Here’s How to Understand Room and Board — Quickly!

Here’s How to Understand Room and Board — Quickly!

When you skim through lists of college costs, your eye often lands on room and board. What is room and board, anyway? To make it really simple, It’s the fancy way for colleges to say “sleep and food.” (I’ll break this out a little bit more in a sec.)

Here are a few quick facts from Urban Institute: 

  • Almost 60 percent of full-time students enrolled in private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities live in college housing. 
  • Only 36 percent of public four-year college students live in college housing.
  • One-quarter of full-time undergraduate students live at home with their parents.

I remember that families I worked with were often confused about the divisions between room and board and tuition: “Are scholarships subtracted from the full cost? Just tuition? Where does room and board fall into the mix?”

Let’s find out — and put all of it into a COVID-19 context.

What is Room and Board?

Let’s distill it into its simplest form! It goes back to those basic needs — a place to plop your head on a pillow somewhere that’s clean and dry and a robust meal three times a day (or more). 


As I said before, “room” is the price paid for a bed in between those cinder block walls! Colleges typically offer space in a residence hall room for your student and one roommate. However, it’s possible to opt for a single or even a triple room.

On-campus living is sometimes mandatory for students. This can be a great thing because it offers a way to contribute to a robust campus community. Required on-campus living is also an ideal way to adapt to campus life. (It means no waking up at 5 a.m. to make it to the bus stop for an 8 a.m. class or trying to find a parking spot near the science building.) Basic furniture, such as a loftable bed, desk, shelves, dresser and closet space are usually provided, though the exact furniture your child will have at his or her disposal depends on the college or university and what it offers. (In my opinion, there’s nothing more fun than living in a residence hall during your first year, learning how to study till 3 a.m., playing games in the lounge and more.)


“Board” is the amount paid for food at the college of your child’s choice. It usually refers to food and beverages your child can get at on-campus cafeterias. Many schools offer several types of meal plans, which means that while your child won’t have a whole lot of choice over what’s served at school on a daily basis, access to food is definitely ongoing. Fortunately, a lot of cafeterias are buffet style, so that means lots of options at every meal. Dining halls are often super respectful of various dietary needs as well. 

College dining halls often do fun things for students, too, such as themed meals and pre-holiday dinners. My alma mater has a tradition called the Breakfast of Champions, in which staff members (including faculty members!) serve students hearty breakfast food at 10 p.m. the night before finals begin. It’s such a great tradition and the whole school shows up.

Many colleges plan to make room and board accommodations for students this year, including required masks, social distancing requirements and more. Check with the admission office at various schools to understand its room and board COVID-19 plan. In the meantime, let’s review how much room and board costs.

How Much Does Room and Board Cost?

Most colleges and universities break down the cost on their website so it looks something like this: 

College or University X
Tuition and Fees$22,478
Room and Board$10,010

Room and board costs are different at every school. I’m going to show you some averages from the College Board, but remember, that doesn’t mean that a private nonprofit four-year college will always be more expensive than an out-of-state institution.  

The College Board averages for public two-year institutions in 2019-2020 were:

  • $8,990 for public two-year colleges in-district
  • $11,510 for public four-year colleges in-state
  • $11,510 for public four-year colleges out of state
  • $12,990 for private nonprofit four-year colleges 
What is room and board? Check out the College Board's quick overview.

Again, it’s all a matter of doing some research — and keeping track. (Honestly, isn’t that the hardest part — keeping track of all the information you research?) Here’s a visit spreadsheet I created that you can save, rename and keep for yourself to input all the information. 

Room and board can seem a lot more expensive than living off campus — or is it? Let’s explore that further in the next section.

Is it Cheaper to Live Off Campus?

In most states, average on-campus housing prices are less than the average rent paid by 18-to-24-year-olds, according to the Urban Institute.

Location also matters. Naturally, urban areas are more expensive to rent in than rural areas. In addition, it may be more expensive to live near a college campus instead of a neighborhood off the beaten path. Here are some common apartment rental fees your child is likely to pay, in addition to utilities like electricity, water, garbage, sewer, internet, cable and more:  

  • Application fee
  • Security deposit
  • Pet fee
  • Administrative fees

If your child rents with several roommates, living off-campus may be more affordable, especially if your child splits these expenses with roommates. Buying food at the grocery store (while a big time drain) can also be a lot cheaper than paying for board, especially if you have a low-maintenance eater. 

The only way to figure it all out is to round up some numbers. Call a few known apartment buildings in the area and find out how much it costs to rent them. Find out what utilities cost flush out a number that makes sense.

How to Make Room and Board More Affordable

There are most definitely ways to make room and board more affordable — including not messing with room and board at all! Here are some ways to shrink (or eliminate) the costs: 

  • Learn about all your meal plan options. Your child may be able to get away with smaller meal plan (like a 14-meal-a-week plan instead of a 20-meal-a-week plan) — especially if a buffet-style breakfast isn’t really your student’s thing. A packet of instant oatmeal every morning may suffice. 
  • Check into more affordable housing options on campus. Many colleges charge exactly the same amount for all residence halls, but others may charge more for apartment-style living or the newest, spiffiest dorm on campus. Ask about comparable costs.
  • Choose to have roommates. A single room is usually more expensive than a two- or three-person residence hall room. Is someone from your child’s high school planning to attend that same college? Check with the admission office to find out how to request roommates and to find out how much you’ll save by choosing a double or triple occupancy room.
  • Live at home. During COVID-19, your child may not be interested in living in a residence hall room at all. If your home is close to campus, it may be a natural fit for your child to think about living at home and reducing exposure to the virus.
  • Live off campus. Living off campus with roommates can be one way to limit exposure to COVID-19, particularly if some classes are online. Living with just two roommates is a lot different than sharing a bathroom with a whole floor of germy college students. 

How to Pay for Room and Board

Here are a few ways you can pay for room and board: out of pocket or through scholarships, grants and student loans.


Paying for room and board in full is always an acceptable option. Note that you won’t pay a separate amount for just room and board. You’ll pay for all out-of-pocket costs when you get your bill. Learn more about paying for college with a tuition installment plan.  

