How I Graduated Debt-Free

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but just in case you were wondering, college is expensive. Even more so now that colleges are increasing tuition because they have lost money due to the COVID-19 pandemic (while forgetting that their students have, as well). So how can you get around the extraordinary costs? I’m going to share with you the tips I have utilized to stay on track for graduating debt-free (yes, you read that right!). 

Dual Enrollment will give you a head start

In high school, I took all of my required English, History, and introductory math classes at a 4-year university through their early college program. While it only added up to 18 credits, it gave me a glimpse of what college expected and it prepared me for all of the work that was ahead of me. Dual enrollment gives you a chance to trade your high school work for college courses while getting credit for both (and it’s usually cheaper than your typical college class). In my opinion, this is a good way to get rid of your general education requirements while knocking out your high school graduation requirements. You know, the whole killing two birds with one stone effect.

Go to a community college first

Right out of high school, I started taking classes online at community college. Within four consecutive semesters, I had graduated with my Associate of Science degree. Now you’re probably wondering what in the world is wrong with me. I fully blame my parents for instilling a love of learning and a hard work ethic in me. I had an end goal, and I was determined to get there as fast as I could. 

In my first semester, I wanted to take 22 credits, but the limit was 21 (I decided to add the second eight-week General Chemistry 2 class right after the first eight-week General Chemistry 1 class). I asked Advising for permission, which they denied me. Did I stop there? Nope. I found a way around it. I asked my current General Chemistry 1 professor (who would be teaching part 2 and who happened to hold an important status in the Chemistry Department) if she would be OK with me taking it. She told me she would since I was doing great in part 1. I then casually responded that I was not allowed to go over the limit. Within one hour, I had been copied on an email from her to Advising politely demanding that they enroll me in the course. 5 minutes after that one, she sent me a private one telling me to inform her if I was not enrolled by the end of the day. About 2 hours later, I received another email saying that I had been successfully enrolled and I completed an entire year of chemistry in one semester! The moral of this story: if you want to go for something and your road is blocked, find a way around or over it.

During the second semester, I realized that my community college was not offering the classes that I really wanted when I wanted them. So what did I do? I found a way around it. I began looking at the class schedules at the other community colleges in my state’s system. There was one point when I was enrolled in two community colleges and taking classes through both of them at the same time

My state’s community college system came with this additional perk: when you graduate with an Associate degree and transfer to an in-state 4-year university, your general education requirements are all waived. Because of this, I have been able to obtain my Bachelor’s in two years. Another benefit is that community colleges are cheaper per credit hour and they treat you like an adult (until you prove yourself otherwise). They don’t treat you like a drunk, partying college student either. It showed that partying during college would get you nowhere fast and that you might as well start behaving yourself like an adult and not a spoiled brat.

I don’t regret “missing out” on the first two years at my university at all. It gave me the head start on the college education that I desired. Besides, what’s wrong with having one more degree to add to your resume?

Pick a college close to home

I’m sure you’ve heard people tell you that in-state is cheaper than out of state. And if you have done your due diligence, you will find that they weren’t lying to you. Because of the benefit that my Associate degree held if transferred to an in-state college, those were the only ones I applied to. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a college close to where I lived, so I had some advantages that many of my peers did not have. While you may be itching to get away from your parents, being close to home gives you many wonderful opportunities (aside from being more budget-friendly). I was given the choice to either live at home or on-campus (my choice is reflected in tip #2, but we’ll get there in a second). No matter the reasons you pick, staying close to home is always a good option. I have found that your parents, siblings, and church family are often your best cheerleaders. 

Commute 

While all colleges will vary in price, it will serve you best to balance the cost of living off-campus, on-campus, and at home. After tallying all of the costs, it would have cost me an enormous amount of money to live on-campus (meal plans were mandatory and cost about $4,000 for food that wasn’t nearly as good as Mom’s). While I had to get up at 5:30 am, commute 40-50 minutes one way to campus, and buy an (exorbitant) $300 parking pass, I was able to live at home for just a fraction of what it would cost me to live off-campus. Also, my dad had recently gotten a job where he worked solely at home, and he very generously allowed me to drive his now lonely car to school every day, since I don’t have my own (I’ve been putting my money towards college). So seriously, the only thing I had to pay for was occasionally gas. 

Don’t eat out every meal

Alright, now I know I had an advantage because I lived at home and ate home-cooked meals at no cost to me, but I just want to point out to you the price difference. It costs probably $4.00 at the cheapest for you to eat out (shout-out to Wendy’s 4-for-$4 meal). You can buy a loaf of bread and a jar of JIF peanut butter at the grocery store for about $4.00 (plus tax, of course). This will last you multiple meals. I know you may not be a math major, but it will save you a ton of money, in the long run, to eat at home. Now, go ahead and eat out with your friends on special occasions – just not every day. Unless you have more money than I do..then go ahead.

