Off-Campus Living and Your Financial Aid Package

Students moving into their new apartments

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Depending on where you’re attending college, living off campus may be a choice, but it could also be a necessity. Some large universities do not have enough on-campus housing to ensure that all students receive a room, so students who aren’t freshmen may be told that they need to find a place to live away from campus. Sometimes, living off campus can change your financial aid package.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, takes into account where you will be living. Students who live on campus are expected to have the highest cost of attendance because they must pay their schools for both dorm rooms and meal plans. Students who are living off campus will have a reduced cost of attendance. The FAFSA also includes an option for students who are living with their parents. The cost of attendance for a student who is living at home is the least because students are not paying for any housing and food is reduced.

Where you choose to live affects your cost of attendance. This, in turn, affects your financial need, since financial need is calculated with cost of attendance in mind. If you live on campus, your financial aid package may be higher than if you chose to live off campus. It is important to note that all calculations for the FAFSA are done using pretty complex formulas. You may end up having a higher cost of living off campus than on campus, but individual costs are not taken into consideration.

Loans, grants, scholarships, and work study may all be affected in an off-campus financial aid package.

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At the school level, financial aid can also be calculated differently based on where you live. Cornell University, for example, does not calculate financial need any differently for students who are living off campus. If a student receives more financial aid than there are charges for tuition and fees, the student will receive a check, typically referred to as a refund, from the university to go toward his or her off-campus housing. Students who attend the University of Vermont and live off campus, however, will be eligible for less financial aid because they are expected to spend less money on housing and food. Check with your school to determine how its institutional financial aid is calculated.

What do you do if you are planning on living off campus and don’t think that your financial aid package is going to cut it?

Make a budget.

The fewer loans you have to take out to cover your education, the better. Living off campus isn’t an excuse to live a lifestyle that would make the Kardashian family jealous. Calculate how much money you spend on groceries each month, and factor in rent, insurance, and transportation. Maybe you can cut costs by eating out less often or by bringing coffee from home instead of buying it at the campus Starbucks. Cooking your own food is often cheaper than buying prepaid meals. Having roommates cuts down on rent.

Find a part-time job.

A girl works a part-time job as a waitress.

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If you’re not working already, find a part-time job near campus or at your school. The extra money can go straight to your living expenses and prevent you from taking out more loans. Even making an extra $70 each week (which is about what you’d make by working 10 hours at minimum wage each week) can help cut down on the costs of your utility bills. Throw your name onto a babysitting board (most schools have one), and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to make $50 every other weekend. There are ways to find money that don’t involve taking out more loans.

If you’re planning on living in your apartment all year, you’ll want to find a summer job to supplement your financial aid; most of the time, you won’t be taking classes in the summer, and your grants and scholarships will only cover the time you’re taking classes. Working full-time in the summer and keeping your expenses to a minimum can make off-campus living more affordable.

Take out more loans only as a last resort.

Oftentimes, you will be approved for more loans than you will actually need. Obviously, taking out the smallest loan possible makes the most financial sense, because you’ll have to pay it all back with interest later on. But, if you’ve made a budget, already have a job, and know that you will only need an extra $2,000 each year to make your living situation feasible, you may have no other choice. Talk to your parents and grandparents first, though. They may be happy to front you the money if they have it, and they’re unlikely to charge you interest.

Make sure you understand the details of your lease.

A lease agreement with a set of keys and a pen resting on top of it

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When you’re applying for apartments and getting ready to sign a lease, make sure you have a conversation with your landlord about the amount of your rent (and whether or not it will increase after a certain amount of time) and when your rent is due. Typically, rent must be paid by the 1st of every month, and there may be significant late fees if you miss the due date of a payment. However, it’s worth seeing if your landlord is open to switching what day your rent is due so that it coincides with when you receive financial aid money. If he or she agrees, make sure the due date is put down in writing on your lease. You don’t want to get slammed on a technicality.

To learn more about finding a place to live, things to look for, and questions to ask your landlord, read about off-campus housing.

Don’t let the amount of financial aid you are receiving limit your housing opportunities. There is more money out there, whether you find it by saving your pennies and eating fewer decadent meals or by picking up extra hours at your part-time job. Happy hunting!

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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