I graduated college debt-free. No, I did not win the lottery, nor do I come from an affluent family. I come from a very middle class family who, unfortunately, didn't have the extra cash to put money into a college fund for me. But all my life I have had budgeting and planning drilled into my head. The summer before I went off to college, I knew I had to come up with some sort of plan if I didn't want to be in a huge amount of debt after I graduated.
So I talked with my Dad and we came up with a plan to tackle college without worrying about money. I think the key to graduating without debt is not only having a plan in place beforehand, but sticking to it. My plan focused on three main points: living costs, class costs, and finding a job. I started out with $15,000 I had saved up by working retail in high school, and was facing about $50,000 for tuition and other costs for the four years of college.
Living costs while in school can be just as much if not more than tuition, so I set a budget for myself of $1,000 a month for expenses. After talking with guidance counselors, other students and my parents, I found several ways to cut back on living costs. The first and probably most substantial one was my decision to not live on campus. Campus housing can be very overpriced, but I ended up finding a decent apartment, within walking distance to campus, for less than half the price of living in school housing. My rent was only $300 a month because I lived with a roommate.
I also did my own grocery shopping instead of buying the meal plans, and I usually spent about $50 a week on food. Most months I came in under budget, so I was spending closer to $800-$850 on living expenses.
Cutting back on class costs was a bit trickier than cutting back on living costs.
I received two grants my junior and senior year of college for $2,500 each, and I also had a four-year scholarship that covered $2,500 each year. My total tuition and book cost was around $12,500 per year, so in addition to my grants and scholarship money I took out approximately $35,000 worth of loans which I paid on while in school.
I was able to save a ton of money on my books, though. Instead of getting them at the college bookstore, I ordered them online. Most of the time I was able to get my books at half price, and I was sometimes even able to sell them back to the college bookstore at the end of the quarter and turn a profit.
The third and final area of my plan dealt with finding a job. I had worked retail in high school, but my first job while in college was a manufacturing job where I assembled car seats. I went to school during the day and worked in the evening, making $15 an hour at this job. I often worked 15-20 hours overtime per week which allowed me to save a substantial amount while still going to school. It was very draining to work manufacturing while going to school, but I just had to keep reminding myself that it would be worth it.
About a year before I graduated I accepted an internship in my field, working for a financial planning company. I was paid $17 an hour at this job and worked 40 hours a week, so I switched to mostly evening classes while I was interning. The internship gave me tons of valuable experience as well as contacts for the future. As graduation was nearing, the company also actually offered me a full-time position.
In addition to work. whenever I got my tax rebate I would apply that money toward my loans. And during the month of December I would take out any extra money I had saved from working and apply it to my loans as a lump sum.
In the end, all of my planning and hard work allowed me to pay off all of my loans, entirely, two weeks before I walked in graduation. It was very liberating to be able to graduate with no debt and a great job. It felt even better knowing that my decisions were what made it all possible.
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