Don’t buy coffee…or anything else unnecessary for that matter

You could probably argue that this could go under not eating out all the time, but I just wanted to make sure that you understand this point. While I personally don’t drink coffee (shocking, I know!), almost every person I see in the college halls has a cup from Starbucks. Every day. At about $2.00 for your small, plain cup of coffee, you may not think that it will cost you much. At roughly 180 days per school year, if you have one small plain cup of coffee a day, that will cost you around $360.00. That’s a pretty big price tag. And I’m sure you don’t drink the plain kind of coffee…pumpkin spice, anyone?

Strategies for getting textbooks

As you know, textbooks and online software are insanely priced. There isn’t always much you can do about this unless you are really good friends with someone who previously took the class. The best thing I have found that you can do is to get a used version off of eBay or Amazon. Some tips: the previous editions usually aren’t that far behind the times and the international versions can sometimes be cheaper (the only thing you might need to do is convert from metric units). Also, if you buy the book used (and it’s the exact same as the one needed for the course), you can sell it back to your college’s book store. One time, I got a book off of eBay for some $30 odd dollars and my college’s bookstore gave me $75 for it. That was a steal of a deal there! They literally paid me for my book. 

If the library (whether it’s a school or local one) has a version of the book needed, you can borrow it for free! Even if you keep it for longer than you should to ensure you have it for the rest of the semester, the late fees won’t come anywhere close to the original cost of the book, and some libraries offer a fee forgiveness program where you can bring in some canned goods to donate to a food bank and all will be forgiven. Just make sure to return it when you’re done.  Trust me, the library will become your best friend. 

As for digital software such as Cengage, you can’t really get around the price. If you are a self-starter and extremely determined to save money, you can try to get all of your work done within the 2-week trial period that these programs usually come with. You can always ask tech support if there is any way you could get a free access code, but that usually won’t work. 

Moral of the story: it is possible to save money on your books, but you will need to be creative. 

Apply for scholarships

I know you’ve probably heard this one from your parents, and you’re thinking that even if you apply you probably won’t get it anyway. But you might as well try. Apply for the $100 scholarships as much as you do the $20,000 ones. You may not think that $100 will help, but every little bit counts. Just apply. The worst they can do is tell you no, right? There was one scholarship that I applied for and won. Why? Because I was the only one who had applied. Applying won’t hurt you…but not applying will.

Get a job

This one is probably the most obvious way to stay out of debt. During my time at community college, I was able to work part-time as a cashier at a local grocery store. While I tried to continue when I transferred to a four-year university, it turns out I had bitten off more than I could chew. Turns out driving an hour one way, working till 8:30 pm after getting up at 5:30 am and still having some school to do at home was not working well for me or my grades. I had to quit my job, but once I did, I saw that I was bringing my classes up to A’s. If you can work while you’re in college, you should…whether you’re a TA for a class, a tutor, or a cashier. However, don’t sacrifice your grades for a few extra bucks if you can help it. You won’t make enough money to make taking the same class multiple times while still being able to work worthwhile.

Take lots of credits 

Yes, I am an overachiever. I completely blame my parents since they homeschooled me and taught me to take charge of my education. At my university, they offer this “deal” where once you reach 12 credits, anything above that is the same price (essentially, 21 credits costs the same as 12). Anything below 12 credits though, and you’re paying per credit hour. If you can take a larger amount of credits, you will most likely be able to graduate faster and by doing so, you can save some money. But only do this if you can handle the course load. There’s no point in taking lots of credits if you’re going to fail all of your classes…because then you’ll need to take them all over the next semester and you would’ve gotten nowhere fast.

For Parents: Start a 529 plan for your children’s education

My parents started our state’s 529 plan when my sister and I were very young to pay for our college education. This greatly helped me stay out of debt. I truly appreciate that my parents set aside money for my education. If you, as a parent, are able to do this, it will greatly help your kids when they head off to college.

While these tips may not work for you, these are some of the ones that I implemented. Here’s a pro tip though: when your parents or friends or whoever tells you to look for scholarships, you really should. I did not take that advice to heart while I was in high school. While I am on track for graduating debt-free, earning more scholarships would have helped me and alleviated some of the worries along my journey. Let me know if these worked for you or if you have any others!

If you do not know 100% that you will be going to Heaven when you die, now is the time to repent and put your faith and trust in Christ Jesus. If you have any questions or doubts about your salvation, click here to read how you can be saved.

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