I graduated college from a four year university at the age of 23. I had zero student loans, no credit card balances, and my parents didn’t pay for it. I also wasn’t a star football player on an athletic scholarship (in fact, I was probably the furthest from that anyone could possibly be).
During college I had a part-time internship, went out with my friends on the weekends, and lived just about as normal a life as you’d expect a young college student to live. Not only did I have no debt when I graduated, I actually had a savings account with over $10,000 in it, a small stock portfolio, and a new car. I’m not saying any of this to brag, but instead to explain how completely doable it is and to pass along my experience and advice.
So how did I graduate college with zero debt, a head-start on professional work experience, and a savings account with 5 figures?
Spoiler alert: it’s not exciting, but it works.
No scams or get rich quick schemes here. In this article (and this entire site as well), I am just about as transparent as I possibly can be short of giving away my social security number, bank account, and mother’s maiden name. To that end, there were absolutely advantages that I had to which not everyone will have access. I had a supportive family and smart friends. I had great coworkers at work to talk about money with. And I even had some financial help from my mom on some items which I detail below.
But my family was poor growing up. And I mean free school lunches and food stamps poor. Our single mother had 3 of us kids and was divorced before I was 9. But she did everything she could to give us opportunities to succeed in life for which I am very grateful. Those sacrifices she made and the role model she was helped me do everything I describe above and below. Maybe not all of this will be repeatable due to your circumstances; I recognize the privilege being a white, lower-middle class kid comes with.
But no matter who you are, how you play the hand you are dealt is far more important than the cards themselves. Remember, colleges are businesses and they want to attract as many customers (like you!) as possible. But their product (a fancy piece of paper) is in high demand so they have no short term incentive to lower the price. Even the odds by using these tips!
In the United States, most kids start high school in 9th grade, around the age of 14. Coincidentally, in the state I live, high school students are allowed to work part-time beginning at the age of 14 years and 9 months. So in freshman year of high school, my friends and I all went down to the high school admin office together and got our work permits to do just that. Then separately we all went off and landed part-time jobs at restaurants or retirement homes around town.
I chose a pizzeria where my cousin had worked a few years prior. I was nervous, awkward, and needed rides to and from work from my mom and step-dad. But I was making $5.15 an hour and LOVING IT. I had my own money. Cold hard cash delivered right into my piggy bank every two weeks.
I understand the desire some parents have to force their kids to focus on school work and college prep courses during high school. Part-time jobs, they argue, take away time from extracurricular activities that will help land their teen in an ivy league university. That’s awesome for the kids that have rich parents to guide them. Not everyone does.
As I see it, working during high school was the first step that set me on a path to financial independence. I saved quite a bit of money during high school. By having a part-time job, you learn responsibility, earn life experience points, and get to practice dealing with the “Karens” of the world. Bonus life event: this job was the first place I met anyone talking about the stock market and investing. I started dabbling in the stock market at 18 as a direct influence of this person and made my first investments around this time.
There is also a program at most high schools wherein students can take AP (Advanced Prep) classes and earn credits towards a college degree. These are basically free college credits that lower the cost of college and speed up the process. Although I didn’t take advantage of the program, I had friends who did, and I really recommend it. Maybe if there were an AP class for skateboarding, I would have taken it.
Choosing a College
I know choosing a college is tough. But if you are getting ready to choose one, or go to a different one, add this to your list of potential destinations: community college. No glitz. No glamour. But more importantly, no debt.
I chose my community college because they had a program where an entire two years worth of course credits would transfer one-for-one into a nearby four year state university. The classes were about $1000 each at the community college and close to $4000 each at the university. No brainer.
Once I finished my first two years, I simply enrolled in my junior year at the state university with zero debt. Many community colleges form these partnerships with universities because they benefit all the parties involved, but mostly the students. What better way to discover that “group project” really means “you’ll hate everyone” than doing it at one fourth the price?
I know, I know, no one wants to tell all their friends they are heading to the local community college in the fall while those same friends all get their acceptance letters to far away universities. I know it feels like it really matters. And maybe it does matter. Maybe the program you are interested in is ONLY offered on the east coast at a prestigious university. If you’ve known for years that you want to go there and do that specific thing, do it.
But for most people, college is just an expensive experiment to learn more about what they don’t like. Why not spend a couple years doing that without racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt only to find out no one wants to hire an Anthropology major with a minor in Music Theory? However, if you MUST go to a four year university right out of high school, at least go to one where you will receive in-state tuition rates.
And don’t forget trade schools! These days, trade school doesn’t mean blue collar. It means less up front cost, more relevant experience, and great job opportunities. This article does a fantastic job comparing the pros and cons of trade school vs. college.
Choosing a Major
Switching majors can be costly. I recommend declaring a generic major like liberal arts or general business in your first year. Only take classes which can be universally applied across most of your interests such as Economics 101 or Introduction to Public Speaking. As you explore the wider world and become more familiar with your true self, you may find that you want to switch majors.
