How I avoided student loans

This guest post from Crystal is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. 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. Crystal writes about finding the balance between paying the bills, saving for the future, and budgeting for the fun stuff at the aptly-titled Budgeting in the Fun Stuff.

When people learn that I managed to avoid college loans, I'm often asked how that happened. It was a mixture of work, luck, and help.

Planning for College

For as long as I can remember, I knew I'd go to college. It was a given. I can't remember my family overtly pushing me that way, but my grandparents and parents went to college, so I was going to go too.

My family is also open about money, so I always just seemed to know that college would be expensive. So, I started babysitting and pet-sitting when I was twelve years old so that I could save for those magical four years of college education.

I also planned to get a “real” job as soon as I turned sixteen. My plans changed, though, when we moved overseas. Because of my dad's job, we lived in Holland for six months and Argentina for more than two years. I wasn't old enough to get a work visa.

At that point, I assumed my parents would probably help pay for college. I also knew that I'd need to get a job as soon as we got back…but good plans sometimes just aren't enough.

We moved back nine months before I was scheduled to start college, and I still had long-distance courses that I needed to finish before I could graduate from high school. I churned out those assignments, applied for scholarships like a crazy woman, and signed up for my first year. That is also when I applied for my first “real” job — as a help-desk attendant for the 24-hour assistance desk in my future dorm.

Putting the “Work” in Work-Study

Luckily, I received a few scholarships, including a very large Academic Achievement Award that covered a big part of my actual class expenses. But my parents covered my dorm room and food for that first year. I also worked at least 20 hours a week at the help desk and applied for other on-campus positions.

By my second year of college, I was engaged. (We met while I was working the help desk!) I was still trying to pay my own way through college, but I kept falling short about $1200 every semester. I was lived as cheaply as possible, splitting a room for $288 to save money, and even staying under $3 a day for food. But making $5.25 an hour just couldn't cover everything my scholarships left behind.

I worked part-time in the Games Room on campus throughout my last three years in school. During my last year, I was a blackjack dealer for office parties (the legal kind of gambling in Texas, where the players could win raffle tickets for prizes). I also found a third job as a tax-office receptionist during my last semester. I took loans from my parents for whatever my scholarships and my paychecks couldn't cover.

A Final Piece of Help

By the time I graduated from college (with honors), I was working Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at the tax office; Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5pm-1am at the Games Room on campus; and I was a blackjack dealer Friday and Saturday nights.

In short, I working almost 60 hours a week in three different jobs, commuting to campus every Tuesday and Thursday for my last twelve hours of classes, and ended up owing my parents a little more than $8000.

The week after graduation, we had our fantastic $3000 wedding. I had to give up my two main jobs, so I took the first salaried position I was offered. I'm still there.

A few months after all of that, my parents forgave my $8000 in loans as a late graduation present. I was really broke, but at least I didn't have any loans. As I said in the beginning, having no student loans was a mixture of work, luck — and help. (I know I'm lucky to have received the help from my parents.)

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Josh
Josh

First of all, let me commend you for all your hard work to get those scholarships and working those three jobs.

That being said, and I’m just curious, but do you feel that working all those different jobs resulted in you missing out on that “college” experience?

I’m not necessarily talking about getting drunk every night, but that sort of freedom that you only get during your years at college.

I’m not saying you should have taken out 100k in student loans or anything. I’m just wondering that, looking back on it, do you regret working SO many hours?

Karen in MN
Karen in MN

Crystal, good for you!!! Great story. Best wishes to you in your future life. Kudos for “getting it” at the beginning—you will go far.

Josh, living the life of a rich trust fund kid for 4 years when you aren’t won’t get you anywhere but in debt. I’m not sure what you think she missed out on?

twiggers
twiggers

It is so refreshing to hear someone who worked their way through college. I did the same for the first 2 years at a community college and then transferred to a big state school (couldn’t work since my commute was 4 hrs per day).

Nowadays I hear so many people say “Students shouldn’t work, they should concentrate on their studies.”

