College on a Budget: Smart Tips for Saving Money

Learn valuable strategies for reducing your living expenses, including common support programs that can save you money on healthcare, housing, utilities, and more.

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Like many students, you probably plan to rely on financial aid to pay for a large chunk of your tuition and living expenses. But we know that you’ll be worried about debt. Financial aid packages rarely meet 100% of a student’s needs and college loans can be crippling in the long-term. After all, who wants to be twenty years into a career and still paying for a degree?

Fortunately, there are lots of financial assistance programs sponsored by the government and community organizations that can help lighten your load. What’s more, there may be strategies that you haven’t yet considered—selling textbooks, visiting the dental school, using a Zipcar—for cutting costs. In this resource, we look at hundreds of options that will help you control your living expenses.

Off-Campus Housing

What You Need to Know

Few expenses eat up more of a student’s budget than off-campus housing. Rent + utilities will often equal 30-50% of your monthly income. On the whole, experts advise that you stick within 30% and aim for a safe and affordable neighborhood.

Financial aid will cover some of these costs, but not all of them. If you plan to live off-campus while you’re in school, you can’t afford to overlook any possibilities in your search for good, cheap housing. To get the process moving, we’ll introduce you to some government programs that can help you keep costs down.

A Word About Roommates

Every college has a housing office that maintains a listing of off-campus apartments that rent to students. Roommate matching services are usually offered as well. Having roommates cuts the costs of rent, utilities, food, Internet service, furniture and transportation significantly. Going the roommate route can also make up for credit problems or a lack of references from past landlords.

Section 42 Housing: Rental Assistance

To be eligible for Section 42 housing, your income must be somewhere between 30% and 60% of your county’s average median income (AMI) for families of your size.

To help people find reasonably-priced housing, the government sponsors a rental assistance program called the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC). This is commonly known as Section 42.

Apartments and houses in the Section 42 program are rented to people with family incomes below the average median income (AMI) in the county where they live. AMI is the dividing line that separates the highest-earning half of families from the lowest earning half. If you’re on the “right” side of that line (making less money than the average), Section 42 housing could be an affordable option for you.

Who is Eligible?

To be eligible for Section 42 housing, your income must be somewhere between 30% and 60% of your county’s average median income (AMI) for families of your size. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website provides up-to-date AMI information for every U.S. county, and they have useful charts that show you where you stand in relation to that number.

How Much Does it Cost?

When you move into a Section 42 property, you should expect to pay approximately 30% of your total monthly income for rent and utilities. Thankfully, you won’t have to ask your landlord to charge you the right rates. Rates are calculated ahead of time and each rental unit comes with a fixed rental price (see the HUD website for county-specific details).

Can College Students Qualify for Section 42?

If you plan to share your apartment with at least one qualified (low-income) adult who is not a college student and you meet the income limits, you should qualify. Full-time college students who plan to live alone, or in a group with other full-time students, are often not eligible to rent Section 42 units.

However, there are lots of exceptions to this rule. You may be able to rent under Section 42 all by yourself (or with college-only roommates), depending on your life circumstances. As a full-time student, you can still qualify for Section 42 housing if you or one of your roommates:

  • Receives Title IV social security benefits (like TANF, for example);
  • Is enrolled in a government-sponsored job training program;
  • Is a single parent with minor children;
  • Is married and eligible to file joint tax returns;
  • Is under the age of 24 and left the foster care system within the previous six years.

When determining your income, some financial aid numbers will count and some will not. Loans don’t count and neither does the aid you use to pay your tuition. But grants, scholarships and work-study money left over after paying for tuition will be classified as income.

How Do I Apply?

If you find an empty Section 42 house or apartment for rent, and you qualify for the program, you can apply to live there just like everyone else. You will apply directly to the landlord, not to the government.

To apply, you will have to:

  • Supply proof of income for everyone who plans to live in the unit (pay stubs, financial aid award letters, bank account statements, tax returns, etc.).
  • Pass a credit check and a criminal background check
  • Supply information about your rental history
  • Pay your security deposit if your application is accepted.
  • State if you’re a full-time college student, even if you already know you qualify for Section 42.

You can find Section 42 properties in your area by consulting online affordable housing databases in your state or county. You can also contact the nearest HUD field office and they will steer you in the right direction.

Section 8 Housing: Rental Assistance

Section 8 credit vouchers cover the difference between actual rent and the money you’re required to pay.

If your income falls in the range of 30-50% of the Average Median Income (AMI), you might be eligible for Section 8 housing assistance. When you live in a Section 8 house or apartment, you won’t be asked to pay more than 30% of your income for rent + utilities. If the cost is greater than that, the government will step in to help.

Under the Section 8 program, qualified families or individuals are given credit vouchers. These vouchers cover the difference between actual rent and the rent they are required to pay. Once your application for a voucher has been approved, it is up to you to find a renter who participates in the Section 8 program. Some landlords and realty companies accept vouchers; others don’t.

Can College Students Apply for Section 8 Housing?

College students are welcome to apply for the Section 8 program. If you are under the age of 24, you’ll usually have to include your parents’ income information along with your own when you apply. This is true even if you plan to live alone.

However… for some college students, this rule isn’t used. No matter how old you are, you can qualify for a Section 8 voucher as an independent person if you are:

  • Living separately from your parents for at least a year; or
  • A U.S. military veteran; or
  • Married; or
  • Disabled; or
  • The parent of a minor (under 18) child.

How Do I Apply?

Applications for Section 8 vouchers can be picked up—and turned in—at local public housing agencies (PHAs). You’ll need to provide proof of income (if you have some type of job), plus information about your financial aid award. Grants, work-study funds and scholarships that don’t cover tuition count as financial aid awards.

PHA offices are open in every county and in many cities as well. Find your local PHA.

Be Prepared to Wait

A lot of people want to get into the Section 8 program. Waiting lists are common and often long. In some places, they may not be taking applications at the time you’d like to apply.

Section 8 is probably still worth checking out, since some counties don’t have long waiting lists. But if you apply before your freshman year, remember that you might not actually get your voucher until you’re a junior or senior.

LIHEAP: Utilities Assistance

You can apply for LIHEAP anytime from October through February.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) offers a one-time payment to families or individuals who need help paying their heating bills over the winter. You can apply anytime from October through February. Funding is first-come, first-serve.

If you meet the income limits, you should receive some financial assistance. In general, the less money you make/have, the more benefits you’ll get. Be aware that if you’re approved for LIHEAP, the money won’t cover more than one or two of your utility bills (for either gas or electricity, depending on your heating source).

Can College Students Qualify?

The LIHEAP program is open to college students. You won’t have to submit detailed information about your parents’ income, but you will have to state where your money is coming from. Your income statement must include any money from job payments and financial aid awards (beyond what is used for tuition). If your parents send you funds, you’ll also have to include this information.

How Do I Apply?

Your starting point should be your state’s LIHEAP website, which will show the address of the nearest LIHEAP office. County social service agencies usually run the program and take applications.

Applications can be filled out and submitted online. In support of your application, you will have to provide copies of recent utility bills, proof of income and verification of your identity. You may also have to complete an interview before you can get your LIHEAP money.

If you apply for LIHEAP and are approved, your state government will send a payment directly to your utility company. The money will then be deducted from your next bill or bills, and you will have to start paying again once the money is gone.

What to Do if You’re Homeless

Ask your college if it offers temporary housing to homeless students before you decide to live on-campus.

Financial Aid & Government Housing

The government lets homeless students apply for financial aid independently from their parents. In other words, if you’re homeless, you’ll only have to report the money you make on your own. This will often qualify you to receive more funding, including money for housing. In addition to financial aid, you’ll also be eligible to apply for government housing programs such as Section 42, Section 8 and LIHEAP.

Temporary Housing

Many homeless students choose to live on-campus in dorms or residence halls. However, over holidays and during summer breaks, university residence halls usually close.

To address this problem, the Department of Education provides funds to universities to cover the costs of temporary housing. This solution can be very helpful if you need a place to stay when classes are not in session. Ask your college if it offers temporary housing to homeless students before you decide to live on-campus.

Youth Shelters

Many university towns have youth shelters that are sometimes open to college students who have nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, these shelters are often full. What’s more, they won’t let you stay for longer than a few days or a couple of weeks. Shelters are really only a good option if you have an emergency, or know you’ll have a permanent place to live in the very near future.

Health Insurance

What You Need to Know

Cheap and comprehensive health insurance is available for college students who need it. If you qualify for Medicaid, you may be able to get insurance for free. But even if you don’t, there are some cost-saving options that can give you the health protection you need.

If you plan to attend college, here are four affordable health insurance options to consider:

  1. Health Insurance Marketplace Plans; a.k.a. Obamacare
  2. Medicaid
  3. College Health Insurance Plans
  4. Staying on Your Parents’ Health Plan

Option #1: Health Insurance Marketplace Plans

The Health Insurance Marketplace is your source for government-supported health insurance—popularly known as Obamacare.

