Small scholarships can add up to big savings

jar labeled college fund filled with cash

It's the middle of September, which means the Kiwanis garden tour, a major part of my mom's summer, has wrapped up.

Mom is a member of her local Kiwanis Club, a group of people whose purpose, in addition to meeting and greeting, is to raise money for educational scholarships. Selling tickets to tours of local gardening projects is just one way the club accumulates enough cash to give out $500 here and $1,000 there to promising local kids who are on their way to college.

There's probably a Kiwanis Club or its equivalent near you, and if you're planning to be a college student, that club should be on your radar screen. So should all the other organizations that give out small scholarships.

Why should you bother applying for such small sums? Simple.

Every $500 you can get someone to give you is $500 you don't have to borrow or earn. Borrow $500 through a federal student loan, and you'll pay between 3.86% and 6.41% in interest, depending on what kind of loan you get.

Those interest rates turn $500 into between $730.22 and 930.67 in repayment obligation. Borrow $1,000, and you'll repay between $1,435.32 and $1,861.33. That's assuming that you repay your student loans over 10 years. Your total cost will be higher if you pay back your loans over a longer period.

Small scholarships make sense on the earning side, too.

Let's say you spend 20 hours to find and apply for three scholarships of $500 each. You get two of them. (You can often reuse application essays, sometimes with a bit of customization.) That's $50 an hour, much more than you'll likely make by babysitting, mowing grass or working as a lifeguard.

Perhaps best of all, small scholarships add up. Get five $1,000 scholarships, and you've covered a chunk of this year's tuition. Even five $100 scholarships will probably cover your textbooks for a year.

Meghan Loftus

Running down student loan debt while on a budget. Meghan Loftus paid down her debt more than five years early by living on a budget. Follow her three tips:

  • Live frugally.
  • Build bigger payments into your budget.
  • Don't neglect savings.

Start by looking at SallieMae.com/scholarships, fastweb.com and SchoolSoup.com. All three sites ask for information about your background, test scores, grades and interests, then steer you toward possible scholarships.

Ask your guidance counselor for a list of local scholarships, and check out your school's website as well as the websites of nearby high schools. Many list scholarship opportunities. Local colleges and universities may also have information about scholarships in your area.

Local businesses may offer small scholarships.

Ask around, particularly at firms where you, your parents or other relatives have worked or regularly done business. (Don’t forget the bank where your family has accounts.)

Local organizations are a rich source of potential scholarships. Some require that you, your parents or your grandparents be affiliated with that organization.

Mom's Kiwanis Club, for instance, gives priority to students who are members of their high school's Key Club.

Other organizations welcome anyone to apply for a scholarship; the distinction may vary from town to town, depending on the preferences of local groups.

Ask for information from the Rotary Club, the Elk's Club, the Lions Club, your school's PTA, other schools' PTAs, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and Boys, the YMCA, the YWCA, community theater groups, your town's Chamber of Commerce, unions, fraternal organizations, sororities and fraternities, sports clubs (especially if you enjoy their sport), law enforcement, fire fighters, your hometown newspaper, the community orchestra, city hall, country clubs, and essay, art, photography, and poetry competitions.

You can't change your ethnicity or family heritage. That's just as well, because either or both could get you scholarship money. Whatever your ethnicity, there's likely an official group that supports that — and they may have money to share.

Family history can also help you. Lineal descendents of Confederate soldiers may be eligible for help through the United Daughters of the Confederacy. If your direct ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War, check with the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Last but not least, organizations connected to your planned field of study are also good scholarship sources.

Planning to teach German or study German history? The Steuben Society of America would like to help you. You're a veterinary student? The Western Veterinary Conference gives $2,500 every year to 32 students like you: People who are smart enough to know the value of small scholarships.