There is a MAJOR misconception out there in regards to student loan debt. The misconception is dangerous, completely inaccurate, and purposefully perpetuated by most higher-learning institutions. The misconception? Students loans are, not only necessary, but they are simply a reality of getting a college degree in 2011.
I’m trying to think of the perfect word that would discredit this terrible misconception. Hmmmm…what could it be? Oh, here it is: BULLSHIT.
Your willingness to accept this misconception can, will, and should hinder your financial life for at least 10 years upon graduation. However, your willingness to give yourself a financial chance upon graduation is the smartest thing that you will ever do. The first “adult decision” that you make is to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt? [Slow clap]. Brilliant, you’ll fit in perfectly in this world. Be unique, be smart, refuse to go into student loan debt.
I recently received an email from a Ball State University junior named Erica Stevens. Erica, my friends, is a bad-ass. She is paying for college herself. She has committed to graduate debt free without assistance from her parents. And I believe that you can do the same. Here are her tips (in her words) for graduating college with no debt!!!
- Get committed: Making the commitment to remain debt free is a critical step in graduating without any student loan or credit car debt. Don’t think to yourself, “I would like to attend college debt free.” Instead, think “I WILL attend college debt free and no one can stop me.” This is what I did. I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I also knew that I did not want to graduate with thousands of dollars of loans hanging over my head. My parents always taught me to “live within my means,” which applied especially to my post-secondary education. I decided to commit to the idea of going to college debt free. I told myself that if for some reason I couldn’t come up with the funds for my college education, I would take time off to work and save money. Thankfully my college funding saga never resulted in taking time off, but I knew that there was absolutely no way I would take out a single loan.
- Plan ahead: This step seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised by the amount of students and parents who failed to plan ahead financially for college. Planning ahead for college can be divided into two major parts: First, you need to learn how to save and budget. It’s so easy for teenagers and parents to spend money unnecessarily. Is that year worth of daily Starbucks runs or that closet full of clothes you didn’t wear worth a portion of your tuition? The answer is no. Set a percentage of your income aside each week and commit to that percentage. I chose to set aside 30% of my income from hostessing at a local restaurant. My grandparents also set aside $5,000 in a 529K account, which matured to $10,000 by the time I was ready for school. Learning how to save and budget will also serve you well while actually attending school. Spending excessive money on food, alcohol, clothing and other items can lead to some serious credit card debt. Going to school debt free isn’t just about tuition; it’s about your room, board and social life too. The other step in planning ahead involves scoping out scholarships and applying. Many scholarship deadlines for college freshmen are as early as July or August before their senior year of high school. Searching for, keeping track of and applying for scholarships is a big step that can fund your academic endeavors. You don’t have to be the brightest student or the greatest writer. Many scholarships value personal triumph and creativity. Some just require you to fill in your name, contact information and hit “apply.” Every little bit of money counts! ($200 is enough money to buy a few books, especially if you use Amazon, Half.com or Chegg).
- Be realistic: One important fact I had to face when deciding which college I would attend was how much money I could really afford to spend. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I have three younger siblings. Going out-of-state for school or going to an expensive in-state school was not an option for me because I was committed to remaining debt-free. I had several schools on my “apply to” list. Two of those were $40,000/per year colleges. After taking a few campus visits, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the least expensive school on my list was my favorite. I was happily accepted to Ball State University, and I even got into the Honors College. It ended up being the perfect fit for me. Ball State had a great public relations program, a beautiful campus, great facilities and incredible faculty. Because Ball State is a state school with a decent sized campus, I didn’t have to sacrifice aspects of “college living” to attend an affordable school. Every time I walk to class, study for hours in the library or spend time with my best friends, I am reminded of what a perfect fit my school is for me, even though it’s not an Ivy League university or expensive private school. Don’t underestimate reasonably priced schools, one of them could be your perfect match.
- Remain employed: Even if you didn’t have a job during high school because of sports or other activities, don’t let that stop you from seeking post-graduation employment. The earlier you get a job and learn how to handle money, the better. When you reach your destination of higher education, apply for campus jobs. Campus jobs are easy, flexible and a great way to earn money while at school because they’re close to your classes and are usually within walking distance of housing. There are tons of jobs in every department. If you don’t feel like working for your school, get creative and start your own business. You can also seek off-campus employment. Whatever you do, don’t spend all your free time playing video games or watching TV. Put in some hours at a job instead. Having a job can help you become more organized and manage your time better, so extra cash isn’t the only benefit. (Last year, I worked for Housing and Residence life as a Multicultural Adviser and received free room and board (housing and food). It was a fun experience and I saved over $9,000.) Make sure you stay employed during the summer too. Summer is the biggest money-making time of my year. I usually save enough money to pay for most of my tuition, which is a huge help. Don’t waste your summers being lazy: Get a job, save those pennies and pay for school now, instead of paying for it later.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Paying for college without student loans can seem like a daunting task, so don’t be afraid to ask for additional funding. Many schools and departments have extra money that goes unused because no one applies for the funds. I had an instance where I lost a $650 grant that I really needed. I talked to the director of financial aid and the dean of the Honors College. I asked if they had any extra money for students and explained my situation. The dean of the Honors College said that there was some extra money and that the money could be used to compensate for the loss of my grant. I would have never gotten the money if I had not asked for help. These are five simple steps you can use to battle the student loan monster. Make the commitment to pay for school now, instead of later. Though this task can seem daunting, it’s well worth it. It’s important to take your payments one step at a time, quarter by quarter, and semester by semester. Time flies and soon you’ll end your final semester. While your classmates are swimming in student loan bills, you’ll be cruising on the debt-free ship to your first job, where you can continue your debt-free lifestyle.
Erica, that is brilliant. And one more note to you prospective college students that are “relying on student loans”: Erica will end up kicking your ass in this world because she is a PROBLEM SOLVER. She will get hired very quickly, and will have a brilliant career. And this is because she is resourceful and committed. Don’t get mad though. You can do this too.
Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.