The Affordable Care Act has made it much easier for tens of millions of Americans to get health insurance. Government-supported health insurance is now the go-to option for those who have no other affordable alternatives.

  1. You’ll have a wide variety of plans to choose from, including low cost and low deductible options.
  2. You can get financial assistance from the government that will substantially reduce the cost of a good plan.
  3. You can apply entirely online, and even upload the required documents online.

How Does the Marketplace Work?

The Health Insurance Marketplace is your source for government-supported health insurance—popularly known as Obamacare. Private insurance companies sell all the plans you can buy on the Health Insurance Marketplace. However, based on your income level, you may be eligible for government assistance that will cut the costs of these plans down to a minimum.

Some states have their own Health Insurance Marketplace; others use the Marketplace operated by the federal government. All applications start at (the federal government site). If your state has its own Marketplace, you’ll be transferred to the state website after you enter your local zip code.

Who Qualifies?

If you make between 100%-400% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), you may qualify for premium tax credits on the Health Insurance Marketplace (learn more about FPL guidelines). College students are eligible to buy health insurance plans from the Marketplace. What’s more, they can do it in the state where they’re living while attending school.

  • If you’re 24 or older, you can apply as an independent person. This means you’ll only have to supply your own income information (including financial aid).
  • You may have to supply your spouse’s information if you’re married.
  • If you’re under 24, and listed as a dependent on your parent’s tax returns, you’ll have to supply their income information as well.

What Treatments Are Covered?

Every health insurance plan purchased in the Marketplace must cover:

  • All types of basic medical care
  • Trips to the emergency room
  • Maternity and newborn care
  • Mental health services and treatment for addiction
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitation from injury and care for disabilities
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive services and chronic disease treatment
  • Pediatrics (dental care and vision care included for children under 19)
  • Pre-existing health conditions

Everything on this list will be covered by your Marketplace insurance, regardless of which plan you choose. With some plans, you may still have to pay part of the costs—or all of the costs—for your treatment.

How Much Will it Cost?

Premiums for insurance plans can range from $0 to a few hundred dollars per month. Your premium is determined by the amount of financial help you qualify for, and which plan you choose.

Available plans come in four categories: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Naturally, premiums become more expensive as you get better coverage. As premiums go up, co-pays, coinsurance and deductibles go down. That is the trade-off.

Catastrophic Health Plans

A catastrophic health plan is a special type of Marketplace insurance plan intended for those with very low incomes or other types of economic problems. Catastrophic plans have low premiums, but super-high deductibles, and are mostly meant to protect you if something terrible happens and you have huge medical expenses. These plans allow you three free visits to a doctor each year, plus full coverage for preventive care (screening tests for diseases, vaccines, etc.).

To buy a catastrophic health plan on the Marketplace, you must be under the age of 30 and:

  • Homeless; or
  • Unable to pay your existing medical bills; or
  • Live in a state that does not provide Medicaid for adults with incomes at or below 138% of FPL; or
  • Unable to find a Marketplace plan that would cost you less than 8.05% of your yearly income.

Dental Insurance

You can also find separate dental insurance plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace. You’ll be offered the option of choosing one at the end of your application for regular health insurance.

You’ll find two types of dental insurance in the Marketplace:

  1. High coverage level plans with higher premiums and lower deductibles and co-pays
  2. Low coverage level plans with lower premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs.

The government won’t help you pay for these plans, so monthly premiums may be comparable to private policies. For more cost-saving ideas, see our section on No- or Low-Cost Dental Care.

How Do I Apply?

You can apply for government-supported health insurance during the Open Enrollment Period, which often runs from November 1st through the end of January. You’ll have to renew your coverage each year if you want to keep it.

Your application can be filled out entirely online. You can even upload documents that establish your income (tax returns, financial aid award letters, pay stubs, etc.). You’ll also be asked to estimate how much you’re likely to earn in the upcoming year. Try to be accurate—you may run into problems if you end up earning more than you stated you would.

As you go through the application, you’ll be told if you qualify for financial assistance. If you do—and most people do—this will reduce your premium payments considerably. In some cases you may be offered the option of choosing plans that don’t require you to pay anything at all.

Need Help Applying?

If all of this seems complicated, don’t worry. In every county or city, there are advisers who can help you apply for insurance in the Health Insurance Marketplace. These individuals will answer all of your questions, guide you through your application and help you pick a plan. Whatever help you need, they’ll give it to you—entirely for free.

You can search for the addresses and phone numbers of your local Marketplace experts in the local help section of

Option #2: Medicaid

You will be told if you’re eligible for Medicaid when you apply for insurance on the Health Insurance Marketplace.

Medicaid is the best bet for individuals and families with very low incomes who desperately need health insurance. Many college students qualify and they don’t even know it.

  1. Medicaid is a government program. If you qualify, you won’t have to deal with insurance companies.
  2. Medicaid is cheaper than other forms of health insurance and usually has lower co-pays and deductibles.
  3. You will be told if you’re eligible for Medicaid when you apply for insurance on the Health Insurance Marketplace. From there, enrollment takes place entirely online.

Who Qualifies?

If you don’t have any children, you can qualify for Medicaid if:

  • Your income is 138% or less of the official Federal Poverty Level (in 28 states).
  • Your income is 100% or less of the FPL (in Wisconsin).

If you do have children, you (and your children) can qualify for Medicaid if:

  • Your income is 138% or less of the FPL (in 29 states).
  • Your income is somewhere between 50 and 138% of the FPL (13 states).
  • Your income is 50% or less of the FPL (8 states).

If you were in foster care and had Medicaid, you’ll be able to stay on it until you turn 26, regardless of your income or where you live.

Maps and charts available on this Medicaid fact sheet will provide details about your state’s Medicaid policies.

What Conditions Are Covered?

Under Medicaid, you’ll receive the same type of coverage you would under a government-sponsored policy. Like any other insurance plan, you may have co-pays, co-insurance and deductibles. The cost of these will depend on your total income.

CHIPS: Extra Help for Children

Even if you don’t qualify for Medicaid, your children may qualify for an associated program called CHIPs, which stands for Children’s Health Insurance Program. This insurance plan is available in every state for kids whose families make 200% or less of the federal poverty level (FPL).

Just as with Medicaid, you will be told if your children qualify for CHIPs when you fill out an application through the Health Insurance Marketplace. The coverage your kids receive will be comprehensive and will include both vision and dental care, which are not part of Medicaid for adults.

You may get CHIPS for $0 monthly premiums, with 100% coverage for medical costs. But the closer you are to the 200% FPL cut-off point, the higher your premiums, deductibles and co-pays will be.

How Do I Apply?

If you apply for health insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace, they will tell you if you are eligible for Medicaid. If you are eligible, this will save you the trouble of buying other insurance.

Your county social service agency will process your application, and they will probably get in touch with you to ask for further information. But you should be able to upload your income information directly to your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace website.

Option #3: College Health Insurance Plans

Financial aid packages are designed to cover college health insurance plans.

College health insurance plans are a ready-made option for college students who don’t want to jump through hoops to prove they are eligible for low-cost insurance coverage.

  1. Financial aid packages are designed to cover college health insurance plans.
  2. College health plans are customized to meet the needs of students.
  3. You will not have to submit any additional documents to establish your eligibility. If you are enrolled in school, you are eligible.

How Do Plans Work?

College health insurance plans can be bought directly from your school. Your premiums will probably be higher than what you’d pay with a Marketplace plan—no subsidies from the government here! But when you choose a student plan, the costs will automatically be included in your financial aid award.

What Do Plans Cover?

In the past, student insurance plans sold by universities had serious limitations on coverage. However, new laws insist that college health plans must be comparable to Marketplace plans. So student plans now look a lot like the government-supported health plans. Depending on the school, they may be nearly identical.

Is it Really a Good Deal?

Before you buy any student plan, you should read through it carefully, and compare it to the plans you’d be able to buy from the Health Insurance Marketplace. Financial aid that is not used on college-sponsored health insurance could be used for something else, so you shouldn’t automatically choose a university-sponsored health plan simply because it is convenient.

Option #4: Staying on Your Parents’ Health Insurance Plan

If you’re thinking about keeping your parents’ health insurance, check with the insurance company to see if it provides coverage in the area where you plan to attend school.

New healthcare laws allow young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans until the age of 26. This may be the simplest and most affordable option for many college students.

  1. If you stay on your parents’ health insurance plan, you’ll be covered without lifting a finger.
  2. You won’t have to worry about making the wrong choice (health insurance is an extremely complicated topic!)
  3. If your parents pay the premiums, your health insurance is free.

How Does it Work?

The legislation that created the Health Insurance Marketplace (the Affordable Care Act) changed the rules for other types of insurance.

