College fees  © Brand X / Getty Images

The Basics

Your 5-minute guide to college costs

Paying for college? It might feel like there's a vacuum hooked up to your bank account. But these 25 tips can ease some of the pocketbook pain.

By MSN Money staff

Before you do anything else, apply for financial aid. Even if you think your family earns too much to qualify, send in the forms. Then try these tips:

  • The Federal Work-Study Program provides jobs for students, encouraging them to perform community service and work related to their studies to help pay for education expenses. Many schools also have on-campus jobs that are not part of the program but offer tuition discounts and wages. (See "11 ways to graduate with less debt.")

Pick up credits where you can

The more credits you can bring with you, the less money you'll pay to a four-year university.

  • Take the first two years at a community college, which has lower costs and easy-to-transfer credits. Pick one that has a matriculation agreement with a four-year university. It's quite common and specifies which community-college credits will be accepted toward a bachelor's degree at the four-year institution.

  • If you're attending a four-year school, take classes at a community college when you're home on summer break.

Paying for the basics: Eating and sleeping

The cheapest room and board is living with Mom and Dad. Commuting from home can save thousands a year. But if you go away to school, try these tips:

  • If your college requires you to live on campus the first year, don't automatically accept the three-meal-a-day food plan if you're not going to use it. Consider a once- or twice-a-day plan.

  • Furnish your dorm room in early American thrift shop rather than new décor.

  • Be a resident assistant. Typically open to undergraduates after freshman year, this job involves some work and a commitment to be on call at certain times, but it usually comes with a break on room and board. Plus, you can learn leadership skills for the post-college world.

  • Ask your family to buy you a home. It's not such a crazy idea. If other students rent rooms in the house, the income could offset monthly mortgage payments. Families should make certain, however, that the property they purchase meets all of the requirements of rental property. Consult a tax professional. (See "Let Uncle Sam help fund a retirement home.")

Textbooks: Read 'em and weep

College students can spend more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. But there are a growing number of cheaper options. Find out what books you need (title, author and ISBN, or international standard book number), then get busy -- and don't wait until the last minute.

  • Purchase electronic textbooks. If you do most of your work on a laptop computer and don't mind e-books, purchase them as downloads and cut the cost in half.

  • Look for free books. One company, Freeload Press, provides some electronic texts at no charge in exchange for placing advertisements within the books. Other sites, such as, offer classic literature to be downloaded free. (See the video "3 places to get free textbooks.")

  • Check textbook publishers' websites for alternative formats that are less expensive, such as soft-cover editions and e-books.
    Become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

  • Consider purchasing an international edition, which typically is cheaper than a U.S. edition of the same book. The differences between the editions are usually cosmetic, and the content almost identical. Search for international editions at sites such as and

  • Share books with other students or use a library copy. This could also help by making you more efficient with your time because you will have to do your work before the last minute.

  • Resell your books when you're through. If you are planning to resell them, remember to handle the books with care and not mark them up. Also keep in mind that textbooks are updated frequently, and you'll have better luck selling them if you act quickly after your class is over.

Little things can add up

Students have lots of small personal expenses. Maintain a written budget. (See "Simple ways to make college cheaper.")

  • A car is a killer if you're footing the bills. Especially if you live on campus, getting rid of it is the fastest way to pare expenses. If possible, walk or buy a monthly bus pass.

  • Compare cell phone plans. Some carriers entice students with discounts or enhanced service. Know that you -- not your family -- will pay the extra charges if you exceed the allotted minutes.

  • Many schools require students to have a personal computer. If possible, use a basic PC rather than an expensive laptop. Remember to factor in the costs of software, a printer and, if you live off campus, an Internet connection.

  • Find out whether you are being charged for insurance or other health-care fees by the college. If it duplicates your family coverage, get any charges waived.

  • Stay on track to finish in four years or fewer. Decide on a major area of study early on or you could find yourself tacking on years -- and additional debt -- to your college career.

Of course, there's a way to cut your tuition, board, fees, textbook purchases and other expenses down to zero: Don't go to college. It may sound crazy, but for some people and some jobs, you may be better off in the long run if you put that money toward your retirement. (See "Is a college degree worthless?" and the video "Great jobs without a college degree.")

If you've got a hint we haven't included or find a factual error, let us know by sending an e-mail to

Updated June 2, 2010

Rate this Article

Click on one of the stars below to rate this article from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). LowHigh