Updated: Mar 15, 2023
The total amount of student loan debt in the United States is substantial. Collectively, more than 45 million borrowers owed almost $1.8 trillion on their loans in 2022.
If you're under the age of 30, you may be one of those 45 million with student loan debt. In fact, 34% of adults under 30 report having student loan balances, according to the Education Data Initiative. That's about twice the rate of adults in the same age range who don't have student loans.
While it might feel as if student loans are an inevitable part of earning your college degree, they don't have to be. You can take action to reduce the amount of debt you take on or avoid it altogether. I would know: When I graduated, I walked across the stage to claim my diploma, and I didn't have a cent of student loan debt—or any kind of debt—to my name. Here are five ways I figured out how to graduate college with no debt.
How did I manage it? It started with a difficult choice. As a native Georgian born to a family obsessed with college football, I grew up believing it was a foregone conclusion that I would attend the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, Georgia.
But when I entered my junior year of high school and needed to seriously consider what colleges to apply to, my parents told me that while they supported my dream to go to UGA, they couldn't help me financially. If I wanted to go to UGA, I'd need to pay most of my own way.
That meant taking out student loans to do it, so I decided to attend a lower-cost school: Kennesaw State University (KSU), in Kennesaw, Georgia. For my freshman year in 2008 at KSU, the total tuition and fees (not including housing) was 31% less per semester than UGA. This decision alone significantly reduced my cost of college.
In addition to attending KSU, the academic merit scholarships I earned helped lower that cost even more by providing an extra few hundred dollars each semester. Two of those came from earning the highest SAT® scores in my county. The other, the HOPE scholarship, was funded by the state lottery and is given to any student with a 3.0 GPA or higher who goes to a state school.
Those scholarships paid my tuition, but they didn't cover things like fees, textbooks, and other living and education expenses. I needed to come up with about $500 per month to fully cover every cost.
I always held a part-time job and used the money earned to pay for things like gas and groceries, which for a period of time, consisted of nothing but cereal. I got sick of ramen, but couldn't afford much else, and didn't know how to cook even if I could have afforded higher-quality food.
Working throughout college meant foregoing unpaid internships, because I couldn't afford not to earn wages to pay my expenses. Still, I had to live frugally to stretch my part-time income far enough to cover my costs and occasionally have a little money left over for the movies or dining out.
If I had gone to UGA, I would have lived on campus as a freshman, which would have further increased my first-year costs. Since KSU was much closer to where my parents lived, I lived at home for part of my college career to save money.
When I did move out, I looked for cheap rent I could split with a roommate rather than opting for KSU's more expensive on-campus housing. My parents also chipped in at the beginning of every semester giving me $300 or $400 to cover my textbooks, and they generously paid my cell phone, car, and health insurance bills while I was in school.
All of this also helped motivate me to get through school as quickly as possible. The sooner I graduated, the faster I could get a "real" job with a full-time salary that would allow me more financial freedom. I graduated a year early by taking more than a full course load each semester (i.e., 15-18 hours) and opting for summer semester classes. This also saved on tuition, fees, and living expenses for another year in college.
Walking across the stage to claim my diploma as a debt-free graduate felt amazing and it helped me start my independent, adult life on the right financial foot. Not dealing with the burden of debt allowed me to save and invest sooner. It also helped me reach bigger financial goals faster, like saving the money I needed for a down payment on my first house.
That doesn't mean avoiding debt didn't come with trade-offs. By working to earn a paycheck instead of devoting time and energy to internships, I could have given up valuable experience that would have made getting a job easier or enhanced my education. In the end, I didn't get a career related to my history degree, either out of college or after working for a few years. While an internship may have helped me do so, today I work as a writer and a marketer, and I love my jobs.
And I know I missed out on fun experiences by skipping spring break trips, studying abroad, and big nights out. But I didn't have the money for that and I wasn't willing to charge expenses I didn't have cash for to a credit card.
Yet I don't have regrets, because the experiences and challenges I did have—and even things I missed out on—brought me to where I am today. I'm on track to be financially independent by my 40s. I own a marketing business, and I get to travel for both work and fun, sharing what I've learned personally and professionally through speaking at big events in my industry.
I wouldn't change anything, but I also understand graduating debt-free doesn't come without considerations and sacrifices.
All this being said, I don't think it's realistic for everyone to make it through college without borrowing money. I can't share my debt-free story without also acknowledging the advantages that helped make it possible for me to graduate without student loans.
Those advantages included access to good public schools throughout my grade school years, which put me in a position to earn scholarships based on academic merit. Not everyone gets to start from that position. But no matter your background, it's worth considering how you can at least reduce your debt burden.
That starts with focusing on what you can control right now. Put your energy into the choices you can make, like living frugally, earning extra income, applying for scholarships, and opting out of activities that cost more money than you have.
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