One big change allows young people covered by their parents’ insurance to keep that coverage until the age of 26. If your parents have a health insurance plan that includes you, you can stay on it during your college years.

What Are the Downsides?

If you decide to go to school in a different state, or even in the same state but far away from home, you might have some trouble finding doctors, hospitals or clinics that accept your insurance. Health insurance companies have a network of service providers they require you to use. If you go out-of-network, your insurance company may not pay for your medical treatment.

Fortunately, the biggest health insurance companies usually have extensive networks of doctors, hospitals and clinics. If you’re thinking about keeping your parents’ health insurance, check with the insurance company to see if it provides coverage in the area where you plan to attend school.

Useful Healthcare Insurance Terms

  • Premium: The monthly fee you’ll have to pay for your health insurance.
  • Deductible: The amount of your medical bills you’ll have to pay before insurance kicks in. If you have a deductible of $500, each time you go to the doctor you’ll have to pay the first $500 of your bill yourself.
  • Co-pays: The amount you automatically owe for a medical visit. If your co-pay for a checkup is $20, you’ll have to pay that amount every time you get a checkup, with the insurance company picking up the rest of the bill.
  • Coinsurance: What you’ll owe after the deductible. For example, if your deductible is $500, your bill for treatment is $700 and your coinsurance is 50%, you’ll have to pay $600 instead of $500. If the coinsurance was 30%, you’d pay $560.
  • Out-of-pocket costs: Another name for deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance.
  • Annual limit: The maximum amount of your medical costs your insurance company will pay in one year. If the annual limit on your plan is $10,000, that’s all the insurance company will pay and you’ll have to handle the rest.
  • Maximum out-of-pocket costs: What you pay in deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance can’t just keep going up and up. At some point, your plan will reach its yearly maximum for out-of-pocket costs. From then on, the insurance company will have to pay for everything.
  • In-network/out-of-network: Insurance plans usually come with a list of doctors, clinics and hospitals that provide services they will pay for. Those healthcare providers are “in-network.” If you go “out-of-network” for treatment, you’ll have to pay for everything yourself.
  • Federal poverty level (FPL): The amount of money you’re allowed to earn in a year to be officially classified as poor. This standard is used to determine eligibility for many government programs or types of financial assistance (the 2015 FPL chart for all family sizes can be found here).

Medical Treatment

What You Need to Know

Health insurance will help you pay for your medical costs. But it comes with many exceptions and conditions. Even if you have health insurance, you still may need to find affordable medical treatment in your community.

When you need healthcare services, including dental or mental health treatment, low-cost options are available. None will turn needy college students away, and some of these services are located right on campus.

Free and Charitable Clinics

Free and charitable clinics often have more generous income standards than government-funded institutions.

Free and charitable (low-cost) clinics are found in almost every county and most cities. Their mission is to serve those who can’t afford to get treatment elsewhere, either because their health insurance is inadequate or because they don’t have any health insurance at all.

  1. Free and charitable clinics are staffed by highly-trained doctors, nurses, staff members and administrators who volunteer because they truly care about the health and welfare of others.
  2. Free and charitable clinics often have more generous income standards than government-funded institutions.
  3. Services are either free or priced on a sliding scale.

Who Qualifies?

Because they don’t answer to the government, free and charitable clinics are able to make independent decisions about who they’ll serve. What they want is evidence that shows you have a legitimate reason for seeking their services.

Every clinic operates differently. To establish need, you may be asked to provide:

  • Proof of income (including financial aid awards and parental support).
  • Recent medical records and test results.
  • A list of medications currently taken.
  • Denial letters from Medicaid, the Health Insurance Marketplace, etc.
  • Proof that your insurance won’t cover your particular condition.
  • Records of personal debt, including unpaid medical bills.

Before you come to a clinic for your first appointment, be sure to check your clinic’s website to find out what documentation you should bring.

How to Get Treatment

Some free and charitable clinics have limited hours, and may only be open one or two days a week. Some may only see patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. Of course, it is easier to get treatment at clinics that allow advance appointments and are open more often.

Before you get medical help, you’ll have to meet with an intake worker. Here, all of your documents will be evaluated to see if you’re eligible for treatment. If the intake worker says you qualify for services, you’ll either be taken to see a doctor or nurse right away or you’ll be given a new appointment for another day.

Free and charitable clinics often have long waiting lists for appointments. If they don’t take appointments, there’s no guarantee you’ll be seen if you show up to stand in line (those lines can be long!). So if you have an emergency, these clinics might not be the best choice.

What Services Are Offered?

Each clinic is unique. However, all clinics provide basic medical care, including physical examinations, blood tests and x-rays. All will prescribe medications and fill your prescriptions for a low cost. All will offer complete health services to pregnant women and small children.

  • If there are services they can’t provide, they’ll do their best to refer you to other medical facilities that can.
  • If they know you have financial limitations, they’ll take that into account when they make their referrals.

It’s not a universal rule, but most free and charitable clinics also offer dental care, vision care and psychological counseling.

How Much Will Treatment Cost?

Free clinics are obviously free. But you may have to pay for your medicine if any is prescribed.

Charitable clinics use a sliding scale to determine how much they’ll charge you. The less money you make, the less you’ll have to pay. If you’re homeless or have little income, you may be able to get treatment at no cost.

If you have any health insurance (or Medicaid), free and charitable clinics will gladly accept it.

How Can I Find the Nearest Clinic?

One great source for information is the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NAFC Clinics), which has a database of clinics you can access on their website. A Google search for free, charitable or low-cost clinics in your area can also be helpful.

When you do visit a free or charitable clinic, you will have to provide proof of residency for the appropriate county. Drivers’ licenses or student IDs will be required. You should also bring a copy of a utility bill or your apartment lease with your address clearly listed.

HRSA Community Health Centers

Dental, vision and mental healthcare are available at most HRSA Health Centers.

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Health Centers provide comprehensive medical care to under-served parts of the population. They must meet high standards to keep their government support, and college students who visit can expect to receive excellent healthcare services.

  1. HRSA Health Centers accept all types of insurance, including Medicaid.
  2. Those with incomes at 100% or less of the FPL can get services for free, while those between 100% and 200% will pay on a sliding scale.
  3. HRSA Health Centers offer comprehensive dental care, vision care and mental health services.
  4. HRSA Health Centers are open to any tax-paying citizen and/or their children.

Who Qualifies?

HRSA Health Centers are designed to serve those who lack access to good medical care. This includes anyone without insurance or with a low income, including college students. How much you pay for services will depend on your financial situation.

How to Get Services

All you have to do is call to make an appointment. HRSA clinics are generally open five days a week, so you will have a choice of times.

Government-supported community health centers are popular and getting an appointment when you want it is not always easy. In fact, you may have to wait for quite some time before you can get in to see a doctor. So if you have an urgent health problem, you might need to try somewhere else.

What Services Are Offered?

You name it and HRSA Health Centers probably offer it. Services include:

  • Preventive care.
  • All forms of basic medical care.
  • Specialized services as needed (short of hospitalization).

Dental, vision and mental healthcare are available at most HRSA Health Centers. Pharmacy services and nutritional counseling are frequently provided as well.

Each center has its own lineup of services, so you should check your local center’s website ahead of time to find out what is available.

How Much Will Treatment Cost?

If your income is at or below 100% of the FPL, you’ll only have to pay a few dollars for most treatments. If your income is between 100% and 200% of the FPL, you will get sliding-scale discounts (the more you make, the smaller the discount, of course).

You should be prepared to provide proof of income. This will include your parents’ income if you are under the age of 24, plus information about your financial aid.

All types of insurance, including Medicaid, are accepted at HRSA Health Centers. But if you have private or Marketplace insurance, you should check to make sure your local center is considered “in-network.”

How Can I Find the Nearest HRSA Health Center?

Government-sponsored community health centers are found in every state and in many cities (there are more than 1,300 nationwide). The HRSA website will provide you with the names, addresses and phone numbers of health centers in your area.

Mental Health Services

Colleges normally offer a wide variety of counseling and mental health services for students, at no additional cost beyond tuition and fees.

Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, health insurance now covers more types of mental health treatment than it used to. But deductibles and co-pays can still be an issue, so low- or no-cost options remain a sensible choice.

College Health Services

Colleges normally offer a wide variety of counseling and mental health services for students, at no additional cost beyond tuition and fees. Some of the services they routinely provide include:

  • Psychological counseling for depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder, eating disorders and other conditions common to college students.
  • Mental health assessments and referrals to community professionals.
  • Crisis intervention for sexual assault victims or those with suicidal thoughts.
  • Screening for alcohol or drug addiction.
  • Nutritional and lifestyle counseling.
  • Stress management courses.
  • Peer support groups for specific health problems (12-step strategies may or may not be used).

Community Resources

Unless you go to school in a small town, peer support organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Eating Disorders Anonymous will likely have groups in your community. The larger the city, the more likely you’ll be able to find such groups, which are open to people of all ages and backgrounds.

