How to graduate college with (almost) no debt

How to graduate college with (almost) no debt

Be strategic with school choice

You may have a shortlist of dream schools you'd like to attend. But if you're focused on graduating debt-free, it's important to cast the net wider to include cost-effective options.

For example, that may include:

Any of these paths could mean paying less for tuition, fees, room and board and other education expenses, even if it means skipping out on your dream college.


"Don't pay just for a school name," said Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of

According to Ridner, employers care more about the skills you acquire while in school than the name on your diploma. "In most cases, it doesn't make sense to pay that premium for an elite school when a more affordable option may offer a degree program that will develop skills just as well, if not better."

How did I save money as a broke college student?

I saved huge money by living at home. I didn’t have to ever worry about paying bills to survive.

I’ve thanked my parents for this by throwing surprise parties and even sending them to the Bahamas one year. This was huge. I would’ve been buried in debt if I moved away for college.

To save money and pay for tuition, I always held a job in college. I worked construction, started blogging, and even found work on campus (exam invigilator, those guys who catch you cheating!).

I firmly believe that all students should work because it helps you meet people, make money, and figure out how to manage your time so that you’re not on Facebook all day.

Was working in college easy?

Not at all. I often questioned myself and my stubbornness. Some days I was running on fumes and the only thing that kept me going was knowing that I would be debt-free at the end of this journey.

As I mentioned above, I was forced to manage my time ruthlessly and I did rely on coffee a bit too much. I tried to work at least 20 hours a week. I was able to work on the weekends and evenings (depending on how my schedule worked out).

Was working in college worth it?


If your program is too intense for work, you can always work during the summer months like mad!

You need to be realistic with yourself as a 19-year old. I thought that I would have no time to study and work. Then I soon figured out that priorities and coffee would trump all. So from 2006-2009, I didn’t watch any shows. Don’t ask me about anything from pop culture from that time period. The only show that I followed was The Office because it was on Thursdays after class.


3. Get a Part-time Job

I always held a part-time job and used the money earned to pay for things like gas and groceries, which for a period of time, consisted of nothing but cereal. I got sick of ramen, but couldn’t afford much else, and didn’t know how to cook even if I could have afforded higher-quality food.

Working throughout college meant foregoing unpaid internships, because I couldn’t afford not to earn wages to pay my expenses. Still, I had to live frugally to stretch my part-time income far enough to cover my costs and occasionally have a little money left over for the movies or dining out.

11. Get on a budget

Now this is one of those pieces of advice that might sound too obvious to mention—until you realize how few people budget. Trust me, it’s worth your time to be sure your child knows how to make and stick to a budget before they leave for college.

If they’ll list their monthly income and expenses and give every dollar a job to do, your child will begin to really take ownership of their college experience. They’ll also get some insight into just why you don’t want them to take the easy way out by getting school loans. When they see how much it really costs to pay for a month of college in terms of food, transportation, clothing and rent, they’ll probably take their schoolwork more seriously too.

Plus, pointing your kids toward a fun, easy-to-use app like EveryDollar might even make them want to budget.

6. Explore trade schools

In addition to four-year universities and community colleges, your kid shouldn’t ignore the possibility of trade schools. That’s where students who enjoy working with all kinds of practical skills like electrical work, mechanics, plumbing and home inspections can get valuable training that’s highly marketable. Not to mention, completing a trade school program usually takes less time and less money than getting a bachelor’s degree.

How do you find the right scholarships for your student?

  • Do a Google search, and be very specific. Google “summer scholarships” and add the year because it’s going to narrow the results. If you just search “summer scholarships” you’re going to get scholarships that aren’t even offered anymore.
  • Look at what your student is interested in. Say he volunteers. Search ‘volunteering scholarships’ and put the year in.
  • Also in Google there are tools you can use to go to any article that’s been published in the last month, the last year, whatever. I always choose the last year to find current information.
  • You know those big scholarship books that come out every year? I love those books. Yeah, it’s a little old-fashioned but they’re organized by your ethnicity, your interests, your hobbies, where you live. Those books are wonderful.

2) Apply for A LOT of Scholarships

Make applying for scholarships your part-time job. I’m not talking about applying for 5-20 scholarships. Apply to 1,000 or more. Even if you only have 80% of the qualities they’re looking for in an applicant, it doesn’t hurt to apply.

Look at local companies in your area when finding scholarships. Many of the smaller local scholarships aren’t marketed as widely and take a little more digging to find. Check the places your parents work as well since they will sometimes have one for employees’ families only.

Scholarships of a lower monetary value usually have fewer applicants since people think it’s not worth the effort. If a $500 scholarship only takes 20 minutes to apply for and you get it, that’s a great return on investment. Far more than you make spending that same time at a retail job.

The PSAT Matters For Scholarships

Most people think of the PSAT as the practice for the SAT. They also think that it doesn’t matter and may not even do preparation for it. Besides, it’s the SAT that matters, right?


The PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship qualifying test. That means if you don’t do well on this test, your chance for a National Merit Scholarship is gone. The top scores become National Merit Finalists and are awarded scholarships. The PSAT score cutoff for National Merit varies depending on which state you live in.

PSAT scores are also used as a qualifier for the National Hispanic Recognition Program which looks great on college applications.

9) Find Paid Internships

Similar to suggestion #4, a paid internship is an income that helps cover the cost of school. Many internships happen over the summer but sometimes they’re offered during the school year. This is a good option if you’re close by since there’s less competition during the school year.

A great place to find internships is your school’s student services department. Department bulletin boards may sometimes post about internships for that major. Reaching out to a department head or favorite professor is a good lead.

Trade-offs to Graduating with No Debt

Walking across the stage to claim my diploma as a debt-free graduate felt amazing and it helped me start my independent, adult life on the right financial foot. Not dealing with the burden of debt allowed me to save and invest sooner. It also helped me reach bigger financial goals faster, like saving the money I needed for a down payment on my first house.

That doesn’t mean avoiding debt didn’t come with trade-offs. By working to earn a paycheck instead of devoting time and energy to internships, I could have given up valuable experience that would have made getting a job easier or enhanced my education. In the end, I didn’t get a career related to my history degree, either out of college or after working for a few years. While an internship may have helped me do so, today I work as a writer and a marketer, and I love my jobs.

And I know I missed out on fun experiences by skipping spring break trips, studying abroad and big nights out. But I didn’t have the money for that and I wasn’t willing to charge expenses I didn’t have cash for to a credit card.

Yet I don’t have regrets, because the experiences and challenges I did have, and even things I missed out on, brought me to where I am today. I’m on track to be financially independent by my 40s, own a marketing business and I get to travel for both work and fun, sharing what I’ve learned, personally and professionally, through speaking at big events in my industry.

I wouldn’t change anything, but I also understand graduating debt-free doesn’t come without considerations and sacrifices.

Are scholarships only for high achievers?

That all depends on the scholarship. There are scholarships that don’t even ask for your GPA, or don’t ask for your income level. There are so many different scholarships out there. There are many things you can do to help your kids become a better applicant. I call it scholarship prep.

Compare financial aid packages

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can help you determine how much financial aid you might qualify for, including scholarships, grants, and federal student loans.

If you've completed the FAFSA and been accepted to multiple schools, take time to compare the financial aid package each one is offering. It may be in your best financial interest to choose the school offering the largest aid package if you want to minimize the potential for debt as much as possible.


Remember, the FAFSA doesn't cover private student loans. You'll need to apply for those directly with private student loan lenders. If you're considering private student loans, be sure to compare interest rates using an online platform like Credible to find the best borrowing options.

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