How I Graduated College Student Loan Debt-Free

Did you know that as of June 2017 Americans owed a combined $1.34 trillion on their student loans? Just ten years ago the figure was less than half as much; $514 billion .

Student loans are now the largest form of consumer debt in the U.S. other than mortgages—even more than car loans and credit card debt. If you don’t have student loan debt yourself, you most likely know a few friends that do.

I graduated college in 2016 and the majority of people I went to school with graduated with some amount of student loan debt. With college costs continuing to increase at rapid rates, it now seems impossible to go to college and not take loans out to make it happen.

Fortunately I graduated college 100% student loan debt-free. I never applied for a loan, never took one, and never wanted to. I don’t say this to brag but I do say it because it IS possible.

How did I do it?

I’ll start with a little bit of background: I paid for college mostly by myself. Not because my parents didn’t want or couldn’t help pay for it, but because it was something I wanted to do for myself. I’ve always been pretty independent and from a young age if there was something that I could pay for on my own, I wanted to do it. Now although I paid for my own tuition, books, parking permits, etc., it wouldn’t be fair for me to say I didn’t have any help. I was very fortunate that my parents were super supportive and there were a lot of things they did pay for that helped me a lot. For example: I never had to pay rent which alone is a huge deal.

I recognize that for many different reasons not everyone is as lucky to have the situation I did with my parents. As a result, I completely understand that it may be far more difficult for some to be able to graduate student loan debt-free than it was for me. However, I believe that the steps I took can be applied by many and help you graduate with as little debt as possible, if not completely debt free.

Here are the reasons I was able to do this:

I started at a community college
As kids you would always dream about going to an amazing college, leaving your parents house and starting your “adult” life immediately after graduating high school. Let’s be real, nobody ever tells you that it’s okay to go to a community college even though you literally take the same coursework for the first two or so years of college no matter where you go. Sure it’s not as “cool” or “prestigious”, but you get your first two years of college out of the way for a FRACTION of the cost. A California resident can attend a community college for $46 per unit. Assuming they would take 12 units (which is full-time) per semester, their tuition would cost $552 per semester. Tuition for a full time student at a California State University is about $3200 per semester. Finally, the average cost of a private school’s tuition per semester is $16,000. I’ll spare you the chart — you can see how this can save you thousands of dollars.

I transferred to a public university
After finishing up my general education at a community college, I had two options: transfer to a public university or transfer to a private university. I was accepted and decided to attend California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). Going to CSUF was one of the best decisions of my life. I enjoyed every semester I got to spend there, made awesome friends, and it led me to my current job and career. The decision to attend CSUF wasn’t only for financial reasons. Even though I knew it was going to save me a lot of money, I also decided to go there because of the great business school it has.

I didn’t dorm
I already talked about this one a little bit, but it’s a very important one. I didn’t live on campus or even at an apartment off campus. Living at home saved me thousands of dollars on rent. I’ll admit that commuting is not the most fun and that I may have missed out on some of the typical “college experiences” but I did not let this stop me. In life there are always going to be opportunity costs and you’ll always be giving something up for something else. I gave up being on my own and maybe a few wild parties, but I don’t regret it. My college experience was different but it was still an experience and one that I wouldn’t change for anything.

I worked the entire time I was a student
You probably figured that I didn’t pay for college with positive vibes and by living at home. You caught me! Yes, I had to make money to pay for school. I started off as a cashier at Dollar Tree shortly after graduating high school. It was a fun first job but I knew I needed something that would pay me a little more and with more opportunity for growth. Six short months after starting at Dollar Tree I was hired at Bank of America as a teller. I stayed at Bank of America for over 5 years and worked the entire time I was a college student. It wasn’t easy and honestly at times it did make being a student much harder but it paid the tuition bills and it was also one of the best experiences of my life. My work put me in a very professional and fast-paced setting and there was a lot expected from me. It taught me how to deal with people and also how to excel in a business environment. The skills I learned at the bank are nearly impossible to learn from a textbook, yet I find myself using these skills to this day in my everyday life.

My job offered tuition reimbursement
Another reason why working in college was a great decision! Bank of America offered tuition reimbursement for employees that were studying business or any other job-related major. The way it worked was I would pay for my semester, take the classes (had to pass with a C or better), and then I would submit documentation showing I passed and got approval from a manager. Once that was all in good order, I’d get reimbursed. Of course it didn’t cover my entire tuition and there are limits and rules around it but it still helped A LOT. There are many companies that offer tuition reimbursement for job-related degrees so if you’re considering working while in school, I’d highly recommend looking for a job with this benefit.

Financial aid & scholarships
I didn’t qualify for much financial aid, but when I was in community college I was able to get a reduced tuition rate. Although I didn’t qualify for any grants, this tuition reduction was still helpful – any little bit counts! 🙂 Scholarships are another item I recommend taking advantage of if possible. In hindsight, I wish I had tried harder to take advantage of any potential scholarships that may have been available to me. My senior year I was able to obtain one scholarship that helped me reach my goal of graduating debt free, but this was my only scholarship success.

I never wanted to finish school and owe money for the next 5 or 10 years. While I understand there are scenarios where student loans might be absolutely necessary, the point of this article is to show there are ways to help reduce or eliminate them in many cases. Hopefully you now realize that there is no magic behind graduating debt-free, there are only simple steps you can take to help increase your likelihood of college success. I hope the steps I took will help motivate you to take action in your own college journey so that you can graduate with as little debt as possible as well.
These are the steps that worked for me and my situation. If you are currently in college or will be attending college soon and are curious about loans, I hope these reasons help you.

Nothing on this blog should be considered personal actionable advice, research, or an invitation to buy or sell any securities. Consider all risks before investing, including the loss of your hard earned money. Vee is an Investment Advisor for Warren Street Wealth Advisors, this blog reflects her personal views, and not that of Warren Street.

Leave a Reply