For those with spiritual beliefs, churches and other religious organizations might be another good option, since pastors and other spiritual leaders generally offer counseling to followers who want or need it.

As previously mentioned, free and charitable clinics and HRSA Health Centers frequently offer mental health services. This isn’t a universal rule, but it’s a possibility that you might want to investigate.

No- or Low-Cost Dental Care

To help train dental students, dental schools normally recruit volunteer patients.

Even without dental insurance affordable dental care can be found – if you know where to look. Some free and charitable clinics provide reduced-cost dental services, including check-ups, x-ray and basic repairs. HRSA Health Centers are even more likely to offer dental treatment, although, like free and charitable clinics, they won’t perform dental surgery.

Dental Schools

To help train dental students, dental schools normally recruit volunteer patients. They may even set up small dental “clinics” where appointments are taken and patients can be seen for a broad variety of dental troubles. Sometimes clinical trials are held that offer treatment for rare or more serious conditions, including those that require surgery.

Most of this dental treatment is free, and student patients are more than welcome. Faculty members will always be on hand to monitor the proceedings, so if you go this route, you can be sure the services you receive will be safe and appropriate.

Child Care

What You Need to Know

High-quality, budget-friendly child care is not easy to find. Shortages and waiting lists for child care establishments are all too common. But while your situation may be difficult, it is far from hopeless. If you are a college student with children, there is help available that can cut your costs and improve your chances of success.

The government has three programs that offer financial aid to people—including college students—who need help paying for child care services. You may also be fortunate enough to attend a school that offers on-campus child care at a reduced rate. Cost breaks for low-income students are sometimes offered by on-campus providers, so check to see what the policies are at your school.

Government Child Care Voucher Programs

All 50 states (plus Washington, D.C) offer financial assistance to parents who need help paying for day care, as well as other important child-related expenses.

If you are attending school and working at the same time, the government may help you get quality child care at a discount. Even if you’re going to college and not working, you may still be able to get assistance, as long as your financial resources are limited.

  1. If you have a child younger than 13 (or with a disability) and an income near the federal poverty level (FPL), the government voucher program can be a realistic option.
  2. If your income is quite low, vouchers (or Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards) can cut your child care costs down to a fraction of the full price.
  3. Wait lists for vouchers are long. Even if you qualify, you may not get benefits for 6-12 months, or sometimes even longer.

Who Runs the Program?

All 50 states (plus Washington, D.C) offer financial assistance to parents who need help paying for day care, as well as other important child-related expenses. Funding comes from the federal government’s Child Care and Development fund. While there are some general rules for eligibility, each state uses different standards to decide who gets help and who doesn’t.

In many locations, funds for child care support are limited and waiting lists are long. Even if you’re approved for assistance, it may not start for several months, and possibly not until the following school year.

Who Qualifies?

There are three qualifications that determine eligibility for government child care assistance:

  1. You must have a child younger than 13 or a child between the ages of 13 and 18 who suffers from a disability or a developmental delay.
  2. You must meet your state’s income standards. This will vary between states, but you should expect the maximum to be somewhere between 150 and 200% of the FPL for your family size.
  3. You must be working or going to school on at least a half-time basis (20 hours or more per week).

With respect to this last standard, some states will accept applications from full-time students with minor children. Others will require you to have a part-time job. In the case of the latter, you’ll likely have to work at least 10 hours a week to have a chance at getting child care support.

How Do the Vouchers & EBT Cards Work?

Successful applicants will be issued child care vouchers or Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that they can pass on to child care providers. These vouchers or EBT cards will cover part of your expenses for day care and other related services.

However, unless your income is extremely low, you will have to pay for part of the costs yourself. A sliding scale is used to determine co-pays. The more income you have, the more you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket.

The discounts you will receive can be fairly substantial. In most cases, you’ll be asked to pay less than half the daily costs.

How Do I Apply?

Child care assistance programs are run through county social services offices. You should be able to print an application online, and then submit it electronically, by mail or in person. You’ll have to answer quite a few questions about your children, your work schedule, your educational activities and your overall income. At some point, you’ll also have to provide documentation to prove your statements are true.

An interview with a social worker will usually be required before your application can be approved. This can be in-person or over the telephone.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)

If you’re in college and have little income, you’re welcome to apply for TANF. But you’ll need to be working or receiving job training for 20-35 hours each week.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program offers funds to families with significant financial need. If you are working, studying and raising your children at the same time, you could be a legitimate candidate for TANF payments.

  1. TANF payments are all-purpose and can be used to pay for food, rent, utilities or child care. They cannot be used to pay for healthcare.
  2. Under some circumstances, low-income families can apply for cash assistance from the TANF program.
  3. To qualify for TANF, you must be working at least 20 hours a week in addition to your studies. There are exceptions if you’re attending a technical school or receiving some other kind of vocational education.
  4. You can apply for TANF if your income is 100% or less of the FPL. Realistically, you shouldn’t expect to get it unless your income (including financial aid) puts you below 50% of the FPL.

Who Qualifies?

TANF is run exclusively by the states, and each state has differing requirements for eligibility. The qualifications for TANF are tougher to meet than most other low-income government programs, regardless of where you apply.

TANF is strictly for families with children under the age of 19. Most TANF recipients make less than 50% of the FPL. In most places, it is hard to get help if your income is higher than this.

Regardless of your income, you still have to be working—at least half-time, if not more, depending on the specifics of your situation. Job training can function as a substitute for work, but only if that training comes from one of TANF’s approved categories.

College Students and TANF

If you’re in college and have little income, you’re welcome to apply for TANF. But you’ll need to be working or receiving job training for 20-35 hours each week. Vocational training is the only type of education that counts against this limit.

In general, this makes the TANF program more appropriate for students attending technical school instead of college. However, if you’re preparing for a specific job that normally requires a college degree, state authorities may be willing to accept a particular course of university study as vocational training. But there is no guarantee on this.

How Much Can I Get?

People approved for TANF can expect to receive somewhere between $100 and $500 per month. Larger amounts are occasionally granted in states with more generous policies.

TANF is essentially an emergency fund. If your income situation improves after you’ve started receiving it, your eligibility will end. The time limit for receiving TANF is 48-60 months, depending on where you live.

The time limit shouldn’t be a problem for college students who qualify for TANF, since they’ll be out of school before they lose eligibility.

How Do I Apply?

County social services offices process TANF applications. You’ll have to submit to an interview before they approve you for funds. You’ll also have to provide paperwork to prove your income (including financial aid), your field of study, your address and your identity. Find TANF help in your state.

Head Start

The Head Start program prepares kids for school while also helping them with their social, emotional and physical development.

Head Start offers a pre-school experience with child care, healthcare and welfare services included in the package. The program is designed to help “at-risk” kids get a head start on school and life.

  1. Early Head Start is for ages six weeks to 35 months. Regular Head Start classes are for kids aged three-to-five who have yet to start kindergarten.
  2. Half-day and full-day options are available.
  3. Anyone with an income at or below 100% of the FPL can qualify, including college students with kids.

What is Head Start?

Reserved for young children from low-income families, the Head Start program prepares kids for school while also helping them with their social, emotional and physical development. Free health services are offered in Head Start, along with child care services that can last for several hours each day. Openings in Head Start programs are limited.

Head Start is not a day care in the traditional sense. No one should apply for it if they’re just looking for a place for their children to stay while they work or attend class.

Who Qualifies?

Head Start provides constructive experiences for kids who are considered “at-risk” for bad life outcomes. Low income is not the only qualification used to determine if children need special assistance and attention. However, if your income is at or below 100% of the FPL, your kids will be automatically eligible for Head Start. Income requirements may be waived if your child has a developmental delay or disability.

What Services Does Head Start Offer?

Head Start is divided into two sections:

  1. Early Head Start is for children six weeks-to-35 months old (at the start of the new school year)
  2. Regular Head Start is for kids between the ages of three and five.

Early Head Start offers half-day options, while regular Head Start can be half-day or full-day. Pre-school level learning skills are taught as preparation for kindergarten, and children will have plenty of opportunities to play with other kids and make friends. If some kids need special education services, those will be provided as well.

Free dental and health check-ups are available through the Head Start program, as is family or parent counseling.

How Do I Apply?

Head Start is sometimes run by school systems and sometimes by county social services offices. To find your local Head Start website, you can Google “Head Start in … (your location)” or use the Head Start Locator.

To apply for Head Start, you’ll have to provide documents that prove your income and place of residence. If your child has a developmental disability, you’ll have to supply a copy of your IEP (Individualized Educational Program) or other records that prove the diagnosis. There will be some kind of interview, and you’ll have a chance to meet your child’s teacher before classes start.

Unfortunately, Head Start and Early Head Start spots are limited, so you should try to get your application in as soon as they are accepting applications for the following year. Head Start classes usually begin at the same time that school starts (in August or September).

