How to stay on top of finances in college

Tuition, ancillary fees, due dates, drop dates—paying for college has its own vocabulary. Here are 10 tips for staying on top of the bills and keeping costs down.

Alexa Battler
(Illustration by Sam Island)

(Illustration by Sam Island)


Know what you owe

Your tuition bill will likely include two types of charges: 1) the cost of each course, and 2) ancillary fees, which are typically charged every semester. Ancillary fees fund student services and resources, such as facilities, athletics programs, IT services, campus security and your student ID card. Check which ancillary fees are mandatory. Some colleges let you opt out of paying for health and dental insurance if you have coverage under another plan.

Be on top of due dates

Colleges often require an initial deposit to secure your spot in a program. If you’re on student financial aid, you may need to pay the deposit before your funding is available. Some schools may have you pay tuition fees per academic year (often for the fall and winter semesters), while others require payment per semester. Payments are usually due before the semester starts, often around the time you decide which courses to take.

Move the money

Find out which payment methods your college accepts and how many days your payment will take to process. You may need to add your college as a payee with your bank, learn how to use school-specific payment software or use a certain payment method if sending money from outside Canada. Figure this out well before the deadline—it’s not unusual for banks and schools to take three to five business days to process a payment.

Mind your deadlines

Many college courses have refund deadlines for dropping courses, with different deadlines for different refunds. Sometimes you can get the entire cost of a course back (minus the administration fee) if you withdraw before the first class, then 75 per cent back after a few weeks, then 50 per cent just before midterms, and so on.

Be aware of the cost of dropping courses

The amount of money you get from a student financial aid program is usually based on how many courses you say you’ll finish. If you drop a course, the organization that’s funding you might take some money back, especially if your new courseload classifies you as a part-time student instead of a full-time one.

Don’t let school supplies be a surprise

Be aware of potential extra costs within your program for special machinery, labs or work opportunities. You may have to buy your own welding kits, first-aid kits for paramedicine, tools for hairdressing, tablets and brushes for visual arts, and so on. These costs can range from tens to thousands of dollars.

Earn while you learn

Colleges focus on preparing you for the workforce, sometimes by making employment part of the curriculum. Programs in everything from the trades to the fine arts offer paid internships, apprenticeships and co-op placements, letting you bring in money while earning college credits. Keep in mind that these opportunities, often called work-integrated learning, may come with extra tuition fees.

Raise your score

College is a chance to prove to banks that you can reliably pay off a large amount of money. If you use credit and make your tuition and student loan payments on time (and, of course, you make sure to do the same with your credit debt), you can gradually raise your credit score.

Find funding

There may be funding available from federal, provincial and territorial governments, as well as from external organizations and initiatives. As is often the case with student loans, you may need to stay in a certain number of courses or maintain a certain GPA to keep getting your money. International students should also check whether a school’s awards, scholarships or bursaries are eligible only or mainly to domestic students. Don’t sell yourself short—many awards, bursaries and grants are based on financial need rather than grades or achievements.

Don’t stop looking

Some awards and bursaries only become available to students after their first year of school. Keep applying and keep checking for new funding opportunities. Life changes, such as becoming a parent, may also make you eligible—for funding related to childcare, for example—while student exchanges may come with their own financial support or awards.