This just show that it CAN be done! Good for you.

Marsha
Marsha

My husband and I avoided student loans through scholarships, work, and parental help. But we were in college in the 1980s when things were a lot cheaper. We were despairing being able to do the same for our sons, but it looks like it’s going to work out for our older son who starts college this fall. He’s been awarded academic scholarships to cover most of the tuition to an excellent private college nearby, so he can live at home to save on housing costs. A work-study job will cover the remainder of his expenses, so we won’t have to… Read more »

Josh
Josh

Karen,

Nowhere did I say she should “be a trust fund kid”…

I wasn’t saying she shouldn’t work through college…but I do believe that there is some sort of “life experience” that you get in college that is very difficult to replicate once you’re out of that environment.

Again, I’m not advocating taking out money to cover every single expense of college, just enough to maybe lighten the workload so she didn’t have to work 60 hours PLUS school.

Danielle
Danielle

Every choice you make costs you something. I, too, paid my own way throughout college and graduate school. Luckily, I “only” had to work 30 hours a week to do it, and I quickly figured out that working for a temp agency paid more than typing for a professor. What I gained in self reliance and problem solving ability did cost me something, however. There was no time for extra-curricular stuff that might have forged future connections in the field, no time for late nite yak sessions with people that might have become colleagues, no time to take the low… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

Kudos to you! Not everybody can work three jobs in college and still graduate with honors. As a professor who sees the results, I would definitely *not* recommend that strategy to the average college student– many of them would be much better off in the long-term taking on more loans and failing fewer classes. Most kids can handle 10 hours/week of work without hurting their schoolwork, very few can handle more than 20. Just as a warning to parents thinking that if Crystal can do it, then so can any kid. Crystal is smarter than the average bear. Most kids… Read more »

Michael in Missouri
Michael in Missouri

Congratulations to Crystal! You remind us that it CAN be done. Even if you had had to pay back that $8K to your parents, that’s a comparatively small debt compared to the huge sums most students leave college with these days. Better off missing a little bit of that classic (and probably overrated) “college experience” and having the financial security later to enjoy your life unencumbered by massive debt. I’m a college professor, so I have a front row seat for observing this. Many undergrads are unwilling to rough it even a little bit during college. Some live very, very… Read more »

Tim @ Faith and Finance
Tim @ Faith and Finance

If I had to do it over, I’d get a part time job and work 30 hours or so a week to cover school expenses.

It would involve me not being a part of music ensembles, but that’s the sacrifice I’d have to make not to have debt when I graduated.

Glad to read about your success in avoiding old Sallie Mae!!

BB
BB

The poster had $8K of loans from her parents, which was eventually forgiven. It’s misleading to say she went through college without borrowing (she had student loans from her parents). As the parent of one done with college, one still in college, I wouldn’t want either one to have to work 60 hrs a week to get through school (for either of their baccalaureate programs, it would be mathematically impossible, in fact). Also working so many hours precludes being involved in valuable extra-curricular activities, which helps when applying to grad school or for jobs after college. J.D.’s note: I considered… Read more »

Daryl
Daryl

As someone who worked through college and grad school and who had life experiences in both I have to say that Crystal did a good thing by leaving school without debt. That’s a great bit of peace of mind to enter the work force with. I do, however, also advocate Josh’s point. College, esp. larger colleges and sometimes being in a larger city, offers a lot of things other than parties. From networking socials that will pay dividends when you’re looking for work. To doing things like different sports or cultural activities that would be next to impossible to do… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Josh, yes, I do feel like I missed out on alot in those last 3 years. My freshman year was pretty normal. I wasn’t a drinker, but I did hang out late with friends, watch movie marathons in dorm rooms, and enjoyed a few Dungeon and Dragons campaigns. I didn’t know who Monty Python was until my senior year of high school, so I caught up, lol. I couldn’t get FAFSA help since I wasn’t on my own long enough for their rules and I never even really thought about personal loans being a viable option. Looking back, not having… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Karen, thank you! I was lucky to have parents who taught me about debt and staying out of it as much as possible early on. 🙂 As far as missing out on some stuff, I did but it was a good trade-off overall for me. @twiggers, yes, it can be done. I think working so much actually pushed me to study on a schedule as well…I felt like I was doing better (and was making 4.0’s) while I was working 35-60 hour weeks. @Marsha, good luck with your youngest! @Danielle, you’re right, it does cost something. But I am sort… Read more »

