College PoorHelp With College

My husband and I have a total of 14 years of college education. That's a lot of tuition and scads of (exorbitantly-priced) books and (tiny, white-walled) apartment rental and hot dogs and ramen soup. That's a long time to be poor. It's even longer when you have have two children while making your way through school.

As struggling college students we went without lots of things and sacrificed in order to prepare for a future that would include not being so poor. It wasn't easy.

When my oldest daughter was born — two weeks before I marched down the aisle to get my bachelor's degree and with Sam in the beginning stages of pursuing his PhD — I was determined to figure out a way to stay home. Amidst the coupon clipping, bargain hunting, and bean cooking I engaged in to help make ends meet, I started my first home business (FastLane Technology) where I did desktop publishing for small businesses.

Then I heard about WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), a government program (administered by the USDA) that provides healthy foods for children and pregnant women. It also provides nutrition education that is (or was, back in the 1980s) required before benefits can be received. It was a great subsidy to our very limited income.

Then I heard about food stamps. OK, call me sheltered, but I had no idea what food stamps were. (Shouldn't they be called “food coupons” or “food vouchers” or something?) For one, glorious semester, we got all this free food that we could never afford otherwise! It was awesome!

You Are Supposed to Be Poor in College

Then the other shoe fell. The leader of my church (Ezra Taft Benson) came to my college (BYU) and told students, in a nutshell, that they shouldn't be leeches on society just because they chose to become educated.

Major head slap.

Unsure how we would survive, we took a leap of faith, cancelled the food stamps, and dropped the WIC. Self-reliance was the name of the game. It wasn't easy.

Sam worked as a research assistant while in graduate school. I did freelance work and learned to utterly scrape pennies together. I could write posts and posts about how to save money in college (and I probably will). I got really good at it. Suffice it to say we did not go out much, we did not vacation, we did not buy new things, we found free fun, we cooked from scratch, and traded occasional babysitting with close friends.

Student Loan or No Student Loan?

Deprivation can be tough. So the question always comes up of whether or not to take out a student loan.

Debt is a chain around your neck that can drown you. It's constantly hanging over your head and threatening your existence. But sometimes — sometimes — it really is worth borrowing money to invest in the future. If you are considering a student loan, ask yourself these questions:

  • Figure much can you reasonably get by on
  • Discover student loan rates
  • Calculate the monthly payment you'll have after college
  • Research whether you can reasonably make the required payments (don't just guess and don't fantasize about your future income potential)

Don't take out a student loan that will put you in the pit of despair the minute you graduate. Be conservative in your estimates and reasonable about your future expenses and situation.

Federal Loans and Private Student Loans

When we were in school, we only knew of one student loan program. You went to the financial aid office, filled out the form, and waited for your check. Maybe we were just clueless, but there are more options today. There are federal loans and there are private college loans.

Private loans differ in that the interest rate is determined by the lender and may be variable, they may have special incentives, etc. When choosing a loan package, consider the options and compare to find the one that best suits you.

Alternatives to Debt

Remember, you don't have to go into debt to get a college education. Consider:

Part-time work during school — Sam and I both worked 20 hours per week all through our schooling

Full-time work summers and breaks — many student jobs allow extra work during breaks, taking second (or third) jobs when school is out also work to accumulate cash

Community colleges with lower tuition rates — believe it or not, going to a really expensive school doesn't give you that much more bang for your buck, look for “best buy” schools

In-state colleges with resident rates — the different between what residents and non-residents pay can be astounding, don't demand that you much go to an “exotic” out-of-state school if the best deal is right next door

Out-of-state colleges that are looking to draw in students — Western Wyoming, for example, heavily recruits drama students in my area and offers tuition, books, room and board, and stipends, even to out-of-state students who don't have fabulous grades and/or test scores (Do the tax-paying residents of Wyoming know this?)

Scholarships — get good grades and you could qualify for an academic scholarship, there are also thousands of (unclaimed!) scholarships for all sorts of situations, check it out

Live off campus and cook your own food — yes, you really can eat much cheaper than the dorm's “meal plan,” if you're willing to spend a little time, and not eat such fancy food (I lived on brown rice and tuna fish for almost three years)

Walk — car payments, insurance, and gas can drain your budget, walking is healthy and environmentally friendly

Cheap textbooks — talk about a budget-buster, this bound printed matter can take very last penny, buying used texts, renting your books, and comparing online prices are ways we have used to keep our kids' costs down

Make a Sound Decision

An education is a real asset. As you navigate your way through the challenges of college life, be sure to make the best decisions regarding your future. Working through a difficult time isn't necessarily to be avoided. It's a character building, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Enjoy it!