Scholarships and Outside Scholarships

Many outside scholarships — scholarships that aren’t from the institution — cover all qualified expenses, including room and board. On the other hand, some scholarships only cover tuition and fees, books, and course- or degree-related costs (like supplies required for specific classes). They may not cover room and board. Most of the time, however, outside scholarship use is generally left up to how your child wants to use it — unless the scholarship committee works with the college directly.

Something to note: Any scholarship your student uses to pay for tuition, fees and course materials, including required textbooks, supplies and equipment, are tax-free. On the other hand, whatever your child spends on living expenses, such as room and board, is taxable.


Your child’s college can apply grant money toward tuition, fees, and (if you live on campus) room and board. Any money left over is given back to your child to pay for other expenses.

Student Loans

Student loans can also cover the costs of room and board. Look into student loans carefully and make sure your child understands which options are best. Here’s a quick rundown.

Federal Student Loans

The U.S. Department of Education loans these federal loans to college-bound students:

  • Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans
  • Direct PLUS loans: This includes Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students.

Federal student loans are more flexible than private student loans for several reasons:

  • No credit checks involved, with the exception of the Direct PLUS loan, which does require a credit check.
  • Income-driven repayment plans are an option, which means repayment is based on how much your student makes once he or she graduates from college. 
  • Repayment plans can change as needed.
  • Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.

Private Student Loans

A local bank, credit union or national bank are three primary options.

These loans can fill in the need gap after your student has exhausted these options, in order: Scholarships, grants, parent/student savings and federal student loans. Here are some fast facts about private student loans:

  • You’ll hear about two types of interest rates: fixed and variable interest rates. Fixed interest rates are just like they sound — they don’t change, so your monthly payments stay the same. Variable interest rates go up and down. 
  • You or your student can make interest-only or fixed payments while you’re in school. 
  • Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you, the parent, or another relative. Students can qualify for a private loan without a co-signer, though that’s difficult to achieve. No matter who applies for the loan, you will need a good credit score and will need to show proof of income.

Ultimately, it’s important to break down all the costs and figure out which room and board coverage options work best for your family. 

Coronavirus Impact on Room and Board for College

COVID-19 had a major impact on room and board this past spring. As soon as colleges announced they’d move to online learning, students began asking about cash refunds prorated to the day administrators directed students to move out of residence halls.

If the same thing happens again, online learning could require college and universities to return room and board fees again. It remains to be seen what will happen at this time.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Search for Scholarships?

How Old Do You Have to Be to Search for Scholarships?

Did you know your child can earn scholarships as a kindergartener? Yeah! Unbelievable, right? It cracks me up to think of my son sitting down at a computer next year, typing away at a computer to fill out a scholarship application. (He’s four.)

I checked in with Michaela Schieffer, an independent college counselor with She says, “While starting a separate savings account for college is the solid solution, you also have creative options to grow that account. I recommend beginning the search for external scholarships as early as possible. External scholarships can be used at any college, and are available as early as age 10 through graduate school. Since most of these early scholarship awards are dispersed in a check rather than directly to a college, this is a great way to augment your savings in a college account.”

Such solid advice! Here’s a deep dive into scholarships — at any age.

What if My Child’s a Senior?

Now, most people’s energy doesn’t turn toward thinking about scholarships until their kids get close to high school — and most students even wait till senior year to start thinking about scholarships. 

Is it too late to apply for scholarships when your student is a senior? No, of course not! Start looking at whatever age your child is right now and start looking, whether you’re starting as a rising senior, eighth-grader or sixth-grader. (And if your child is a rising senior, start now!) You can also look into how to help your senior combat scholarship overwhelm.

Don’t forget, your child can still look for and apply for scholarships during college as well. There are opportunities everywhere.

Here are some ways to get started on the scholarship search, no matter your child’s age.

Start Searching Now

Whatever age your child is right now, start looking for scholarships. 

What’s the first thing you do when you’re looking for information? Sure, you Google it. Check out FinAid’s Scholarship List as an example. 

Don’t forget to check out scholarships in your community. These are lower-hanging fruit because the community you live in is more likely to award scholarships to one of their community members. Here’s how to look. 

  1. Ask your child’s school counselor. School counselors are the heroes of community scholarship knowledge. Your child’s school counselor should be able to hand you a list of scholarships available in the community. If your child’s not in high school yet, ask in the school office at your child’s school for any information about scholarships. 
  2. Tap into your own local connections. Ask wherever you go — the dentist, the chiropractor — to find out whether scholarships exist, even for younger kids.
  3. Research past scholarships. Ask for old scholarship programs or scholarship awards night programs from local high schools. Don’t be afraid to ask for several going back a few years. 
  4. Branch out and ask about scholarships in another local area — or two. Don’t stick to your neck of the woods. Ask for scholarship programs at other high schools in your county or area. A local business might be willing to branch out, particularly if students in that area aren’t taking advantage of a particular scholarship. The business also might be willing to offer a county-wide or area-wide scholarship. 

Gear Your Child Toward Scholarship Types

First, let’s consider the ways scholarship committees award scholarships. They want to see your child do a few things.

Develop Specific Skills

Put yourself in a scholarship committee’s point of view. You’ll notice that lots of scholarships awarded are based on entrepreneurial skills, art skills and more. Has your child worked to develop a specific talent or interest? Whatever it is, nurture it, then use those skills to his advantage when you’re looking for scholarships. 

Here a few skills your child can develop over time: 

  • Fine arts prowess
  • Athletic talent
  • Leadership skills
  • Academic excellence
  • Team player skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Communication skills

Consider Ways to Serve

Wouldn’t that committee rather give a scholarship to a kid who actively provides value to a specific cause or organization? It’s one thing to be in clubs and hold leadership positions. But what if your child can make a serious impact? Doing something that makes an impact can make your child extremely valuable in the eyes of the scholarship committee.

Does your child have a hankering to serve others? Here’s an example. Annie Wignall Foskett was 11 when she created the Care Bags Foundation. She began collecting essentials (soap and shampoo, etc.) for kids in foster care and crisis situations. Foskett jumped into action by creating fabric care bags filled with these essentials. Fast forward 20 years later. The foundation now serves displaced, abused and disadvantaged children all over the world! 