On-Campus Child Care

Your college’s website should provide information about child care for student-parents. If you need more assistance, your school’s student services office will be able to help.

On-campus child care is a convenient choice for student-parents who want to save time and money on transportation, and have their kids close by in case of an emergency. It may or may not be offered at a discount.

  1. On-campus child care may be available at reduced prices for student-parents with limited income.
  2. Many spaces in college child care centers are reserved for the children of faculty and staff. Not every school offers on-campus child care.
  3. Even if you can’t find a space for your child on campus, your student services office will have a list of qualified child care providers in the community.

Where to Go For Help

Your college’s website should provide information about child care for student-parents. If you need more assistance, your school’s student services office will be able to help. Even if your school doesn’t have on-campus services, it will have a database of child care providers in the community who might have openings available.

With on-campus child care, the supply is not enough to meet the demand. So the on-campus option will only work for a few. It’s worth investigating, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up.

Advantages of On-Campus Child Care

Here are the best things about on-campus child care:

  • Some schools—but only some—will provide help in paying for child care services.
  • Your children will always be near in case of emergencies.
  • You can save time and money on transportation, since you won’t have to make special trips off-campus to pick your kids up at the end of the day.
  • You can meet other students with children, who will understand your situation and can provide social support.

Disadvantages of On-Campus Child Care

Here are some of the accompanying disadvantages:

  • Since one out of every four college students has children, you might expect all colleges to offer on-campus child care. But only about half do.
  • Many of the spots go to the kids of faculty members and staff. However, spots reserved for the sons and daughters of students are growing in number in most places.


What You Need to Know

Transportation is an area of potential savings that shouldn’t be overlooked. If you can’t afford unnecessary spending, reducing what you pay for travel can make a real impact on your financial well-being.

Here are some areas where you can cut down on costs:

Air Travel

One-way, city-to-city flights inside the United States can often be booked for less than $100 through budget air carriers.

Student Deals

Apart from budget airlines, sources for cheap airfares include a variety of student-centered travel agencies:

  • Student Universe is the leading online travel agency for college students looking for bargain-priced flights.
  • If you are interested in traveling internationally, a company called STA Travel can help you find budget flights.

You probably didn’t realize airlines offered reduced rates for college students, but they do. However, some airlines only grant discounted rates to people under a certain age (26, for example). So some good offers might not be available to older students.

Budget Airlines

Low-cost airlines like Spirit, Frontier, Jet Blue and Southwest may be your best bet for savings. The first two airlines are especially cheap if you have no baggage outside of personal items (there are fees for all bags, checked or carry-on). Jet Blue and Southwest have somewhat higher fares, but they will let you bring a bag or two on board at no extra charge.

One-way, city-to-city flights inside the United States can often be booked for less than $100 through budget air carriers. In comparison to overall airline prices, this is a very good deal.

Train Travel

If you’re looking to save money, Amtrak’s Student Advantage Card could be your ticket to low-cost train travel.


Most students don’t realize that passenger trains can still take you just about anywhere. If you’re looking to save money, Amtrak’s Student Advantage Card could be your ticket to low-cost train travel.

Traveling with Amtrak offers some real advantages, especially in comparison to flying. Some of these benefits include:

  • Reduced student rates.
  • Connecting routes that can take you to most American cities, including many smaller ones.
  • Discounted fares for those who book tickets online.
  • Free baggage allowances.

What is a Student Advantage Card?

The Amtrak Student Advantage Card is not a debit or credit card. It is a discount card that can be used to get a 10% rate reduction on every train ticket you purchase. The card costs $20 per year.

In addition to cheaper train travel, the Student Advantage Card can also be used to get price breaks on food, clothing, books, tickets, office supplies and a variety of other products sold by stores, restaurants and companies that have formed partnerships with Amtrak.

Bus Travel

Monthly bus passes can help you save 20% or more on daily riding costs—be on the lookout for special student rates.

Interstate Bus Travel

If you don’t mind longer travel times, taking the bus remains a cost-effective alternative to air travel. New discount options have made long-distance bus travel cheaper than ever. Even Greyhound offers budget-friendly fares these days, if you book ahead of time and online.

Discount bus lines like Mega Bus and Bolt Bus are also expanding their services. If you have access to one of these two, you’ll be able to find some really low ticket prices. Discount lines don’t go to every single city. But their travel networks are still extensive. And unlike airlines, these bus companies won’t charge you extra for luggage.

City Bus Services

Monthly bus passes can help you save 20% or more on daily riding costs—be on the lookout for special student rates. In some cities, you’ll be able to purchase passes that are specifically designed for college students. These passes are usually sold by the month, so you won’t have to worry about getting stuck with extra rides you won’t be using over the summer.

Since lots of students travel by bus, you should find plenty of routes that serve your campus and the surrounding area. If you live at an off-campus apartment complex that rents to students, buses will probably stop very close by.

Free Campus Shuttle Services

To supplement city bus services, colleges usually have free shuttle services that help students get around. Sometimes these shuttles will only serve various campus locations (the dorms, the library, sports facilities, etc.).

However, depending on how many students live off-campus, some shuttles service other areas of the community, too. These rides are often available at nights and on weekends, when regular city buses may not be running.

If you visit your college’s student service office or website, you should be able to find information about transportation options provided directly by the school.

Alternatives to Bringing Your Car

Membership fees for Zipcar start at less than $10 per month. If you join Zipcar, you’ll be able to rent a car at an hourly rate, with insurance automatically included.

Reasons to Leave Your Car at Home

If you are a student on a limited budget, one of the very best ways to keep your expenses down is to leave your car at home. Bringing a car to college means extra costs for gas, insurance, maintenance, repair, parking permits and licensing fees.

Of course, it may be impossible to live without a car in some circumstances—student-parents will know this firsthand! But if you don’t have extra responsibilities, you can get by without a car in most college towns. If you require a car for certain things (shopping, going to work, etc.), you could still save yourself some time and money by not using it to travel to campus.

Advantages of Biking

Bike paths and bike lanes are everywhere on campuses, along with stands for free parking (good luck finding free parking on campus if you come in a car!). The only downside of bicycles is that you might not be able to use them during inclement weather or winter months. However, they are still the cheapest and healthiest form of transportation you can find besides walking.


Zipcar is perfect for college students that don’t have a car, but occasionally want one. Although Zipcar isn’t available on every college campus, over 250 schools now offer it.

Membership fees for Zipcar start at less than $10 per month. If you join Zipcar, you’ll be able to rent a car at an hourly rate, with insurance automatically included.

  • You can book the car ahead of time online or with Zipcar’s mobile app.
  • You’ll pick the car up at its designated parking spot (somewhere very close to your campus) and return it there after you’re done.
  • The keys will be right inside the car when you come to pick it up, and you’ll use your Zipcar card to unlock and lock the car from the outside.


What You Need to Know

Tuition, rent, utility and transportation costs are fixed. But food costs tend to be more flexible, and many students take unfortunate shortcuts in their attempts to save money. Some students even put their health at risk by cutting out meals altogether.

Assistance is available if you know where to look. Government programs and private initiatives can help you meet your nutritional needs. In most cases, there are no barriers preventing you from applying as a member of the community in which you are attending school.

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP): Food Stamps

Your financial aid award will not count against SNAP income limits. In the eyes of the government, financial aid is reserved for other needs, not for food.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can reduce food bills for college students who need a little extra help.

SNAP is still colloquially known as “food stamps,” in honor of the booklets of colored paper squares that were formerly issued to program recipients. Now benefits are provided through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) debit cards, which are reloaded automatically on a month-to-month basis.

Income Limits for the Program

To be eligible for food stamps, your total monthly income cannot exceed 130% of federal poverty guidelines. In addition, your net income (which is your total income minus cost-of-living deductions) can’t exceed 100% of the official poverty level.

Depending on the circumstances, you may need to provide income information from your parents as well. However, this will not be necessary if you are a non-traditional, independent student (age 22 or older).

  • In 2015, individuals with total monthly incomes of $1,276 or less were eligible for SNAP.
  • If you are applying as a family that limit will go up by approximately $400 – $500 per person (a chart showing the exact figures can be found on the SNAP website).
  • If you have bank account balances and/or countable assets of more than $2,000, that would make you ineligible for SNAP, regardless of your income level.

One bit of good news is that your financial aid award will not count against SNAP income limits. In the eyes of the government, financial aid is reserved for other needs, not for food.

Maximum SNAP Benefits

The current maximum monthly SNAP benefit for an individual with no children is $194 a month minus 30% of net income. This number will rise depending on how many people in your family are approved to receive benefits.

If you attend an out-of-state school, your EBT card will still work, no matter how far away you move. Virtually all supermarkets and conventional grocery stores accept EBT cards, and there are now hundreds of farmer’s markets across the country that do the same.

