Going Back to School on a Budget: 5 Ways Nontraditional Students Can Cut Costs

Savings, woman

Back-to-school momentum is in the air, with big-box stores drumming up sales on educational essentials. But it’s not just tots and teens prepping for a return to the classroom, adults who have been out of the game for a while or who are embarking on a college education for the first time are also gearing up for the school year.

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Read: Can You Afford Education in America at These Prices?

How can these nontraditional students financially prepare for this new page in their lives? What can they do to budget for schooling expenses and cut back on costs?

Consider Community College

If you’ve not yet made your decision about what school to attend, there’s a strong argument to be made for nontraditional students to go to community college. You can always transfer to a university later — but save heaps of money along the way. 

Make Your Money Work for You

“Students may not realize that most of the first two years of college consists of general education requirements,” said Tomika Brown, student success director for ECMC, a nonprofit that provides free guidance and resources to help students get to and through college. “Community college is a great low-cost way to tackle those general education requirements while keeping costs down since the cost per credit is typically significantly lower at a community college than a four-year university. Just make sure the credits earned will transfer to the college of choice in order to reap the greatest savings.”

Important: Don’t Disregard Community College — Here’s How It Can Set You Up for a Better Financial Future

Put the Skills You Already Have To (Paid) Work

Fortunately, many adult students already have the upper hand because they’re older and wiser than those fresh out of high school. In short, they already have some experience in earning income and ideally, some honed skills that can put them one step ahead of the rest. 

“Nontraditional students often bring real-world experience to the table,” said Andrew Pentis, a certified student loan counselor and student debt/higher-ed expert with Student Loan Hero. “So the top tip is for these students to leverage any skills they might be able to offer their new school.

Make Your Money Work for You

“A technology whiz, for example, might apply for an IT job at the school they want to attend, particularly if that school offers tuition discounts to employees,” Pentis continued. “That’s one strategy for nontraditional students to cut down their cost of attendance and make room in their budget.”

Read More: What It Really Costs To Attend America’s Top 50 Colleges

Live Like a Student

You may be starting your higher education at a relatively advanced age, but you should still live like a traditional student does, meaning you should use the same money-saving hacks that all college students use. 

“If you’re a nontraditional student returning to campus, you might be surprised to find that the cost of attending college has only continued to rise,” Pentis said. “As a result, cutting back where you can is a great way to help afford your tuition alongside living expenses.” 

Here’s a look at a few things you can do to curb your educational spending, courtesy of Pentis:

  • Rent textbooks instead of buying them.
  • Cook instead of relying on expensive on-campus meal plans.
  • Consider halting your past life expenditures, such as new clothing or electronics, unless they’re necessary for your schooling.
Make Your Money Work for You

Keep Boosting Your Earnings

You may have to take a break from making money (or at least, making as much money) when you go back to school, so it’s smart to have a solid nest egg built up. 

“Saving up or increasing your income before switching to college life is a good idea, if possible, because it will give you some breathing room in your budget as you adjust to college life,” Pentis said. “That will allow you to feel financially ready for school so that you can focus on school, not stress over money.”

If you can continue to work while in college, that is, of course, ideal. 

Be Aware: 15 College Degrees That Won’t Make You Money

You Can Still Apply For Scholarships and Aid

“Age is not a factor when it comes to qualifying for federal financial aid, so all students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), regardless of how long they’ve been out of school,” said Rebecca Safier, certified student loan counselor and higher education expert at Student Loan Hero. “The FAFSA can unlock the door to federal grants, work-study and low-rate student loans. Plus, it may put you in the running for state grants or school scholarships.”

Discover: Financial Incentives Colleges Are Offering for Student Vaccinations

Work Part Time If Possible To Curb Student Loan Debt

While student loans can also be a useful tool, Safier advises incoming students to be careful not to spend too much loan money on unnecessary expenses. 

“If you can cover living costs with income from work-study or a part-time job, you might be happier in the long run, since you’ll assume less debt and pay less interest overall,”  Safier said.

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Last updated: Aug. 12, 2021

About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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