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Financial Tips for Non-Traditional College Students

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When it comes to being a non-traditional student, you may have a lot of questions about the logistics of it all. Yes, it can feel overwhelming when you're not sure you can relate to younger classmates, but there are also costs to consider.

Tuition is only one piece of the puzzle when you're making big moves. The good news? There is financial aid available for non-traditional students, and with the right budgeting strategy, you can make it all work.

What Is a Non-Traditional Student?

A non-traditional student is usually an older adult enrolling for the first time in college or a returning student completing a degree begun years ago. In most cases, non-traditional students are looking for a more flexible arrangement or an accelerated degree program.

You might have a full-time job and a family on top of study obligations. You may also have some work experience you can apply to your degree.

Contrast this to a traditional college student, typically a young adult pursuing an undergraduate program right out of (or within a year of) completing high school.

Student Loan Tips for Non-Traditional Students

Believe it or not, there are financial aid options out there when it comes to paying for college as a non-traditional student. Loans are a great option, but don't forget to look for free money as well.

Ask Your Employer

If you're currently working, your employer may offer financial aid or other benefits if you're pursuing higher education to boost your career. Check with your company's human resources department. In some cases, you may need to present your employer with a proposal that outlines why pursuing higher education will benefit the company. And while there are often tax benefits to attending college, keep in mind any aid provided by an employer over $5,250 may be taxed as income.

Look for Scholarships Aimed at Non-Traditional Students

There are plenty of non-profits and other types of organizations that offer scholarships for non-traditional students. These organizations understand that older students may not have had the opportunity to go to college earlier, and they may need a little bit of help to move up the career ladder.

To start, look up scholarship databases, ask other non-traditional students you know, or go through a professional or alumni organization.

Check With Your College

Some colleges may offer grants to those who are pursuing an additional degree or seeking to complete their original degree for a successful career change. Ask your school's financial aid office — you never know what you may be eligible for otherwise.

Fill Out the FAFSA

Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will help you receive eligible financial aid from federal, state, and local sources. Plus, based on the information you provide, you may be able to receive certain grants and scholarships.

Even if you end up taking out a federal student loan, the rates tend to be lower than private lenders and offer more benefits like an income-driven repayment plan.

Consider Private Loans

Private loans should be a last resort after you've exhausted all other options. They're a great resource if you need some extra cash to cover both educational and non-educational expenses. For instance, you can use loan proceeds toward books and transportation.

Budgeting for Non-Traditional Students

Budgeting as a non-traditional student may feel overwhelming on top of all your responsibilities, but it can be done. Here are some tips you can use in your budget right away.

Lower Housing Costs

Housing is often the most expensive line item in any family's budget. Whether you're renting or you have a mortgage, your costs won't be as low as someone who's living in a dorm room. The less you can pay for housing costs, the better.

To start, you can move into a smaller apartment once your lease is up, refinance your mortgage to a lower rate, or rent out part of your space if need be. It's also a good time to negotiate renters or homeowners insurance, so you can put those savings toward your studies.

Plan Out Your Meals

Meal planning is beneficial because it helps keep everyone fed and it saves you money. If you're running from place to place and realize you don't have food when you come home, chances are you'll pay more for takeout or dining out.

Taking one day out of your week to plan your meals and purchase necessary ingredients can help save you hundreds of dollars each month. To get organized, you'll need just a few things to start:

  • Reusable food containers (enough for a week's worth of meals)
  • Labels/markers for dating and naming your meals
  • List of dietary restrictions (for family members if you're planning for everyone)
  • Grocery list
  • One day (or half day) per week to cook and pack your meals
  • Crock pot or slow cooker (optional)

Consider Public Transportation

If possible, taking advantage of public transportation can help you avoid car payments, vehicle maintenance and replacement costs, and gas prices. If you're a student, you can usually get a discounted or free public transportation pass. Check with your school's parking and transportation department or the local municipal public transportation company (to find yours, do an internet search for the acronym you see on buses around town — for example, GRTC or MTA.)

Some families may even want to consider temporarily becoming a one-car family. If this is not possible (for instance, you have to pick up young children from school), you can try and see if you can carpool with another student. It's a great way to save money and network at the same time.

Buy Used

There are plenty of items you can buy used that are just as good if you purchased them new. These include textbooks, clothes, baby equipment, and more. Better yet, see if you can swap or barter for items like clothing for growing children. If you're learning on-site in an urban location, or you happen to live in a college town, most campuses have at least a few great thrift shops nearby.

The Takeaway

Going to college as a non-traditional student can be an exciting time in your life. Being prepared financially by seeking out financial assistance such as grants, scholarships, and help from your employer will make your time in college much easier. Even though you may have to stretch our budget temporarily, it'll be well worth it.

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