Additional Requirements

You may have heard that college students have a hard time getting food stamps. This is commonly reported—and technically true—but misleading. A majority of students can’t qualify for SNAP simply because they have too much income or too many convertible assets, either independently or in their families. Their status as students has nothing to do with it.

The SNAP qualification standards for college students are not especially strict. In addition to not exceeding the income limits, you must:

  • Have a work-study position as a part of your financial aid package; or
  • Have a paid job that provides at least 20 hours of work per week; or
  • Be a single parent caring for a child under the age of 12; or
  • Be taking care of a dependent under the age of six; or
  • Ba caring for a dependent between the ages of five and 12, and not have sufficient help with child care to work and attend school at the same time; or
  • Be over the age of 50 or under the age of 18; or
  • Participate in a job training program of some sort, either through school or independently; or
  • Have a temporary or permanent physical or mental impairment.

How Do I Apply?

SNAP is funded by the federal government, but administered by the states. To receive benefits, you will have to apply through a county social services office. You can begin the process of applying for SNAP through web portals from state and local governments.

If you are 22 or older, you can apply for SNAP benefits independently. If you’re younger, you’ll have to provide information about your parents’ or guardians’ incomes. Or you could just apply for food stamps together, as a family.

  • If you’re allowed to apply for SNAP as an individual, you can file your application in the county where you attend college.
  • If you are between the ages of 18 and 21 and your whole family decides to apply, all the necessary forms, plus proof of assets, income and residence (for everyone), should be filed back in the county of your hometown.

Before you receive benefits, you’ll have to submit to a short phone interview to verify your situation and identity.

Two Final Cautions

It is common for college students with roommates to share meals. If you live with roommates, you must personally pay for and prepare more than half of your own meals to qualify for SNAP benefits on your own. Otherwise, everyone in the house will have to file a joint application.

Also, be sure to never let anyone else use your EBT card. If you are caught doing this, you would be guilty of fraud and could lose your benefits—permanently.

The WIC Program for Women and Children

If your income (or your family income) falls below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines, both you and your young child should be eligible for WIC benefits.

The Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC Program) provides good, healthy food to pregnant women, new birth mothers and toddlers who meet the income standards. If you are a college student, and a mom or a mom-to-be, you can apply for benefits.

WIC benefit packages are smaller than food stamp awards, and are unlikely to surpass the $100 per month mark. But every little bit helps, as you work to keep your dream of a better life for yourself and your family alive.

List of Available Food Products

County social service agencies distribute checks or vouchers to WIC recipients. These can be used to buy foods that are on each state’s approved food list.

The list of eligible foods usually includes milk, eggs, tuna, cheese, whole wheat bread or pasta, brown rice, fortified cereal, various fruits and vegetables, yogurt, peas, lentils, dried beans, infant formulas, infant cereal, baby foods and a few other assorted items with high nutritional value.

How Do I Apply?

The financial requirements are more lax for WIC than for SNAP. If your income (or your family income) falls below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines, both you and your young child should be eligible. You start the application process by contacting your WIC state or local agency.

  • If you’ve already applied for food stamps and been approved, you will not be asked to provide any further financial information.
  • But you will still be assigned a caseworker through the county, and you will have to complete a personal interview with him/her before you can receive any benefits.

As a mom, you are eligible for WIC for a period of up to six months following childbirth. This increases to a year if you’re breastfeeding. Meanwhile, your son or daughter can continue receiving WIC checks or vouchers up to the age of five. However, you will have to re-apply every 12 months to keep the benefits flowing.

Other Community Food Options

More than 120 universities and community colleges have opened food pantries in the past few years, and that number is expected to rise dramatically in the near future.

Food Pantries

Almost every American town has at least one food pantry. In larger cities and college towns, you can usually find several of these nutritional havens, which are run by churches, non-profit organizations and volunteers from various walks of life. If hunger is an issue for you, food pantry volunteers and staff members will gladly offer you support and assistance—and food, of course.

Food pantries are independent and each is likely to have its own set of rules that determine who is eligible to receive groceries or other supplies. In general, food pantry administrators aren’t as strict or demanding as government workers who run publicly-funded food assistance programs. For example, you might have to provide them with some income documentation, plus a personal testimony to verify the circumstances that brought you to them.

On-Campus Food Pantries

In response to their students’ food needs, colleges are starting to get in on the food pantry act. More than 120 universities and community colleges have opened pantries in the past few years, and that number is expected to rise dramatically in the near future.

In addition to checking out community resources, you should also stop by your school’s student services office to ask them if any food assistance options are available on campus.

Free and Affordable Meals

There are many faith-based organizations, shelters and soup kitchens that offer free or low-cost meals at various times throughout the year, or even on a daily basis. Since the sponsors of these events usually have an open door policy, you probably won’t be questioned if you come to these places.

The simplest way to find local food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens, is to do a Google search. You’ll still have to contact the organization to ask for assistance, but you can expect to be treated with dignity and respect.


What You Need to Know

Given how important computers are for college students these days, you may think you have no choice but to pay top dollar for high-quality computer equipment. After all, you can’t afford to take any shortcuts when your future is at stake.

Don’t believe it. Plenty of money-saving opportunities exist for students and others with limited incomes who need quality equipment. If you’re wondering where you can find an affordable laptop, PC, tablet, MacBook or iPad to use at school, we suggest you check out these four possibilities:

Free Laptop/iPad Programs at Universities

If your school has a free laptop or iPad giveaway program, you will probably be informed about it before you arrive on campus. But it never hurts to ask.

In certain colleges, incoming students or students enrolled in certain departments can get new computers for free.

  1. If your college does have a program, you won’t have to meet any income requirements to qualify.
  2. College websites and student services offices are good sources of information about these programs.
  3. Most schools do not yet have these programs. However, the number that do is rising. This list includes community colleges and online universities, as well as traditional four-year colleges.

How Does it Work?

If your school has a free laptop or iPad giveaway program, you will probably be informed about it before you arrive on campus. But it never hurts to ask. Staff in your school’s student services office would know. If they don’t, you can always search your college’s website to see if it is mentioned. Unfortunately, there is no centralized database that can tell you how many universities give away free laptops or iPads.

In most cases, free laptops and iPads are given out during student orientation to incoming freshman, or to students who choose certain fields of study. These computers are distributed to everyone regardless of income, so you won’t have to establish financial need in order to get one.

Schools that give away computers are careful to choose laptops or tablets that are appropriate for college use. At Seton Hall University, for example, first-year students are given both an iPad mini and a 13-inch MacBook Air laptop. Quite a few schools give away MacBooks and mini iPads. Lenovo Thinkpads and Google Chromebooks are popular choices as well.

Notebooks for Students

There are no income requirements to participate in this program—if you are in college, or will be soon, you can buy up to two computers each year at a discount, with no questions asked.

Notebooks for Students (NFS) is a non-profit organization that sells discount laptops to students of any age. They have a large inventory of computers available on their website, along with special offers on software and other valuable computer-related items. If you go to school—any school—Notebook for Students will sell you a good computer at a very good price.

  1. You don’t need to have a low income to buy a computer at a discount from NFS.
  2. NFS computers come with four-year warranties—almost unheard of in the industry.
  3. In addition to other add-ons, NFS will let you buy a college-ready version of Microsoft Office 2016 at a bargain price.

How Do I Qualify to Buy a Computer?

In order to buy a computer from Notebook for Students, you will have to prove you are a student. You can do this by uploading or sending NFS copies of your college enrollment documents.

There are no income requirements to participate in this program—if you are in college, or will be soon, you can buy up to two computers each year at a discount, with no questions asked.

What Kind of Computer Can I Get?

Notebook for Students sells computers produced by four highly-regarded companies: Apple, Lenovo, HP and Dell. Each laptop includes a four-year warranty and comes with a pre-installed anti-virus program, Windows 7, Open Office, webcam and carrying case.

With proof of enrollment in college, you can also get a great deal on the University version of Microsoft Office 2016. Since Open Office can’t offer as much flexibility or quality of performance, you will probably need this.

In addition to laptops, the Notebook for Students program also sells Apple iPads for less than $300 each. These iPads come with six-month full warranties for hardware failure and two-year limited warranties for repairs.

How Much Do These Computers Cost?

Prices range from $225 dollars for a basic Dell to more than $1,100 for a high-end Apple MacBook, with a wide assortment of computers available in between.

In order to buy computer equipment from, you must be signed up for at least one low-income government benefit program. sells high-quality refurbished computers at sharply discounted prices. It runs an online computer store that markets laptops, Macs and PCs to low-income buyers. also has an actual brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, should you ever happen to be in the neighborhood.

  1. If you qualify for public benefits, you will be eligible to buy a computer from’s online store.
  2. It sells a wide variety of computers, many of which are ideal for college students looking for good quality at a great price.
  3. Microsoft Office is pre-installed on all computers.

How Do I Qualify to Buy a Computer?

