Affording to be a College Parent: Surviving Each Semester

Getting through college is difficult, and not just because of the coursework. When you’re in traditional classes, going to school full-time, it’s hard to find a well-paying job that will work with your schedule, and jobs that allow schedules that work with your schedule may not be worth it if you’re spending your entire paycheck on child care to go to that job. While being able to afford getting through the semester is a struggle for most college students in general, it can be especially hard when you have another person to care for on top of caring for yourself. While it may be challenging, I promise that it is not impossible.

There are all kinds of tips and tricks to getting through a semester, but I’ve compiled my top fifteen to hopefully help you get through each semester. Some of these tips on the list I will dive into deeper at a later time, but the idea is to let you know that there are all kinds of things that one can do to get through each semester with a home over their head and food in their belly’s. I’ve also taken care to exclude the more extreme options, like car-living, to make sure that the list is as realistic as possible. Some of these on the list won’t be comfortable solutions, but they will be realistic options for most.

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  1. Build a budget: Of course, the first part of knowing how much money you need, and if you have enough is to build a budget. This is one of the many life skills that is built into the college experience. I’ll probably do a separate blog post on this topic entirely (so keep an eye out!) but you pretty much want to figure out how much money you have at the beginning of the semester, how much money you’re likely to spend throughout the semester, and then compare the figures. You want to make sure that you have enough money to get through the semester—especially if you plan to not work during that time—and still have everything you need. You’re also going to want to keep track of how much you actually spend, so that you can adjust your figures for future semesters accordingly. The amount of diapers you need, the amount of formula you use, and how much new clothes cost always changes with a kid, so it’s especially important to keep figuring out if you have enough, and you can only do that with a solid budget.
    It’s a good idea to have a special place for these figures, whether it be a monthly or quarterly spread in your bullet journal, an excel spreadsheet, or a completely separate journal. They do have pre-made budget planner, if you’re new to budgets and need help putting one together, but if you’re a pro that wants their own layout, a nice grid journal will work just fine.
    Image result for budget stock photo
  2. Compare on vs. off campus living: Would you be better off living in an on-campus apartment or an off-campus apartment? Which is cheaper? Which has better amenities for what you pay? Which will save you money on transportation? These are important things to ask when looking for a place for you and your family to live.
    Before my partner graduated, we looked into moving to campus a few times because it would save money on gas, but because we were able to secure jobs in the city, we decided that we were better off staying where we were and driving to school. We were more set with the security of staying off-campus, but each situation is different, so do your research and make sure that you are making the best decision for your family when it comes to living arrangements.
  3. Look into roommates: If you’re a single parent, or both of you are in college, it may be a good idea to find a roommate to split costs, especially if you can find another family with a kid for your kiddo to connect with. You’ll want to make sure that it’s someone you can trust around your kid, but if you can find a great fit, it can be a benefit all the way around. Depending on your schedules, you may have a chance to work some extra hours with someone at home to watch the kids, especially if you can reciprocate the favor. If you and your partner agree that this is a direction you’d like to try, or if it’s just you and you know that having another family around the house would really help socially and financially, then you should definitely try to find a great fit.
  4. Do odd jobs: Babysitting isn’t just a good job for high school students. If you’re able, babysitting, petsitting, housesitting, mowing lawns, shovelling snow, delivering groceries, dog-walking, the list goes on with odd jobs that you can do in your spare time to get extra money without committing to a full-time or part-time job. If you have the time and money to commit to a summer certificate, you could get certified in some other jobs that will allow you to make more money during the school year while still making your own schedule. CNA, EMT, massage therapy, hair styling and personal training are just a few twelve-week programs that you can do over the summer to make some extra money freelancing during the school year. It’s not cheap, so you’ll have to plan to save that extra money out of your school budget, which may not be feasible (look at your budget), but if you can manage it, it’ll be well worth it and make your financial situation in school that much better.
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  5. Work somewhere that works with you: If a twelve-week program isn’t for you, and you know that you’re not the kind of person who would do well with odd jobs, then you may be able to find a part-time job that will work with your school schedule and not be sucked up by more daycare expenses. You could get a job in a daycare, which would get you a discount on child care, if it’s the same place that you take your child for child care, and they are generally willing to work with your schedule to a point. You could also become a delivery driver, that way if you ever don’t have child-care, you can bring your child with you and stay in the car between deliveries. There is also always the option to work on campus, so that you know they will work with your schedule and your work day will generally be done in time to pick up your child, or you’ll have a safe space to bring your child to work with your, as long as you can keep them entertained while you work. There aren’t too many work options that will work with your school schedule and child-care options, but there are a few out there that you could take advantage of.
