Being able to graduate debt free seems like a pipe dream. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly understand why at only 18 years young, we are allowed to make decisions about money that will affect our entire lives. We aren’t even trusted enough to drink alcohol, but we can take out 100K student loans if we so choose.
Student loans can put a serious damper on your future. They cause stress, cause us to take jobs we don’t love, and can really hinder our relationships. What if I told you it was possible to graduate debt free?
I know, I know. It sounds like I’m just blowing smoke up your butt. But if you’re smart about it, and you start planning early, you can graduate debt free, and you should. Imagine being 22 years old, having a degree on your wall, and some money in the bank.
Having the ability to graduate debt free makes it so we can make the decisions we want to make, not the decisions we’re forced to make because of money. Imagine all the possibilities.
*If you want to read this post later, be sure to save it to Pinterest!
Our blog posts often contain affiliate links, you can learn more in our very long (and very boring) affiliate disclosure!
My Student Debt Story
For full transparency, I feel it’s important to tell you my story. I almost made it through all of college debt free. I changed majors a couple of times so it took me 5 years to graduate and for most of that time I worked 40 hours a week.
I graduated with a total of $6,495 in student loan debt which in the grand scheme of things is pennies compared to what other people have. I only took out $2,000 of debt in my first 4 years of school. Imagine that, only $250 a semester.
In my final year of school, I really hated my part time job so I applied for more money and received a grant for about $4,000 and I also took out around $4,500 in loans.
I really wish someone would’ve sat me down when I first started thinking about college and told me that you indeed can graduate debt free. So that’s why I’m here! Let’s get you to the finish line without loans, ready?
How to Graduate Debt Free
#1 – Scholarships/Grants
How does $1,000 for writing an essay sound? Awesome, right? Too good to be true, maybe? Did you know there’s a ton of scholarship money that goes untouched because people just don’t apply for them? There are people out there who have too much money and are just itching to give it away but no one applies for it!
When you’re in your senior year of high school, you should be spending every spare minute looking for and applying to scholarships. You have a whole year, you could write 100 scholarship essays, and chances are you can make a couple thousand dollars for school! The ROI is way higher than working a part-time job.
Also, if you’re from a low-income family, the government wants to give you free money too! It always breaks my heart when people say they can’t afford to go to school because their family can’t afford it. No one should ever be held back because of decisions their parents have made.
There are a ton of amazing grant opportunities out there that are given to people who need them. You just need to show proof of financial need and you can totally get some grant money to help cover the cost.
#2 – Work, Work, Work, Work, Work
I’m a huge believer that every person (no matter how much money their parents have) needs a part time job in high school. If your goal is to graduate debt-free, you should start working the second you’re legally allowed to in your area.
If you manage to put 50% of your income into a savings account for school, you can easily pay for a ton of your school with just working like 10-20 hours a week. I know 50% seems like a lot, but you’re still living at home and probably don’t have a ton of living expenses!
#3 – Start Cheaper
I understand that ivy league schools can hold this kind of power over people, and getting your undergrad at a place like Harvard seems like the dream. The truth is, if you’re planning to go get any kind of masters degree or PhD after you finish your undergrad, you do not need to start expensive.
Where you go to school for an undergrad doesn’t actually matter for most jobs anyway! Employers are much more interested in your skills and work experience. If you’ve had a job since 16 and you’ve worked internships and summer placements, your resume will look better than someone who went to an ivy but has never worked a day in their life.
If you don’t plan on continuing after your undergrad, you can always do your first two years at a cheaper school and transfer some of your general education credits over to save yourself some money and maybe graduate debt free?
#4 – Ask for Tuition
I understand that there are a ton of families out there who have been unable to support their children through college. Poor planning or lack of financial education can really hinder a person’s ability to pay for their kid’s college. One thing they can do is give you tuition as a replacement for birthday and Christmas presents!
Imagine explaining to your parents at 16 that for the next 6 years (until you finish undergrad) that all you want for any gift is cash. I know that giving money as a present can seem super impersonal, but if they know you’ll use it for tuition, they’ll be more than happy to help out.
If you ask your parents, grandparents, friends, etc for tuition as gifts you can probably score $1000 a year! That’s a pretty good start. Most of the gifts people give you at 16-20 don’t make it very long anyway because of how much you change in those years!
#5 – Live Poor
Once your parents are no longer in control over your life, it’s really easy to throw money everywhere that your parents wouldn’t let you. There are a couple really great places where you ca cut expenses.
- Live off campus ~ living in residence is usually way more expensive and you don’t get as much freedom
- Stay with your parents/other family ~ live for free and eat their food
- If you do live on campus, become an RA to save money on housing
- Don’t get caught up in FOMO and buy expensive clothing, cars, and trips.
#6 – Finish Fast
Is there any way you could accelerate your degree? If you can start taking college classes now, you can cut down an entire semester and save yourself a lot of money. If not, make sure you finish in 4 years.
I went to college without a real plan and I had no idea what I was doing. I changed my major so many times and it took me 5 years to graduate. This cost me $10,000 and a whole year of my life.
The faster you can finish your degree, the faster you can start making money! Work hard, and work smart.
Don’t feel bad if you have to take out student loans, so many of us have to do it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you do take out loans, be sure to pay off your student loans as soon as possible after you’ve graduated.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips to graduate debt free, or if you’ve managed to do it yourself!
Shani | Sunshine & Munchkins says
My husband and I graduated with student loan debt, but it was actually on purpose! We got a couple of loans, put them in our bank account, let them sit for a bit and then “paid them off” when we graduated with the same money we borrowed. It was a great way to boost our credit. Obviously this won’t work for everyone, but it did for us.
Taylor O'Halloran says
If you have the money to pay for school out of pocket and can do it this way that’s great! I’m so jealous haha
Great tips!! I need to apply to more scholarships. It can be tedious, but if rewarded, the efforts will definitely be worth it. And yes, I’m working all hours that I can! Every penny counts 🙂
I think I applied for every grant/scholarship I could throughout high school and college! It really helped out! Kudos to you for managing your debt!
Taylor O'Halloran says
It’s essentially free money! Take an hour to write an essay and get a thousand dollars? Too easy!
These are really good tips! You work hard for the things you really want. And if you don’t work your butt off, you usually don’t get them. Truth.
Taylor O'Halloran says
It’s a hard truth it takes some people years to learn
Sarah Althouse says
Wow good for you!! I paid off my college loans two years after graduating, which I was still pretty excited about, but these are excellent tips for those still in school!