How to Afford College Tuition on a Budget

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There are some jobs that you have to have a degree to qualify for. There’s no way around it. But here’s where the catch-22 comes in for people: you go to college to get a job because you need the money, right? If you need the money, how do you pay for college? How are you going to afford college tuition?

If this is where you find yourself, desperately wanting to improve your financial position, but at a loss of how to afford tuition without having to live in a refrigerator box at the same time, read on. Here are some tips that worked for me, and they can work for you as well.

Work a job at the same time.

I really think this is a necessity. Unless you’re running off of daddy’s money, I don’t see how it’s possible to live four years without a job while at college. The good thing here is that college class schedules are pretty flexible. I liked cramming all of my classes into Mondays. This left me free on other days to work.

Work studies, where your paycheck goes to your tuition, are available all over on campuses, but I often question the benefit of them. It depends on the position. Some of these offer free tuition for 3-4 years of work. I think those jobs are great, but they’re highly competitive (I didn’t get one).

If you’re just having your paycheck go to your tuition, you’re likely being ripped off. Somewhere in the ballpark of 100% of the people I’ve ever met who did a work-study this way could have made more money with a “real” job. Like a trade.

Seriously. Consider learning a trade well before you ever go to college.

Apply for scholarships everywhere

While there are certainly search engines devoted to scholarships, I was never successful with any of my applications there, and I put in dozens. Where I found success with scholarships was within my own community. DuckDuckGo “your town + scholarships” and you’ll discover banks, small businesses, and clubs within your area that offer respectable scholarships for college.

These are much less competitive, easier to obtain, and make a drastic difference in the time it will take you to pay off your tuition.

The library will likely have the texts you need.

I, as well as several of my friends, used this method throughout college to save hundreds of dollars. The campus library is virtually guaranteed to have a copy of the textbook you need for a course. The way this worked for us was that you A) checked out the book for 4 weeks, and B) kept renewing the book throughout the year until the class was over.

If the library has a policy that doesn’t permit renewals of textbooks, then you have your study group from that class all place your names on the waiting list. Right after you are done with your four weeks, your study partner Bob is already on the list. He picks up the book, and your group has the text for another four weeks.

The textbook may be available for free online.

Another thing I’ve learned about textbooks is that there are plenty of libraries out there that offer free ebook rentals. The text you need may very well be included as such. If the physical copy has been checked out by another study group, then this is the next best thing.

I’ve also found that has a host of free ebooks available online, some of which may be your course texts.

Buy all your books used, if possible.

The college textbook business is the most unethical racket you’ve ever seen. Books that would cost $40-60 as a “normal” book at Books-A-Million sell for $400+ consistently in College World. Why? Because you’re trapped and they know it.

This is why I strove to buy all of my books used, when possible. I used Craigslist, eBay, ThriftBooks, Amazon, and Chegg throughout college to save money. I was always on the lookout for former students of the class who may be looking to get rid of their textbooks for really cheap as well.

Just this one tip will literally save you thousands of dollars throughout your college career.

Do not buy any of your books from the campus bookstore, if avoidable

Your campus bookstore is the equivalent of taking your car to the dealership for repairs. Only stupid people do that. If you want to pay a premium, go ahead. If you’re looking to save money, you need to avoid the campus bookstore at all costs.

Take intensives.

An intensive is an entire semester of class crammed into 1-4 weeks. They’re absolutely brutal, but they can save you a lot of time and money. I took several throughout college. You’ll literally not be able to do anything other than read and study throughout that time – to the point where you’ll dream you’re in class at night – but if you can get 9 credit hours of coursework done in 3 weeks rather than 8+, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of time that you can spend working to make money instead.

Take the CLEP tests.

College 101 courses are a pain in the butt and waste of money. Scroll through the CLEP course list. It costs around $100/test, but they give you college credit if you pass. I passed two of them (failed one), spent $300, and saved over $6000 as a result. That $100 loss still turned out to be a heck of a savings.

Sell your textbooks at the end of every course.

There are always people who are looking to buy textbooks. Just make sure that you take good care of them throughout your class and you’ll be able to fetch a higher asking price. I’ve also found that I virtually always get more money for textbooks online than I do from another student or from the campus bookstore (they also buy).

You won’t get all your money back, but you can recoup a lot of your college expenses this way.

Will a future employer foot the bill?

Some empl0yers out there are more than happy to foot the bill if you’re willing to sign a contract with them for X number of years. I’ve seen hospitals, engineering firms, the petroleum industry, and teaching jobs all offer to do this.

The key here is to enter college with some sense of direction. If you go in there to “find yourself”, swapping majors every year, you’re only going to find out that you’re seriously broke. Know what you want to do first. Then enter college.