Todd
Todd

> How I Avoided Student Loans

> I took loans from my parents

There is a little cognitive dissonance here …

Mike Holman
Mike Holman

Interesting story, Crystal.

I can’t imagine working 60 hours/week while doing an engineering degree. On the other hand, I remember a lot of wasted time when I was at school.

I love the saying “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. Maybe a part-time job would force students to be more organized?

I find this to be true for my business – when I don’t have much time, I tend to get things done efficiently. If I have a whole day to “work” – I don’t get much more done. 🙂

Nancy L.
Nancy L.

@Josh I worked 40+ hours each week through college. At the time, I went to school with a number of kids whose parents felt that working a job would distract them from their schoolwork. I also went to school with a number of trust fund kids who simply didn’t have to work. During my four years of college, despite working overnight shifts and every spare hour I could fit around my classes, I still found time to socialize and goof off like my fellow classmates. Did I have as much time available for working on my assignments? No. But I… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips

Great job Crystal! It is obvious you can do anything you set your mind to given the success of your writing too! I paid for every dime of my undergrad and graduate school. I worked like crazy (not 60 hours though) while going to school full time. During Christmas and Easter breaks, I worked 14 hours a day to make money for the next semester. I did not feel like I missed out on anything. (Others went on spring break trips that I obviously could not go on.) Referring to Josh’s comment, I didn’t feel like I missed out on… Read more »

Valerian
Valerian

Lucky that I live in Slovakia (Central Europe, borders by Czech Republic) where universities are free of charge and parents paying for my food and rent is considered an ordinary standard and not something exceptional…

Buck Inspire
Buck Inspire

Great story. Nice to learn where your tenacity comes from. How did studying abroad affect you? That must have been challenging as well.

Missing out of the college experience, perhaps, but you avoided some situations as well. My first year at the dorms, did everything BUT study, almost flunked out! Had some sense, pulled myself out, and put studying first. So depends on how you look at it, glass half full or half empty? 🙂

Jen
Jen

Congrats 🙂 That’s an awesome feeling, to have no student loan debt. I wish I could say the same. But that said, I know I couldn’t have pulled off that amount of work in addition to my classes and extracurriculars. As it was I worked about 15-20 hours per week in engineering internships or waiting tables, and still managed to get on academic probation one semester. I turned it around by the end, making the dean’s list, but the amount of time studying outside of class that I had to do for 5 classes increased dramatically (from 10 hrs/wk to… Read more »

Laraba
Laraba

I too was in engineering and it took most of my time. I didn’t party or play much at all, and the most I ever worked was 15 hours a week.

Dana
Dana

Great story Crystal and congratulations on avoiding student loans. I worked my way through college too, although I didn’t work as many hours as you did. I was fortunate that my parents let me live at home and I commuted to the local university which also saved a ton of money. Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Definitely yes.

Andrea
Andrea

One of the biggest regrets of my life is taking out student loans instead of working my way through college and grad school. I had a toddler and a long commute to school, so at the time it made sense. Now, though, five years out of school and staring down $40k in student loan debt, I could kick myself. I’m starting a second job next month in hopes of paying off the student loans before I’m 35. Congrats to you, Crystal, for making incredibly smart choices!

Annemarie
Annemarie

I also worked my way through college (full-time, minimum wage) and also feel like I missed out. I lived off campus because it was cheaper (though this was the 80s, I was at a Seven Sisters school). So, no late night talks, no extracurriculars, and studying time was crammed in on work breaks and meals at home.

