This is part of an ongoing series about how to trim the budget of the average American. As this series focuses on such broad-based tips, some will work for you and some will not. You’re invited to mention in the comments the tips that you found to be the most useful for inclusion in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of this series.
Education – $945
Education is another expense that varies widely from family to family. Many families have no education-related expenses at all. Other families have multiple children in college or on the way and are in a much different situation.
Obviously, education spending is an area where I think it’s a strong investment to spend if you need it. Education can have an enormous positive effect on your lifetime earnings beyond the personal growth that education can trigger.
The question here is how you can maximize your education dollars. Here are several suggestions for doing just that.
Keep in mind that college success isn’t a matter of getting into the best school. The Wall Street Journal found that, although attending college is important, what’s more important is drive and ambition: “When comparing students who graduated from elite colleges, as measured by students’ average SAT scores, with those who graduated from less-selective schools, the researchers found no significant income differences between the two sets of students. In fact, being rejected by an elite school where students had higher SAT scores was a better predictor of higher earnings than the competitiveness of the college the student actually attended. The findings suggest a student’s innate ambition, as reflected by his or her willingness to stretch in applying to exclusive schools, is a factor in career success.” In other words, if you want your child to succeed, don’t throw money at test preps or admissions for the right college or pressure to choose the right major.
Help your child find their passions. Hand in hand with the above idea is the idea that students who are driven are the ones who succeed. How can you help your student tap into some sort of internal drive? Help them figure out where their passions lie and then give them the support and room they need to chase those passions. This is a big part of parenting – in my opinion – as your child begins to grow up, through adolescence and puberty. If you can help your child find that passion, that passion can carry them to great heights – and help greatly with the value of the education they’ll get.
Stay on course. The most expensive thing you can do in college is switch majors – it almost always tacks on more semesters to your experience there, and thus a lot more expense, too. Again, this is an example of why it’s incredibly valuable to help your child figure out their passion as early as possible – not only does it fuel their drive, but it also helps them find a major they’ll stick with.
Apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can. Yes, this can be a giant time sink. However, it’s almost always a profitable one, because there are a lot of scholarships out there that don’t even receive enough applicants to pay out all of their money. Ask around your social network. Ask at your place of employment. Ask at your church and any other social organizations you belong to or your child belongs to. In particular, look for scholarships that take advantage of special traits of your child: their ethnicity, their accomplishments, their socioeconomic status, and so forth.
Focus on top public schools, particularly ones in your state. If you’re looking for a school to aim for that maximizes “bang for the buck,” the top public school in your state is almost always a great target. Many top public schools are very competitive with private institutions, but beyond that, they offer much more affordable rates than private schools, particularly if you’re a resident of that state.
Start saving as early as possible with an open-ended 529. A 529 savings account plan enables you to put cash away for your child’s (or your own) future college education. The earnings in such accounts are tax-free if the money in the account is used for educational purposes (and if it never gets used, you merely have to pay taxes on the earnings plus a 10% penalty). If you’re sure that educational spending in some form or another is coming for your child (or for you), you’re better off opening such an account now and starting an automatic investment plan.
Shop around for textbooks. Many students make the mistake of rushing headlong into book buying – and when they do that, they overspend. Find out what books you actually need for your class, then take the time to shop around for them, particularly looking for used ones. Check online book resellers and auction sites. Take a look at the bulletin boards at your school. Spending a bit of time doing this can save you 75% easily on your books over the sticker price.
Take challenging courses in high school, both for the AP credit and the experience. Many high schools offer AP courses and courses that are dual-listed with a local college. Attempt to take as many of these as your student can handle, particularly in areas where their skills are the highest. These classes not only help you earn AP credit or college credit (saving on tuition later on), but also help you gain the skills you need to succeed at the college level.
Take general education classes at a community college over the summer. Many lower-level general education classes can easily be taken at a community college and transferred. Take advantage of this – community college classes are usually incredibly inexpensive and if a few of them over a few years can shave a semester off of your college tuition, jump on it.
Take advantage of education-related tax benefits. If you’re attempting to get an education – or one of your dependents is – the IRS gives you tons of tax benefits: the Lifetime Learning Credit, student loan interest deduction, the American Opportunity Credit (?), and so on. These credits and deductions can literally save you thousands of dollars each year when you file taxes. Here’s a great overview of some of the tax advantages for education.
I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.