How I Got out of College Debt Free

Since I’ve been doing a few posts lately on thrifty living, I thought I’d include one on college costs, and how to avoid that pesky debt many are burdened with post graduation.

I graduated with my undergrad in 2009 (Michigan State, go green!) and my graduate degree in 2012 (University of Michigan, SNRE), so I think my perspective on it is pretty fresh. Since I’ve found that among my peers, that I’m one of the few that was fortunate enough to graduate with no debt, I thought it might be useful to walk through what my process was.

Here is the story of how I did it, hope it’s helpful to those either saving for themselves, or sending a mini-me off to the ivy covered halls. 😉

Young Kids from the 90's

First rule to paying for your college: You have to like to save.

So when I was a wee little laddie, I learned something about myself. I really, really liked saving my money. I distinctly remember the first time I went to the bank to deposit my first chunk of cash, and by chunk of cash I mean the heavy, metal variety that probably accounted to .85. But when I was in elementary school a local bank started coming in twice a week during our lunch hour to let us deposit any cash we had into a special savings account that they’d developed just for the little punkies. Sa-weet!! I was GAME.

Sure it was nickels, quarters, and the occasional dollar that got deposited, but every Tuesday and Thursday I would walk over to their make-shift table with a big old smile on my face to deposit anything I had. Once I got my first job at 15, I could start making more substantial deposits, instead the tellers counting my nickels and dimes, I could now just hand them a check. Slowly, but surely those minimum wage dollars started to amount to something.

Last Day of High School

Second rule to paying for college: Break it down into more manageable chunks

By the time I was headed off to college, I had just under $9,000 that I had saved. Not a lot of money – at all, really – but it got me started. The argument I would most often hear from my peers at this point would be, well yeah, but that will pay for a semester of college. I’m just going to take out loans since it’s just not worth it. I’d rather just pay for it all later, when I get a great job…  But ya know what, it DID pay for my first semester with a little left over, which as far as I saw it got me 1/8th of the way there. I had a few hand outs, too. My parents were sending two kids through college at the same time, but they had done their best to put aside some money for us, too. We had a college fund where they had around $10,000 for me to help pay for some of my college expenses.

I’m extremely grateful for that money, it made a big difference. I also had $2,500 in merit scholarships, which at the time, were offered through the State of Michigan for kids that scored in a certain percentile on our state standardized test.

How to get out of college debt free

Third Rule to paying for college: Pay yourself first 

Quite simply, any money that is coming in and not going directly to you main living costs (food, rent, transportation) should go toward paying down your pending or acquired debt. For me, that was my tuition bill each semester.

To break things down a bit, my total tuition costs were $32,632.50, room and board (including one year of dorm life) was $21,400 and my books set me back around $2,800 for all four years. Making my total out of pocket expenses $56,732 for a four-year undergrad degree. Hot dog, that’s a lot of cash.

Coming in, as mentioned, I had:

  1. $10,000 from Mom and Pops
  2. $9,000 of my own savings
  3. $2,500 in scholarships

My parents also tried to help as much as they could with our monthly expenses. In addition to taking us out grocery shopping whenever they could, they also gave us $200 a month, of which they deducted our car insurance and gas money.

Dad would give me that in a check each year, which I’d use as a down payment on my apartment rent so I didn’t have to worry about that monthly expense for a while. It would usually get me through the first 7-months or so, and then I’d start kicking in my own cash for the $300 a month I owed to share the place with 2 other girls.

For those looking for an easy way to cut costs, sharing an apartment saved me over $500 a month (not including decreased utility costs) vs. renting my own place. That’s a savings of $18,000 over 3-years.

Graduation Picture

Fourth Rule of paying for college: Get a Job! 

After the cash outlined above, I was still on the hook for about $30,000 in expenses (and 70% of costs, after my parents contributions), so I did what every other kid in America (should) do, in my opinion. I got a job. Actually, a few! I worked 15-20 hours a week (with a few unpaid internships scattered in) and graduated on schedule with honors. Really, if you dissect that remaining $30k, you’re looking at $7,500 a year. Working part-time during the school year, and full-time during the summer, I found it very possible to set aside around $10,000 a year while in school. Was money tight – yes, sir! Did I eat steak for dinner – no way! Did I feel proud to walk out those ivy covered doors with no debt on my shoulders – you BET.

I went on to get a graduate degree, and paid another $35,000 out of pocket for that. Other than working hard and saving as much money as we could – life was pretty different the second time around. Married, husband had a grown-up job, etc. But, there are a few things we did that made it instrumental to save the extra cash I needed to pay for my Master’s Degree up front.

