How to graduate from college with zero debt

A guide to getting your degree without going broke

College woman.
(Image credit: iStock)

When I first began looking at colleges during my junior year of high school, I quickly became swept away with the idea that I should go to university in London. I received an application in the mail, and pored over the beautiful, glossy pages of the campus brochures, resplendent with photographs of campus life against the backdrop of Big Ben and the London Eye. Cost had not yet crossed my mind when I decided that this course of schooling was definitely my destiny.

Though I had certainly not requested it, another application graced my desk days later from the local in-state university about an hour's drive away. At first I thought it was my parents' way of implying I needed a backup school (another consideration that had failed to cross my mind), and was offended by their lack of faith in my academics. When I confronted them about my educational choice, however, I was met with an even more sobering realization: My college degree came with a price tag, and I was the one who had to pay.

My parents had gone through a rough financial patch, and while they would help me in whatever way they could, the cost of college living was going to land on me. It was something I needed to prepare for. They told me I needed to apply for scholarships, save for moving expenses, and make sure I was able to hang onto a job — because my life was about to get a whole lot more expensive.

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Of course I had known college came with expenses, but I didn't realize how much until I lay my two choices side-by-side. Going to university in London would not only have the initial investment of moving my life overseas, it would also come with a much higher cost of living, restrictions on working, and around $20,000 per year in tuition after the exchange rate. My in-state university offered GPA-based scholarships to residents, there were many grants I qualified for, there were nearby housing options under $500 a month, and I could transfer my retail job to work near the university. Not to mention my in-state school had a much more renowned journalism program than the one in London.

Going to college in London, if it was feasible at all, would keep me in debt for the rest of my life. Going to college at my local university, however, offered me the opportunity to make it through college completely debt free.

Of course, getting through college debt free was not a given. It was going to require a lot of hard work, research, and a serious crash course in budgeting. Still, I was able to make it through all four years without taking out a single student loan or carrying a credit card balance thanks to a few key steps I took along the way:

1. Choose the right school

The biggest college expense is tuition, and choosing the right school made the difference between me coming out with over $100,000 in debt or breaking even. There has never been a moment I have regretted choosing the latter. In-state schools are usually much cheaper for residents, though some schools offer resident tuition to students from neighboring states as well. Either way, sticking close to home can make a huge difference in getting you through college debt free.

2. Apply for financial aid

Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the number one reason I got through college debt free. Because my parents had gone through a rough financial time prior to my college years, I was eligible for a number of grants — including the Pell Grant, which covered a large portion of my tuition. I was left with only $1,000 to cover in tuition costs most years, and with essay and GPA-based scholarships, I was able to make up that difference easily.

3. Work

Those student loans still looked very tempting even after covering my tuition, because there were lots of costs outside of school, like finding a place to live, feeding myself, and hopefully having some fun every now and again. I worked no less than 25 hours a week throughout my college years, sometimes working a full 40 hours or more between two jobs — all while going to school full time. It certainly wasn't easy, but it helped me cover my living expenses and prepared me for the demands of the real world.

4. Live off campus

As much as I wanted to sign up for one of the luxury dorms with my high school bestie, as soon as I crunched the numbers I knew I would have to bid this dream farewell. Living off campus was a less expensive option, and came with the added bonus of allowing me to cook my own food so I didn't blow my budget in the school cafeteria.

5. Budget

Next to the financial aid I received, budgeting was the most important key to my debt-free success. Working minimum wage jobs to cover living expenses didn't leave me with a lot of wiggle room, so I had to make sure I always had a good grasp of my budget at any given time. I had to forgo a lot of activities, from eating out to dropping my fraternity because I couldn't afford it. Budgeting was difficult, and to be honest, I sometimes hated it, but it gave me freedom from debt, and that was huge.

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