But I got to go to that college, and I loved, and made the most of, my classroom experience. I’ll never regret it.

Mary
Mary

First – congrats! Second, as someone who did the work and go to school nights program, I’d like to offer some further options. If your family is willing, do an at-home “gap year,” working on earning and saving as much money as possible to build up a cushion for your college years. If you want to keep your toes in academically, online classes are a good choice. Harvard has a continuing education program which offers online for-credit classes at about the same per-credit cost as in-state tuition most places. And they are very transferable (especially if you hunt down the… Read more »

A Knight
A Knight

The fundamental concept of Crystal’s story — that it’s better to do anything you have to do to finish college without any loans in spite of whatever you may have to sacrifice — seems a bit wacky to me. I recognize that this blog is about money (and I love your blog, JD), but some experiences are very valuable and irreplaceable. You can’t really do college twice. If you don’t do study abroad while in college, you’ve missed out (and I’m one who missed out and very much regret it). I would be interested to hear about how having student… Read more »

Deserat
Deserat

What was your major? I would not have been able to work 60 hours a week AND do well in school as my engineering classes each had about and hour or more of homework on top of classes, some of which were 5 days a week. I worked 15-20 hours a week and went to summer school. I had a scholarship and some assistance from my father and did graduate debt-free. I usually took between 18-21 credit hours a semester – engineering is truly more of a five year program – I finished in 4.5 years…..26 years ago. Even then,… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo

I agree w/ Nicole that most students who work too much in college tend to fail or perform at mediocre levels. There are some outliers out there who are capable of feats of superhuman strength, but usually those with too many responsibilities tend to suffer academically. 20 hours of work a week seems to be a good maximum (it is the legal limit for international students), and if it’s on campus it’s even better, and if you can study while warming up a chair at work it’s even better (I used to be a building supervisor late at night– I… Read more »

Ashley
Ashley

I think the easiest way to avoid loans is to prepare for standardized tests in early high school. I got a full-ride (tuition, room and board, and a book stipend) at an in-state (public) university largely for being a National Merit Finalist. By taking the time to work through practice tests and preparation books (a couple of months of serious effort, or a year of occasional effort), it’s possible to go from 70th-80th percentile scores to 98th-99th percentile scores. Obviously, this strategy is unlikely to work for someone starting out with below-average test scores, but it’s a relatively low-effort way… Read more »

leigh
leigh

no parental help/support here in any sense of the word. but after all the hours (3-4 jobs at at time) and the semester course overloads to save money (i finished in 3 years), i finished my bachelor’s degree with only $5000 in student loans. i absolutely wouldn’t recommend that kind of life to anyone though. if i were someone that had to work really hard for the grades, i would not have done well. the long hours and self-denial were good preparation for graduate school, i guess. end result though? with my education, i make roughly 6x the hourly rate… Read more »

Christina
Christina

I am curious as to when Crystal graduated and how much her total bill for tuition was at the time. There are a lot of commenters saying, “This just goes to show that anyone can avoid student loans if they eat rice and beans all the time,” but the cost of tuition has inflated crazily in the past few decades. While it may be a realistic plan for people attending a state school, for a private institution (or even if you want to go to a state school in a state where you’re not a resident) it’s simply too. damn.… Read more »

Shannon
Shannon

JD – can you remind me how we go about submitting reader stories to you?

J.D.’s note: Here are the GRS submission guidelines. We’re thinking of adding an actual submission page, too.

Nancy
Nancy

I also graduated with no student loans AND had no parental support. I had scholarships, grants, work study jobs and off-campus jobs but never worked more than 20 hours a week. I graduated with honors but also had the dorm experience, fun activities, many professor mentors and made lifelong friends. I went to a University of California campus over 25 years ago when tuition was extremely reasonable for in-state students. It wasn’t that unusual for people to pay for school and their room and board without getting student loans. I cringe when I see how the cost of a college… Read more »

Pat S.
Pat S.

