Survey results released earlier this month by Edvisors, a publisher of free Web sites that help students and parents plan and pay for college, paint a stark contrast to the images of carefree college students living it up on spring break.

Nearly two-thirds of undergraduate students (64.5 percent) responding to the 2016 Running on Empty—Mid-term Finance Survey reported that they had run out of money before the end of a semester at some point during their college career.

Their biggest reasons for going broke were unanticipated expenses (51 percent), not enough financial aid (49.4 percent), high textbook costs (49 percent), college costs too much (48.6 percent), and a change in financial circumstances for themselves (42.4 percent) or their parent (30.9 percent).

More than three-quarters of college seniors (77 percent) reported that they had run out of money during their time at school, compared with 69 percent of juniors, 67 percent of sophomores and 52 percent of freshman.

Approximately 350 students responded to the survey on Edvisors’ site. David Levy, editor at Edvisors, tells FA he thinks the results can be extrapolated to the general college population. That’s based on his more than 30 years as the director of financial aid at some of the nation’s leading colleges including the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Scripps College and Occidental College.  

Freshmen often don’t anticipate how much they’ll need to spend on textbooks, supplies, transportation and other hidden costs, says Levy. There are dozens of them, including student health center fees, student health insurance, cell phones and eating out. Upperclassmen may rack up costs for interviews (such as travel and clothing), graduate school admissions tests, and professional licensing.

The 2016 Running on Empty survey didn’t examine the impact of gender or the type of college on student solvency, but Levy would like to look at these demographics in follow-up studies. “Living expenses represent about two-thirds the cost of attending public colleges and one-third at private non-profit colleges,” he says.

Cash Tips

To avoid running out of funds mid-semester, Levy suggests that students pay large recurring expenses at the beginning of a term and establish auto debit payment for ongoing expenses. They should also set aside a small “emergency fund” he says.

Students in a financial pinch should check the availability of mid-year scholarships, which he says are pretty common. Information may be found on a college’s website or financial aid office, or in the academic department of a student’s major.

Students can ask their financial aid office about emergency loan programs and emergency grants. The majority of colleges offer emergency loans and grants, he says, “and they don’t necessarily need to go to students on financial aid.” The funds can be used to pay for car repair, medical expenses or other emergencies. Grants don’t have to be repaid, but students should be prepared to submit bills.

Getting a roommate is one way to cut living expenses. Other money-savings suggestions from Levy include buying and selling used textbooks, taking fewer trips home, taking the maximum number of credits allowable per semester to accelerate graduation, and watching food purchases.

“Students who buy a $10 pizza each week spend $2,000 over their college career,” says Levy. This can cost $4,000 to pay off, he adds, because every $1 borrowed corresponds to $2 in loan repayments.

Levy also reminds families to consider unusual scholarships. He has seen painkiller Tylenol promote scholarships in the coupon section of his Sunday newspaper. The Jif Most Creative Sandwich contest has awarded $25,000 scholarships to six-to-12-year-olds who developed unique peanut butter sandwiches.