Ask the campus office what grants and discounts may apply to your position

Where I went to college you could receive grant money for being a state resident, grant money for good grades, and so on. Your college is going to have a number of discounts you can get for just about every other thing possible. Grants can really help you to afford college tuition.

If you’re paying the sticker price, you’re being an idiot. Ask.

Take advantage of student discounts around town.

College towns are filled with businesses that thrive due to students. To attract more customers, many of these businesses will offer a 10+% discount on goods and services when one has a valid student ID. Where I live, students get discounts for restaurant meals, mechanics, auto stores, and more.

If you can save a couple of bucks every few days on a purchase, why would you not? This can easily add up to a hefty savings over the course of four years, and it would be wise to take advantage of this.

It is possible to afford college tuition.

You just have to work at it.

College tuition is insanely expensive. College also isn’t for everyone. If you’ve decided that you need to go to college, you should be doing everything in your power to avoid paying sticker price for anything. Save money on your courses. Save money on books. Work out deals. Do what it takes.

You can afford tuition, and the above tips will help you to make it happen.

Have you gotten through college on the cheap?

If you’ve gotten through college without massive student debt, how did you do it? Do you have any tips not mentioned here? Share your ideas in the comments.​​

About Aden

Aden Tate has a master’s in public health and is a regular contributor to,,, and Along with being a freelance writer, he also works part-time as a locksmith. Aden has an LLC for his micro-farm where he raises dairy goats, a pig, honeybees, meat chickens, laying chickens, tomatoes, mushrooms, and greens. Aden has two published books, The Faithful Prepper and Zombie Choices. You can find his podcast The Last American on Preppers’ Broadcasting Network.

How to Afford College Tuition on a Budget
Picture of Aden Tate

Aden Tate

About the Author Aden Tate has a master’s in public health and is a regular contributor to,,,,, and Along with being a freelance writer he also works part-time as a locksmith. Aden has an LLC for his micro-farm where he raises dairy goats, a pig, honeybees, meat chickens, laying chickens, tomatoes, mushrooms, and greens. Aden has two published books, The Faithful Prepper and Zombie Choices. You can find his podcast The Last American at Preppers’ Broadcasting Network.

11 thoughts on “How to Afford College Tuition on a Budget”

  1. I’d also suggest considering doing your first two years at a community college and your second two years at a state university (in your state). Or all four years at a state university. It can be much less expensive than a private university.

  2. the school i went to not only tested for mandatory classes en lieu of taking the class, they offered a free tutor to prep for the test. i challenged and passed 2 classes that way. ask!
    some schools offer units in your major for working in your major… i worked as a nurse’s aid part time and got 6 units for working in the nursing field while i did the pre-requisites for nursing school. somewhere at your college is a counselor who can help you find scholarships–i got one from best foods mayonnaise as a result of a meeting with that woman. there are often scholarships from organizations in the field you are aiming for–the county medical association gave me a small scholarship and a no interest loan while i was in school. the local people for economic opportunity gave me enough cash monthly to cover gas for the car. the local assistance league, an organization of mostly doctor’s wives paid tuition and books for my last two years and even paid for my uniforms and stethoscope. ever profession has such groups. look for them.
    and when you are launched, be sure you help someone on their way up.

  3. Just as government money has ruined much of American medical care by pushing its costs through the roof to bankrupt so many people, so has that process jacked up the prices for the college experience in this country. That means that you must do a thorough search before you commit to any particular degree plan to learn what starting employment opportunities, IF ANY, might await your degree completion. Too many people have discovered that their several hundred thousand dollar college bill may very well keep them from buying a house or starting a family for a very long time.

    In some case consider that you might even be wiser to do your post-high school education in a different country because of the extreme cost differences.

    Consider also that many college educations that were once much more valued partly because of their comparative rarity are no longer rare and no longer as highly valued.

    The point is that you must do your research (and probably with some good help) before committing to something you might later seriously regret. Consider such issues not only as to what degree plan but also whether any degree plan (in this or some other country) is a good bet instead of some kind of trade and perhaps some entrepreneurial operation. In some ways the college lecture model that dates back to the middle ages may not reflect the realities to today’s extremely fast changing high tech marketplace. It is a fair guess that many traditional colleges with skyrocketing prices in a marketplace with diminishing demand for their students will not survive. You don’t want to get caught in that trap.


    1. “Consider also that many college educations that were once much more valued partly because of their comparative rarity are no longer rare and no longer as highly valued.”

      Examples? Thanks.

  4. From a woman who took 18 years to pay off her student loans when college was a WHOLE lot cheaper-

    Jobs-why stop a one? I had 2-3 at any given time, and I was a science major. One was usually a work study position, which in my case meant that my job was subsidized by the government. I received a paycheck, such as it was.

