Just over 10 years ago, I was entering my first semester at MIT. Choosing an expensive private school over more economical options, I knew I was placing a financial strain on my family as well as my future self. My parents were both public school teachers, and I pledged never to be one of those children that calls home for money. My situation was an example of the perfect storm that drives many students to take out incredible amounts of loans. But I was determined to achieve financial independence and minimize the debt I would have after graduation. How did I accomplish this? I worked hard, had a great time, and so can you.
Step 1: Plan & Budget
One of the best things I did after settling in to college was develop a four-year academic outline. There was no way I was going to pay an additional year of tuition because I did not plan my classes accordingly. Figuring out all your prerequisites and requirements is no easy task with today’s complex curriculums. Additionally, you may not even know your desired major as a freshman, but this shouldn’t stop you from developing a plan. I probably modified my spreadsheet hundreds of times, even changing my major sophomore year. The outline enabled me to manage my course load, evaluate my progress, and graduate on time. A little planning as a freshman, and you too can enjoy 3 and 4 day weekends your senior year.
The other spreadsheet I created as a freshman was a basic budget. This was my first attempt at financial planning, but creating a budget is simple and incredibly helpful to manage spending. I wasn’t a huge fan of ramen noodles, and after looking at my budget, I realized I needed to supplement my income or be faced with the dreaded call home to parents.
Step 2: Look For Campus Jobs
The best place to look for jobs at college is right on campus. In fact, most schools identify work-study programs as part of your financial aid contribution. While these jobs may not be incredibly exciting, campus employers are often accommodating to your class schedule and workload. Flexibility is a common excuse for most students: “I can’t get a job I don’t have a regular schedule!” I bet most students spend 10 hours a week sitting on the Student Center steps surfing Facebook, why not spend those 10 hours a week at a receptionist desk surfing Facebook and get paid for it?
It just happens that my good friend had an inside line to a great job: Student Assistant to the Office of the President. Not only did this job pay well for a campus gig, but I got to hang out with the school’s top administrators. The catch? I had to be patient and wait over a year for an opening. During that time I organized and filed dirty old documents in forgotten closets. Paying my dues was worth it though. Some additional perks of the job included meeting Bill Cosby (that story deserves its own post), and my parents got to sit in the nice shaded VIP section during graduation.
Step 3: Get Paid For Your Hobby
Boston is a great college town. Today, I reflect back at my time at MIT and miss the inspiration of such an intellectually stimulating environment. But 10 years ago, I was focused on the next great party. I knew I needed a weekend job, and I didn’t want to give up my social life entirely – so I combined the two. I bought a pair of turntables and began teaching myself to spin records. My roommates regrettably lived through my early days of beat-matching. After a short time I was spending my weekend nights getting paid money to DJ the same parties I would have been at anyway.
Did I mention Boston is a great college town? There was so much demand for college party DJs, I ended up recruiting friends to help me do more events. This side job became successful enough in my later years that I was able to avoid student loans almost completely. Colleges are an incubator of creativity, and with a little business sense you might be able to turn your hobby into a lucrative enterprise.
Step 4: Get Creative
There is no shortage of interesting and unique ways to make money as a student – you just need to get creative. One day, while scanning the bulletin board for new announcements, I spotted a flyer advertising compensation for participation in a medical study. For the next two weeks I found myself on a diet of cookies and amino acid shakes. The cookies tasted slightly better then chalk, the shake a bitter mix of beet juice and sand. The study was part of MIT’s research into whole body amino acid metabolism. Subjects are not allowed to eat any additional food or drink (except water) for the duration of the two weeks. On the last day of the study, I was administered a set of tests to see how my body was metabolizing the amino acids. In the end, I made several thousand dollars on this experiment – I did it several times – and I saved additional money by not buying any food while on the diet!
There are countless other, less obtrusive studies available to college students, you just have to go out and find them. After taking Dan Ariely’s Marketing Sciences class, I would regularly participate in many of his behavioral tests (described in his book Predictably Irrational). I found participating in these studies to be exceptionally interesting, as well as financially beneficial.
The truth is I had a lot of fun working through school. The extra money not only helped me to avoid additional student loans, it also gave me a crash course in financial literacy, skills that continue to benefit me today. Everyone’s college journey is unique, and hopefully my story provides some ideas to apply to your situation.
This blog was provided by Joseph Audette, VP of Education at NerdScholar. Joe was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on April 6th, 2013. Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.
Photo Credit: nerdscholar