Obviously, it’s better to develop a child’s burgeoning desire to serve organically, rather than trying to do it just for scholarships or personal gain. However, if your child has a great idea, nurture it. You never know how much a great idea can take off!

Here are some ideas you and your child can think about developing: 

  • Help disadvantaged children
  • Assist senior citizens
  • Raise awareness and help for animals
  • Take care of the environment 
  • Help the hungry 
  • Assist the homeless
  • Reduce crime and promote safety
  • Enhance the local community or state
  • Help disadvantaged schools

It’s a great idea to do some research to find out what the needs are. A great way to launch a major project is to start by volunteering. Encourage your child to check at school, at your family’s place of worship or city council to determine what type of help is needed. Encourage your child to just get started wherever he or she gravitates toward, such as a homeless shelter or nursing home, and ask whether it takes volunteers.

Does your child have to build his own nonprofit or create an amazing foundation like Care Bags? No. Showing extraordinary compassion toward a particular cause is also a phenomenal way to gather scholarships 

Develop a Vision or Trajectory

Help your child develop a vision for his or her life. I know, it can seem impossible for most young people. How can they possibly know everything that’s available to them? Most kids have a limited worldview because they haven’t had the life experience that comes with age. However, it’s a great idea to have some sort of idea of what that could look like. Does your student gravitate toward social justice issues? Writing? Entrepreneurship? What does that life look like? 

My aunt knew at a very early age that she wanted to be a teacher. She was probably in second grade when she declared she wanted to influence children for the rest of her life. Guess what? She became a first grade teacher and taught for years! I’m amazed by that story and like to share it because you might not be too young to figure it out. 

Build on Other Traits

What other characteristics does your child have? Is your child a minority or have a disability? Is your child left-handed? You already know there’s a scholarship for just about everything you can think of. I have a personal example that applies to this. My school counselor knew that I’m deaf in my left ear and partially deaf in my right ear (yes, it’s true!) and got me in touch with our local vocational rehabilitation office. The organization gave me some extra scholarship money over the course of my four years at college. (State vocational rehabilitation (VR) offices help people with disabilities prepare for, obtain and retain employment.) 

I wouldn’t have even known it was a possibility if she hadn’t mentioned it. Sometimes it’s about talking to everyone you know — and searching online for that information. 

The University of Washington has a great list of scholarships for those with disabilities if your child qualifies. 

Get in the Habit of Looking Often and Take Action

It’s never too early to start looking for scholarships, but it’s important to also look for them all the time. Be on a constant search for scholarships that fit your child’s profile. Encourage your child to look, too. Here’s a quick example of what you could do: 

  • Look for scholarships on the first and 15th of every month. (Set a calendar alert so you remember to do it.)
  • Select at least two scholarships to apply for every month. (Your child can do this!)
  • Create a Trello board to keep track of scholarships researched, applied for and received. It’s really helpful so I stay organized. I do this for my blog and align my editorial calendar with the following:
    • Articles to Write
    • In Writing
    • Editing
    • Ready to Input
    • Inputted
    • Review in Six Months/One Year, etc.
  • Create an account for the scholarship money. (But learn the scholarship rules — some scholarships don’t allow you to just “take” the money. Some may have specific requirements, like a preference to pay the school directly.) However, if a scholarship committee allows you to cash a scholarship check, consider whether you want to invest the money in a diversified fund — particularly if your child wins the scholarship years before the start of college. Consider contributing your own money to that account as well (regularly and often!) so there’s a robust amount earmarked for college.
  • Constantly review what’s going well during the scholarship search. If 

Don’t Get Discouraged

Not getting results? Keep going. Keep moving forward! 

I know I already mentioned this, but don’t wait till high school to start looking for scholarships, particularly if your child is truly doing some exceptional things. If he’s creating his own app to feed the homeless in Africa, you bet scholarship committees will want to hear about it — even if your child’s only eight.

When it comes down to it, it’s a very generous world we live in — and people want to help promising kids go to college!

Make an Impact on the World

Here are a list of scholarships your child can apply for, divided by age.

Starting from Kindergarten

Starting from Middle Elementary

Starting from Middle School

Starting from Early High School

Notice that the bulk of these are for younger students! Good luck with your own child’s scholarship search!

Why Planning for Multiple Kids in College Can Be Exciting!

Why Planning for Multiple Kids in College Can Be Exciting!

Two kids (or more) in college at the same time.

What are your immediate thoughts and feelings when you think about this? 

Do you feel excitement for the years ahead? Sad at the idea of being an empty nester? Do you feel a deep spike of fear when you consider how you’ll pay for it? Maybe you feel all of the above!

Hang in there — it’s normal to feel a rollercoaster of emotions.

I’ll always remember the unforgettable Andriuskevicius triplets. (That last name! Three times!) The three high schoolers came through the admission office looking so identical. It was so fun talking with them. Two of the kids ended up enrolling at the private college I worked for. One enrolled at a state university. 

Their parents got slightly nervous when the conversation turned to paying for college. “You know, we knew this was coming,” Mrs. Andriuskevicius said. “But when they say, ‘Enjoy it, they grow so fast,’ they really mean it,” she added.

She was a fun mom (she had to be, to raise triplets!) and asked how much it would cost immediately. She listened to the financial aid spiel and did some fast math. Mrs. Andriuskevicius totaled up a pretty accurate figure in her head about much it would cost for all three kids to go to college — after grants and scholarships.

According to College Board, the average published yearly tuition and fees (not including room, board, housing or supplies) are:

  • Two-year public colleges (in-district students): $3,440
  • Four-year public colleges (in-state students): $9,410
  • Four-year public colleges (out-of-state students): $23,890
  • Private four-year colleges: $32,410

Multiply these amounts by two (or three or four!) kids and you could be looking at quite a chunk of change, as Mrs. Andriuskevicius deduced in about one minute flat. (I was really impressed.)  

Hang on, there’s good news coming!

You're right if you think things will change with more than one student in college. It'll change how you pay for college!

There’s Good News!

Did you know that it having two kids in college can work to your advantage?

“In my experience, the FAFSA’s expected family contribution (EFC) takes a significant drop when the second and third child enter college,” says Pam Rambo, former financial aid director in a community college, four-year college and a 5-city college access organization training counselors in financial aid. She now owns Rambo Research and Consulting. 

The EFC is based on household income and assets. It’s the minimum amount that a household is expected to contribute toward the cost of college.

The financial aid office at each college uses the EFC for each student to determine how much aid your student gets. “That is a simple subtraction problem in which they take the official cost of attendance (COA) for their school and subtract the EFC,” Rambo says. 

In other words, let’s say your student is attending a college that costs $30,000 per year and your child’s EFC is $15,000. The amount of need for your oldest child is $15,000. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that all financial aid offices try to meet the full $15,000. Each financial aid office uses a financial aid formula that they use to distribute aid. Some colleges try to meet 100 percent of need. Others might meet 50 percent to 80 percent of need.

Check for a Sibling Discount

Have your kids considered going to the same college?

Whenever I think about this topic, Michelle, Maye and Rachael all come to mind — three sisters who attended the college I worked for — all at the same time. Michelle was a senior, Maye was a junior and Rachael was a freshman! They always said their dad (jokingly) refused to move three girls to three separate colleges each fall. It worked out really well that they all went to the same college.

I Know What You’re Thinking: “There’s No Way My Kids Will Go to the Same School!”

You might think there’s no way your kids will go to the same school: “They’re like oil and water! There’s no way they’ll end up on the same campus!” But the reality is that older siblings do have an influence on younger siblings, according to a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In addition, a study by Joshua Goodman of Brandeis University, Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, Christine Mulhern of Harvard University and Jonathan Smith of Georgia State University found that when older siblings enroll at a target college, it “nearly quadruples” the probability that younger siblings will apply to that same school. In addition, 13 percent of younger siblings follow their older sibling to the target college only because their older sibling enrolled there. 

The benefit? Cost reductions. 

“If the children are entering the same college, I have seen very favorable treatment in terms of the financial aid package offered,” Rambo adds. She says there’s no fixed dollar amount for the reduction because the reduction depends on financial information from each family.

“I like to address the fear of parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors with a plan to apply where their aid awards will be greatest in relation to the cost of the colleges. Looking at whether colleges collect even more data about a family by requiring the CSS Profile is another strategy,” she says.

The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application created and maintained by the College Board. It allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid and requires a much more comprehensive overview than the FAFSA. Nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs use it to award non-federal aid. Check with the admission office of the schools your chid is applying to to determine whether your child needs to fill out the CSS Profile.

Filing the FAFSA

Does it change the FAFSA with more than one student in college? Rambo says that in addition to other calculations, the FAFSA collects information on the number of minor children in the family who will also be attending an undergraduate program at the same time and figures that into the formula, which is used to calculate the EFC for each child headed to college.

A frequent surprise for families with two children in college: Each child has a different EFC number. “They ask, ‘How is this possible when we entered our same income information for both?’” Rambo says. 

The answer is simple: Student income and bank balances can make a difference.

How Many FAFSAs Do You Need to Complete for Multiple Kids?

This is a great (and common!) question. You’ll need to fill out FAFSA forms for each child but can transfer the information from one form to another so you don’t have to completely start from scratch each time you work on the FAFSA.

But wait! Before you file the FAFSA, you’ll need to get separate FSA IDs for each child. An FSA ID is a username and password combination that serves as your legal electronic signature throughout the financial aid process. You and each of your children will need your own FSA ID.

Your FSA ID is associated with your Social Security number and is equivalent to your legal signature. That’s why you must have a special FSA ID per person. You’ll use the same FSA ID to sign each of your children’s FAFSA forms.

Get Excited!

Don’t forget to do a few things methodically:

  • Look for lower-priced schools.
  • Put an emphasis on having your child help earn money throughout school.
  • Consider ways to earn more or make more money.
  • Consider federal loans over private loans. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS loan) is an excellent option if you’re willing to take out a little bit more for college. for the freshman year and work with the college aid and scholarship offices to find additional funds for sophomore year and beyond. Learn how to apply for the Parent PLUS loan.
  • Remember that you don’t have to come up with the full amount yourself. Many colleges offer steep discounts!

“You might find that if you’re a high-income earner and your child has already been accepted at a high-dollar university which only awards need-based aid, you may not see much help with the first child who enrolls there. That will improve some when a second child goes to college,” Rambo says.

It Takes Planning

Every dollar you save is $1 less that you or your child will have to borrow. (Yep, I’ll bring out the “a penny saved…” adage. Those pennies really do add up, even after just a couple of years!) 

Most families end up covering just over 40% of college costs with a combination of savings and income, according to a national study by Ipsos and Sallie Mae. Your child will likely get scholarships, grants and loans as well.

What can you do as a parent? 

Don’t forget about how helpful meeting with a financial advisor can be. If you can, do it before your first child’s a senior so you can develop a comprehensive plan to determine what’s best for your family’s financial circumstances. In some cases, financial advisors can recommend how to reallocate your assets, which can be helpful before you file the FAFSA. (It can help you qualify for more aid.)

Also, don’t discount your earning power. Your earning power may be tremendous during the course of a 10-month period. Remember that you can always figure out how much your paycheck can cover and submit money (even if it’s just a little bit!) to help pay for college. 

You Can Do This!

I always admire the Andriuskevicius triplets’ parents because they handled having three kids in school all at once with such grace. They took a deep breath and handled the costs through a combination of grants, scholarships, cash and loans. All three kids made it through college (and incidentally, the “oldest” triplet ended up student teaching in my daughter’s first-grade classroom. A fun connection!

Thinking about putting more than one student in college at once can feel like plopping yourself into an icy stream. But it’s doable. Jigsaw the puzzle of all the options together. Consider how you can break it down, and remember, having more than one student in school can be a benefit, not a drawback.

How to Save for College AND for Other Things You Really Want

How to Save for College AND for Other Things You Really Want

I vividly remember working with a student whose dad said, “Whaddya mean, it costs $XX,XXX for my daughter to go to college? I’m not giving up golf and vacations!”

