10 Tips to Debt-Proof Your Degree

This list is a collection of effective things I have personally done or observed that will help you graduate college with zero debt. Your goal is to get fired up and motivated to slash spending, boost income, and make decisions that will allow you to graduate without debt as well. It’s seriously the way to go. I’ve  included my own insight about why these things are beneficial and how they will contribute to your bottom line. The focus is on students getting ready for college, but most of this is great info for all students that I’ve picked up after years of researching and experiencing this industry firsthand.
Ready? Let’s do this!

1. Live Off Campus
Using colleges’ own cost estimators, the difference between living on-campus vs living off-campus can be as much as $2,000 per year. The very best off-campus living arrangement is living at home with your parents, which the cost estimator shows as a $6,000 per year savings. Even if you have to do chores, cook dinner sometimes, or even pay a bit of rent, I can assure you that $30K of loan debt will cramp your style a lot more and for a lot longer than crashing at your parents’ house for a few extra years. If it’s not possible to do this, definitely find a place that you can reasonably rent that’s close to campus or your off-campus job.

2. Get a Roommate
Sharing costs associated with living off campus and going to school just makes sense. Cost sharing is one of the most powerful things you can do to save serious money. Plus, having a roommate can help keep you motivated and it encourages both of you to learn valuable, grown-up skills. Communicating expectations, dealing with conflict, and managing your individual and collective resources will be very helpful down the road of life, and you can’t pick up these skills in any classroom.

3. Get Another Roommate
The more people you can share expenses with, the less your individual expenses become. In fact, to save even more money, all your roommates could get on a shared cell phone plan, share subscription services and textbooks, carpool, contribute to the food budget, and otherwise make life a whole lot easier on all of your wallets. Of course you will have to get along with these people and contribute your own share – no freeloaders.

4. Work – A Lot
If you have time to do anything besides homework, housework, and work- work, you aren’t working enough. I worked at least one part-time shift every single day of the week while in school, and it made a difference. Not only did I graduate debt-free with amazing grades, I also put away about 6,000 extra dollars that became my family’s emergency fund. Most colleges have a career services office or campus life office that acts as a portal for on-campus jobs.

On Campus
Get at least two on-campus jobs. The best ones are “stackable” meaning you can do multiple jobs at once or study while at work. I recommend a time-based service job, where you are pretty much paid just to be somewhere in case something happens – like test proctoring, front-desk/help-desk, or filming speeches, combined with a piecework job – like transcription, assignment grading, or freelance writing. This arrangement allows you to be paid to be present, while giving you the time to perform your second job at the same time. If you perform both jobs well, you have a great time-, money-making system. In addition to these advantages, racking up on-campus jobs allows you to avoid commute time, interact with different campus areas or student populations, and become a known presence around the college, adding to your opportunities.

Off Campus
The best off-campus jobs in my opinion, are ones where you can earn tips, bonuses, or other incentives for performance. Just trading your valuable time for a fixed dollar amount gets stressful and disheartening really fast – and your time is limited and valuable. Other things to look for are flexibility and off-shift differentials. For example, I worked weekends at a restaurant, and nights at a newspaper mail room stuffing papers. These combined very well with my school schedule and on-campus jobs. If you can find part-time production work on an evening shift, and do sales, waiter/bartender, or other tip-based jobs on a weekend, and fitting in freelancing and on-campus work while at school, you can have a very fine income stream.

Work-Study
Another thing that I don’t want to overlook is work-study programs through your school’s financial aid office. I was never eligible for these, but they can be an awesome way to increase your income for the on-campus work you should be doing anyway. You’ve probably heard of these programs, so I won’t go into detail, but the gist is you are allotted a fixed sum of money that is applied to your student bill in exchange for working a few hours per week in an eligible on-campus job. The per-hour rate for these jobs is almost always significantly higher than the wages of standard on- or off-campus jobs.

Opposition
There are many people who think working too many hours is harmful to your education. They all like to point to a single study done several years ago, and they are all mostly the people that want you to spend as much time (and money) in college as possible. The way I see it is if working your way through college on your own so you’re debt free at graduation is frowned upon at your campus, it might be time to change schools.

5. Finish Your Degree Fast
The longer you take to complete school, the more money you have to pay. Schools know this and try to keep people on the hook for as long as possible with remedial classes, offering required classes only once-a-year, and sweet electives that just take your time, money, and freedom. The US Department of Education statistics show strong correlations between several interesting factors. Years to degree completion is inversely related to amount of debt at graduation. This means that students who take longer to complete almost always owe more money than students who complete in less time. Another one is selectivity of the school is directly related to completion time, meaning folks who get into more exclusive schools finish their degrees remarkably faster than folks who get into schools that accept everyone. Two potential lurking variables here are selective schools often have better financial aid packages and people who have the drive and ability to get into these kinds of schools would probably have the gumption to finish fast no matter where they attend.

6. Go In-State
Unless you live in a state with no colleges or universities, there is no good reason to effectively double the rate you’re paying just to attend a school in another state. The single exception to this is if you can get a bona fide full-ride scholarship or full athletic scholarship (and no, a “great financial aid offer” does not count – go full ride or go in-state). This also applies to private and for-profit schools – stick to the basics.

