We all dream of going to college for free. Many countries are doing it and we all hope someday the US will do it too. The reality is that it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

So how do you pay for college when you’re just starting out? Even if you waited a while and have a job, you still might find it hard to pay for college on your current salary.

Taking a look at some statistics of inflation, you’ll find that the number of weeks needed to work to pay for college (full-time) was about 14 weeks, the length of a summer vacation. This means that a person could have studied all year, gotten a minimum-wage job for the summer and afford to pay off that year. If they did that all 4 years, they’d be set, poof, no student loans. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Now, the number of weeks that someone has to pay full-time to make that money is about 52 weeks. That’s about a year of full-time work. If you’re a student living at home, this is still impossible because you can’t work full-time and go to classes. It becomes even harder when you’re living on your own and need to use that money for bills.

So what can you do?

FAFSA is your strongest tool by far. Based on the income of you or your parents FAFSA or the Free Application for Student Aid, you will receive grant and loan options from the federal government. This is the only situation where it can pay to have less money. Go through the free online application process, give them all the info they need, and see what your options are.

Go to the website of the school you got accepted.

Most schools have a dedicated page on their websites for financial scholarships and grant opportunities. These may exist outside the realm of the federal government. Many will be based on your SAT scores, class rank, and GPA. Other scholarships could involve winning an essay competition, a poetry contest, and the list goes on. The essays and competitions will usually be smaller amounts but if you keep at it and win a few, they really add up.

You’ll more than likely have to get a student loan through the government. If you’re smart with your money, there are some ways you can pay this back quickly and easily. Most student loans are bases on a 10-year repayment plan and are done through monthly installments from your total debt.

Make sure that once you borrow, you immediately start paying back. There is something called a grace period where you don’t have to pay for a year but that doesn’t include interest. So while you’re waiting around for that year, you’re constantly accumulating interest on the amount you owe. Instead, make payments for the interest amount if you can’t make the full payment amount.

You should take this a step further when you get a full-time job. By paying a higher percentage into your taxes and getting a large return, you can use that money to make large yearly payments on your student loan, in addition to the monthly ones. You’ll get more back on your tax returns because of your student loan interest. While you could simply pay what you owe to the government and keep your money all year long, you’ll be less likely to spend your extra cash on your loans.