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10 Money-Saving Habits of People Who Didn’t Take Loans for Their Kids’ College

College is expensive, but taking steps when your kids are young can help you save up by the time they're ready to go to school.

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Make restaurants a special treat

Restaurant meals and takeout cost more than a home-cooked meal—after all, you’re paying for service in addition to the ingredients. By cooking at home more often, you can enjoy meals together without dishing out all that dough, says Julie Rains, a personal finance writer at Investing to Thrive. “Food is a large expense, and the more it can be controlled, the more money you’ll have to spend on other things or save for the future,” says Rains, who sent her oldest son to college without loans. Here are more money-saving resolutions to consider.

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Go easy on the junk food

The low price tags on junk food can be deceiving, says Safiyyah Saafir, a training coach and speaker at Saleosophy. They won’t keep you satisfied as long as whole foods, and you’re probably eating them to satisfy a craving rather than squash hunger. Quit your ice cream habit, and instead put your money into satisfying, healthy snacks to eat when you’re hungry, like apples and peanut butter, or carrot sticks and hummus. “I don’t know if the intention was purely health-related or if budgets played a role, but my parents rarely if ever bought junk food for us,” says Saafir, whose parents didn’t take out loans to send her to school (though they did have her take a loan out for her final semester). “Looking back as an adult who occasionally dabbles in the junk, I realize—whatever the intention—focusing on buying quality, healthy food is nice on the pockets and waistline.”

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Build a wardrobe of secondhand clothes

Thrift stores and hand-me-downs will build up your children’s wardrobes without spending much money. When your kids are young, they won’t know the difference between pricey new clothes and inexpensive ones you pick up from a consignment shop. “You don’t need to start kids off with designer clothes, and even teens don’t need to wear designer clothes,” says Rains. Find out more effortless ways to be thriftier.

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Encourage kids to get credits early

Encouraging kids to take AP tests (with or without having taken the class itself) can help your children test out of core college classes while only spending on the price of the class. Some high schools also have programs with community colleges that let students earn credits before graduating. “I was able to earn a semester of college credit—at no expense to either myself or my parents—before I even wrapped up with high school,” says Saafir. For more wise insight, we recommend listening to centenarians. 

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Don’t make summers a total break

Online summer courses from local community colleges are a good opportunity for kids looking to knock out some credits early, says Todd Mulbarger, agent for Ridgewood Enterprises, Inc. Without the pressure of other high school classes, your kid can focus on those inexpensive college courses without feeling overwhelmed. You could also encourage your child to get a job. “Students should work as much as possible during summers and save the money,” says Mulbarger, who sent his oldest daughter to college without loans and whose middle daughter won’t take out loans when she goes to college next year either. (You would believe these ridiculous college courses that actually exist.)

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Choose day trips over long getaways

Between airfare, hotel rooms, and eating out for every meal, vacations can suck up a ton of money in just one week. Saafir says her family never went on vacations, but instead had fun visiting family and making day trips to amusement parks or the pool. “At the time, I felt a bit embarrassed about it. I wanted to come back with cool, exotic tales,” she says. “But when I was about 19 I remember thinking, ‘Thank God my parents took us to the pool if it meant that or being saddled up with debt.’”

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Take advantage of free resources

Tutoring could help your child earn a better grade in a class he or she is struggling in. But before you shell out for a personal tutor, check out what other resources are available. “My youngest child used to go to calculus tutoring offered by his high school teacher,” says Rains. “This year as a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering, he watched free calculus videos from Khan Academy for supplemental training.” Here are more things you can (and should!) get free on the Internet.

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Stick with a set allowance

When her son headed off to college, Joan Fradella, a family mediator for Divorce Thru Mediation, put a set allowance on his debit card for food and other necessities. If he wanted more than that, she says, he would need to get a job at school to cover those other costs. “Teach children that hard work pays off, and that borrowing is not the answer to everything,” she says.

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Make money-saving a priority

Putting money aside for your children’s education gives you a pool to work from once your kids are actually ready to apply to college. Start saving, and start early. “Anything helps,” says Mulbarger. “Even $20 a month. Increase from there.” Find more secrets of people who are great at saving money.

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Sign your kids up for library cards

Buy a copy of your kids’ favorite books, but if they tend to want a different story every week, head to the library. Not only can you expose your child to books without cluttering up your own home with permanent purchases, but libraries often have DVDs that you can borrow instead of buying a copy or taking the family out to the movies. “I bought books to keep at home but regularly visited the library to borrow books and videos,” says Rains. Put your kids’ old books to good use with these thoughtful ways to donate used books.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.