Steering Clear of College Debt: Part II

This post corresponds with my first post about graduating from college without debt. Part I was about my choice to pay my way through college and the statistics backing up my choice.This part (Part II) is all about the “little things” I did to accomplish that goal. Most things will seem trivial, or like they’re not worth the time. But even if they’re not saving you a lot of money at once, several of these things together, or over time, can save you a TON! They add up very quickly, trust me. Besides, I made it through college by paying cash, didn’t I?

I would like to quickly address a few questions and myths that I get asked about all the time when talking to students about paying cash for college instead of taking loans.

Getting married in school DOES NOT mean you automatically get more FAFSA money.

When you file for FAFSA, your “income” is your parents’ income. Even if they don’t give you a dime, you are still considered their dependant. This is amazing to me, because I was earning my own income and paying my own bills after my first year, but I still had to use their information. So, I asked my financial aid counselor about filing independently, and was told that until I turned 24 (seriously), got married, or had a child, I had to use my parents’ information – even if I filed my taxes as an independent. I jokingly said, “well, I could fix two out of three of those right now, but I don’t think you’d really want me to do that.” She didn’t find it funny. I did however eventually get married while still in college. But just like before, the FAFSA is STILL based on the income of you and your spouse, not your marital status. My husband worked full-time, so his salary was large compared to other married students and that disqualified us from being “in need.” I did not receive any federal aid once we were married. BUT, despite this, I would still prefer not getting anything because he made too much money than to receive grants because we were both in school and working minimal hours. Why? Because we would probably be paying our living expenses with loans…totally NOT worth it!

Having enough loans to cover your balance DOES NOT mean you can afford college.

My rule for school was that if I didn’t have the money, I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t go, period. Dave Ramsey says that living debt-free requires you to think like a rich person instead of a poor person. When a rich person talks about affording something, they are talking about whether they can afford to buy the whole thing NOW, with CASH. But when a poor person thinks about whether they can afford something, it is based on whether or not they can afford the payments. You must think like a rich person, especially if you’re not “rich.” If you don’t have enough scholarships, grants, or CASH to pay your ENTIRE balance, YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! In fact, the truth here is the banks you borrowed tons of money from were the only ones that could afford to go to college.

Not having enough money for school DOES NOT mean you need more scholarships.

Most students I talk to about paying cash for college always ask about where to find more scholarships, because they assume that is why I could afford it. For my situation, and for most, scholarships were NOT the only answer! I did a little digging to get a few extras, but I had to come up with the balance myself. I want to give you some advice: If you depend on scholarships to cover your balance, and think you cannot afford to go to school because you do not have enough of them, you actually need to look at what you can do instead. Certainly there are scholarship and grant options to look into, and you should definitely try to find them. But like most things in life after 18, college is a privilege, and it is a choice you make. It is not something you are forced into. Don’t depend on everyone else, like your parents, grandparents, the government, or other scholarships, to come up with the money to make it affordable for you to go to college. YOU are responsible for paying your tuition and you alone.

So how do you do this, you ask? Read on…

This is a long list of everything that helped me get through school, along with an estimate of how much money I PAID (money I spent), SAVED (money I did not spend), or EARNED (money I made) by doing them. The totals are based on the average cost or savings from 2004-2011.

Tuition and Scholarships

Because of inflation, tuition went up an average of $1,000 every year. From when I started in 2004, to when I finally finished in spring 2011, tuition went from being barely $20,000 to being over $27,000. My suggestion: start working as soon and as often as you can and SAVE, SAVE, SAVE! I grew up tithing 10%, saving 10%, and spending the rest…which I did, in a very “wise-teenagerly fashion.” But how about tithing 10%, spending 10% and SAVING 80%??

TOTAL EARNED (10%): $500


For graduation, my mom handed out a list of supplies and things I needed for my dorm room to friends and family who asked what I would like as a gift. I received the majority of what I needed from everyone and only bought bedding, a few organizational things, and a backpack. The money I got as gifts went straight to my savings account, and totaled $2,800. This included the $1,000 I mentioned in Part I that was sent to me by a church member.


Talk with your admissions counselor about every possible option. Be sure and tell them your story, your financial status, and ask about anything that you might be qualified for. Then do the leg work and APPLY. We called every week or two the summer before my first semester. Pretty soon the secretary knew me by name…in fact, she still does. Most of the scholarships I received were not on my original award letter. I had to apply individually to each of the others. By the end of the summer $1,700 per semester was added in scholarships to my account. The next year I was nominated for another scholarship by a friend, and an additional $1,000 per semester was added. I continued to receive all of these until I graduated. Money doesn’t fall out of the sky for those who aren’t working for it. Apply, and prepare for rain.


Each semester I wrote a letter to the Financial Aid Appeals Committee at school, asking for additional grants to help cover my outstanding balance. Although I only received it twice, it was time well spent. It took 15-30 minutes to write a letter and I had $500 applied to my balance. As a student, you typically can’t make that much money in 40 hours of work. Take the time, and DO the extra things, as you will see, they add up!


