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How I Graduated From College Debt Free

How I Graduated From College Debt Free

It has been all over the news lately, about how there is a student loan crisis in the United States. As of year-end 2016, there was over $1.48 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt.  44.2 million Americans have student loans still active and the delinquency rate (90+ days delinquent or in default) is above 11%. The average graduating college student has over $37,000 in student loan debt! (Data via federalreserve.govWSJ, herehere and here and here)

The media and the politicians would have us believe that college is unaffordable, and the only way to pay for it is by taking out student loans.  I do believe there is a place for student loans on the graduate degree level, however that’s another post for another day.  Today I would like to talk about how I paid my way through college without the need for any student loans, and how I believe this is still possible today.

After graduating from a Washington State high school in 1995, I knew that I wanted to attend an out of state college.  I was looking forward to moving to a new place, and meeting new people.  College would expand my world; however, I had a 3.2 GPA and only about $2,000 in cash from working at McDonalds and my early morning janitorial job during high school. This also included a $600 Pell grant that I received from filling out the FASFA form. So I applied to Rick’s College, in the small town of Rexburg, ID.  It was a private 2 year school that was very affordable at around $1,200 a semester.  The reason I picked that school was because all of the credits taken there would transfer to the university I ultimately wanted to attend, which was Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT.  I didn’t have the grades to apply directly to BYU, so I found a junior college that could be my pathway to my dream university.

When I was accepted to Rick’s College, I was told that I could only register for evening classes. This is a step up from being put on a wait list. I didn’t care, I was accepted and I was leaving home at the age of 17!  I paid tuition out of my own funds and my boss at my janitorial job was willing to drive me out to college, for gas money only. She dropped me off at my apartment, helped me unload my few possessions, and then left a few minutes later to head back home. There I was, completely alone with just about $900 to my name (after gas costs).

I had found an apartment from a list of the college’s approved off campus housing. My parents were divorced at this time and my father agreed to pay my child support directly to me since I was on my own now.  This paid my rent for my first year of college, $1,500 total for the year. Of course Rick’s was trying to push their on campus housing, but I could see right away that I could never afford to live on campus.  My rent off campus, if I had 5 other roommates, would be around $125 a month or $1,500 for both semesters. They let me pay over 12 months, versus 8, even though I didn’t stay there during the four summer months, but I continued to pay during the summer. This allowed me to spread out my costs and keep my monthly expenses low. On campus housing was roughly the same, however, you had to purchase a meal plan, as there were no kitchens in the dorms that were in my price range. As a 17 year old, I knew that there was no way I could afford those meal plans.  I don’t remember exactly what they cost, but I would guess around $800 + per semester.  To give you some perspective, my grocery bill per month was in the $60 a month range, making my food cost roughly $240 for the entire semester.  Luckily my mother had taught me to cook the basics, and I learned as I went to try and create tasty meals for myself out of whole, cheap food.  I’m not going to deny that I also ate some really cheap and unhealthy food like, Ramen Noodles.

My biggest financial struggle was my first semester at Rick’s College.  I didn’t have a part time job, and I was only attending classes in the evenings.  My left over cash, after buying books, was just a few hundred dollars, and I had to pay utilities and groceries with that money.  I would soon find myself walking over a mile to the closest McDonalds, and pretending that I was a customer so that I could get packages of ketchup and sweet n sour sauce to flavor my lentils and rice back at my apartment.  Most freshman gain 15-20 lbs their first year, I lost almost 20 lbs trying to pay my way with the few hundred dollars I had left.  However, when Christmas break was drawing near, I saw an advertisement for a janitorial position that would give you full-time hours during the Christmas break, and part-time hours during the next semester.  I knew that this meant that I couldn’t go home for Christmas, but I needed the money.  So I took the job.  From that point on, I never went hungry again!  Of course the starting pay in 1995 was $4.25 an hour, but it paid all my living expenses.

From then on out, I would continue to work a minimum of 20 hours a week as a janitor, and work 60+ hours a week during my four month long summer breaks.  This strategy allowed me to pay for the next four years of college (it took me 4.5 years to graduate) debt free, grant free, parent free. 

I didn’t suffer through college either.  I was able to do a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic for one semester, backpack through Europe, eat out with friends on occasion, and travel the US on breaks.

I believe the only reason I was able to work my way through college debt free, was due to the fact that I thought everyone else was doing it too.  I was so naïve, and thought that paying my own way was my only option. So with a $600 Pell Grant, $1,500 from my Dad and a lot of hard work, I made it through my 4 year Bachelor’s degree debt free.

The only way I could have done so was due to the following key decisions that seem to be ignored by many college students today:

1.       I picked a college I could afford. I attended Community or Junior college first and then transferred.

2.       I applied for a Pell Grant. (Though I wish I continued to do so beyond my freshman year)

3.       I worked during high school and saved money while I had very few expenses.

4.       I didn’t have a car.  No insurance, gas or repair costs.  I walked, biked, hitched a ride or used public transportation.

5.       I worked part-time during the school year and worked a full time job plus another part-time job during my summer breaks.  During those breaks I worked at national parks so that I didn’t need to have a car and they paid for my housing.  Plus working at national parks means you get to play and explore during your summer break as well.

6.       I lived off campus and had as many roommates as it took to make it so I could afford rent.

7.       I cooked my own food and avoided on campus meal plans.  I usually went to restaurants with friends for social events, but not as an everyday occurrence.

That is how I made it through college debt free and I believe it is still possible today!  How do I know?  I know because my 22 year old niece is doing it now. 

So if you are currently in high school and planning on taking out loans to pay for school, take a moment to see if you actually need the loans.  If you are a parent of a high school student or even current college age student, sit down and make a plan to avoid loans as much as possible.  This can be done!  Our children do not need to take out massive loans or drain their parent’s retirement accounts to pay for a college education.  They simply need to make a financial plan and work.

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