When I was gearing up to apply to college, my parents sat me down and explained that unfortunately, they really hadn't saved much for my education. And I didn't blame them -- they were grappling with the cost of raising multiple children, and other bills just had to come first. Still, I will admit I felt a little lost -- until I started to explore my options.

The reality is that you can still get a college education even if your parents haven't socked away a dime for it. If you're in this all-too-common boat, here's how to overcome your lack of college savings.

College students taking notes in a lecture hall.

Image source: Getty Images

1. Choose the least expensive school possible

There's no reason to pay a premium for a private college education when there are great public state schools you can attend instead. Better yet, start off your degree at a community college and then transfer to an in-state college after two years.

The current average annual cost of tuition and fees at community college is $3,730, reports the College Board. At in-state four-year colleges, it's $10,440. Private colleges, meanwhile, are averaging $36,880 a year for tuition and fees, so clearly, there's a lot of money to be saved by either putting in four years at an in-state school, or starting out at community college and switching to a state school once you've knocked out a bunch of your core requirements. 

2. Apply for financial aid

There's an easy way to apply for federal aid in the form of grants and student loans: Just fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's a fairly painless process, and you can even do it online. Best of all, you only have to complete the FAFSA once a year and you don't have to repeat the process for each school you apply to.

3. Find scholarships 

There's a host of free money available for college; you just need to know where to find it and hope you qualify for it. But while scholarships aren't always a given, if you have a particular talent (say, you're an expert violin player) or a clear financial need, you may be awarded a chunk of money for college that you don't ever have to pay back. A simple Google search on college scholarships should be enough to get you started, or you can consult this list of helpful scholarship sources

4. Get a part-time job during your studies

Working while taking classes is a great way to make college more affordable, and there are several ways to go about it. If you qualify for the federal work-study program, you'll be matched up with a job opportunity through your university (generally on campus). If you don't qualify for that specific program, you can apply for jobs the conventional way -- by checking out listings and submitting a resume. And although on-campus jobs can be harder to snag, there's always the option to apply to local businesses near your school. 

5. Defer your studies and work first

There's no rule stating you have to go to college immediately after graduating high school. If you'd rather not rack up a massive pile of student loans, try taking some time off from your studies to hold down a full-time job. If you're able to live at home while you work, thereby keeping your living expenses to a minimum, you could wind up banking quite a bit of cash that you can then use to pay for your education costs. 

There's actually also a hidden benefit to working before you attend college: Once you get some real-world experience, you may have a better idea of the profession you want to pursue, and the major or academic path that will help you get there. As such, you'll be better positioned to make the most of your studies. 

Not having college savings can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The good news? You still have options, and while taking out student loans may not be ideal, that's exactly what they're there for. At the same time, be sure to explore your options for earning money to cover your studies, and aggressively pursue scholarship funds that make college easier to afford.