Most school financial aid counselors will suggest online scholarship search engines like Fast Web. While you do have a chance of getting money from one of these essay contests, your chances are very small because nearly every college in America suggests these sites. I found that most of the essays available to me were for random things like writing about being a vegetarian (which I am not). I tried several essays, but had no luck. This does not mean you shouldn’t try, but know that you more than likely have a very tiny chance of winning.


Try for local scholarships in your town through organizations, your church, or in my case, the credit union where I did my banking. I wrote an essay for their scholarship contest which was not really, but kind of ironically, about the importance of financial responsibility, and I won $500. Of course, there were only four entries, so that meant everyone won, but hey, those are WAY better odds than Fast Web!


While I was away from school, I stayed on top of my education by taking classes at the local community college for things like speech and Spanish. If I had not taken these extra classes, I would have had to take them at my school, and with two majors at 18+ credits a semester, I could not fit it all in. On top of that my school financial aid scholarships expired after eight semesters so I had a time limit. I opted to take two classes at a local community college to be able to finish everything else in the allotted time. I ended up paying $718 cash per class at a community college. BUT, to take those same classes at my Alma Mater, I would have paid $1,245 each, and THAT would have been out of pocket.

TOTAL PAID: $1,436


Car or No Car?

I did not have a car for the first two years, saving money monthly on insurance (about $30/month) and gas (about $60/month).This worked out just fine for me because I was on the meal plan those two years and didn’t need to get groceries. Often times a group of friends would take a Wal-Mart trip, so getting things I needed was no problem. I also carpooled with friends to get my parents house for breaks. Gas was usually split four ways making it way cheap.


During my first year, my uncle gave me his old car that he had recently replaced. At the time I did not know how to drive a stick shift and so it sat in my parents’ driveway for several months. I finally decided I could not justify paying for insurance, gas, and upkeep on a car because I still had a balance on my school bill. So I put the car up for sale. It sold within a few days and I was able to apply the total of the sale to my outstanding bill.


When I finally did get a car a few years later, I paid cash. It was a 1994 Corolla, and it cost me $1,600. Everyone criticized me for it then, saying I should buy new, or that a lease on a car was worth it because you would save so much money on repairs. As you can imagine, there was NO WAY I was going to take a loan for a CAR, much less, lease one. At $150+ per month to “borrow” a car, it was definitely not worth it to me. Now, here we are five years later, and I still have that Corolla. It gets amazing mileage, and it (*knock on wood*) is rarely in need of repairs. When it does need repairing, my husband typically fixes it, and because it is a Toyota, parts are cheap. When he can’t fix the problem, we don’t have to take it to a dealer because just about everyone can work on a Toyota, and those repairs are usually inexpensive as well. Just because it’s new and may not have many repairs, doesn’t mean it’s cheaper if you have to take it to a specialty shop every time it does break down. Shiny cars aren’t always the best cars, or the best way to save $$$. Plus Manuel’s (yes, we name our cars) little front bumper is crooked, so he is always smiling and happy to see me!

TOTAL PAID: $1,600

TOTAL SAVED (Without a lease for 5 years): $7,400

Weekly and Monthly Expenses

As soon as I was old enough to live in the on campus apartments (there are upper classman and GPA requirements for these apartments), I did. The apartments allowed you to be off of the meal plan, which typically costs $2-3,000 a year. Doing my own thrifty shopping, I only spent about $30 a week instead for two semesters. I could do all of my own food prep because the apartments had full kitchens. I would make my own pizza (even the crust), soups, and would avoid pre-packaged meals. Easy Mac is handy, but leftovers are even cheaper, AND healthier. Of course, when you’re in college, PB&J is your best friend too.


The same goes for things like car repairs, making your own pillows and curtains, and mending clothes. There is something to be said of homesteading, and having sewing skills and the ability to do basic home repairs can save you a lot of money over time. One of my roommates recovered some yard sale chairs for the kitchen, and even reupholstered a whole couch for our living room! My husband will always try to fix our car before he takes it to a shop, and he never takes it to have things like an oil change done, he does it himself.


I worked off of this budget while in school and out of school from 2004-2006 and added insurance, gas, and groceries in 2006 until 2009 when I got married. With every paycheck I took 10% from pre-tax dollars and gave it away, to church, organizations, missionaries, etc. Then, per month I paid: $30 for a child I have been sponsoring in the Dominican for several years, $20 for laundry, $40 for spending/entertainment, $30 for car insurance, $120 for groceries (while in school), and $60 for gas. The balance went straight to any outstanding bills, or to savings for the next school bill. My parents did not support me financially after my first year, so when I took semesters off from school they let me live with them for free. I was able to live rent free, do my laundry for free, and eat there for free! This was a HUGE help, as it saved me 27 months total of those expenses.

TOTAL PAID: $12,960

TOTAL SAVED (Rent, Laundry, Food x 27 Months): $13,230

I saved on entertainment by taking advantage of the student discounts everywhere I went, like movies, and restaurants. The school also had cheap ticket offers for things like concerts and places to visit, even weekend trips to the beach. They also had a bunch of free activities, yearly events, and regular giveaways like coffee or ice cream on campus. Big Plus: We were in the mountains, so having a love of the outdoors and being surrounded by national parks was helpful too.