7. Go Straight for Your Target Degree
The department of education statistics reaffirms what many already suspect: that students who transfer from community or junior colleges carry more debt upon completion of a bachelor degree than students who start and finish at the same four-year school. Like finishing as fast as possible, the benefits of going straight for what you want are many. Starting at a community college may sound like a good idea in order to save money, but taking a freshman financial aid package at your target four-year college will likely save you more over your course of study. This is because colleges typically offer much better financial aid packages to new students than they do to transfer students. They do this to attract more freshmen who they can convince to stay using on-campus programs and student involvement during their formative first and second year. Unless you are shooting for an associate degree in something practical like nursing, accounting, or industrial science, you’re much better off taking the leap and starting at a four-year school (please don’t kid yourself, an Associate of Arts in general studies will not open a significant, meaningful, or lucrative career field). A possible exception is if you qualify for federal grants that equate to two free years at a community college. But chances are, if you qualify for these grants, you’ll still get a better deal going straight to four-year if that is your goal, since you will get them at four-year schools also. Do the math and compare your options carefully. Thinking long-term and being realistic about your motives and especially your commitment level is key. If you’re unsure that a four-year degree is for you, consider pursuing another avenue that will allow you gain marketable skill and experience with less time and money spent. It is much wiser to pursue a craft or career that you can make a good living at, enjoy, and plan to master than follow peer pressure into a lifetime of debts and regrets. You do not want to be the dude who started at a junior college “to take a few classes and see what happens” staying there five years, with 400 credits, no degree at all, and $45,000 in loan debt. Yes, this really happens, and it makes me want to drive a flaming car, off a cliff,  into a mosh pit full of angry, heavy-metal alligators.

8. Watch your Transfer Credits (High-School)
Like I mentioned in Tip 7, financial aid is typically much better for first-year students (those with less than 36 credits) than it is for transfers. This can get maddening for young, driven, over-achieving students who really put their stuff in gear and bust out a whole bunch of college classes while still in high school, only to find out they’ve lost out on thousands of dollars in financial aid because they have too many credits to begin “real college” as freshmen. This is a real flaw in our current way of educating young people, because there are tons of incentives and great reasons to take college classes in high school like much (MUCH) lower tuition, greater support structure and accountability, and “double dipping” or counting courses as both college and high school credit. The best thing you can do is to have a target school, find out how many credits qualify you as a transfer, and take as many credits as you can but not surpass that threshold while in high school. then Study up and take as many CLEP, or credit by exam, tests as possible to blow through the steaming pile of general education classes that plague the first couple years of the typical college student. You will be light years ahead of your peers if you can work around these expensive, time-consuming boundaries that are designed to drain money from inexperienced young people. Talk to me or a smart home-schooling family about how a few shortcuts in the system can get you through school much faster and for much (MUCH) less money.

9. Keep Your Finances Simple
Really, its easier than it seems to do your finances in term-based or monthly cycles. I actually recommend doing both. Start with your term breakdown – how much you need to pay for school this term, then divide by the number of months to get your monthly needed income and expenses. All you need to do this is a super basic way to track your spending (end of month bank acct balance minus beginning of month acct balance), and a super basic way to account for your income and fixed and variable expenses. Using a percentage-based model and using multiple bank accounts to your advantage, you can basically project, allocate, and live without much upkeep and pretty much meet your obligations and goals in your sleep – the few hours that you can get.

10. Live Frugally
This sort of goes without saying, but there is an art to frugality that I believe deserves a special discussion. There is a kind of honor in being a “starving college student” that you can take a certain pride in. After all, you’re usually only in that position once in your life. You can feel good about yourself when you know where you money is, and better yet, what you are willing to let it go for. Having this knowledge and ability leads to confidence and keeps your goals at the forefront of your mind. Each decision you make impacts your goal outcomes, so you make choices confidently knowing that you are actively working toward your goals. Frugality is not self-deprivation, it is measured and conscious self-denial. Knowing that you can say “no, not yet” to yourself and still be a happy, fulfilled person is one of the most powerful things you can do for your well-being. It inspires creativity and ingenuity more than any class can teach, and it brings with it a host of great stories you can tell in the future. Working through school, for me, was an enlightening experience that showed me that my real honest-to-goodness needs were very minimal and now, the bounty that I have earned will not be taken for granted.

Bonus: 11. Scholarships and Grants All Day Long

I know, you know, we all know that free money is awesome – get yourself some. Millions of dollars in scholarship funds go unclaimed every year, and that is a shame. There are thousands of students every year agreeing to borrow and pay back money they could have gotten for free. You can get scholarships if you try hard enough, no matter who you are. You can make the process easier on yourself by reading my guide on the new way to get hired and apply the same principles of personal connections to scholarship committees, local businesses, and foundations – a little personal connection goes a long way. Pro Tip: go local – talk to organizations in your town first, then venture into regional organizations and businesses, and stop when you start competing for state-wide opportunities. No matter how small your town, there are businesses and groups that love to support college students with grants and scholarships.

Bonus: 12. Reconsider Four-Year College Altogether

Now that you know how to save money and make money in college, think about this: maybe you can pursue your dreams and do what you love in a more non-traditional way. Apprenticeships, Trades, and good old-fashioned gumption can go a long way in making you a good living in a field you really enjoy. Besides seeing college graduates busting their backs in their field in order to pay off huge loans, making them hate their choices, nothing makes me sadder than folks working in the trades and doing what they love but regretting graduating college at all. I know several people who make great money doing skilled labor or running a business, but have degrees in medical science, music, or chemistry that they never used. No, experience is never wasted unless you allow it to be, but folks like this would likely say “I could have been so much further along if I had just started out doing this.” There is honor in pursuing what you want to do, even if it doesn’t require college. You can still be educated, intelligent, and fabulously successful without getting that diploma. It really comes down to what you really want, and what you are willing to do to get it.

Until Next time,
Do Brave Deeds and Endure!
– Ben at Debt Freeks

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