5 Tips to Earn Your Degree Debt Free

See also: Student Budgeting and Economic Skills

The Ultimate Guide to Pay Your Way Through College

I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting on 21 September 2016.

It took me exactly 1,843 days (5 years and 16 days) to earn that degree. I spent $24,708.00 on tuition alone, excluding books, fees, and living expenses.

No, I didn’t live with parents and, no, they didn’t provide even $1 towards my education, or living expenses for that matter.

Yet, I am walking away from school with $0.00 in student loans, or other consumer debt. I provided for myself, got married and had a baby (money well spent I might add) during those five years too.

How did I do it?

Here are my five tips to earn your degree debt free; the ultimate guide to pay your way through college.

Tip #1

Save Before You Start

Saving money before you start college seems like a simple enough tip. That may be true; however, in the end students just aren’t doing it! Let’s look at the numbers:

  • The 2018 graduate has $39,400 (average) in student loan debt.
  • The average 4-year public college degree cost $39,880 in 2017-2018 (Collegeboard.org).

What do those statistics prove? That students are using student loans to pay, for the most part, their entire college degree. If students are financing their entire college degree with student loans, then one plausible conclusion is that students aren’t saving up any money to help get them started.

My tip is to save some money before you start. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Wait One Year Before You Start

    There is no shame in not rushing straight for the front door of your local college right after you graduate high school. If you were, instead, to go get a $10 or $12 an hour job right out of high school and work 40 hour a week for one year, you would have earned somewhere between $20,800 - $24,960 (less taxes).

    Assuming that you can keep your expenses low by living at home or getting some roommates, you have a chance to put some serious money in your pocket before you even step inside a college.

  • Work Through High School

    This is a tip specifically for kids who are still in high school. When I was in high school, I went to school, played sports, did all of my homework, and still found time to have a part-time job. By the time I graduated high school, I had close to $10,000 in my savings account. That helped me start off my post-high school life tremendously.

    Even if you aren’t able to save $10,000 before you start college, think how much you could save by working 10-20 hours each week with a part-time job. I bet you would save more than you think!

  • Take College Classes in High School for Free (or Cheap)

    This is another tip specifically for students that are currently in high school. If you are thinking about college, might I suggest that you find out if your high school or local college offers a dual enrollment program? Many high schools and colleges in the country offer such a program.

    Think about it… you can do your regular high school classes, then add in a little extra studying time, and a few extra tests, and just like that you have both college and high school credit! The icing on the top of the cake is that many of these programs are offering college credit for free or at the very least they are very cheap when you consider the normal credit rate at the college. Just consider it...

Take my advice and head into college with some sort of savings account. Imagine how beneficial it would be having $2,500 or $5,000 in your savings account. The impact will be bigger than you might initially expect.

Tip #2

Get a Job & Keep It

I recognize that this next statement might sound weird, but... I really enjoyed working my way through college.

I worked at least 40 hours every week (sometimes more than 40 hours) for all five years I was in school. It was definitely hard… some days and weeks it was really, really hard (specifically finals weeks). I also gave up a lot of things for it, namely my social life, but in the end I learned valuable skills and a host of life lessons along the way.

In addition, my income also increased dramatically during those five years. When I started my first job as a freshman my starting wage was $10.50/hour ($21,840/year). By the time I graduated college, five years later, I had worked my way up to $20.00/hour ($41,600/year).

That is an increase of 90.0% over five years, or an average of an 18.0% increase during each of those five years. Investopedia.com states that the average raise in 2014 and 2015 was around 3.0%. My secret? I worked hard!

Employers like good employees who work hard. Get a job, keep it, and become a great employee and you will get paid well. In addition, your pay will continue to rise, just like mine did. Working as much as I did played a huge part in me being debt free coming out of college.

Here are a few more reasons why you should work through college:

  • Part-Time Earnings Go Farther Than You Think

    If you don’t want to work 40 hours a week like I did, then at least try to get a job that you can work 20 hours a week. Doing that will greatly impact your chance of paying your way through school.

    A job that pays $10.00/hour, working 20 hours a week, will bring in $10,400 each year. Your hourly rate will likely increase as well over time (if you are a good employee) and that number will increase. $10,400 of extra money each year would be huge for most students!

