Debt-Free College Strategies #2 – These Also Worked for Us

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Debt-Free Key on KeyboardThere are so many debt-free college strategies. Last week I wrote a HUGE post about 10 that worked for my family with the college choices for my three girls – Debt-Free College Strategies – These Worked for Us. As I thought about it more after the post, I realized that there were additional strategies we used. So here is the “Part 2” post with 7 more debt-free college strategies that worked for us!

Off-Campus Housing After the First Year (If Allowed)

Colleges vary as to whether they require a student to live on campus for a number of years and what that number is. In the case of our middle daughter, who is finishing up at University of Illinois, there was no requirement to live on campus. However, we definitely wanted her to start out on campus to feel like she was a part of the school community.

For her second year, she arranged to live in an apartment with 3 other girls, two of whom she knew from high school. Unfortunately, she figured out during the first semester that she no longer wanted to deal with roommates so she ended up in a studio apartment after that.

The apartment with roommates was substantially cheaper than on-campus room and board, so if your student has a high roommate tolerance, that’s definitely the way to go.

Off-Campus Housing Example:

University of Illinois Room & Board – $11,480

Off-Campus apartment (4-bedroom split 4 ways)  – $325 x 12 months* – $3,900

*Note: Most off campus apartments require a 12-month lease; you can either try to sub-let for the Summer or just pay the extra months

Food budget* – $200 x 9 months* – $1,800

*Note: Food budget is going to vary substantially from student to student

Annual Savings – $5,780

Purchase Used (or Rent) Textbooks Online

One of the easiest ways to save is by not buying textbooks at the campus bookstore. Many campus bookstores now offer rental options as well. Compare the campus rental cost against renting, or buying used, from online sources. We have had the most luck with Amazon and However, there are a few smaller online sellers that sometimes come in cheaper. Sometimes the online auctions on eBay have resulted in some good deals on textbooks for us as well.

We have used the site to compare textbook prices across multiple sites. The only drawback is that they do not work with, so we usually compared all the prices on against to see what vendor offered the lowest price. It often resulted in buying a few here, a few there each semester. Just watch for shipping fees to make sure that’s doable. Both Amazon and offer free shipping options over a certain minimum amount.

The savings by not buying new or used textbooks directly from the campus bookstore can be significant each semester.

Another option to look into is to buy a slightly different version of the textbook, if allowed. International versions are usually exactly the same, but are priced significantly lower. Also, prior versions of the book are often acceptable and are substantially cheaper. Just have your student double-check with professors to make sure a different version will work.

With the proliferation of online textbook sellers, it is also very easy to sell back your books at the end of the semester.

Part-Time Student Job to Cover Extra Monthly Expenses

Daughters 1 & 2 both found that they had more than enough time in their schedule to work a part-time job, sometimes two.

Our oldest, who was on the cross country and track teams and in the Honors College, always worked on campus after her first year. She worked 10 hours a week at the Fitness Center her second and third years. Her Senior year, she got a Writing Center tutoring job, which she loved, and still worked at the Fitness Center. She was able to cover all of her food and incidental expenses through these jobs.

Our middle daughter started with two jobs the first year, and went down to one after that. She was not involved is sports or clubs so she balanced a very full course load each semester with about 6-10 hours of work at a tutoring job that paid $10/hour. This was enough for her to cover her food and incidental expenses.

Working while in college helps student manage their time wisely, adds to their resume and gives them some “skin in the game” when it comes to paying for college. It can help reduce your financial burden.

ACT/SAT Test Prep to Increase Score and Qualify for Higher Automatic Merit Scholarships

You’ve probably heard stories of how a 2-3 point increase in ACT score (or similar type of increase in SAT score) gave a student thousands of dollars more in merit scholarships. This happened with our oldest daughter.

This scenario is especially true with schools that have pre-defined ACT/SAT minimum scores for certain “automatic” merit scholarship amounts. Automatic merit scholarships are the ones where any student who meets the criteria automatically gets the scholarship. Most colleges that offer automatic scholarships make it easy to see the different tiers or ranges of GPA/test scores and the corresponding scholarship amounts on their websites. This will make it easy for you to assess where your student currently falls as well as where they could fall with a higher test score.

Having a goal of hitting a higher merit scholarship amount can make ACT or SAT test prep seem more important to your student. This worked well for my oldest daughter, along with her own internal motivation to score higher. She took her last ACT score December of her Senior year and had the score back in plenty of time to send to the Admissions office for an increase in the merit scholarship offered. In her case, 1 point higher on the ACT brought her merit scholarship up $3,000 per year. That’s an extra $12,000 over the course of her 4-year college career that we didn’t have to pay.

ACT or SAT test prep doesn’t have to be expensive to be effective. We mostly used hard-copy study guides purchased on Amazon for around $20-$30 each. There are also some fairly inexpensive online study programs for those students who would do better with a guided online program. Some online programs guarantee a certain point increase of you can get your money back.

I have a friend whose son used one of these online prep programs, called PrepScholar,  and even though they were pretty sure they’d be asking for their money back at the end, he achieved the advertised 4-point increase, allowing him to bump up his automatic merit scholarships by $4,000 per year!

Student Summer Jobs to Save a Pre-Determined Amount Towards the Cost of College

From the time our girls were old enough to work Summer jobs, they always did, with the expectation that the majority of the money earned would be saved towards college. This carried into college as well, with the expectation that they would make around $3,000 each Summer to put towards the cost of tuition.

As with working a part-time job on campus, this helps your student have “skin in the game” when it comes to paying for college.

Save for college in a State-Sponsored 529 Plan

Although 529 plans can be good college savings vehicles for any family, the best are the state-sponsored plans that allow you to take a credit on your state taxes. Illinois has the Bright Start College Savings plan which we have used for all 3 girls since they were born. Each year, any money you contributed to Bright Start plans can be deducted on your taxes. In many years, this took us from a situation where we would have had to pay more in state taxes to one where we received a refund.

This comes under the category of “every little bit helps” when your goal is to send your student to college debt free.

This strategy only works for families who live in a state that sponsors this type of 529 plan. However, the next strategy below applies to families in all states. College Savings Plan is a unique way to save for college. It offers savings for online purchases, credit card purchases (if you sign up for their credit card), meals at participating restaurants, and a few more options.

We have used Upromise since our oldest daughter was little. To date, we have saved over $4,200 through this program. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot over 20+ years, but it was essentially FREE MONEY.

Upromise has a credit card with a “cash back” program, similar to many other credit cards. However, you can link this credit card to the Upromise 529 plan and all the cash back earnings will go into a tax-free college savings account.

In addition, if you go through Upromise to make online purchases at a large number of online retailers, you get at least 5% of your purchase price back in Upromise earnings (and an even higher % when they run promotions).

We did not always remember to go through to make our online purchases, but when we did, we got extra money back.

The $4,200 we have earned through Upromise went towards school fees, books and other extra materials that our girls needed. This has been a great FREE MONEY source to add one more piece to the puzzle for debt-free college.


I hope you have enjoyed reading through “Part 2” of the debt-free college strategies that worked for us. Next week, I will cover some of the debt-free college strategies that weren’t right for us, but may be right for your family.