How I Graduated College Debt Free

Going to college is almost mandatory in today’s society. We pay tens of thousands of dollar to get a shiny new diploma. Some of us are lucky enough to escape debt free while others graduate with a mountain of debt.

Fortunately, I was one of the lucky people to graduate college debt free. Here is how I was able to accomplish this!

Scholarships

I received a combination of academic and athletic scholarships that cut the total cost of college by roughly 80%. While some people may say that I was extremely lucky and fortunate I have to disagree. This was not the result of luck. It was the result of hard work and perseverance. To maintain my academic scholarship I had to average a cumulative GPA of 3.0, which was relatively easy for me. The athletic scholarship was the real challenge.

While most students were sleeping or stumbling home at 5:30am, I was waking up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to jump in a cold pool. Practice would usually last an hour and a half. If I had class at 8am I would not have time to eat anything besides a granola bar since I had to run to class. Some semesters I was lucky to only have one class that ended around nine while other semesters I class that ended at 1. From there I would eat lunch, go to mandatory gym workouts and then head back to my room for an hour before practice began again at 4pm.

So yes, I did receive a lot of scholarship assistance. However, I had to give up a lot of the college experience due to swimming. During my four years as a varsity athlete I saw multiple friends quit the team. Quite frankly, I cannot blame them as it was strenuous and at times the last thing you wanted to do. The satisfaction of enduring these four years was a truly rewarding feeling. Thanks to my leadership and reputation on the team, I was able to secure a graduate assistant job which severely reduced the cost of my MBA.

I Hustled

There are many limitations of being an international student. I was not able to work off campus and if I worked on campus it could not exceed 20 hours a week. Due to my crammed schedule with school and swimming I tried to find a job during the night or during any free time I had in the day.

The only job I could find that would fit into my schedule was being a tutor. Helping and teaching people is something I naturally enjoy. Perhaps this is why I started a blog? I tutored various classes during my four years of college which gave me a few hundred dollars to spend on entertainment, groceries and books each semester.

Additionally, I had a paid internship every summer. While the pay in the Caribbean is nowhere as luxurious as the US, it was still enough to help pay for some expenses.

Reduce Expenses

There are many hidden costs to college that my parents and I were unaware of. Here were two ways I cut cost during college and one additional on campus job I should have taken advantage of.

  1. Text Books – I am convinced college textbooks are a money scam. Some course textbooks would cost $50 while others would cost over $250. After my first semester of college, I realized that I hardly touched my books. From here on out I would wait the first week of class to see if we actually needed the book and if we did I would ask a friend if they wanted to share a book. This technique saved me hundreds of dollars over the cost of four years.
  2. Meal Plan – I was on the college meal plan for the first three years. It was very convenient for swimming as I had no time to eat. During my senior year, I cut the meal plan and cooked or bought food. I estimate this decision saved over $1,500 a semester.
  3. Resident Assistant – RAs as we called them are the people in charge of dorms. They got free housing and meal plans. If I had to do college over again I definitely would have applied to become an RA to reduce my cost by almost $7,000 a semester!

The Real Reason I Am Debt Free

While I was fortunate enough to have my total cost reduced due to efforts mentioned earlier there was still a lot of bills left to pay. My parents generously paid the remainder of my university cost which is the real reason I am debt free.

This did not come without great sacrifice though. My parents are middle class. Salaries in the Caribbean are far lower than those of the US which made these out of pocket costs extremely hard. Before I went off to college, I remember we stopped taking family vacations to reduce costs. I am sure there were many other sacrifices they made to put me through college without deferring their retirement so for this I am truly grateful. In fact, in three weeks, my parents and my brother will be coming to the US and it will be our first family vacation in roughly 7 years. Without their help, I surely would have been like 70% of college students to graduate with thousands in student loans. Or worse, I would have never had the opportunity to study abroad.

These sacrifices aren’t things you realize until you mature and understand the true value of a dollar. I fully intend to put my future children through school debt free like my parents did as I know it lifted a major weight off my shoulders.

Readers:

How do you view the cost of education?

How did you get through college?

What sacrifices did you make during college to reduce cost for you or your family?

Photo courtesy Flickr.

31 comments… add one
  • Jon @ Be Net Worthy Oct 10, 2016, 8:06 am

    Stefan, what a great accomplishment to get out debt free! And I agree that very little luck was involved. It was the result of hard work and sacrifice on your part as well as your family.