Nicely done! I wish I had been able to do the same. Still paying off my old student loans. Impressive awareness at that age of what those loans could cost you. I didn’t even think about it. It was just a fact that I accepted “everyone has student loans”, its no big deal. If I had just worked through school and put the money back into my education, I could have graduated with much less in student loans.
Pat

Marsha
Marsha

@28 Ashley–

High SAT scores is a big part of the reason my son is getting a scholarship that will cover most of his tuition at a private college. He had pretty good scores on the practice tests, but a few weeks of intensive study brought the scores up 20 percentile points. The extra work is paying off at over $1000 per hour.

You’re right, though, that this works only for someone with above-average scores to begin with.

Brigitte
Brigitte

I think this is a grand exception, and certainly not anything that MOST people should expect–or even strive for. I missed out on a LOT of the college experience (and no I’m not talking about partying and drinking all the time), and I’m still suffering for it. I have one friend from school, no friends from any of my lackluster jobs, no extra curricular activities on my resume (which has certainly impacted my job prospects in a negative way), and health problems that could have been avoided if I had taken the time to get on an exercise routine while… Read more »

jj
jj

@Brigitte. I don’t know how old you are but there’s still time to get healthy. Lots of people did not work out during college but do so later. As for extracurriculars, it loses value as you work longer AND you can still volunteer and join groups when you’re out of college. Frankly, in my job search, it was my part-time job that helped me land my first job not college extracurricular activities!

margot
margot

That is just fantastic! Congratulations, Crystal! America would be so much better off if more youth had your work ethic rather than the amount of entitlement that I see in our culture. I’m so impressed with you! I worked all through college (though only about 20 hrs per week), still had an awesome college experience, and it probably helped me do better in school and after school. Work teaches valuable lessons and helps students structure their time and stay out of trouble. It also helps immensely on the job market. Graduating with a list of jobs on one’s resume, as… Read more »

margot
margot

@Brigitte: Your post is full of excuses that make little sense. You don’t have health problems because you missed out on using a gym while it was free in college. Endless forms of exercise can be done without a free gym – try free running, walking, exercise DVDs from a library or garage sale, free yoga in your living room, jumping rope on the sidewalk, etc. A lack of extracurricular activities on your resume are not keeping you from getting a job! The JOBS that are presumably on your resume from working during college should be much more impressive to… Read more »

sarah
sarah

I also worked 30+ hours per week throughout college and graduated with honors. I agree with Nicole though that not everyone can do that. To answer Josh’s question, I definitely feel like I missed out on “the college experience” but the truth is you can’t have every experience in life, and that was one I knew I couldn’t afford. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and I never thought it would be a party. Like the writer, I worked to pay all my own expenses and had some scholarships, but my parents paid the… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Todd, I think JD titled the post as well as he could. “How I Ended Up Loan Free a Few Months Out of College” is a little bit long-winded. 🙂 @Mike, exactly – I accomplish more when I’m busy than when I have a ton of free time. @Everyday Tips, you had way more interesting jobs too! Don’t you have a post about working at a candy factory? @Valerian, wow, that is pretty cool. @Buck, long-distance courses taught me to budget my time. How do you think I balance all my sites and my job now, lol. 🙂 Plus, optimism… Read more »

Brigitte
Brigitte

@Margot–when I have had multiple interviewers looking over my resume or application say “No extra-curricular in school?” and then pretty well dismiss me when I said “No, I was working at *insert career-related job here* doing *career-related skills/activities*,” yeah I’m going to say that part of my frustrating job search is lack of those entries on my resume. Even now as a manager who interviews people, I want to know what they did with their time. I’ll accept working as an answer though, unlike many managers I’ve come across. I had one guy tell me that not taking advantage of… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Ashley, that is one small regret I have. I made a 1330 out of 1600 on the SAT’s, but I should have tried again to hit 1400 or better. That is probably the reason I received an Academic Achievement Award for $28,000 instead of a full ride. Great advice!!! @leigh, if you ever do find a way to go back in time to your younger years, let me know. I’ll drop off real food to college Crystal… @Christina, I went to an in-state public university from 2001-2005. The total cost of tuition and fees was approximately $30,000 and room and… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Brigitte, not everybody is happy with the results. I’m sorry. I personally got my current job one week after graduating BECAUSE I had a solid work history with fabulous references. A few people I graduated with took 2 years to find a job in 2005-2007. But my job sucks, so I don’t know if that is a positive or a negative for me, although it did allow me the time to discover blogging, so I won’t whine too much. 🙂 I’m surprised the title is offending anybody. I thought JD did pretty well. I tried to make it very clear… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa

