Deciding where to attend college has always been a tough decision. Figuring out how to pay for it is tougher. Figuring out where to attend and how to pay for college in the wake of a global pandemic—well, that can seem almost insurmountable.
These questions are understandably daunting. Even before COVID-19 struck, a national survey from the Ohio State University found that 70 percent of college students were stressed about finances. More than half of students surveyed said they were worried about paying for both school and monthly expenses. If you’re stressing over that last $5 in your checking account, how can you focus on History of Western Civilization or Intro to Philosophy? In short, you can’t—at least not completely. So, alleviating financial stress actually allows you to fully embrace your time at college.
The first step in confronting the cost of college and finding freedom from overdraft fees is increasing your financial literacy. 64 percent of college students polled for the Ohio State national survey used loans to help pay for college, and 57 percent used credit cards. Without fully understanding how to manage and pay off debt, the price tag on a college degree can haunt you for decades to come. Rising indebtedness or financial stress can lead to underperformance, dropped classes, or even dropping out of college completely. That’s why it’s essential to learn what to invest in and what to avoid.
Keeping it in the family
As you can imagine, family support—financial and emotional—is probably the largest factor in student financial success in and after college. Students who come from families with greater financial means have an advantage when it comes to paying for college. Luckily, families of a variety of means can help prepare their children for financial success by providing education, encouragement, and motivation to save, budget, and invest money.
Mike Martin works for a Christian financial services company in the Midwest. He’s a graduate of a small private Christian college, and he was a first-generation four-year college student. Martin said that despite middle-class means, part of his family’s ability to make private college possible for his children comes from planning and frank discussions about finances. While private colleges have a higher sticker price, through scholarships and grants, “we were able to whittle down the cost to a level we could afford,” Martin said.
Martin feels compelled to plan for his children’s entire future, not just for college. He set up a match program that takes advantage of compound interest: As they saved money in high school from jobs and birthdays, Martin’s children put that money into a Roth IRA account that their parents matched. As a financial professional, Martin advises that families and students should invest “in a risk class that makes sense for you,” thinking outside of low-risk, low-return savings plans. He also suggests looking beyond college-only savings plans, which could potentially limit the amount colleges would be willing to offer in scholarships and grants.
Martin suggested that parents talk about funding college as a partnership between students and families and colleges, finding ways for each to contribute in a way that feels good to them. He said his kids all understood the cost of college, noting that his middle daughter would say, “Every class you miss is $168 you just threw away.”
Breaking down the basics
The first step to managing debt and finances is understanding how to budget. Most colleges offer personal finance classes, and banks like Wells Fargo have online tools to help you budget. But if you want to keep it simple, you can set up a spreadsheet yourself. Budgets are most effective when people have a goal of how much they are aiming to spend (and save) each month. Here’s an example of how your spending might be allocated:
- Housing 25–35%
- Food 10–15%
- Transportation 10–15%
- Utilities 5–10%
- Insurance (health, medical, auto, and life) 10–20%
- Savings 10–15%
- Clothing 5%
- Miscellaneous 5–10%
- Fun (entertainment and recreation) 5–10%
You need to find the formula that works for your needs and spending tendencies, but avoid a scarcity mindset. If you enjoy going to the movies, figure out a way to work that into your budget. Make sure that the numbers reflect what’s most important to you.
As you’re looking at your budget, cut your college expenses wherever possible—even if that means relocating to a different area. As the cost of living varies wildly (for example, Chicago costs 22 percent more than Grand Rapids, Michigan), you need to consider where and how you’re able to make smarter choices. While their tuition may be higher or comparable to state schools, some private Christian colleges are located in smaller towns and cities, so expenses like housing and food are cheaper month-to-month.
Combined degree programs also offer shortcuts that could shave years off your schooling and save you thousands in tuition. Grant Bagne, 24, chose to attend a Christian college about an hour north of his home in Orange County, California, where rent and cost of living are high. But he took advantage of a five-year program at his college where he could earn first a bachelor’s degree in business with an information technology emphasis and then an MBA with an IT emphasis. While working full-time for a tech company after completing these degrees, he then graduated in spring 2020 with a master of science in information technology. He’s now focusing on jobs in cybersecurity.
One of the more mysterious, potentially dangerous tools at your disposal is a credit card. While low-interest, low-limit credit cards help build your credit history, which is essential when you’re looking to buy a car or even rent an apartment, credit cards can hurt far more than they help. You may be tempted to run up your limit in a spring wardrobe buying frenzy, or maybe you don’t look carefully enough at the fine print and wind up with a card that has a 21.3 percent interest rate. In an attempt to avoid both of these outcomes, Nerd Wallet has provided seven important questions to consider:
- What are the rates and fees associated with late payments?
- Will a credit card issuer forgive a late payment?
- Can cardholders choose the payment date?
- Will card issuers lower the interest rate with demonstrated on-time payments?
- What does it take to raise the credit limit?
- Which credit score does the card issuer use?
- Are there additional fees for international transactions?
As you look through budget tips and credit card applications, don’t be afraid to look up unfamiliar terms, like annual percentage rate, interest rate, and credit score. Understanding these will also help you better compare student loans or be able to prioritize paying off your debt based on the highest interest rates.
Expect the unexpected
Dana Howell, 19, was just finishing her freshman year at a small Midwest private Christian college when coronavirus hit. She had to pack up her dorm months early and finish her spring classes online.
Howell found her family’s stress growing when she returned home. Her dad was furloughed due to the pandemic, and her mom was waiting for a new job to start that summer. Howell now had to cope with the change in living situation as well as worrying about her family’s finances. She returned to her high school summer job at a QuikTrip gas station and balanced that with online classwork, even though it meant putting herself in close contact with people during the coronavirus outbreak. Her family survived with help from meals provided by the school district.
Despite financial stress, Howell is still grateful she’s chosen to go to college. Howell has worked hard to make her dream possible. She’s saved money on future semesters by taking as many AP classes as were available at her public high school. She also earned scholarships through her college, her high school, and her church, while saving money from her jobs.
Howell’s one piece of advice? Remember that the costs can change from year to year, as many scholarships are for one year only, and budget for increasing potential costs in sophomore year and beyond.
The missing piece
Martin said that while educating his children about saving for college, budgeting, and investing, he also taught them the importance of giving money and time back to church and worthy causes. Martin leads by example as he volunteers for Habitat for Humanity trips nationally and internationally.
“Your kids see what you do and they follow it,” Martin said. “They know it’s important to make room for all the things in your life you want to spend money on, and that includes giving back financially and of your time.”
This idea can drive how you spend your money and time—by remembering God’s generosity and finding a way to participate in that generosity, even when you’re financially strapped or when your schedule is packed with classes.
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor, journalist, and author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump.