Are you feeling overwhelmed just thinking about how to pay for college? Take a deep breath and keep reading. We talked to four students at Christian colleges who have one thing in common: their parents can't help pay tuition, but they're making it work. Read on to see how you can do it, too.
Searching for Bargains
There was no question in Aaron Ballard's mind that he was going to a Christian college. Once he visited Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio, he knew it was the right fit. His parents were supportive, but with two other kids in college, the $24,000 tuition was more than they could afford.
Aaron didn't give up, though. By February of his senior year in high school, he'd filled out the FAFSA with the hopes of getting a good financial aid package.
"The earlier you can send in your FAFSA, the more money you can get," Aaron explains. "To get all the money you're eligible for, I'd recommend sending it in as early as possible, even in January."
His entire tuition was covered by grants, scholarships and a small loan. But that still left him with the stress of paying for costly things like books, which can often cost $500 a semester.
At the beginning of his freshman year, he went to the bookstore to buy his books and got sticker shock. He knew there had to be a cheaper way to buy books. Now as a junior majoring in exercise studies, he's an old pro at trimming the costs. Unless the class is part of his major, he tries to borrow the required texts.
"I just ask around to see who has taken the class and if I can borrow the book," Aaron explains. "I just give the book back at the end of the semester."
If he can't find a book to borrow, he checks out Amazon.com or Half.com. He also searches through student ads on bulletin boards. He once paid a student $20 for a book that was $80 in the bookstore.
Aaron also saves money by sharing books. It's a little trickier because it requires setting a schedule and sticking with it. "I'd use the book at night," Aaron explains. "And my friend would use it in the afternoon. If we had a test, we'd study together."
All the money he saves by getting bargains on his books goes right into his savings account, along with the money he earns from his two campus jobs. Although Aaron also has a checking account, he never puts any extra money in it.
"It's too easy to just slide your debit card," Aaron says. "If I need something I have to transfer money over to my checking account. It makes me think if I really need the thing."
Landing a Job, Saving Like Crazy
Megan Fletcher, a junior majoring in marriage and family counseling at Johnson Bible College in Tennessee, pays for her college tuition. She's never taken out a loan and she's not stressed out about money. So what's her secret?
According to Megan, it's simple: Save. Save. Save.
It all started when Megan was still in elementary school and her parents told her they wouldn't be able to pay for any of her college education.
"I just started saving," Megan says. "I'd save money I got for Christmas or my birthday and then I got a job when I was in high school and saved that money, too."
She worked hard and managed to scrape together $16,000 before she graduated from high school. She worked hard in school, too. Her high grades and test scores earned her $4,000 in scholarships and she received $2,000 in grants from the school. That left her with $7,000 in tuition payments, which came right out of her stash of money.
Even with so much in the bank, she set her financial goal high and wanted to keep her savings around $10,000 so she could cover her tuition without taking out loans.
"I've worked my tail off to meet that goal," she admits. "But it's been totally worth it."
Her healthy bank account doesn't come easily. She earns at least $4,000 each summer, which is no small feat. She's able to do that because she took her summer job search seriously. She started her search earlyright around Christmas breakand only applied to jobs that paid more than minimum wage.
"I won't take a job that pays less than $8 an hour," Megan admits. "I applied to a lot of places like banks and doctor's offices."
She managed to find a full-time position as a teller at a local bank. She says she got such a good job because she came to the interview dressed for success and armed with a resumé and a list of references.
Even with a great summer job, Megan didn't stop there.
On her days off, she worked at a vet clinic cleaning cages and filing paperwork. And on the side she dog-sat, babysat, and mowed the lawn for her church.
"I don't have a lot of free time," she says. "But I like working. I just try to go into it with a positive attitude, so it doesn't seem so bad."
During school she works about 17 hours a week. Her time is split between the admissions office and the counseling center.
All her work has paid off because she has earned enough money to cover the rest of her college education. "The Lord is teaching me financial responsibility," Megan says. "I know this is where I'm supposed to be. And God has been really good to me."
Tracking Down Free Money
Kayla Fields, a junior majoring in behavioral health at Southwestern College, always knew she'd have to find a way to pay for college. Her mom, who is single, suffers from epilepsy, and hasn't been able to work since Kayla was in elementary school.
"My mom would like to help me and she's very supportive," Kayla says. "She received state aid for me until I turned 18then I was on my own."
When Kayla decided she wanted to attend Arizona's Southwestern College, she filled out the FAFSA. But she didn't stop there. She started searching for scholarships. She found a handful she qualified for and started applying. At first, she was overwhelmed with all the essays she had to write. But then she discovered that she could use the same essay for more than one application. It just required a few tweaks here and there.
Her hard work paid off. She won $750 for a statewide writing contest. Only one other person applied.
"People don't apply because they think they'll never win," Kayla says. "But I knew I had to give it a shot."
She won nearly $2,000 from two other local scholarships. She also discovered she was eligible for a $500 scholarship simply because her mom had epilepsy.
"There's a lot of free money out there that you don't have to pay back," Kayla says. "All you have to do is look for it. You have to be very active about looking for scholarships. You need to be prayerful about it too."
Between scholarships and grants, her entire college education has been pretty much covered. She's only had to take out a loan for $6,000.
"That's pretty good for a Christian education," Kayla says. "Loans are my last option. But I'll take one out when I have to."
Emily Kinsey got over three-quarters of her tuition at Nyack College covered through scholarships, grants and a Stafford loan, but she was still $5,000 short.
Her parents wanted to help, but with six other kids they just didn't have any extra money. And she already had $40,000 in loans.
Emily was a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies at the New York college and was determined to stay. There was only one thing she could do: She had to earn the difference during the school year.
"It was my only option," Emily says. "The years that I've been here have been life-changing. I didn't want to leave."
Emily landed two work-study jobs. She started her day at 6 a.m. in the college cafeteria, then worked as a switchboard operator in the afternoon after her classes. She even managed to squeeze in time for a third job at a video store. On top of that, she was taking about 15 hours of classes.
"I've never worked that much," Emily admits. "I had to really schedule my time. I even had to schedule time to hang out with my friends."
Emily says that it wasn't easy. She rarely had extra money for a movie or bowling or late night pizza. Every penny she earnedabout $450 every other weekwent right to her tuition. The $700 she saved from her summer job also went to her college bill. She put it toward her junior year tuition, but at the end of the year, she was still $600 short. Her job at the video store allowed her to scrape together enough money to cover the difference.
She's already starting to make some cost-cutting plans for her senior year. She plans to live off campus with a family from her church, which will save her nearly $5,000.
Looking back, Emily says that working so hard to come up with the extra money was all worth it. "Going to Nyack has been life-changing," she says. "There's no doubt in my mind that this is where God wants me."
Amy Adair is a graduate of Calvin College.