I, too, managed to get through undergrad with no loans as well as minimal parental support. I did it through a combination of scholarships and working, but would I do it again? Probably not. I’m well aware there were a lot of things I missed out on, not the least of which is being somewhat carefree for awhile, not rushing through just to get a job. Also, I find the parental support angle of this very interesting. Few people have actually no support from their parents, assuming they go home at breaks, etc. If parents have the means and the… Read more »

Karina
Karina

Good job Crystal! I did think the title was a little misleading-I have no debt from my undergrad, and will be debt free when I finish with my masters in 2012. That’s not because THE DEGREE was debt free though…my parents took the final $16,000 in debt (the first two years paid for by scholarships). They took the loans because they knew I was going to pursue my masters, and would presumably have to pay for it. Luckily, I got an assistantship, providing full tuition and a (very) small stipend. And it’s a good thing too-my husband has $21,000 in… Read more »

Crystal @ BFS
Crystal @ BFS

@Melissa, yeah, my parents and I had a few problems because of the whole loan thing. I wished I had known before I started college that my parents were going to be giving me loans at 5% interest. I also wish I had known they weren’t actually going to follow through for more than a couple of months. I gave myself ulcers worrying about that stupid money. But they are much more straight-forward with their support of my little sisters, so we all learned something. Nobody is perfect and I did learn to take care of myself pretty dang quickly…… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa

I got through four years with no debt at all. My “luck” was not through parental loans but through grants and scholarships. I qualified for nearly a “full ride” because my family was impoverished, my mother on AFDC and my father deceased. Hardly the “easy” way to get through college! HA! I’d much rather had a financially stable home. I worked 20-25 hours per week, 40-50 in the summer and lived on the cheap to make it happen.

Sarah
Sarah

I know that this story is supposed to help people think about their lives and potentially how to avoid student loans. But as someone who has student loans, this whole story just made me feel bitter. Despite everything Crystal did (and it’s clear it took a LOT of hard work, I don’t mean this to diminish her success), I don’t think that her story means that avoiding student loans is achievable for everyone. For many people in college, working 60 hours a week would be almost impossible. (Forget about finding a room to split with another person for $288!) The… Read more »

Carla
Carla

@Sarah #46, I know exactly what you mean. In my situation, I worked part-time while in school and that totally screw me academically. Having a learning disability, health issues, rocky home life, and a very poor academic foundation, I had no business working while in school. 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.

jim
jim

Good job Crystal. I worked part time through college, got scholarships, help from parents and some loans. Personally I don’t think theres any problems with taking on *some* loans. I think I had about $5-6k total in loans when I graduated. Course college was cheaper then too. I worked at most 30-35 hours one quarter. That was doable but only barely. Theres NO way I could have done full time engineering / comp. sci. courses at my schools and worked 60 hours and gotten decent grades. That is unless the job in question was a ‘non job’ where you sit… Read more »

Amy P
Amy P

Crystal did really well. I don’t think I would have done what her parents did with the loans, because she was working really, really hard, unless the parents had a sudden windfall. I guess I don’t like the idea of borrowing from parents, although it might be a bit better if the parents announced in advance that they would forgive $2,000 a year for each academically successful year. “I had one guy tell me that not taking advantage of the free and cheaper opportunities for socialization/life lessons granted to students makes someone too stupid to work for him.” Brigitte, as… Read more »

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