Graduating debt free

I stumbled across an article from the Deseret News this morning about how to graduate from college debt free.  This is one thing my husband and I have in common- we both graduated from college with absolutely no debt from college.  What a blessing this has been for us in our marriage!  Perhaps a post on how we both did it would be of use to others, so I share our stories not to boast but to offer a testimonial that it can indeed be done.

How did we do it?  Simple, both of us have rich parents that paid all of our expenses.
Or not.  Actually, the opposite is true.  Both of us have parents who expected us to pay our own way and encouraged us to work hard to get the job done.  We both knew that if college was important to us, we needed to take charge early on.  Both of us began preparing for it years before we entered the classroom.

Michael’s story

Michael’s story is fairly simple to tell.  He was an excellent student,took challenging classes, and got a 4.0 in high school making him one of 7 valedictorians.  He also had a reasonable ACT score of 27.  When he started college, he began at the local university extension.  He went in and asked the admissions officer if they offered any scholarships and she gave him a form, also advising him not to hold his breath as there were a lot of applicants.  So he wasn’t expecting much from it.  What a blessing when he was instead offered a full-ride scholarship as long as he kept his grades up.  He attended one year at USU’s extension in Vernal, simultaneously living at home, thus saving on room and board.  Then he served a two-year mission for our church in Mexico.  This is what he had saved money for in high school and during the summers, not college.  His parents and local congregation helped pay for his mission as well as his sisters (paying for two missionaries at once can be hard!).  When he returned, he finished up his associates degree in Vernal before finishing up the last two years in Logan.  He still had the full-ride scholarship but now needed to pay for room and board.  Most of these expenses were paid with money he earned during the summer in Vernal killing mosquitoes.  His first year he was a peer mentor on the Compute Science floor, a job that provided him with free board.  In this manner, he graduated from college debt free.  It really pays to be a good student!

My Story

My experience was a little different.  Because I was homeschooled, I had to make a very conscious, personal, and difficult choice when I started 9th grade on whether or not to continue.  Because I certainly wanted to go part-time and participate in the music classes, the teachers and advisers became aware of me.  I have a lot of musical talent, especially for such a small school, and they were hoping that I could represent the school as the Music sterling scholar.  I was told I had a good chance of winning or placing at regional, which would give me some valuable scholarships.  This was a very tempting offer and was hard for me to turn down, but ultimately I did and I don’t regret that decision.  But this experience and time of deep reflection on my part was also a time when I embraced the fact that I was the one responsible for my education.  It was when I truly knew that I was college bound and that I needed to work hard to prepare for it.  While I was an average academically (my 23 on the ACT was the average for incoming freshman at USU where I attended), I worked hard as a music student, was involved in numerous service projects in the community, and overall gave myself a portfolio of experiences I hoped would help me gain scholarships when the time came.
My first semester of school was actually at Francis Marion University in South Carolina as my family moved there for a year.  I earned a music scholarship and my parents paid for the rest.  I paid for my gas and books.
Back in Utah, my first year at USU I had a 4-H half tuition scholarship and again paid for my gas.  My parents told me that they wanted to help each kid with the equivalent of one semester of college or a mission, so this year was it.  From my second year on, I would be on my own.  Well, not completely, they still were offering me free room and board as long as I was attending college, and this helped, although the commute and gas was the trade-off.
The 4-H scholarship was going to be a four-year thing, but the funds dried up.  That summer I worked at a boy scout camp and applied for more scholarships.  I won $1500 the local credit union and earned about $2000 for my work at the camp. This was enough to attend that fall and pay for part of the spring semester.  I was also teaching piano lessons all through college.
That spring I needed a loan to pay for the rest.  My parents couldn’t co-sign.  While I try to keep my political beliefs out of this blog, it is relevant to say that I’m a Ron Paul kind of girl and had moral objections to financial aid.  I never applied for it.  But what surprised me was that none of the banks offered independent student loans.  I tried and searched, and as far as I could tell, the ONLY way to get a student loan was through the federal government.  My dad made getting a student loan sound so easy, and in his day, it really was.  I tried getting a private loan, but I didn’t have enough credit, nor did my car have enough collateral.  The banker felt for my situation and told me she would try to get me a high-risk private loan that would have a higher interest.  I felt like it was my only hope and told her to try.  Then I looked to my left and saw a poster for their credit card that was offering a much lower introductory rate and asked if I could obtain one.  The teller said “Of course!”  She was thrilled to get a commission on THAT, and the bank was more than willing to increase my limit so I would have the required funds.  They even did a free transfer to my checking account so I could write out a check to the university.  I don’t hate credit cards.
Over the course of the next few years, my good grades and performance at the school, as well as taking certain classes enabled me to earn a few music scholarships along the way.  I took advantage of a “check” offer I got in the mail to pay the university with a credit card again.  Now those checks have a balance transfer fee, but these ones didn’t.  One year I didn’t have enough money to go full-time, so I went part time and worked part time at a thrift store.  One semester I simply didn’t have enough money so I went full-time to the LDS Institute.  I was still allowed to be in the Jazz band.  Love that teacher!  Between work in the summer, teaching piano lessons, and scholarships, as well as a tight belt and free room and board, my pattern seemed to be that I could pay fall tuition in full and go a little into debt for the spring.  I had an account where I paid a yearly fee and didn’t have any fees for checks that dug into my credit card account.  I kept a $0 balance and paid every cent I made towards the credit card.  I also made necessary purchases from the same card.  This really helped chunk down my debt.  My husband and I have used a similar principle with a personal line of credit during our married life.  I married him debt free with one year of college left.  He was already finished with college and had a good job.  He paid for my fall semester and I finished off my last semester with a music scholarship.