In order to buy computer equipment from, you must be signed up for at least one low-income government benefit program, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, SSI, the National School Lunch Program or Section 8 housing assistance.

To make a purchase, you will have to register on the website. After registering, you can upload any documents you have to prove you’re receiving government benefits. However, you won’t have to submit copies of your tax returns or any other specific information about your income.

What Kind of Computer Can I Get? sells refurbished laptops, PCs, Macs and monitor/tower combinations manufactured by Dell, Apple, Lenovo and HP. A recent version of Microsoft Office is installed for free, which could save you more than $100 in extra software costs. Each computer comes with a 12-month warranty that covers all forms of hardware failure.

How Much Do These Computers Cost?

Because sells refurbished machines, they are available at a steep and impressive discount.

2015 price ranges for the four categories of computers were as follows:

  • Laptops, from $129 to $309
  • Desktops, from $79 to $299 for the tower, from $39 to $49 for a 17″ inch monitor
  • Combination computers (tower and monitor packages), from $89 to $114
  • iMacs from Apple, from $219 to $300.

Used Computers

Used computers are available for sale on Craigslist, Ebay and other online shopping outlets. This option is worth investigating if you already have a good computer, but need to buy a second one as a backup or for part-time use. However, depending on your course requirements, a used computer may not be the best choice for your only machine.

Internet Service

What You Need to Know

There are no programs that provide cheap Internet exclusively to students. However, there are programs that offer discount Internet services to families with limited incomes. College students are free to apply if they qualify.

Most discount programs are targeted at families or individuals with children, but exceptions to this rule do exist. So the situation is not completely hopeless if you need cheap Internet, but don’t have children.

The two programs most likely to offer discount Internet services to college students are:

AT&T has just recently announced it too will be offering cheap Internet connections to people who qualify, but their program is not yet up and running. If you have AT&T service in your area, be sure to check their website for updates.


If you have a child who is eligible for the National School Lunch program, you automatically qualify for a Connect2Compete low-cost Internet package.

Through the Connect2Compete initiative, several of the largest telecommunications companies in the country offer low-cost, high-speed Internet service to low-income families with children. Some even offer services to families who don’t have children, if they are living in economically troubled areas.

The main purpose of the program is to make sure kids have access to the Internet at home in order to keep up with their schoolwork. College students with children can apply just like anyone else, as long as they meet the program requirements.

  1. If you have a child in the National School Lunch program, several leading telecommunications companies will sell you Internet service for as little as $10 per month.
  2. Some Connect2Compete companies will provide you with cheap Internet service if you live in a low-income county.
  3. In addition to cheap Internet, some Connect2Compete companies will sell you a computer at a significant discount.

Who Qualifies?

If you have a child who is eligible for the National School Lunch program, you automatically qualify for a Connect2Compete low-cost Internet package. Just provide proof your child is enrolled—or could be enrolled—and that is all you will have to do.

If you haven’t already applied for the National School Lunch program, you can do so at any time through your child’s school. However, if you are receiving SNAP (food stamps), you will automatically qualify for the National School Lunch program and will not have to take any further action.

A few Connect2Compete companies (T-Mobile, Freedom Pop, Mobile Citizen) will let you sign up for discount Internet if you live in a county where the median family income is less than $35,000 per year. In this case, your actual income would not matter—if you are living or going to school in such a county you would be able to purchase a low-cost Internet package.

How Much Will It Cost?

Depending on the company, you can expect to pay between $10 and $20 per month for DSL services, which will range in speed from 1.5 to 10 Mbps depending on the provider (Mbps is megabits per second, which measures how fast your connection can download information onto your computer). Some companies require you to pay installation or equipment rental fees; others do not.

Is the Connection Fast Enough for College?

Connect2Compete packages don’t offer state-of-the-art high speed Internet services (except for Comcast, which comes in at 10 Mbps), but they are still much faster than dial-up. For most college students, even 1.5 Mbps is more than fast enough to carry out research, write reports or handle class-related projects.

If you study in a department that assigns data- or graphic-heavy projects, you may need something better on occasion. But on-campus computer labs can provide access to powerful computers with super-fast Internet connections if and when you need them.

Will They Sell Me a Computer?

Connect2Compete offers subscribers one more neat bonus. In addition to low-cost Internet, most of the companies who participate in the program will sell you a PC, laptop or tablet at a significantly discounted price. You may be able to pick up a good, efficient, brand-new laptop for as little as $150. Better-quality computers at higher (but still discounted) prices may also be available.

How Do I Apply?

You can register for Connect2Compete through a website called First, you’ll be asked to fill in your zip code, and then you’ll be asked if you have a school-age child eligible for the National School Lunch Program living in your home.

Even if you don’t have an eligible child, if you live in a county where the median family income is less than $35,000 per year, you may be transferred to a page where you can sign up for low-cost Internet.

The list of telecommunications companies that currently offer low-cost Internet through Connect2Compete includes:

  • Comcast
  • Cox
  • T-Mobile
  • Freedom Pop
  • Bright House Networks
  • Eagle Communications
  • Mediacom
  • Mobile Beacon
  • Mobile Citizen

Don’t worry if you don’t see a name here that you recognize. This list changes all the time, so you won’t know for sure if you can enroll in Connect2Compete until you visit and enter your zip code on their search page.

Connect2Compete companies will only enroll you for low-cost Internet service if you don’t owe them money and haven’t been a customer within the last 90 days. If you wanted to get a Connect2Compete Internet package from the same company you already use, you would have to cancel your service and wait 90 days.

Internet Basics

If you can prove that you receive—or are eligible to receive—one type of public benefit for low-income people (SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, TANF, etc.), you will instantly qualify for Internet Basics.

Because Century Link isn’t involved with the Connect2Compete initiative, it offers its own low-cost Internet service called Internet Basics. Internet Basics is for low-income people without access to affordable Internet services. College students are free to apply just like everyone else, as long as they can demonstrate real financial need.

  1. If you are eligible for any type of public benefit, you are eligible for Internet Basics.
  2. Internet Basics is entirely income-based. You do not need to have children to qualify.
  3. When you sign up for Internet Basics, you may be eligible to buy a new mini iPad at a bargain price.
  4. Internet Basics is currently available in 37 states and in hundreds of cities across the country.

Where is the Program Available?

Internet Basics is available in various locations in 35 states. Unfortunately it is not offered in two of our three largest states—California and New York—because Century Link doesn’t operate in either one.

Internet Basic is also not available in Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

How Do I Qualify?

If you can prove that you receive—or are eligible to receive—one type of public benefit for low-income people (SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, TANF, etc.), you will instantly qualify for Internet Basics.

You will not qualify if you have received other Internet services from Century Link any time within the past 90 days, or if you still owe them money or have some of their equipment that you haven’t yet returned.

How Much Does it Cost?

In the first year, Internet Basics will cost you $9.95 per month for a 1.5 Mbps DSL connection. If you continue after that, the price will jump to $14.95 per month.

Are Low-Cost Computers Available?

If you sign up for a two-year contract right out of the gate, you’ll be able to purchase a new Apple mini iPad from Century Link for just $150. If you buy this at the retail price, it can run you nearly $300, so this is an excellent bargain.

How Do I Apply?

You can apply for this program on Century Link’s Internet Basics website. Requirements for application documents vary from state to state. Please see the website for more details.


What You Need to Know

College students have always complained about the price of textbooks, and with good reason. University bookstores took advantage of the fact that students had nowhere else to go, using this as an excuse to mark up book prices to unreasonable levels.

But circumstances have changed. Thanks to the Internet, much cheaper options for new and used textbooks are now available. Dozens of online booksellers offer discounted prices to students in need. Students can also rent textbooks or download eBook versions. Best of all, there are several online “libraries” that give students free access to electronic textbooks in every subject area.

Buying Discount Textbooks

Most of “big name” textbook sellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chegg, Bookbyte,, etc.) will let you download e-reading apps that are customized for college students.

College bookstores seldom give discounts, so the Internet is your go-to source for cheaper college textbooks. Dozens of virtual bookstores—and thousands of fellow students— will sell you new or used textbooks for less than the cover price.

  1. You won’t have to track down discount textbooks on your own. When you search for books through online marketplace websites, you’ll be provided with a long list of potential sellers.
  2. College professors are required to send students a complete list of all required and optional textbooks before school starts. You’ll have plenty of time to order your books in advance.
  3. EBook versions of textbooks are available for sale on the same sites that sell physical textbooks.

Where Can I Find Cheap Textbooks?

Instead of searching for books yourself, use interactive websites that will perform the search for you. Like Amazon or eBay, these online marketplace sites exist to connect textbook buyers with sellers, regardless of where they live. They will provide you with quotes and let you comparison shop for the best bargains.

Here are three textbook marketplace sites worth checking out:

There are similar sites around, but these three can put you in contact with an extensive network of booksellers, including online bookstores and other students.

How Do I Buy Books Online?