He was joking, he was joking. (I think.)

At any rate, I know that on some level, just about everyone can relate. You may think, “When do I get to do what I want to do? When my kids are out of college? Uh, no thanks. I’ll be what, 70 by then?”

Of course kids are a blessing and you’re willing to sacrifice for them.

But is it possible to have it all? Is it possible to pay for college and help your kids through a very expensive part of life? Without taking out oodles of loans?

Yes, it is! Yes, it is. You can do this — even if college is coming at you at 60 miles per hour. It just might take some creativity and careful planning (and maybe a side hustle to boost your bank account). Here’s how it can be done.

How to save for college and other things you really want? Yeah, good question, right? Here's what you need to know.


My husband has been hankering after a garage for the better part of a decade. Actually, I take that back. He wants a shop. A place to store his tools, a car project and a boat. 

Do you need a lot of things all at once? Maybe your husband wants a new car and a shop, you want a new kitchen and you want to pay for college all at once. Life is short, right? You deserve it. You’ve worked hard all your life. But have you asked yourself what you really need? 

Consider these statistics, directly from

  1. The average American home contains 300,000 items.
  2. One out of four houses with two-car garages is so stuffed a car can’t even fit in the garage. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the four!)
  3. Each American throws away over 68 pounds of clothing per year.
  4. Americans spend about $1.2 trillion a year on nonessential items.

I’m not saying that the “things” you want aren’t essential. It’s a great exercise to decide your priorities and figure out what’s essential. I know from experience that prioritizing what you want is easier said than done.

How to Evaluate Your Priorities

My husband’s shop isn’t done and he’s getting increasingly nervous about the lack of time he has to build it. In fact, I can almost hear his train of thought: “It’s almost already July and the cement floor isn’t poured yet… When am I going to build the thing because it’s going to be December before we know it? The truck will have to go into storage somewhere else because there’s already snow on the ground… AAAH!”

Poor guy.

But in the grand scheme of things, the shop doesn’t have to be built now. In fact, he could wait another year or two if he really needed to. However, he wants it now so he has enough time to work on a car (which could take years). He wants to be able to have it ready so he can teach our son all about restoring cars as well.

So, there’s a bigger priority in the works here — son and dad time. Priorities go deeper than wants. In fact, they drive to the very heart of our most important values.

How do the things you want align with your priorities and values? Here are some examples. You may want to:

  • Install a pool to spend more time with family.
  • Build a bigger dining room to entertain and encourage closer friendships.
  • Help your child with college so he or she’s debt free after college.
  • Go on an anniversary trip to become closer to your spouse or partner.

So, what are yours? Getting clear on your priorities can often help you decide how to put your money into pieces and parts that achieve those goals.  

Use Your Money to Fulfill Your Priorities

Let’s say you decide your priorities are:

  1. Paying for college.
  2. Building a new shop.
  3. Painting your cabinets (instead of getting a new kitchen). 
  4. The car will have to wait. 

The reality is, we all have a finite supply of money and lots and lots of buckets. 

When you discuss your priorities with your family, maybe you agree that your priority is to make sure your children don’t start their working years in debt and that you want to be able to help them pay for college.

Maybe you decide the full kitchen upgrade is a want, not a need. You can cook just as well and entertain friends in the kitchen you have. Furthermore, you do some research and realize that a full kitchen upgrade won’t give you a great return on your investment when you sell down the road.

You realize you can get along with the van you have. You realize your jealousy of your next-door neighbor’s shiny new van was getting the best of you. (Due to the large scrape on the front bumper from backing out of the garage too quickly. Yes, this is coming from personal experience. My van actually does have a recent large scrape and rock-chipped windshield.) 

On the other hand, what if your priorities are different? Let’s say your main priority is to spend more time road tripping with your family. In that case, the van may have gone in the first priority slot and paying for college might move to the second slot on the list, like this:

  1. Buy a new car.
  2. Save for college.
  3. Build a shop.
  4. Paint the kitchen cabinets.

Determine How You’ll Juggle Various Goals

Once you determine your priorities, figure out how you’ll get them done. Have some fun with this! It can be like a fun puzzle to determine how you’ll get to those things you really want. Here are some ideas of how you can go about doing it. 

  1. Estimate how much money you’ll need for each goal you’d like to achieve. It might cost more over time for things like college but there are lots of calculators that can help you estimate how much it will cost later on. 
  2. Ask yourself how much of your savings you’ll need and when you’ll need it. Do you need the money soon? If so, you’ll need to organize your finances so you can save the money more quickly.
  3. Create an online savings schedule that aligns with your paydays. Decide how much you’ll swoop into a savings account immediately after you get paid. If you do it regularly and often, it’ll become a habit and you won’t miss that money. (Promise!)
  4. Don’t forget to create a separate account. You don’t want to spend the money you’ve earmarked for other goals, so make sure it goes into a different account. It also keeps you going! When you see how much money is in your “other goals” account, it’s inspiring.
  5. Treat this extra savings like a bill. In other words, treat money for your extra savings as if it’s a required payment like a utility bill. Make sure the payments are automatic so they come out of your paycheck right away, every time.
  6. Ask yourself whether you need a side hustle. You might need another source of income to float your project. What are your talents? Can you brainstorm extra ways to make money? It can help you hit your goals much faster if you place all of your extra money in your savings account to reach your goals.

Tips for College Savings

Guess what? The tips for saving for college are the same as the steps listed above for saving for other goals. 

What might be a little trickier is determining how much to save. This can get confusing because you might not be sure what type of college your child will attend — community college, state university, liberal arts college, etc. 

In other words, how much goes in the bucket?

The rule of thumb is to save as much as you can. 

Even if your child only has two years of high school left, it’s worth saving as much as you can. You might not want to sock a lot into a regular savings account because there are other types of accounts that offer tax benefits. You can consider channeling that money into the following types of accounts: 

  • Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Education IRAs: These are tax-deferred accounts with earnings and withdrawals which may be free from federal income tax if used for qualified education expenses. Contribution limits apply.
  • 529 Plan: 529 plans allow you to invest for your child’s education or even your own. You can make sizeable contributions every year and also shift portions of assets in a 529 to future generations.
  • UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act): An UTMA or UGMA offers a way to transfer securities to a minor. You’ll call it an UTMA or UGMA, depending on which state your child resides. 