So there you have it, my husband and I both graduated debt free.  I had bits of credit card debt during the process, but I never let it last more then a few months.  Michael also put some of his expenses on a credit card, which he always paid off during the summer.  He didn’t have to cinch his belt as tight as I did, but the principle was the same.

For our children, we haven’t saved a dime for their college expenses.  Just as it pays to be a good student, we feel that our money would be better used investing in their education now.  I could save $100 now which would be enough to pay for a book or two later when the need it, OR I could spend that money on their education now, giving them the skills they need to do well in college.

There are other options for youth as well.  Consider youth like Grace Bush, who, through duel enrollment graduated from college and high school simultaneously.  There are certification programs, apprenticeships, internships, and even the local library.  I’m intrigued by The Great Courses as a resource for college-level material my whole family could enjoy, and I recommend Arthur Benjamin’s Mental Math when it’s on sale.  I want all of my children to earn a degree.  Our homeschool education and the curriculums we choose are part of a design for the college-bound student.  We will prepare them for the ACT, search for scholarship programs, find community projects to round out their education, and after all we can do, cross our fingers for those scholarships.  But if not, there are alternatives to the student debts that plague so many college graduates today.

P.S.  Now I see I wrote a similar post in 2011.


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  • Becki's comment:
    I love this post! My husband and I graduated debt free too! People think we were just "lucky", but really… we just had to be creative. I lived at home the first two years of school (free room & board) and worked my tail off to pay for school. The third year, I moved in with a friend, whose husband was in the military. She didn't want to be alone, and the military paid for rent, etc. I agreed to buy all groceries & pay half the utilities. It was $300/month. I could afford that! My husband worked full time during the day and took night classes (part time). After abot 60 credits were done, his parents offered for us to move in with them (we had two young kids), he worked his tail off and we saved for 15 months. We also sold our condo (we only needed $2000 for down payment, which we got from wedding gift money & sold it three years later making $20,000… talk about investment!). Between that and the money saved at his parents, we moved out into a TINY apartment and he became a full time student, no working for either of us. Baby three came. He finished in 1.5 years (taking summer classes). He did have a student loan before we moved in with his parents, but we paid it off before he went back to school to finish. I tried working here and there, but I couldn't balance work & family, so we decided to be a POOR family instead 🙂 I love hearing about other people's stories! Thanks for sharing.

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