  1. We went down to being a one-car family. (which totally changed our life for the better, 4-years strong as a one-car family, never plan on going back)
  2. We lived in a crap-ola apartment for a year, with rent under $500 a month. It was right between the railroad tracks and the prison. Painting a picture, here? 😉
  3. We cut down on all non-necessary expenses, with the intent of saving up as much cash as possible.

SNRE Graduation

Even though it’s the scariest part, looking at your incoming debt and embracing it’s existence is really the only way to ensure you’re able to tackle it. Jay and I are still trying to figure out how we will save for our kids some day, and how much responsibility we will put on them to pay for their college costs themselves, but I do know that we will strive to give them as much ownership over the process as possible. The simple act of having myself physically go up to the controllers office each semester and write a check with money coming out of my savings account, was one of the most humbling, scary, and gratifying moments of my college experience. Many students never had these moments, so they become disconnected with the expenses they are accruing, which leads to debt. Lots of it.

Now that being said, I have a younger sister who is currently attending the same undergrad that I did, and is paying 84% more than me 8 years later. (My first year of college, $233 per credit hour, her current expenses, $428 per credit hour – whaaaa???) (This makes my uterus quake with the thought of how much it will cost to send my future offspring to college, holy waffles). I strongly feel that the cost of college is incredibly unsustainable, and that something will have to be done long term to make this option attainable for all demographics of our society.

Anyone else out there have stories on college costs? How did you pay for college? Are you saving for little ones? I’d love to hear from others with some different perspectives!

Thrifty Thursday



12 thoughts on “How I Got out of College Debt Free

  1. Speaking as someone who was in college when you were born, that $10k your parents set aside was supposed to cover all four years of college for you. When I started MSU in 1986, I was paying around $20 per credit hour. Yes, that’s only two digits. Even at that, working part time and having grants, I still needed loans because my parents couldn’t contribute financially to my education. However, my loans were around $200/trimester. As you know, I didn’t finish my BA until 2012, after you had finished both of your degrees. (I’m still quite proud of your achievements.) I had serious sticker shock when I went back to school in 2009 because going from around $20/ credit hour to over $300/credit hour was stunning. It didn’t help that I had other debts, an apartment, and had just come off a jag of being unemployed three times in eighteen months. I had taken a job making less money than I had in my last job (but more than I made on unemployment) at a company where full time was classified as 37.5 hours/week. I certainly could have used a supplemental $200/month. I know you’re grateful for the help your folks gave you and you understand how it supplemented everything else you did for yourself. Yet another reason why I’m quite proud of you.

  2. Wow! You are an incredible woman to have done this. Your parents must be very proud of you!
    My friend went back to school in her 30’s to become an RN. She first had to complete her associates and then nursing school. What did she do? She went to a COMMUNITY COLLEGE! She also worked full time and went to school part time at night, but she paid for every semester up front and graduated with no debt. Even though she was in her 30’s and already out on her own, if she had done this right after high school, she could have done it the same way, but lived at home with her parents and had no added living costs. Then she could have went to school full time and worked part time to have finished faster.

  3. I also graduated debt-free, and was so thankful for that! I watch others who are still paying for their education, when they could really put that money towards a down payment on a house. The first few years, my parents gave me a set amount towards college to help, but then I got married and finished up my last 2 years without paying much of anything besides my textbooks. But that’s because our income was so low, that I qualified for more government assistance. A perk of being married, I guess!

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. 🙂

  4. I left college with a debt that I paid off in full after my first year working. I always paid my own room and board, food and books by working at a hospital as a nurses aide, and a frame shop for $5.00 an hour. I did work study during school hours.I’m so proud that I did all that and graduated with honors.
    Next ,I saved money for a down payment on a house, and 9 years later we have 2 kids. I think the biggest expense has been going to 1 income, , and you should build that into a budget plan for having kids if possible.
    Our kids haven’t required too much gear but the older they get the more experiences we want to have. Also.. I need to save for retirement first and then what I can give for their college I will . I expect them to work and probably go to a state school.

  5. Congratulations – this is awesome! I’m printing it out and saving it for my kids to read, when they’re older. I too worked all through college and took advantage of scholarships and financial aid. After six years and three degrees I did have student loans (18K), but I didn’t mind paying that bill when I was done. It was actually less than my car payment. But still – no debt:)!!!! What a feeling that must be.

    1. Good for you for getting THREE degrees, Allie! That is amazing! My husband had 25k in debt when he graduated and we were (in many ways) happy to pay that debt – we considered it an investment in our shared future.

  6. As a current college student, it was very encouraging to read your story. I am currently on the path to graduating debt free. I work two jobs during the school year and three during the summer. It’s hard work, but totally worth it!

    If you’re interested in sharing tips for earning scholarship, I wrote a blog post about my scholarship journey:

    Feel free to share the link if you know of anyone who might be interested!

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