There are various pluses and minuses with each type of plan, and it’s a great idea to consult with a financial advisor about which type of plan is best for you. Your best bet is to make it automatic, just like you do with your other savings accounts. (Who knew you could save for a kitchen just as effectively as you can saving for college?)

Staying on Track

Part of staying motivated is making sure you check your progress. Let’s say you funnel each of your savings streams into different accounts. Keep a fun tally system on the bulletin board in your office or on a spreadsheet so you know exactly how much money you’ve saved at any given time. It keeps you motivated and excited as you see those numbers climb. You can go old school with a Post-it Note and jot down all your numbers. You can also use a tool like Personal Capital or Mint to track your spending and savings. (I use both.)

You might not be able to save as much money as you want if you have several goals on your plate. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere fast if you’re saving for four different items. The buckets fill up a lot more slowly when you’re trying to funnel your finite extra income into four different streams.

So, how do you stay motivated when it seems like there are only pennies in the bottoms of four different buckets? Great question. Why not tackle your smallest payment first? 

For some reason, this reminds me of the Debt Snowball method. The Debt Snowball method means you tackle your smallest debt amount first. You get an instant win by paying that off, then move on to your larger debt amounts. 

In other words, save for one thing (the smallest amount), then the next largest amount, and so on. That way, you only tackle one or two things at a time and you get quick wins along the way. 

How to Get Through It When You’re Over It

Sigh. Saving for things often loses its excitement really fast. I remember a long time ago, one of my friends was really gung-ho about saving for a new car and I was really excited for her. She’d mapped out a robust savings plan for how she’d have her beautiful new (used) car in a year. 

A week later, I went over to her house and a new car was sitting in the driveway. 

She’d caved and gotten a loan. “I just couldn’t wait anymore,” she told me. “I wanted it now.”

It’s easy to take out loans for the things you really want, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s necessary — you may need to take out a loan because you’ve got no other choice. What else do you do when you don’t have the money and your car breaks down? What else do you do when your child’s ready for college and you haven’t saved quite enough? 

Anyone at any life stage can experience this. But I always encourage trying to save for the “extras.” Even the things that fulfill your priorities and values but that you don’t absolutely need right away. My husband’s shop is a great example. 

You Can Do This!

So, if you want that [kitchen, boat, new bathroom, she shed] but college is coming soon, now’s a great time to start making a plan. And it’s still possible to make a plan if college is catapulting right around the corner (maybe it’s in just a few months)! 

You may just need to heavily consider how you’ll make it happen more quickly. You might even need to come up with a more robust savings plan early on so you can prep for those college bills and the things you really want.

Do You Get Extra Financial Aid for Off-Campus​ Housing?

Do You Get Extra Financial Aid for Off-Campus​ Housing?

Your child may be gung-ho about experiencing all there is to soak up about residential living during his or her first year at college.

On the other hand, your kid may refuse to set foot in a dorm. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of sharing a bathroom with 30 other girls. Maybe dorm life just doesn’t appeal. 

For whatever reason, let’s dig into this all-important question: Will your child get extra financial aid if he or she lives off campus

In short — no. However, it’s important to know that off-campus living doesn’t affect your financial aid eligibility. 

In fact, I think Notre Dame’s website sums it up nicely. It says: 

Living on campus does not affect a student’s financial aid eligibility. A standard room and meals amount is used to determine undergraduate students’ cost of attendance whether they live on or off campus.

— Notre Dame’s website

Generally, this is the case at most schools, but it’s always best to check with every school your student’s interested in. Here’s what you need to know.

It's a good question: Do you get extra financial aid for off-campus housing? Man, I wish it was that simple.

Why Live Off Campus?

First of all, why do students choose to live off campus? There are a variety of reasons, and sometimes it’s not always a decision your child will make freely. Universities often don’t have enough room for all students to live on campus.

But here again, all colleges have different policies. It’s best to ask. For example, the college I worked for required all students to live on campus. In fact, you needed to petition the residence life office staff in order to live off campus — and that reward was granted just to a select few. 

Why’d they do that? Well, I worked at a small liberal arts college. The requirement was put into place to make sure that the college built a sense of community. If even half of the students lived off campus, the college would be a ghost town. I was actually super grateful for that requirement because small campuses need that community feel. (It’s definitely a very different story at a large state university.)

The point of telling you this is to check into a college and university’s policies very carefully when you go on visits. If your child isn’t sure he likes the college’s policies regarding residence life, he’d better steer clear of attending that college altogether. 

So, why do some students choose to live off campus? Here are a few reasons:

  • Potentially less expensive
  • More space 
  • Less noisy than a buzzing residence hall
  • Potential garage parking — it’s way easier to live off campus with a car
  • No residential advisors (RAs) and fewer rules (including curfews)
  • Increased privacy (no communal bathrooms!)
  • Easier with work and other social commitments
  • Roommate choice is more targeted

On the other hand, here are some reasons your child may prefer to live on campus:

  • Potentially less expensive
  • Offers a more social atmosphere and a gateway to the campus community
  • Fewer responsibilities (paying utilities, making rent payments, etc.)
  • Easier access to the cafeteria and broader food choices
  • Easy access to campus resources like the library, student center, gym, etc.
  • No need to drive to campus or take public transportation
  • Your child is more likely to complete a degree — that one is HUGE!
  • Services like internet, water, sewer, waste removal, etc. are already built in
  • Opportunities to participate in residence hall association
  • Laundry facilities are available

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when you and your child are thinking through the benefits of each. Notice that the first item on each list is “potentially less expensive” — it might be cheaper to live on campus or off campus. 

While that might sound confusing, you just have to run the numbers. Rent will naturally be cheaper in Omaha, Nebraska, compared to Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’ll dive into the numbers a little later in this post. I’ve also created a handy budgeting spreadsheet to help you and your student figure out which option is cheapest.

