In 2011, I graduated from college — Summa Cum Laude with a double major in new venture development and business management.
It was a big accomplishment, and my family was proud. But perhaps an even bigger achievement was graduating with no student debt. This strong financial footing allowed me to save money quickly after landing my first job, buy a nice engagement ring for my girlfriend (now wife), and purchase our first house when I was twenty-four years old.
I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to money. Nothing in this post should be taken as expert financial advice. But I will be sharing my story of how I managed my money in college and graduated with no debt, so you can hopefully be encouraged and inspired.
Here’s what I did…
I went to an affordable school.
Some careers require fancy degrees from prestigious (think expensive) private schools. But for many vocations, a local school will do fine. And in some fields, affordable schools occasionally have better programs than more expensive options.
For my career goals, a state school was a great option. I had friends who spent roughly five times as much as I did by going to private or out-of-state schools.
I tested out of every class I could.
The fewer classes you have to pay for, the less money you’ll spend. Through AP and CLEP tests, I tested out of almost 30 college credit hours. That cut my tuition costs by roughly 20%. It also allowed me to graduate with a double major in only 3 ½ years, without taking a full load the last two semesters.
I took my basic classes at a community college.
Community colleges are sometimes stigmatized as being “college for dumb people.” As much as I love the Dan Harmon sitcom, I don’t buy it. I had a 31 on my ACT and still took classes at two different community colleges. Why? The credits transferred to the school I wanted to graduate from — and they were roughly half the price.
I had a great experience with community colleges. I even got a job as a tutor at one school, worked there for three years, and still keep in touch with people I met during that time.
I applied for every scholarship I could.
In my experience, scholarships are a numbers game. The more I applied for, the more I seemed to win. So when you’re thinking about how much work it will be to fill out another application, remember that everyone else is thinking the same thing — which is good for you.
I was discerning with textbooks.
Textbooks can add up to a big expense in college, which is why I only bought them when necessary.
Some classes had “required books” that were almost never used during the semester. Other classes used books that had previous editions for a fraction of the price. In some cases, the differences were extremely small, so I bought old editions to save money. And whenever possible, I bought used textbooks. It was one type of book where I was happy to have someone else’s notes and highlights inside. Less work for me!
I lived with my parents.
Living on campus is another huge college expense. I totally understand the appeal. It’s a fun, new experience and a chance to grow your independence. But if money is a concern, commuting for at least some of your college life can be a smart option.
I personally lived with my parents and commuted all four years of college. My sister in law took a hybrid approach — commuting for the first three years and living on campus the fourth.
I worked while going to school.
I also worked throughout college. This isn’t something everyone wants to do, and I understand that. But for me, it was worth it to graduate without debt.
If you’re thinking about working, here are two types of jobs to consider.
1. Jobs with downtime
When you’re choosing a career, you want a job that will challenge you. You don’t want to sit around bored, looking for ways to keep busy. But as a college student, boring jobs with lots of downtime can be a huge asset.
When I was a tutor in the community college computer lab, I had a fair amount of downtime during slow hours when not many students were coming in for help. So what did I do? My homework! And I got paid to do it. I had a friend who worked as the receptionist at a pool store. In between customers, she would get our her textbook and catch up on reading.
Jobs with downtime make it possible to focus on school and still make some money — literally at the same time.
2. Jobs with a flexible schedule
Jobs with flexible schedules are also great for students. For me, that meant projects like mowing and writing. I had deadlines, but I could do the work whenever some free time opened up.
This wasn’t an option back when I was in college, but today, a great flexible job for students can be food delivery. You have to be twenty-one years old to work as an Uber driver, but you can become an Ubereats delivery driver at only nineteen. You can work when you feel like it as time opens up, and the more your work, the more you’ll make. This ubereats review talks about what it’s like to be a delivery driver, the pay structure, requirements, and how to apply.
I took advantage of helpful websites.
DealOz.com was one of my favorite websites as a college student. It searches through dozens of book websites to help you find the best deals on used textbooks. I saved over 70% on university bookstore prices on some of my textbooks.
Craigslist was a website I was reluctant to try. But when I finally did, I had a great experience. I’ve bought everything from a bicycle to a ukulele on Craigslist, usually for about half the standard price. I’ve also made money selling things I didn’t need on Craigslist — a bed, a couch, an Xbox. Whenever I’m wanting to buy something, I usually start by checking Craigslist.
FoodDeliveryGuru is another great site for money-savvy college students who are busy cramming for tests. It curates the latest coupons for almost every food delivery service, so you can afford the time-saving luxury of having dinner delivered.
Fastweb.com is a website that helps students find scholarship opportunities. After you complete a profile, Fastweb will point you to scholarships that look like a good fit.
Graduating without debt is possible.
Unlike some people, I don’t think student debt is inherently bad. It creates opportunities that might not exist otherwise and allows people to pursue the best education for their goals.
But I do think you should be smart with your money. And I can say that graduating without any debt is something I’m proud and thankful to have accomplished.
It’s worth noting that I did go into college with quite a bit of money saved up. So not everything from my experience will be 100% transferable. But hopefully you’ve picked up a few insights that apply to your specific journey.