However, if you are 90% through your program, and decide you really don’t like it, I still recommend you finish it before switching. The chance that you’ll stay on one predefined job track for the next 40 years of your life has become so unlikely in recent years that it’s not worth stressing about. Finish the degree. I have a degree in Supply Chain Management and I now work in Public Health Auditing and Food Testing. You’ll be amazed at the places life will take you when you look back just five or ten years from now.
While you are in college, I definitely recommend having a part-time job, or even better, trying to find an internship in your area of study. I transitioned from working at the pizzeria to getting an internship in a general admin role at a local engineering company. This gave me practical work experience, a higher hourly wage, and taught me that I wasn’t cut out to work in the engineering world. This part-time work did cause me to take a slightly lower course load than some of my peers, which pushed my graduation date out one year. But the benefit of having a real world job on my resume when I graduated was huge.
Here’s some tricks to help land an internship: show up to classes on-time, put honest effort into your work, be engaged during lectures, and be personable with your professors and other students. Often times they may have connections to the real job world and will help you out if you aren’t one of these 27 people. Most people become teachers because they like to help and mentor others.
Check with your admissions and counseling office about any forms of financial assistance or scholarships available. They should be able to give you a list of possible merits. I received $1,000 in back to back semesters my first year of community college simply because my family had a low enough income and my GPA was decent.
Work full-time during summer and holiday breaks. Save as much money as you can during college by working when you can and saving when you can’t. Here are My Top Ten Beginner Ways to Save Money:
Not listed in that article, though highly relevant, is skipping the 24 pack of Natty Ice at the frat party each weekend.
I also recommend getting actively involved in at least one group or association related to your areas of interest. This will give you more experience, more connections, and resume building opportunities than just your degree alone.
Finally, buy your books used… ’nuff said. Full disclosure: because my mom couldn’t pay for my tuition, she offered to buy my school textbooks. She also paid my cell phone bill on the family plan, but I had to buy the phone. A true saint, that woman. Buy everything used during this time in your life.
Where You Live
I “saved” one of the biggest money savers for last because I know this isn’t reasonable for everyone. Even if it is reasonable, it’s hardly any fun. But if your parents will let you live at home during your first year or two of college, take them up on the offer. There has been less and less of a stigma associated with this ever since the Great Recession. Plus with the future looking more and more virtual thanks to COVID-19, it may be a complete non-issue in the coming decades.
Yes, there is an “experience” to be had living in dorms or near campus. There are parties. There is sex. There are bars. There will be wild, crazy shit happening almost every night. But honestly, you can just visit your friends and experience 90% of it anyways. That’s what I did and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. You can still build social skills and meet new people without living on campus, you just have to be intentional about it. Don’t pay 20 grand a year just to have chance encounters in the hallways of your dorm.
When the party is over the next morning, you get to go home to your free or low-rent house. It’s probably way nicer there, too. (I did not have to pay rent to my parents during college which also helped me achieve early financial stability.) If you are trying to convince your parents to let you live at home for free, note the fact that you will be less likely to become a boomerang baby if you can set up your finances well from the beginning by paying no rent or low rent.
Be respectful of their rules, contribute to the house chores, and act like the adult you know you are. Chances are good they will slowly stop caring what you do as long as you aren’t calling them for bail money. Respect thy parents. Seriously, ANY help they give is worth its weight in gold (or green) at this time in your life.
Another big money saver is skipping Spring Breaks or doing them locally. I didn’t go on any big party vacations each March like some fellow students. I also didn’t catch any STDs from Tijuana hookers or DUIs from the Miami Police Department. Seems like a fair trade.
Plus, the money saving tips in this post and this site in general allow me to have more fun and fulfilling vacations now that I am older. Don’t let FOMO be the reason you have crippling debt until you’re 40.
So there you have it, everything I know about how to do college as pragmatically as possible. Pick and choose, do what’s reasonable for you, and save some money. To complete the story, the summer after I graduated college I had a great savings built up, a full time job offer, and was able to put $7500 down on a luxury sedan that was only 2 years old.
I still had over 10k in the bank after the purchase, but it was a total splurge and I actually regretted shortly after. So there’s one big mistake (of many) which I made in my younger years. Thankfully I was able to trade it for a cheaper car that I drove for the next 6 years and put the money towards a down payment on my first house.
To sum up:
- Get a part-time job in high school
- Take advantage of AP classes in high school
- Explore community colleges and any partnerships they have with universities
- Consider trade schools in up and coming industries
- Stick with in-state colleges for cheaper tuition
- Take general education classes in your first year
- Look for internships during college or any part-time job
- Check for financial assistance or scholarships available based on income or grades
- Work full-time during summer and holiday breaks
- Save as much money as you can
- Buy your books used; buy everything used
- Respect thy parents
- Live at home for as many years of college as you can
- If you can’t live at home, don’t live downtown or on campus
- Skip spring breaks, or do them locally
- Don’t waste your money on a new car when you graduate
I hope this article has helped you or your soon to be freshman think about college as less of a money sink and more of an opportunity to challenge an old and antiquated way of earning a college degree. Leave a comment below if anything here has worked for you or you have your own tuition-saving tip!
Sign up for my weekly newsletter (we do not spam your inbox or sell your information):