On the homepage of marketplace sites, you will see a search box asking you to provide the title, author and ISBN number of the textbook you’re interested in buying.

The ISBN number is 13 digits long and can be found on the back of a book near the bar code. When your professors send you the textbook list, ISBN numbers should be included.

Enter this information, and the site will generate a list of sellers who are offering that book for sale. You can make your selection strictly by price and/or by condition (new, used, excellent, good, fair, etc.).

You don’t buy directly from online marketplace websites. Instead, you will be transferred to the site of the seller so you can purchase the book there. Credit or debit card payments are accepted and your books will be shipped in one or two days.

Are eBooks a Good Idea?

If you’re lucky, your teachers will pick textbooks that are also available in eBook form. Even if they don’t, check to see if you have the option of buying them this way. eBook textbooks are usually cheaper than new physical textbooks, and sometimes cheaper than used ones.

Most of “big name” textbook sellers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chegg, Bookbyte,, etc.) will let you download e-reading apps that are customized for college students. This will make it easy for you to do all the highlighting, book marking and note taking you want, just as you would with a physical book.

E-reading apps are available for PCs, tablets, laptops or mobile devices. If you can’t find them on your seller’s site, you can still download them for free from app stores or other app sources.

Where Can I Find EBook Versions of Textbooks?

The three marketplace sites we’ve recommended for hard-copy books—Big Words, Campus Books and Deal Oz—will include eBook versions of the books you want on the ‘for sale’ lists they send you. Most college textbook retailers sell physical books and eBooks, so you won’t have to scramble around trying to find eBook texts all on your own.

EBooks are easier to store and carry around. They do have one disadvantage, however— once you buy one, you can’t resell it at the end of the semester to make back some of the money you spent.

Renting Textbooks

Check out Book Renter, which has a huge textbook inventory and specializes in book rental.

If you don’t plan to keep your textbooks, you can rent instead of buy—and save yourself some serious cash in the process.

  1. Textbooks can be rented using the same online marketplace sites that can put you in touch with book sellers.
  2. Books can be rented for varying periods, ranging from a couple of weeks to a full semester.
  3. Unless you’re purchasing used textbooks in terrible condition, renting will always be cheaper than buying. Renting is especially cheap if you can find eBook versions of the texts you need.

How Do I Rent a Textbook?

Most of the sellers who work with Big Words, Campus Books and Deal Oz will let you rent books instead of buying them. The routine is the same as for buying. When you perform a search on a marketplace site, you’ll indicate that you want to rent instead of buy. After you enter your textbook information, the website will generate a list of sources that have your book available.

In addition to marketplace sites, you should also check out Book Renter, which has a huge textbook inventory and specializes in book rental. Unlike many book renters, they will allow you to highlight and underline inside your books. You can’t destroy the books, but you won’t have to keep them in perfect condition to avoid extra charges.

When you rent a textbook, you’ll be able to print out a return shipping label at the time of purchase. Once your semester is over, you can put the book back in the box you received it in, paste on the label and take the package to the post office, a UPS store or a FedEx outlet. You might have to pay for postage, but if you order several textbooks from the same source, shipping will usually be offered for free.

There is a time limit on how long you can keep a book after your semester ends. If the deadline passes, you’ll have to pay to buy the textbook. However, you should be able to resell the book online if you forget to send it back in time.

Renting an eBook

Besides buying a used book in poor condition your cheapest option is to rent an eBook. For a few weeks or a few months you can have unlimited access to rented eBooks, depending on how long you need them for your class (shorter rental periods are cheaper, naturally).

EBooks aren’t as widely available for rental as physical textbooks. However, there is one online company called Vital Source that specializes in eBook textbook rental. You can rent their eBooks for as long as you need them, along with reading apps customized for laptops, smart phones or iPads. The Vital Source app is designed for full interactivity, meaning you can highlight, underline, book mark, take notes and even share or exchange notes with classmates, instructors or teaching assistants.

When you rent physical books you always have to worry about sending them back, knowing you’ll be charged extra if you don’t. But that is never a problem with eBooks, since you’ll decide when access should end at the time you make your payment.

Open-Source Textbooks

Instructors at more than 1,000 colleges nationwide have subscribed to open-source library websites, and the number increases every day.

Open-source textbooks are free, easy to use and always available when you need them. If your professors aren’t using open-source books yet, they will be in the future.

  1. Texts accessed through open-source “libraries” can be customized by professors to enhance the learning experience. Added materials make them even more relevant to the classroom.
  2. If you suggest open-source e-textbooks to your professors and TAs, there is a good chance they’ll consider using them. They know textbooks cost a lot and are willing to help students out when they can.

Open-Source “Library” Websites

Free textbooks are becoming a real option for most students. The reason for this change is the arrival of open-source “library” websites. These websites have downloaded thousands of eBooks and made them available for college instructors who want to use them in their classes.

When you are assessing various course options, you may want to check the textbook lists to see if open-source works are included. If they are, it means you can get at least some of your books for free if you sign up for those courses.

Are Open-Source Books Easy to Use?

Professors can customize open-source eBooks as they see fit, adding or subtracting chapters, embedding videos and pasting sections of various textbooks together to create something entirely new.

For students, open-source eBooks are convenient and easy to use because:

  • They can be downloaded in web form, as PDFs or in the EPUB format.
  • They can be opened on any type of mobile device, in addition to laptops and PCs.
  • They have interactive features that allow for highlighting, cut-and-paste and convenient note taking.
  • They can be printed-out and purchased from the open-source providers for a very cheap price.

What Are the Best Open-Source Websites?

The following open-source websites have been getting a lot of action on college campuses:

  1. Open Stax College
  2. Flat World Knowledge
  3. MERLOT Project
  4. Open Educational Resources Commons

In total, instructors at more than 1,000 colleges nationwide have subscribed to one or more of these free online libraries, and the number increases every day.

What Can I Do to Encourage Open-Source Textbooks?

It is up to professors to decide whether or not they wish to use open-source materials in their courses. But you can have an influence. Don’t be shy about letting your teachers and their teaching assistants know about potential open-source options.

If you’ve checked out open-source sites and know that appropriate books are available, your suggestions could be adopted by instructors who understand how hard it is for students to pay for textbooks. If you get your classmates involved in your campaign, your teachers will have no choice but to listen.

Selling Textbooks

If you sell to online bookstores, you can expect to receive 25-50% less than the original price, even if you haven’t damaged the book at all.

You can get a decent percentage of your money back by reselling your textbooks. Using Internet resources, this is easier to do than ever.

  1. The online bookstores that sell textbooks at a discount will also buy them back to you—at a discount, of course.
  2. You can sell your books directly to online bookstores or list them for sale on sites that can connect you with individual buyers.
  3. When you sell your textbooks, the buyer usually pays the postage.

Who Is Buying?

Generally speaking, if a company is selling or renting textbooks, it is also buying them back. So you won’t have to search hard to find potential purchasers.

  • Big Words, Campus Books and Deal Oz will help you find buyers the same way they helped you find sellers. Just enter the title, author and ISBN numbers of the books you want to sell and they will produce a long list of options for you to choose from.
  • Two additional online marketplace websites worth checking out are Book Finder and Book Scouter, both of which can connect you with dozens of potential buyers.

Campus bookstores will also buy back textbooks. But they are notorious for low-balling students and are probably not your best bet if you hope to get a good price for your books.

How Does it Work?

When you do a buyer search on a marketplace website, you’ll be connected with two types of companies:

  1. Online bookstores that buy and resell your texts.
  2. Billboard-style sites that allow you to post the book for sale to anyone who’s interested in buying it.

The stores that buy directly will usually pay for postage (you probably shouldn’t sell to them if they don’t). If you accept their offer for your book, you can print out a postage-paid label from their website, paste it on the shipping package and drop it off at the nearest post office.

Once the book arrives, and the bookstore confirms it is in good shape, they will send you a check for the agreed-upon price. Most bookstores will accept textbooks that have some markings inside, as long as you are honest about the book’s condition.

On billboard sites (Amazon is the best known example), you will pick a list price but you’ll be free to accept any offer a potential buyer might make. In most cases, the buyer will be expected to pay for the postage, so that will be added to the price they agree to pay. The company’s website will allow you to exchange messages with potential buyers without revealing your address or any other personal information.

Can I Get a Decent Price?

Textbooks lose value over time. No matter what you paid for your books, you shouldn’t expect to get that amount back. If you sell to online bookstores, you’ll definitely have to take 25-50% less, even if you haven’t damaged the book at all.

Listing a textbook allows you to choose your own selling price, but even there you’ll face competition from other sellers. You may need to accept an offer that is less than what you were asking.

Still, as long as you don’t get greedy, or try to sell something you’ve marked up beyond all recognition, you should have no trouble finding a buyer for your books. It’s a partial refund of your original investment, and something you won’t get if you choose to rent or buy your textbooks in eBook form.

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