As graduation season creeps closer, I’ve been reading more and more articles on student loans and the growing burden of debt that comes with a college education. Debt and student loans are two concepts with which I am very familiar, thanks to being the youngest child of four to graduate college. It’s something my siblings would often talk to my parents about as they went through their own college and post-college journeys, and even though I was young, I absorbed bits and pieces and learned something myself along the way.I didn’t know anything about budgeting when I was in high school, but I knew college was a major expense and I would be footing the bill alone. Though my parents were always there to help us when we needed it, at the time they couldn’t necessarily afford to make major contributions to four kids’ tuitions. And that was fine. It made me think carefully about every dollar I spent, and it also helped me value my education more because it was my own investment.
When I decided to study journalism, I knew I had to prepare for a life where I likely would not make a lot of money — at least not for a while. With that in mind, I made a conscious effort to leave college with as little debt as possible. The average debt for college graduates in 2015 was $35,000 — a number that I would be lucky to earn from a before-tax salary as an entry-level reporter. Here’s what I did to leave college with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a minor in English and roughly $13,500 in student loan debt.
Applied for scholarships.
After scholarships. After scholarships. Looking back at my senior year of high school, I can remember days when I did little but fill out applications and write essays for scholarships. Anything from $250 to $50,000 — I applied for every scholarship I was qualified for, and even some that I wasn’t. It’s tedious and boring, but in the end it’s always worth it. My first year of college was 100% free to me, thanks to all those applications.
Enrolled in college courses during high school.
If you’re lucky enough to attend a school that offers college credits that transfer toward your university, DO IT. I can’t say enough how worth it those programs are. I graduated high school with 15 credits that transferred over toward my degree and allowed me to graduate in 3.5 years. Fifteen credits didn’t seem like much when I was in high school, but taking one less semester of college courses saved me thousands in tuition and housing.
Kept on earning my paycheck.
I had worked through most of high school, first at a campground and then as a waitress, and also babysitting and any other odd jobs I could find to make a few bucks. I was used to balancing work and school, so I wasn’t worried about working in college. I took my first semester off just to acclimate myself to a new way of studying and while I figured out the whole “college” thing. Starting in my second semester, I worked the rest of the time I was in school, getting jobs through the university, paid co-ops and summer internships.
Borrowed money at a minimum.
I can’t stress this point enough. As a student, banks are all too eager to throw money at you. It’s easy to get caught up in taking out loans for tuition, room and board, food and fun in general. But knowing it would probably take me more than a decade to pay off the average amount of debt, I opted to take out only what I needed for tuition and things related directly to school, like books. I paid for my housing with the money I earned at work, which was tight at times but saved me thousands in the long run.
Gave up some of the excess.
I didn’t give up my social life completely, but I was also very careful not to spend too frivolously. During college, I spent a shockingly small amount on one of my all-time favorite hobbies: shopping. I was disciplined when it came to buying clothes or eating out, and I was frugal at the grocery store. I didn’t take any big spring break trips to Panama, and I didn’t care about sports enough to make the treks to bowl games or championships.
Found cheaper rent.
While many students opt to live on campus past their first year of college, I chose a slightly longer commute and much cheaper rent. Living in the dorms can be great (it wasn’t for me), but convenience will cost you. I also lived with my sister and later my mom during my last year of college. I still paid rent, but it was much less than I would have paid had I rented my own apartment again. (*Obviously not everyone has the option to board with family during college, but there are plenty of housing options that are more cost-effective. I had friends who shared one bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment and split a third of the rent between the two of them.)
And there you have it. I know not all of these things are options for everyone, and your circumstances will always be different from mine. But my hope is to show that it is possible to graduate with smaller debts than the average student. College is expensive — there’s no getting around that — but it doesn't have to kill your long-term budget. Being proactive and thinking about the years ahead can help you make better decisions in the short term.
Do you have any money-saving tips for college students or grads? How do you stop debt from overtaking your budget? I'd love to know...
P.S. Big Girl Budget 101, thoughts from a college grad and what I learned from failing my budget challenge