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Dear 3Rivers: I’m Running Low on Student Loan Money - Help!

Dear 3Rivers,

I'm freaking out. I thought that, between student loans and other financial aid, I had enough money to last the entire first semester at university, but I'm running, really, really low on funds. I'll get the second half of my financial aid for the year in January, but I'm not sure how to stretch my dollars until then. I'd feel too guilty asking my parents for help, since they've already provided me with lots of it. I'm already stressed about essays and exams coming up... this really isn't helping. Any advice?


Broke College Kid

Running Out of Student Loan Money | Image source: / Photographer: Jasminko Ibrakovic

Dear Broke,

Take a deep breath - you're not alone. Some reports have found that nearly half of university students run out of money before their next loan installment. This is due in large part to the fact that this is the first time in their lives that students have had to manage and budget money on their own - and only one in ten college students are confident in their ability to do so.

We know it's an incredibly scary feeling to be working with limited funds, especially if you haven't been there before. But you can get by. Let's first look at your most current and pressing problem of running low on funds and some short-term solutions.

Quick Fixes

Create a Short-Term Budget

First, you'll need to create a very specific, very tight budget for the next couple of months. Take these steps:

  1. Determine exactly how much money you have available this very moment.
  2. Calculate the costs needed to cover your staple, fixed (non-flexible) monthly expenses - like rent.
  3. Estimate the costs of more flexible expenses, like groceries, transportation, and entertainment.
  4. Add up all of your expenditures and subtract from the amount you have available.

If you've done the math and you're on the positive side - or, you'll have money leftover, then plan to stick to that budget 100% and, should no emergencies come up, you should be okay. A spending freeze over the next couple of months may help get you by with money to spare.

Cut Expenses

If you've done the math and you're in the negatives, then you'll need to back up and consider ways you can cut your monthly spending. You likey won't be able to shave off any costs when it comes to fixed expenses, but you certainly can with flexible ones. Consider ways you can cut down on costs at the grocery and the gas pump. Maybe it's eating the same few meals over and over and riding your bike to class instead of driving. If you've got medical bills and personal loans, contact your provider to ask about deferring a payment or lowering your payment. If you're paying for things like a gym membership, cable, or other subscriptions, you might need to cancel service for awhile - or permanently - in order to save.

Supplement Your Income

Most universities offer on-campus jobs, and additional help may be needed around the holidays and final exam weeks. Get in touch with your student employment office to find out if there are any current openings. Now is also prime time to start applying for temporary, seasonal jobs at major retailers in your city.

If you're already working and can't afford the time to take up a second job, then find alternative ways to supplement your income without clocking in. Try babysitting, walking dogs, tutoring, freelance writing or photography, or donating plasma.

Sell Your Stuff

While you won't make enough to live on, selling your gently used books, music, movies, video games, game consoles, clothes, furniture, and more, can result in a few extra dollars. Secondhand shops like Half Price Books, Plato's Closet, and Mega Replay offer cash back for your old stuff. Also, find out if your campus hosts an online platform to sell stuff (these often come in the form of Facebook groups) and give Craigslist a try (check out these safety tips first.)

Ask for Help

If you've tried just about everything and still aren't in a good spot, it might be time to make an appointment with an advisor at your school's financial aid office. They can help you to determine additional, immediate solutions that may be available to you.

A conversation with your parents may also be in order. We're not saying you have to go crawling to them and ask for money, though. Rather, ask if they can sit down with you and discuss why it is you're short on funds, get their advice (should you take out a small loan, get a credit card of your own, or maybe borrow some money from them that you can pay back later?) and come up with solutions to prevent this from happening again, together.

Long-Term Solutions

Once you've gotten through the hard part of figuring out how to stretch your dollars to last through the rest of the semester, take some time to sit down and come up with a plan that will keep you from having to experience this situation all over again.

Create a Monthly Budget

We mentioned the steps to creating a very tight budget above, but the same goes for creating a monthly budget. Sit down with a financial advisor or your parent to ensure you're setting realistic amounts and goals. Utilize free budgeting spreadsheets and worksheets and revisit them at the end of each month to see what adjustments need made for the following month. Also, try free budgeting apps, like Mint, Budget Ease, and Learnvest, to help keep you on track, in real time.

Utilize Online + Mobile Banking

Keep a close eye on your finances at all times by using your financial institution's online and mobile banking options. Make a habit of checking in at the same time each day to ensure you're sitting at a comfortable level, transfer funds when needed, and catch any suspicious activity on your account.

Start an Emergency Fund

As soon as you get your hands on next semesters' loan money, deposit a large chunk of it into a savings account devoted solely to emergencies. Don't touch that money, then, unless a totally unexpected cost (a medical expense, car repair) comes up. This can also save you toward the end of the semester if you're running low on funds.

Educate Yourself

There are tons and tons of financial literacy tools out there. Teach yourself about budgeting, credit scores, investing, and more through online sources like our blog, Lifehacker's Two Cents, Learnvest, NerdWallet, iGrad, Investopedia and more. Also take advantage of free seminars, classes, and downloads provided by your school and your financial institution. | Check out our favorite personal finance blogs.

Build a Relationship with a Financial Aid Advisor

Whether it's someone at your own credit union or someone in the financial aid office on campus, having a relationship with a trusted, knowledgeable source will make money-focused conversations way easier. Check in with them every few months, even if things are going well, just so that you're constantly on the same page, and seek their advice when you need it. | Contact a 3Rivers financial advisor.

Get a Job

Just before the beginning of a semester is the best time to snag an on-campus job, so start looking for openings now. Also, while filing your FASFA and other financial aid documents, be sure to mark your interest in work-study opportunities.

Off campus, many retailers and local establishments are willing to work with college students to build flexible work schedules around class schedules.

Supplement Your Income

There are many ways to bring in a bit of income without clocking in, too. Take advantage of the free time you have to make a little extra cash as an added cushion. 

Cut Costs

While you may be used to luxuries like cable, magazine subscriptions, gym memberships, and driving your own car, these costs can really add up. Consider alternative ways to cut back and save - you'll find you might not have to sacrifice too much. Swap your cable package for an option like Netflix or Hulu, you can always catch the big game elsewhere. Pick up your magazines from a secondhand shop or check them out of the library for free. Skip the gym membership and get your workout in elsewhere, or take advantage of your free (or incredibly discounted) student pass to on-campus gym facilities. Walk, ride your bike, or take public transit to class and reserve your car for more distant trips.

Also keep in mind that many loan and bill payments can be lessened, or even deferred, based on your income, current financial situation, and the fact that you're a full-time student. It never hurts to ask!

There are ways to make your money last when you're running low, and even more ways to prevent this same situation from happening again. Don't be embarrassed or discouraged - most adults have been there and, as with so many things in life, you live and you learn!



You may be interested in: How to Create a Budget | How to Live on $50 a Week | How to Start an Emergency Fund | Supplement Your Income Without Getting a Second Job | What You Need to Know About Work-Study | 3Rivers Student Choice | Filing Your FASFA | Cut Cable Costs | Cut Subscription Costs | Meal Planning to Save Money | 38 Ways to Save Money Without Trying (Much) | Personal Finance Tools for College Students | How to Find + Win College Scholarships | Surviving Tests + Final Exams in College | Making + Saving Money as a College Student | 10 Steps to Making This Your Best School Year Yet | Try This: A Spending Freeze

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