeit” textbooks.[5] The company is urging consumers to only buy textbooks with the Cengage certification seal.

How do you spot a “counterfeit”? They say textbooks may be missing pages, use different paper, and feature blurred photographs. But with textbooks costing students up to $900 yearly, it’s not clear they care.[6]

Students may think purchasing knockoff books will save them money, but Cengage says counterfeit textbooks will cost students in the long run. When students go to sell back counterfeit textbooks at the end of the semester, textbook rental companies like Booksrun or Chegg will not accept them – so students are stuck with them once their class is over.

But there are also ways to save without paying for a new (and real) textbook.

Companies like College Avenue recommend students instead borrow books from friends who have already taken courses and to look into book rental programs offered through the college or online companies.

6. Find alternative housing options

Want to go to Stanford? You’ll be paying more to live near the California campus than to actually attend school there.

Zillow says the best colleges are in cities with some of the most expensive off-campus housing in the country.[7] Students attending Stanford will pay five times the national average for rent, or more than $61,000 for a school year. Tuition at Stanford is about $45,000 a year.

And staying on campus will still cost a steep $15,112 a year, according to College Factual.[8] But there may be other ways to cut the costs of room and board, and save more for tuition.

If your parents live nearby, why not try making the commute to campus and spending a few extra years at home? You could also try living in a co-op, a house or complex that houses a group of people. The rent is typically cheaper than an apartment, but there’s a catch – you’ll have to work for your keep, according to Affordable Colleges Online.[9]

Then there are less practical options – like tiny homes. You can build your own custom home for a fraction of the cost of a full sized one. But there are still even more extreme cases that college students resort to pinch pennies.

Andrew Fraieli, a college student at Florida Atlantic University, camped on campus to avoid paying rent. He stayed in tents, hammocks, and stairwells – but he made sure they were out of sight.

“I spent almost a week in one particular stairwell that was quiet, dark, and most importantly out of the way. With my sleeping pad, it was quite comfortable actually,” Fraieli says. “As I drifted off to sleep in that stairwell, though, I thought of all the other students that may not be able to afford housing and how they could be doing what I’m doing, if only they knew how.”

But you don’t have to be as extreme as Fraeli to avoid expensive dorm and rent costs. For more tips on saving money, visit’s save money section.

Cameren Boatner contributed to this report.

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About the Author

Joe Pye

Joe Pye

Joe Pye started writing about debt and personal finance five years ago while attending Florida Atlantic University, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the student-run newspaper, the University Press. Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism, Pye placed as a finalist for the Mark of Excellence award by the Society of Professional Journalists Region 3 for feature writing and in-depth reporting. In 2021, Pye earned First Place in the Green Eyeshade awards for "Best Blog" for his side-project Since taking a full-time position as associate editor at in 2018, Pye has become a certified debt management professional who's applied what he's learned to his personal life by paying down more than $22,000 worth of combined credit card, student loan, auto and tax debt in less than two years.

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