How to pay for college living expenses

Student loans pay for more than college tuition. Here’s how to pay for college living expenses. (Shutterstock)

The typical living costs for a full-time college student during the 2022-23 academic year will range from $20,470 on a low budget to $30,560 on a moderate budget, according to College Board. That’s a substantial chunk of change for college students already tasked with covering their school tuition, often with student loans.

The good news is student loans cover more than just tuition. You can use student loans to pay for living expenses like room and board, transportation, and miscellaneous costs. Here’s a closer look at how to pay for college living expenses, including what you can and can’t pay for with student loans.

Credible lets you compare private student loan rates from multiple lenders, all in one place.

  • You can use student loans for living expenses
  • What can’t student loans be used for?
  • Other ways to pay for living expenses while in college

You can use student loans for living expenses

Your lender generally disburses student loan funds directly to your school to pay for your tuition and fees. Any remaining funds are paid to you, and you can use the money to cover living expenses and other costs related to your education.

Before you apply for student loans, always begin by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools use this form to determine what types of federal aid you qualify for. Exhaust all your FAFSA options — like scholarships, grants, and federal loans — before turning to private student loans to bridge any funding gaps. 

Student loans backed by the federal government provide access to better benefits, like low, fixed rates, access to income-driven repayment plans, and the potential for loan forgiveness. Additionally, federal student loans may be easier to obtain if you have bad credit since they don’t require a credit check or consider your credit score.

Also, keep in mind that some student loans come with limits which will determine your borrowing amount. You might receive more money if you’re a graduate student, as graduate student loans typically carry substantially higher limits than undergraduate loans. 

For example, undergraduates may qualify for a Direct Unsubsidized Loan with limits ranging from $5,500 and $12,500 per year, depending on whether you’re a dependent or an independent student. By contrast, student loan limits for graduates and professionals top out at $20,500 per year.

The amount you may borrow in private student loans varies from lender to lender, but many offer loan amounts up to 100% of the cost of attendance.

What expenses can you pay for with student loans?

Student loans are intended to help you pay for expenses that fall under the cost of attendance (COA) for your school, including:

  • Tuition
  • Education-related fees, such as registration, graduation, and parking
  • Textbooks
  • Room and board
  • Housing utilities
  • Housing supplies
  • Transportation expenses
  • Computers
  • Food and meal plans
  • Dependent care
  • Disability expenses

Consult with your school’s financial aid office to determine the COA for your school and for more information on acceptable uses for student loan funds.

If you need to take out private student loans, visit Credible to compare private student loan rates from various lenders in minutes.

What can’t student loans be used for?

The list of expenses you can pay for with federal or private student loan funds is extensive, but there are exceptions. Aim to keep your student loan debt low by being mindful of how you spend your loan funds, and try to use them sparingly for essential expenses as necessary. 

Along those lines, you can’t use student loans for unapproved expenses, such as:

  • Clothing
  • Video games
  • Business expenses
  • Down payment on a home
  • Entertainment
  • Vacations
  • New vehicle (but gas, operation, and maintenance expenses are allowed)

Remember, when you sign for a student loan, you agree only to use the money to pay for your education and related expenses. If the U.S. Department of Education discovers that you used student loan funds for unapproved expenses, they may cancel your loan agreement and seek immediate repayment.

Other ways to pay for living expenses while in college

Student loans aren’t the only way to pay for higher education. Here are some alternative options:

  • Apply for gift aid. Paying for college doesn’t have to involve debt. Federal grants and college scholarships can help you get the money you need, and you don’t have to repay them. Scholarships and grants are available through schools, employers, nonprofit organizations, local businesses, and other institutions.
  • Take a federal work-study position. Work-study positions provide a way for students with financial need to gain experience through community service or part-time work related to their field of study.
  • Get a paid internship. More than half of the internships offered at for-profit companies are paid. Securing a paid internship can help you get a sneak preview of a potential career while gaining valuable connections and work experience.

If you need to fill in the gaps in your college financing, you can compare private student loan rates from multiple lenders with Credible without affecting your credit.

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