    Definitely apply for all of the grants you can before taking the loans! Student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy no matter how broke you are. If memory serves, they’re also secured debt. That means they can take your stuff to pay it off. And don’t rely on the Financial Aid office to tell you what’s out there! Do some research to find alternative financing.

    Cut down on expenses by having a roommate, which should be chosen carefully. My first roomie was pretty cool and we’re still friends. Another one introduced me to a guy who literally tried to kill me, and defended him. Choose carefully, but sharing expenses can be really helpful. Living with your parents can also be helpful.

    Another way to cut down on expenses is a job with a food benefit. I worked in a banquet hall that allowed employees to take the leftover chicken, which they couldn’t sell or reuse. To this day I really hate chicken but at the time, it worked.

    Pick a marketable major, like doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, nurse, research scientist. Some of the majors being offered today aren’t worth the paper your degree is written on. A bit of market research can help, and again, don’t depend exclusively on the college guidance counselor.

    Pick your college carefully, and consider if community college can fit the need. While you’re at it, be aware that out of state tuition is NUTS. And once you’re enrolled, living in the state for X amount of time doesn’t reduce your tuition. You’re better off living in the state until you have your residency, THEN apply to college. If a local college can serve, pick that one.

    Ask yourself how any college can guarantee your employment and future income before signing. There are many very predatory colleges out there! Think ITT Tech and Trump U, to name a very few.

  5. Couple of thoughts here. First, I used my job (many moons ago) to pay for college. My employer at the time offered tuition reimbursement. That’s *huge* if you can get it. Second, after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I found smaller colleges that charged decent rates for my master’s program (MBA, which unfortunately I didn’t finish) and another associate’s degree (which I did finish) – all online from schools that I never set foot on their campuses. OK, I’ll give you the school names – Wayne State College in Nebraska, and New Mexico Junior College. There are other schools as well, but these were the two I attended. Consider that if you got, say, an AA or AS degree (or even an AAS) from a community college first (and perhaps used that to get a job!), then transferred in credits to an inexpensive online school (like WSC), that makes things much more affordable. Just do your research on what will transfer, requirements to get your bachelor’s (how many English or math classes you need, etc.) and you could make it work while saving money.

  6. Excellent article Aden! I’d like to add one more idea. Some private colleges like Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans offer complete tuition waiver for undergraduate degrees if you or one of your parents works there in any capacity full time. There was a shuttle bus driver who put 2 children through for free at Loyola! The TOPS program kicked in money for books and extras. My son was able to get 5 years of free tuition and books. He lived at home for free. Saved him about $230,000 on a 20 year school loan payback with interest! Go for it and best of luck!

  7. This 2018 article about the sometimes possible student loan bankruptcy discharge in US law is as detailed as I could find. I would not trust it to be the final or the most thorough word on the subject, but understanding a little of the complexity should still be helpful in making decisions about taking on outrageously high student loans — even if one needed to do some more detailed digging.

    The Truth About Student Loan Bankruptcy Discharge:
    It can be difficult to discharge a student loan by declaring bankruptcy, but it’s not impossible, By Louis DeNicola, May 2, 2018


  8. When I went to college in the 1970s (eek!), tuition was not as outrageous as today. I took 1, maybe 2 classes at a time and paid cash. I worked at a hospital with tuition reimbursement so I recycled that money. You do not have to finish in 4 years. You just have to finish and without debt is great. I did take a couple of semesters off to have babies but got back on the horse. It took me 8 years. But debt free. Yes, I was married, working, and having babies. It can be done.
    I also took many CLEP tests. The study guide for the test will list the textbook it was taken from. In EVERY instance, I found the textbook at Goodwill. I studied the book while the babies took naps or whenever.
    My 3 children saw 2 going to trade school that we paid cash for and those 2 have better jobs and make more money than the 1 that went to 4 year college.
    My neices’ children are doing dual enrollment in high school, free tuition for those. The 1 graduating this spring will enter college as a sophmore!

  9. I worked full time and went to school full time. It takes away from things like keggers and a social life, but you can get through school. I had at least two roommates at any time, we lived in a dumpier part of town (lower rents), and I economized like nobody’s business.

    Rice and beans and produce from the discount bin (meat was a treat, but I ate cheese), I bought my clothes at a second hand store, got two-dollar crewcuts at the campus barber, either walked or took a shuttle bus just about everywhere (until I got a job delivering pizza… which augmented my diet, too). I drank tea, coffee and water.

    Since this was back in the 70s and 80s, no internet, no cell phone. Yes, we pirated cable from the kid next door (watched it on a 12″ black and white TV) in the early 80s.

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