  • Working Becomes an Education All By Itself

    My first job had nothing to do with my accounting degree. However, after moving around a few times I finally ended up working for a company in an entry level of accounting position. It was perfect because I was just heading into my upper division accounting classes right around the same time.

    Working and studying accounting at the same time was a great combo for me, as it allowed me to apply the knowledge I learned at school to my job. Subsequently, I learned things at my job that then made school a whole lot easier and it certainly allowed more topics to finally click in my brain.

    Even if you aren’t as lucky as I was to get into a job that is the same as your field of study, work naturally can be a great education for you. Learning how to be on time, on task, working hard, being a team player, and taking on responsibility will aid in your overall progression through life.

I also might add that employers really like students who already have working experience.

When I started my second accounting job as a senior in college, I beat out another candidate that already had an accounting degree, but lacked any work background. The company I worked for chose me (and also paid me more) because I had already had three plus years of work experience.

Consider getting a job and then work hard. If you can prove that you are a good employee, even if you only work 20 hours a week, you will continue to earn more and more raises, which will ultimately help you pay for school.

Tip #3

Start at a Junior College

I still don’t know why anyone actually goes straight to a 4-year college right out of high school.

You pay more, you have bigger class sizes (so less help from teachers), and it is often a really big jump for a lot of students, both mentally and emotionally.

Attending a junior college, or community college, has many benefits. I want to focus on the following two:

  1. Tuition and fees are lower. CollegeBoard estimates that the average annual cost at a two-year college is $2,963 instead of closer to $9,000 per year at a public state university.

  2. No matter what college or university you go to, or even the major you ultimately decide on, the first two years will mainly comprise general type classes. Why pay $18,000 for the first two years at a four-year university, when you could pay $5,926 for the same education at a junior college?

If you want to increase your chance of getting through school debt free, stay in state and go to your local community college first. Logically it just makes sense!

Tip #4

Maximize Scholarships & Grant Money

This is the tip that I didn’t really have much luck with, but that normally makes sense for a lot of students.

When I was a freshmen and sophomore, I was considered a dependent student, even though I lived away from home and provided for myself. My dad made decent money, so the government wouldn’t give me any grant money.

Then, by the time I was a junior and senior, I was making too much money to get grants even though I was finally classified as an independent student.

Most won’t ever find themselves in my situation; however, it is just wise to apply for and seek out grant and scholarship money. If you can work hard and apply correctly, you can really get some financial help with scholarships.

If you are able to save even a few thousand dollars from scholarships, grants, or even an employer reimbursement program, think about how much better you would be off towards your debt free goal.

Tip #5

Learn How to Budget & Live True to It

Budgeting is a big deal, especially or college students who have a desire to work hard and come away with as little debt as possible. You not only need to create a budget, but then you need to do the harder part and actually stick to it.

When I first started living on my own and working my way through college, I had a simple budget. Over the years, I have become a fanatic about keeping track of every dollar that I spend. I don’t think you need to go that far… start small by:

  1. Listing out all of your income (salary, interest, investment earnings, side business, etc.)

  2. Listing out all of your expense (housing, food, entertainment, schooling, etc.)

  3. Then calculate the difference to find out how much you saved or are losing each month.

Hopefully you are saving money each month. If not, then you need to examine your expenses, and then cut back or eliminate the problem items.

It may be hard at first to give up some of the items that you really love, but I promise that you will be able to enjoy those things again later on. For now, you are temporarily giving up those items for the greater good. Sacrifice will not hurt you in the long run, I promise.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

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I was able to get through school debt free and so can you!

It took me eight months longer than the average student, but I was able to earn a higher wage than most students during those five years that I studied. In addition, I learned some incredible life skills along the way.

Before you go to college, start saving ahead of time. Go out and get a good job and keep it. Work hard and make some money while you attend school. Consider going to a junior college to lower your total education cost and try to maximize on scholarships and grants. Finally, commit to creating and living on a budget.

If you follow all five of my tips, then you too can walk away from school debt free (or at least pretty darn close to it!)

About the Author

Jacob Merkley is a full-time blogger who specializes in Life Skills that put YOU in control.