How to Pay for College When You Don’t Have Enough Savings

Man holding empty piggy bank

Congratulations! Your high school graduate has chosen a college or university! Now comes the hard part: how to pay for it?

Affordability can be a tough nut to crack, especially if you don’t have any savings to pay for college. According to a recent College Ave Student Loans survey, less than half of parents (41%) said their child was attending a school that was within their budget. And it’s not surprising-the average annual cost is $22,690 for tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public university and $51,690 for a four-year private school!

If you are not one of the few families surveyed who can cover 100% of college costs with income and savings, here are my strategies on how to pay for college with little-to-no savings:

  • Make a plan: Get an accurate picture of how much college will cost each year and multiply that number by four. Use that information to help you make a plan of how you will tackle the next four years.
  • Examine your finances: What are your priorities over the next few years? Long term? More than half of parents surveyed plan to prioritize (57%) paying for college over their personal savings. About 1 in 10 (12%) of parents paying for college plan to take on a second job to help cover education expenses. While these strategies may not be the right plan for every family, it’s important to assess your finances and what you can feasibly and comfortably contribute. Talk to a financial planner if you have questions.
  • Maximize “free” money: Grants and scholarships are the most popular ways to get help with college costs, according to the survey. Even if you think your family doesn’t qualify, be sure to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Many schools use the form to determine how to distribute aid, including grants. Most high school counseling offices keep lists of local college scholarship opportunities your student might apply for. There are several websites, such as and, that provide information on scores of lesser known scholarships and how to apply for them. One easy one you can try for monthly is the College Ave $1,000 Scholarship Monthly Sweepstakes.
  • Reach out to your school: Talk to the school’s financial aid office for help with scholarships, loans, or work-study programs. The financial aid office is the best resource for figuring out how to pay for college with no savings. Most colleges and universities have specific programs tailored to their students’ needs and most are happy to talk with parents of prospective students. You can always try negotiating with the financial aid office if the first offer you receive isn’t sufficient based on your financial situation. Be prepared with details to lay out why you deserve more such as a sudden job loss.
  • Look for ways to save money or make extra money: Can your student commute from home instead of living on campus? Is it possible to rent textbooks or buy used ones? Can your child become a dorm resident advisor to get a break in living expenses? Here are some recommendations for students on how to make money while in college to help with education finances.
  • Borrow smart: Student Loans come in two basic categories – federal and private, and close to half (49%) of parents surveyed said they will use one of these options to cover their education costs. Again, the FAFSA is key to accessing federal student loans. Federal loans in the student’s name generally have more favorable benefits than private ones, so best to start with those first. If you find you need to borrow more than the federal limit, private loans are an option. Make sure to shop around for the best interest rates and terms – this College Ave student loan calculator is a great place to start.
  • Discuss options with your child: More than 1/3 (37%) of parents surveyed expect their child to help pay for college, and 47% expect their child to find a job while in college. Ask your kid to contribute by applying for a work-study program through the school’s financial aid office. Many, though not all, of these programs are need-based, so again, the FAFSA is your friend. Students can work part-time on campus in various jobs, including at the library, in the dorms or cafeteria or as academic aides, among other occupations, to offset tuition or other costs.
  • Be creative, look for alternative options: Many companies, large and small, offer extensive college financial aid programs. According to, a large number of employers, “provide scholarships, grants, loans, and/or tuition reimbursement programs, tailored for student employees attending colleges and universities.” Target, Walmart, Chipotle, Starbucks, Amazon, Disney and Taco Bell, among many others, offer some form of college aid. Many employees are unaware of these benefits, so be sure to check with your employer’s HR office, and if your child is working, have them check with theirs as well, to see what’s available.

It’s not impossible to come up with ways to pay for college even if you have no savings. Be diligent in exploring every option, be flexible in considering methods to cut costs, and enlist the help of your soon-to-be college student.


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