TOTAL SAVED: Free or 10% off

My uncle paid for my phone bill for the first three years I was in school. This was a gift from him to help me out, saving me about $50 a month. It was great to be able to keep in touch with everyone for free, but once I met my husband, it made more sense for us to be on the same phone plan. Besides that, we were racking up the long distance and texting bills as he was in Ohio and I was in Tennessee!


Get a Job, and KEEP It!

I held a job with 15+ hours a week while in school full-time from my first semester to 2010, and 40+ hours a week when not in school (I did not work my last year because I had a schedule of 21 credit hours…all art classes). This was so important, because again, you can’t expect money to fall from the sky if you’re not working for it. Plus, it kept me on a tight schedule which taught me to prioritize like crazy, especially when I was dating my husband and he would frequently visit on the weekends.


Most of the time, I worked in what was like a hamburger and fries kind of café that was on campus. It not only paid better than the work study jobs that I didn’t always qualify for, but I got a free breakfast, lunch, or dinner (worth around $6-7) if I worked that shift, and unlimited drinks (including my morning coffee) while on the clock. This was super nice when we first got married as it saved on groceries.


While working when taking semesters off, I had a job that allowed me to have the flexibility to work any holidays and summers that I was there. The best part was they had a tuition program. For every hour I worked, I received $2 in a non-taxable savings account. When I was ready to start school, I brought them the bill and they cut me a check. NEVER underestimate the power of $2 an hour!


Textbooks and Supplies

Books are one of the most expensive “extra” college fees, but contrary to popular opinion, you can lower this expense. I would pick up my book list as early as they were made available (usually a few days before classes started). I compared the prices between the campus bookstore,,, and other students who were selling their books, and purchased the cheapest one. All year long I would be careful not to write or highlight in the books, or bend up the pages and corners. Then right before school started the next year, I would list those texts on I almost always sold them for the same price I paid and made all of my money back – and it usually covered the cost of my next list of textbooks. You may think just buying them in the bookstore is easier and cheaper than purchasing them online. Part of this is true, waiting a week or so for your books can be inconvenient, but I was always able to share or get copies of the reading from my professor. But the “trouble” was worth it, because I never paid more than $100 a year for books.

TOTAL PAID AND SAVED: Total Cost of Books

I double majored in art and photography, so while I did not have as many textbooks as other majors, you can imagine the amount and the cost of my supplies each semester! I used coupons for craft stores, and took advantage of any free supplies given to us in class. I also made my own canvas stretchers, and stretched the canvas myself – saving a few dollars with each one that was handmade. For photography, I ordered printing paper film, and digital prints from Adorama or B&H, which was usually much cheaper than art supply stores.


When I had two shows to prepare for my final semester, I had nearly sixty pieces that needed to be matted, framed, and put behind glass. I was given a reference for custom cut glass that was sold at a cheap student price. I purchased the mat board at Hobby Lobby for 50% off (a frequent sale) and cut all of the mats myself, and lucky me – I married a carpenter! My patient husband, with the workshop and help of a friend, built, primed, painted, or stained, every frame by hand. By doing this, he saved us seriously HUNDREDS of dollars because of the custom sizing I needed for each piece (as an example – my larger frames priced at $50-70 and they were made for $10 each instead, glass and hanging hardware included).

TOTAL SAVED: Mega, Mega $$$

Here’s the proof that all these “little things” like taking a few minutes to apply for extra scholarships, paying cash for a car, avoiding pre-packaged foods, and taking advantage of free stuff, REALLY DO add up:






$29,436 (+Mega $$$)

Seems a little easier to imagine paying $44,670 CASH for college over those seven years now, huh?

For those of you who want school to happen in four years with no exceptions, or those of you who think being debt-free is luck, or those of you who read this whole list of stuff I did to get through school, and still ask, “So…HOW did you do it?,” this is not for you. Unless you’re a brainy smarty-pants that gets a full ride to Harvard, there will be some sacrifices and lots of hard choices to be made. If you want it enough you’ll do the work, and if you don’t, you won’t. Because honestly, the brainy smarty-pants that gets a full ride didn’t get it by sitting around wondering how they could become smarter.

Living debt-free is a mindset, not a luxury, or good fortune, or lots of money, it is a lifestyle, and a way of living. It is a daily choice and it can be done on a single income, a low income, or a ton of income because it is about how you handle your money, not how much of it you have. You must work for debt-freedom, without expecting the world to support or appreciate your efforts. And you must be okay with life being seemingly “unfair” at times, because what seems unfair now will be the thing that puts you way ahead of the pack later.

Tune in next Monday to read Creating a Budget on a Budget, to find out how we combined our incomes and made paying off old student loans a priority.


2 thoughts on “Steering Clear of College Debt: Part II

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Beat Your Budget | Mighty Metz

  2. Pingback: 5 Ways to Creatively Pay for College | Mighty Metz

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