This guest post from Penny Saver is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. It’s a response to Crystal’s reader story about how she avoided student loans. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. Penny Saver writes about making the most of meager means at The Saved Quarter.

Two weeks ago, Crystal shared her story about how she avoided student loans. Though a lot of the comments argued about if she really avoided student loans, I was more interested in the comment from Carla, who wrote:

Now that I’m in my mid 30′s, I’m almost determined to do the impossible. It would be nice to have articles highlighting people who do/did go to college as ADULTS with challenges such as disabilities, no financial cushion (parents) and/or who is not as sharp as Crystal and have to struggle.

Although I’m not dealing with disabilities, I’m a returning student in my thirties, living on a low income without parental support. Years at home with children have addled my brain a little! I wanted to share how college can be done — debt-free even — as a returning adult.

Work or School?
I always knew I wanted to go to college and get my degree. But between community college and now, life got in the way. The first time around, I didn’t have much support at home while in college. I wasn’t able to take out student loans to pay for college without my parents signing the FAFSA, but they were unwilling, and were unable to provide me with monetary support themselves, so I took a year off to save up money and pay my own way. That year turned into two. Then three. Then four. Eventually, I woke up a decade later — happily married with kids, but without my bachelor’s degree.

My education was on the back burner, the goal simmering while I stayed home to parent two young children and to support my husband in building his business. While this was personally satisfying, the full-time job of parenthood doesn’t come with a paycheck and didn’t present me with the challenges that I know I’m capable of achieving. When the economy took a nose-dive and my husband’s income feel, it seemed to make financial sense for me to go back to work. But my lack of a degree and years out of the workforce — to change diapers, read Dr. Seuss, and play Candyland — didn’t help my résumé rise to meet current hiring managers’ expectations.

We were debt-free, but we struggled to make ends meet. Taking a low-wage job would cost my family money after accounting for childcare. It was clear that going back to school would give me skills, something to put on my résumé, and that all-important degree. By going back to school, I could skip the low-wage job and start a career for myself after graduation. It would also fulfill me in a way that my family life couldn’t: I could complete the goal that I’d set out for myself, expand the way I look at the world, and show my children the importance of education, hard work, and determination.

Making the Dream Come True
In 2010, I set a goal to save a quarter of our income: $6,000 for an emergency fund. When I met my goal, I realized that debt-free college was also achievable. I set that as my follow-up goal. I still don’t have (nor do I expect) financial support from my parents, but I’m taking advantage of a variety of options available to low-income and returning students to get through and graduate from college debt-free.

I returned to school last fall, taking classes at night while my husband is home with the kids. I do my schoolwork during naptime. I opted to take business classes at a small private college that would allow me to graduate in two years, rather than at a state school, where it would take me four years. The expense is greater, but I’ll graduate and return to the workforce two years sooner — a cost-effective tradeoff. Balancing my home and school life — as well as blogging and bringing in money through a variety of odd jobs — is more difficult than it was when I was nineteen. Still, I haven’t been disappointed in my decision to return.

What is this costing me?

  • Tuition and fees for 17 courses at primary college at $1,500 per course = $25,500
  • Tuition for 6 courses at community college to complete lower division work = $0 (I get California’s Board of Governor’s waiver, which covers my community college tuition)
  • Course materials and books for 21 courses at an average $100 per course = $2,100 (I avoid the school bookstore, instead opting to save on textbooks by buying online, using ebooks, and other methods of getting them for less than full price)
  • Fees at community college = $186

So, the total I’ll need to graduate is $27,786. I don’t count “room and board”, which hasn’t changed since returning to school. Where will this money come from?

  • Pell Grant: $13,875
  • Individual Development Account Matching Grant: $6,000 (I’m contributing $2,000 of this $6,000 matching grant)
  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit: $2,000
  • Bernard Osher Scholarship: $2,500
  • Out of pocket: $3,411

I’m incredibly grateful for programs like the Pell Grant, Individual Development Accounts, and scholarships that help unconventional, older, and low-income students reach their goals. These programs increase the options for gainful employment. Without them, I wouldn’t have gone back to school, a step that will surely improve my chances of financial independence.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.

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