  6. Buy bulk foods: This one is a real life-saver for me. There always seems to be a time toward the end of the year where good food is scarce. It’s generally deemed as part of the college experience, but I find it completely unacceptable with a growing boy to take care of to not have nutritious food. Food has always been one of my greatest concerns as a college parent, so I take great care to stock up on good, cheap, nutritious foods in anticipation for the end of the semester.
    The biggest bulk purchase I make is rice. It’s a great filler-upper, has many health benefits and is extremely cheap. Next is beans because it’s cheap, delicious protein that I can get in many different forms; a couple pounds of each type keeps the rice and bean combo from getting dull.
    Image result for bulk food stock photo
    While it’s difficult to bulk-buy fruits and veggies, I make sure to keep canned veggies on hand for desperate times, then stock up on frozen veggies and fruits with thick skins that tend to last a while (oranges, apples, bananas, etc.), so that we’re at least getting balanced meals throughout the semester, even if the selections are a bit bland toward the end.
    Since my partner is working this semester, I’ve not created a huge stockpile this year, but the idea still applies. We still have a load of rice, beans, frozen veggies and thick-skinned fruit at all times. Pro-tip: if you go to the farmer’s market for your fruit, you can typically get it at a discount. If you do stockpile rice (which keeps forever), you can keep it in a big bin like this one. I’ll try to do a blog post about buying bulk in more detail in the near future.
  7. Use the crockpot: If they had a bumper sticker that said “I ♥ My Crockpot”, I’d probably have it on my car. That’s how much I love crock-pot cooking. You just put a bunch of raw ingredients into a pot, turn it on low, and live your life; dinner is ready when you’re ready to eat it! It’s perfect! Not to mention how tender and delicious everything automatically is.
    “Okay, Lauren, but how does this save money?”
    You can pretty much put anything in this pot and, with a good array of spices, it tastes delicious. It saves you from buying take-away when you’re exhausted because all of the effort happens first thing in the morning. It also takes cheap, minimal ingredients to make a good meal. You can make a week’s worth of dinners using just your crockpot, which, when paired with bulk purchasing, can save you extra cash on wasted food, take away, and dishwasher runs. I will add a few great recipes later on, along with some one pot recipes in case you forget to start the crock pot or really just feel like cooking something. If you don’t want to wait for that blog post, you could always pick up a crock pot cookbook, or check out some YouTube videos, like this one, for ideas.
  8. Drink water: There are so many reasons to drink water, but this reason isn’t about health. Water is free and you can infuse it with different things to spice up the flavor if you ever get bored and have a few extra dollars or supplies on hand. You will save so much money by just picking up a water bottle and a pitcher. I personally love the contigo tumbler because I can throw it in my bag without fear of leakage, but it also still has a straw, which is just more convenient and comfortable for me, but you can get whatever water bottle works for you. There are some with filtration systems built in and if you know you’re crazy for infusions, you can get a water bottle with a built in infuser (although I think it financially better to make infusions in a larger pitcher and fill up from there). 
  9. Dabble in minimalism: I’m not usually into lifestyle fads, but this is one that I am happy to be on board with. The concept is simple: buy only what you need, and as much as you need. I find the most useful part of this lifestyle is the capsule wardrobe; where you have a versatile, core wardrobe that follows a brand that you create, buying quality pieces that will last, rather than quantity. There are so many positive points to this: you don’t have to think about and plan your wardrobe, laundry is that much easier, and you’ll save a lot of money! While we’ve had a harder time applying this to PD’s wardrobe, it works wonders for us. There are plenty of YouTube channels and blogs that focus on a minimalist lifestyle, like the Gordons or the Mustards, so if this is something you think will help you save money, I highly recommend you check them out and give it a try!
  10. Get clothes second hand: I’ve never been someone who could thrift (partially because I can’t stand the thought of wearing someone’s clothes that I don’t know, partially because it’s hard to find good used clothes in my size), but I still love when I can get clothes second hand. My best friend, my mom and my partner’s sister have great, stylish clothes in my size, and they all know that I am happy to take their older clothes off of their hands when they’re ready to free up some closet space. Regardless if you can find a ton of clothes at the thrift, or have an extremely hard time with it like I do, it always helps to let friends and family know that you’re happy to clothes swap with them or take old clothes that they’re done with off of their hands. Take only what you’ll wear and offer the same courtesy of offering them clothes that you’re over wearing but are still in good condition. You’ll be amazed how much money you save without having to sacrifice style just by buying second hand or from clothes swapping with friends.
