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How to Pay for a College Gap Year

Last Updated: October 6, 2023
8 min read

Key points about: financing a gap year

  1. A gap year is a great time for high school or college students to have life experiences and learn more about their options for the future.

  2. Before taking a gap year, you should think about how it will impact you financially and make a plan to cover costs.

  3. Taking a gap year could affect your ability to get financial aid, so you should discuss your options with your school's financial aid office.

Gap years are becoming more popular, but many people don't know what they are or why they’d take one. A gap year is when you take a year off from work or school to travel or pursue other goals.

Typically, a young person will take a gap year after senior year in high school and before college, but you can take a gap year any time you want, even during college or before going to graduate school or medical school. According to the U.S. Department of State, some colleges offer gap year programs for current students or graduates, but you can also find opportunities with local organizations, or even design your year off yourself.

No matter how you plan to spend it, one of the biggest questions on your mind may be how to pay for a gap year and if it's worth the price tag.

Reasons to take a gap year

Many people take a gap year to learn more about who they are and what they want to do. The time can help you figure out your next move after finishing high school, refine your career path, or allow you some space to explore interests and different cultures, learn new skills, or study a new language that you hadn’t been able to pursue as deeply. Many people spend at least part of the year traveling or working on volunteer projects. During this time, you may find out what you originally wanted to study isn't the right fit for you—or gain additional experience to jumpstart your studies when you return.

Starting college with a clearer idea of what you want to do could help you focus your choice of study and choose the right major early in your schooling. With that knowledge in hand, you can better plan your classes and increase your chances of graduating on time. Not only that, but you might also save some cash, too: you’re less likely to take classes you don't need, thus possibly avoiding excess student loan debt.

A year off can also help you become more financially responsible. Whether you nabbed a fun year-long job or decided to volunteer abroad during your gap year, you'll probably have more direct responsibility over your day-to-day spending. This could help you have a greater appreciation for managing and spending money, such as using a credit card to cover everyday expenses. With a better understanding of finances, you may find yourself making more frugal decisions when it comes to student loans and building a stronger financial foundation.

Finally, time off is just good for you. After years of academic study and pressure, sometimes you just need a break. Having time to rest and recharge can help prevent academic burnout, and help you start your first year of college fully recharged.

Not sure where to begin? There are gap year resources that can help you start thinking about your options. Look for a gap year fair or gap year association or organization that may have information about programs and opportunities for your gap year.

Financial impacts of a gap year

If you're thinking about taking a gap year, you might wonder how much you need to save to make it happen, or if taking a year off school is helpful or harmful financially in the long run.

How much you can financially benefit from a gap year depends on how you choose to spend that year. For example, if you decide to stay local for a year, live at home, and just work a part-time job, you might boost your bank account. However, if you plan to take a tour of Europe for a year, it may be more costly.

If you use your time off on an internship to gain work experience, you may not get paid for it. But that internship could boost your resumé and open you up to more scholarship opportunities, or it could lead to improved skills and knowledge that may eventually help you earn more later in your career.

If you spend your gap year interning, working, or finding other ways to earn income, you may find yourself needing to borrow less money during your college years. You might also choose to save that money so that you have something to start you off when you graduate from college.

How to pay for a gap year 

There are different things you can do to help you afford a gap year. First, you want to estimate how much it’ll cost; then you want to come up with a plan to pay for it all. Your cost will vary depending on where you go and what you choose to do while there.

Get a job 

You may be able to work and pay for your gap year activities at the same time. For example, if you’re living abroad, you may be able to sign up to be an English teacher or tutor. Make sure that you have the necessary requirements met to earn money in the country where you plan to work.

Getting a job during a gap year could also help you save for college if you keep your living expenses low. You can get roommates or live with family if you’re staying local.

Grants or scholarships 

You might be able to get a private grant or gap year scholarship if your gap year is mission-driven. Many gap year programs offer scholarships and financial assistance directly to students joining charitable projects. Typically, you would have to show your financial needs and qualify based on other criteria.

Financial aid 

You might be able to use financial aid if you select a gap year program that also offers college credit. This aid can include federal funding and private student loans. Some programs are sponsored by colleges directly. Others are outside programs that partner with colleges to offer students overseas opportunities.

If you’re thinking about joining a program, contact your academic advisor to make sure the credits you earn will transfer to your college of choice. That can help you figure out if joining the program is worthwhile.

Personal loan  

You can also fund your gap year through a personal loan, but there are some downsides. Getting approved isn’t a guarantee and while repayment for student loans is usually deferred until you graduate, the repayment for personal loans typically begins 30 days after the loan’s disbursement. You’ll have to be prepared to pay back the money and make up for the cost.


Another way to get money for your gap year experience is by fundraising. You can launch a crowdfunding page or ask for donations from your friends and family. Explain how taking a gap year will help you give back and contribute to the community. For example, are you taking a gap year to volunteer or raise awareness for a specific cause? Explain that a gap year isn’t just time off, but a productive way that you can grow as a student and member of the community. Be sure to update your donors on your progress and travel experiences during your time away. Even the process of fundraising and delivering on your promise can help you gain skills that are transferrable to a future career.

Did you know?

If you’re a student, having a student credit card can help you cover some costs while studying abroad.

Importance of planning how to pay for your gap year experience

Knowing in advance how you will pay for your gap year eases concerns about expenses, and having a plan in place for your time off will give you the freedom and flexibility to choose what you want to do.

Besides paying for the cost of the gap year program or for travel, you need to factor in costs for the time and money needed for passports, visas, travel insurance, and other travel documents. You also should think about how you will pay for food, room and board, and outside activities.

Pros and cons of a gap year: Financial aid considerations

Before starting a gap year, you should understand how taking a break from school can affect your financial aid. Taking a gap year may affect how much financial aid you can receive as a college student. Because the amount of aid available can change every year according to the U.S. Department of Education, the financial aid you qualified for before your gap year might not be there when you come back.

Also, if you work during your gap year, you may have a higher income than what you had while in school. Because your income is higher, the amount of financial aid you receive may be lower.

Financial aid rules for gap years vary by school, so you should check your school's policies before taking time off. You should still submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when applying to college and again when resuming school after your gap year, according to Benefits.gov.

FAFSA is a program that the government uses to connect colleges with financial aid opportunities for qualifying students. Different forms of financial aid include subsidized and unsubsidized loans, scholarships, and grants, like the federal Pell Grant, which doesn’t have to be repaid. Students can also complete work-study programs (where a college student can earn money through jobs on- and off-campus). You can submit your FAFSA application online, according to the U. S. Department of Education.

Regardless of your financial need, all students should submit a FAFSA. Colleges need an idea of student finances to calculate what aid they can give yearly. Plus, some scholarships may require that you also submit a FAFSA which has eligibility requirements.

The financial aid you receive will depend on your enrollment status, tuition and fees, and how much you or your family can contribute to your schooling. Colleges typically subtract your family contribution from the total cost it will take for you to attend the college.

Submission deadlines differ by school and state, so always check your school's website for deadlines and be aware of your state's FAFSA deadlines too. The earlier you can apply for aid the better, as it’ll help give you an idea of the aid you may qualify for as you plan your gap year.

So, is a gap year worth it? To sum it up: Your gap year is really what you make it. Whether you benefit from your time off or not depends on how you prepare for it and how you use it.

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