Note: This entire article tackles financial aid for off-campus housing by paying rent for an apartment, house or townhouse. It’s obviously going to be cheaper if your student lives at home with you and doesn’t plan to pay rent while going to school.

How Financial Aid Works with Room and Board

Your child won’t get extra financial aid by living off campus, so how does the money get distributed? It all starts with a college or university’s Cost of Attendance, or COA.

How Colleges and Universities Calculate Cost of Attendance

The COA is an approximate calculation of your child’s complete expenses. It includes items like tuition, room, board, fees, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees and other miscellaneous expenses. The COA helps determine the maximum amount of total grants and loans your student can receive. In short, financial aid offices use the COA to determine your child’s eligibility for financial aid. The COA may also include other things — disability costs, study abroad program costs and more. 

You may even want to alert the college your student is considering if you have any unusual expenses that might affect your cost of attendance.

The COA works with another factor — your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — to determine how much financial aid your child will get. In fact, it’s an easy subtraction problem. Colleges and universities subtract your EFC from the school’s COA (I know, all the acronyms)! 

What’s an EFC? It’s the government’s estimate of what you and your child may be able to pay for a year of college. It’s based on your income, assets, age, number of dependents and more. The difference between the cost of attendance and the EFC is how much financial aid must make up the difference.

When you fill out the FAFSA for your child, you’ll need to indicate whether your child plans to live on campus or not. 

So, let’s apply all this to an example. A student named Rachel plans to attend College A in the fall. She and her mom filled out the FAFSA together and found out that her Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $12,000. College A’s Cost of Attendance (COA) is $52,000 — again, this includes tuition, room, board and fees. The difference, $52,000 – $12,000, equals $40,000 — and within that figure is room and board. Financial aid calculations will be different for students who live in off-campus housing and $40,000 must be made up through financial aid.

Which is More Expensive — Living On or Off Campus?

Is off-campus housing always less expensive than on-campus housing? (I’ve heard so many college kids say that.) 

The truth is that Trulia’s 2018 Market Trends Campus Report said that in 28 of 48 colleges and universities it surveyed, it was either the same price or cheaper to be off campus, with average savings of $219 per month for those with a roommate. Meals were included in the housing options for 8 of these 28 colleges and universities, which added to the expense. Removing these schools from consideration brought the average monthly savings in off-campus housing down to $146.

I did some more digging to find the actual cost of living on campus compared to living off campus:

Average cost of room and board, according to

  • $8,887 per school year at public colleges and universities
  • $10,089 per school year at private colleges and universities

Average apartment expenses, according to

  • $1,178 per month for a two-bedroom apartment
  • $112 per month for the electric bill
  • $50 per month for internet
  • Total: $16,080, assuming your child doesn’t have a roommate

So, here’s what I can tell you for sure, because there are so many variables: At first glance, an off-campus apartment may look way cheaper than the price of room and board, but you have to add in costs for electricity, gas, water, waste disposal, cable and internet — it all adds up fast.

In fact, there might even be hidden surprises you’re not thinking of as a parent. (You may own your own home now — it’s easy to forget about things like lease deposits!) Here are some often-forgotten extra expenses I came up with: 

  • Don’t forget about summertime rent! Remember, leases are typically year-round, not just the nine months your child is in school. That can add more to the bill.
  • Your child will need to pay for transportation. Whether that means paying for car insurance, the subway, the bus system — whatever it is! — it adds to the expense.
  • Utilities are part of the package. Don’t forget about electric, gas, internet, cable, water and trash. This can add considerably to the expense.
  • A deposit is also part of the deal. The drawback to having to pay a deposit is that you have to pay it in the first place — and can lose it if your apartment is in a shambles when your lease is up. 
  • Roommates might not work out. What happens when one roommate decides to bail out and your child can’t find a replacement? The rent still needs to be paid each month!

Figure Out Whether Your Child Really Should Live Off Campus

Living off campus is much closer to a real-world experience. Rent is due and the lights will extinguish if the electric bill isn’t paid. Is your child ready for these types of responsibilities or is he better off in the relative comfort of dorm life? If you know for sure that your child will subsist on Easy Mac and needs an RA to help handle roommate squabbles, it might be better to stick to residence hall living. 

On the surface, it might look like living on campus versus off campus is solely a money decision, but consider where your child would thrive most. If your son thinks of himself as a gourmet chef, he may hate eating the on-campus food and text you green-faced emojis daily. (That alone will probably tell you whether he or she is ready to live off campus.)

Don’t forget that there are ways to reduce the on-campus costs if you really want to. Your student may want to expand her leadership skills and get plugged into a resident advisor (RA) position. Here’s a major perk: RAs usually get free room and sometimes free board! Now, it’s true that your student may find that RA jobs are only reserved for juniors and seniors. However, your son or daughter might be the token sophomore that gets chosen! (I’ve seen it happen lots of times.) Your child will need to prove good grades and extracurricular involvement and will likely also have to go through a rigorous interview process. 

Determine a Budget

You may want to talk your child through a budget prior to the start of college whether he or she decides to live off campus. In fact, to save you a little bit of time, I developed a budget worksheet for you and your child. You can copy this worksheet and adapt it to your needs. It’ll tally up all the costs for you automatically. It’s nothing fancy — maybe someday I’ll get a chance to make it really pretty! 

Compare your student’s total expenses with his or her total income. Your child’s income should be greater than his or her expenses. If this isn’t the case, try to help your child reduce expenses and/or work to increase his or her income. This may show you clearly whether it’s cheaper to live on campus or off campus. Explore these options on every visit and while you build relationships with admission counselors and financial aid personnel at various schools.

Think of the Whole Picture

No, you don’t get extra financial aid for off-campus housing — even if it’s more expensive than living on campus. So, the moral of the story may be this: Don’t make cost the only factor when you and your child decide whether living off campus is a priority. There are lots of other things to consider — including your child’s sense of responsibility.

Here’s something else to consider: Check to make sure your financial aid and tuition plans cover off-campus housing. Direct student loans, 529 plans and prepaid tuition plans have certain rules about how your student is allowed to use the money.