  11. Buy used or rent books: While it’s easy to just order your textbooks from the University bookstore, you’re better off waiting to see what textbooks you’ll actually need, then buying them second-hand. Amazon has started offering buyback programs and selling textbooks second-hand, but there are also other websites and physical stores that are dedicated to buyback and selling used textbooks in most areas. You also may be able to find them for a discount as an online text, or you may not need the book at all.
    I’ve not tried it yet, but one of my friends told me that you can request the textbook from the library before the semester starts to get you going, so you don’t have to waste money on textbooks you may not use. It lets you get a feel for the book and if it’s worth spending the money on. I plan to try this next semester, and see how well it works. Let us know if you’ve tried this before, and how it’s worked for you!
  12. Share streaming expenses: I love Hulu and Netflix, and refuse to choose between the two. I don’t know a world without Spotify premium, and don’t want to! Audible is a point of survival for me, and I don’t know what I’d do without Amazon Prime. This list is certainly cringe-worthy at the amount of money-a-month this all adds up to, but I get to enjoy all of these things because I share the cost burden with family. By one of us paying for the service a month, then sharing our login, it helps us all enjoy our favorite services without taking a huge hit to our wallet. If you have family or friends that are willing to split the cost and share their username, then this is a great way to have your cake and eat it to. Most of these services also offer a free month, so if you aren’t sure if you really want it, you can try it out and see if it’s something you can live without.
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  13. Reuse containers: We get so many reusable containers just from grocery shopping and ordering take-out, and there are so many ways to use them to reduce the waste in your home and save on having to buy storage and food containers. You can reuse jars and containers that your food comes in to pack your lunch, buy loose versions of food (so you only have as much as you need, saving on food waste) or to freeze food (also reducing food waste). Reusing containers is way better than having to buy new ones, and can give your fridge and cabinet a really unique look.
    I love the take out containers that I get when I order soup from the Chinese take-out. They’re a great size and a durable plastic, and will keep for a while, as long as you hand-wash them. They’re perfect for shopping waste-free, and as take-away containers for leftovers at restaurants. Not all take-out containers are reusable, but definitely take advantage of the ones that are, especially if you eat in the school cafeteria. You can pack up some extra food for take-away if you know that you’re someone who’ll want to eat again later or to save swipes by packing some for lunch.
  14. Go paper-free: With Blackboard becoming the normal tool for students to turn in their work, paper journals are becoming more of a cluttered nuisance than an useful tool. Not everyone is tech-crazy, and that’s okay, but if you’re willing to make the switch to technology, you could be saving yourself money in the long run while benefitting the planet.
    I’ve recently bought an iPad Pro with a keyboard where I can write all of my papers, type all of my notes, create and utilize study cards and utilize resources like never before. All of these things also sync up to my iPhone, so I have the ultimate freedom to keep working, even when I can’t sit down at the keyboard. It’s amazing for productivity and I save money on notebooks I won’t ever fill up.
    If you’re more of a Microsoft person, you can still utilize this tech feature from your Android and a Surface using Microsoft and/or Google products (I promise I’m not a spokesperson for Google! I just really like the ease of all of their free programs for college). You could also download the Kindle app for all of the digital books you decide to buy in place of the more expensive paper versions (or you could always just get a Kindle and stick to your notebooks, if you prefer the writing experience).
    Image result for paperless stock photo
  15. Look-out for a campus food pantryIf you find that you’re still having issues making ends meet, you can always see if your campus offers a food pantry. A recent study showed that many college students were having issues feeding themselves, so Universities decided to combat this issue with the College and University Food Bank Alliance. There are 395 members in the alliance who are helping combat student hunger, so there’s a good chance that your University offers food assistance if you find that you’re still struggling, despite creating a strict budget and working as much as possible. While graduating is the most important task, being able to support your family while getting through college is equally important, so make sure that if you’re struggling financially, you reach out to your advisor and/or counselor to make sure that you are utilizing all of the aid available to your family.

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What items on this list do you already use? What are some things that you think you may try? These are all things that I have done, currently do or know someone who has done them to get through college, but I also know that each situation is different, so I want to know how useful you think this list is for your family’s situation!

I also want to let you all know that I am currently working on launching a YouTube channel to accompany the blog! I am working on my first few video posts and am excited to launch here within the next few weeks! I want to remind you guys that I am also creating audio recordings of my blog posts, which are available to Patrons. Please let me know what content you’d like to see on the blog, on the YouTube channel and what other content I could create to help you all succeed as college parents! I appreciate your feedback and support and I work to build the College Parent brand.

Have a bright, relaxing week!

Lauren ♥

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