How to Help Your Teen Combat Scholarship Application Overwhelm

How to Help Your Teen Combat Scholarship Application Overwhelm

Can you guess the hot topic in every single admission counselor meeting?

That’s right — financial aid and scholarships!

I loved this part of what I liked to call my “admission spiel,” because I enjoyed helping families dive into financial aid and scholarships. 

Too many scholarships staring your high schooler in the face? Learn how to help your teen combat scholarship application overwhelm.

Anyway, I launched into one particular admission spiel with a family in my office one day. We talked through the available merit-based scholarships the student would automatically receive through the college. (Based on his grade point average and ACT score.) Then I brightly said, “And don’t forget to fill out scholarship applications in your community and online!” 

The student avoided his parents’ gaze. 

The student’s dad chuckled and his mom said dryly, “The problem is getting him motivated to actually do them.”

Sound familiar? 

Kids seem to fall into two camps: Those who apply for scholarships like it’s their job and those who have no interest in scholarship applications at all. The kids in the latter group might just need a little nudge. Here’s how to get your high schooler started.

Step 1: Have the talk. (The money talk!) 

Your child needs to hear why it’s important to get scholarships. This may mean breaking down costs in a visual way so she can see where the gaps will be if she doesn’t apply for them. 

For example, you might want to break it down like this — and you can get way fancier than I did, with charts and pie graphs and whatever!

Dream school cost: $50,000 per year

Amount of financial aid you’ll receive based on dream school’s net price calculator(net price calculators live on financial aid pages and estimate how much financial aid you may get): $20,000 per year

Total cost after net price calculator results: $30,000

Amount in 529 plan: $60,000 ($15,000 to be distributed over four years)

Out-of-pocket costs: $15,000 per year 

Note: You’ll be basing this off the net price calculator, which is an estimate, but that’s okay. It’ll give you a rough idea to figure out how much potential out-of-pocket costs you’ll have.

If the out-of-pocket costs make your high schooler nervous, assure her that you’re going to work together to figure out that out-of-pocket amount. But tell her that scholarships are going to help out a lot — and that it’s better than taking out oodles of loans.

Step 2: Hammer out a goal. Then set smaller goals.

It’s hard to get started if you have no final goal. In high school, goals are built right in: English persuasion paper is due on such-and-such a date, for example. Science test on Friday. 

Then, set a big goal with your child — one that you can both agree on, like “Complete 50 scholarship applications” between June and August (or whatever it may be). 

Then, within that goal, set up mini-goals. A mini-goal could be like this: “Research and choose 10 scholarships to apply for during the first two weeks of June.” One of my favorite phrases: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Supposedly Confucius said it — how do they know that? I picture some guy following him around all day, writing down every word he said.)

Anyway, I recommend breaking everything down that you possibly can. 

Step 3: Play to your child’s strengths.

This means two things. It means knowing your child’s capabilities within those goals. Does your child despise writing essays, even if they’re about himself? Work with him to find scholarships that eliminate an essay component or require a brief essay.

Also, make a list of your kiddo’s strengths. What’s unique about him? What does he have going for him that can niche his way into scholarships? Does he plan to major in something specific? Does he have a disability? Do his hobbies qualify him for a scholarship? Brainstorm and do some hearty research online.

Step 4: Help your high schooler get organized.

My daughter takes piano lessons, and can you guess the hardest part of practicing? You got it — getting started. She dreads it, but once she gets into a new piece, she’s fine. In fact, I finally started giving her permission to play the songs the worst she could the first time around so that they sounded terrible. That seems to work.

The hardest part is getting started, and it seems especially true for kids. (It may be hard for you as well!) But you know that once you actually get into something, it’s not so bad. But you have to start somewhere! 

It helps to have a plan mapped out ahead of time so your child can stick to goals. Sticky notes on a calendar work really well. If you want to get techy, use a project management tool like Trello or Asana to keep your child on his or her goals. I personally use Trello for work and I love how due dates turn yellow and send you email reminders when a deadline looms closer.

Step 5: Talk to everyone about scholarships.

Next, alk to anyone who might have a connection — your job, your partner’s job, your neighbor — whoever you can think of! And yes, talk to that guidance counselor and those at colleges. This can be you and your child’s fact-finding mission. 

Finally, once one of you find out about a scholarship, what will you do? You bet — you’ll put it on the “to do” calendar.

Step 6: Develop a few key paragraphs for pluck ’n plug.

What do I mean by pluck ’n plug? Easy: Develop a beginning, middle and end for scholarship essays that your child can use for just about any scholarship application. It’ll be a paragraph you can store on Trello, Asana or Google docs. 

Will every scholarship application sound the same? Of course not! However, it sure does help with getting started when you already have something to work with. 

These three paragraphs should be kind of like writing an essay for school. Your child should write an attention-grabbing intro: 

My name’s Sadie and I’ve been blind since I was two. How did it happen? Unfortunately, that’s my earliest memory. My brother was a science whiz (and also 13 years older than me). One day, he… 

An equally gripping middle, which addresses questions asked in individual scholarship essays (you’ll have to add answers to those later):

What’s the largest predictor of success, you ask? I believe I’ve had to overcome a lot in my life, and college is just one more of the series of challenges. I’ve read a lot (audio books are my fave!) of books about leadership and perseverance and one thing I’ve learned is that grit matters. In fact, it’s one of the largest predictors of success. Never quitting. Digging in and waking up thrilled for the challenges you face every single day, whether your world is full of color or not.

A conclusion that ties it all together: 

So, I learned at an early age that life doesn’t always go as planned. But you know what? I think I dream in color — even if I can’t remember exactly what colors look like. I know grit plays a role in what happens when you fall down (blind or not) and that — not talent, not luck — is everything. It’s why I believe I deserve the XYZ Scholarship.

Your kiddo can mix and match, pluck ’n plug. And fill in the gaps. This doesn’t have to be rocket science! 

Tackle the Overwhelm

Finally, tell your child she can do this. And stopping short of doing scholarship essays for her, tell her you’ll help her in any way you can. 

Also, make sure your child understands that this doesn’t have to be so complicated. It’s only a matter of moving one stone, little by little.

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