    My wife and I both have graduate degrees and place a high focus on education. The world is becoming increasingly competitive and we don’t want our kids to get left behind. I have already told them both that they should plan on getting a graduate degree in whichever field they choose.

    I’ve also emphasized to them how important it is to get a degree that pays. My wife and I were both engineers and appreciate the benefits of an in-demand education.

    Well done!

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 10:11 am

      Thanks Jon! I think nothing is wrong with choosing the career path you want but make sure it is marketable! I spoke to a recruiter on campus once and he was baffled at some of the degrees people do. There is no point paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree that you likely will never use for more than your personal knowledge. Nor is it a good return on money.

  • Bekah Oct 10, 2016, 9:20 am

    Oh man what I should have done 🙂 I had to ‘retire’ from ice skating at 13, my knees were shot 🙁 I didn’t go into debt until my husbands job transferred him to WA. Before that it was work 30hrs a week school 12. No life 🙂 Great tips! My husband and I are encouraging our kids to go debt free through college too. I’ll have to do more research on it (since its not widely advertised) but there are apparently some classes where you can test out of them. You buy the book, take the test, and that’s what you pay for. You don’t pay the full price of the course. Have you heard of this?

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 10:23 am

      Wow you certainly worked your fair share during college but it was worth graduating debt free! Nothing comes easy in life and I feel like many people do not fully grasp that.

      I am not sure about those types of classes but I will look into it. I know that in high school people can take AP classes ( I never had this opportunity as I didn’t attend an American school) which can really save some money and time if they can transfer so that may be one method.

  • Amanda @ centsiblyrich Oct 10, 2016, 9:29 am

    It sounds like a grueling schedule throughout undergrad, Stefan! That takes a lot of dedication, hard work, and perseverance and has to feel great to have accomplished it successfully.

    My husband and I both came out of college with a combined $40,000+ in student loans. We hope our kids don’t have to do the same. Our first will head to college in 2018, so we are starting to look into his options. He likes some very expensive schools! While we hope to help him as much as possible, we are trying to encourage him to look at community college for the first 2 years to keep costs down. I really don’t want to see him saddled with a ton of student loans. He just doesn’t comprehend the consequences of taking so much debt on right now.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 10:16 am

      Honestly Amanda I was just like your son. I never realized the value of a dollar, or being debt free, until senior year in college. I think it is very hard for somebody who has not been in debt to see the consequences. If the school is very expensive they likely have large scholarships that they give out. Encourage him to find scholarships he can apply to every single semester, I guarantee there will be at least one.

      Going to community college is also a great option like you pointed out but make sure the credits transfer otherwise it will be a waste of time. People like to put down community college because of the prestige but you do not need to go to a fancy school to get a respected degree. I feel just as educated as those that went to “better” schools so it is more about the title than the underlying value.

  • Financial Panther Oct 10, 2016, 10:14 am

    You definitely worked a lot harder than I did! Definitely good to see you recognizing the advantage you got by having hard working parents who were able to help you out.

    I was fortunate enough to also have parents that spotted the cost of college for me, but I also didn’t attend a particularly expensive college either. One disadvantage of having your parents spot your college years is that you don’t really feel responsible for the cost. As a result, I was much lazier in college than I should’ve been.

    In contrast, I had to pay for law school myself. Since I had to take out loans, I was freaked out! The money was all on me, so I had to do well in school. There’s definitely at least that benefit when kids have to pay for school themselves, in my opinion.

    I wonder if I’m older, maybe I’ll tell my kids I can’t pay for school and make them take out loans. Then when they’re done, just pop up with a check and pay the student loans off for them. Could be a good way to get them invested in their education.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 10:21 am

      I think it comes down to drive. I understood the opportunity of studying abroad was extremely important so my grades never suffered and I made sure to embrace the experience. I think having that “foreigner” title put a lot more pressure on my to perform even with my parents spotting the cost as I knew if I did poorly they would bring me back home… something I certainly did not want!

      One benefit I see to your plan is that your kids will feel like they are going into debt and that will make them feel the weight of their decision. Nobody likes debt so could be a good learning experience. However, make sure you pay those loans before they graduate otherwise you will have gift taxes to worry about!

  • Mr. Compounding Oct 10, 2016, 11:02 am

    Pretty impresive stuff Stefan. I could barely handle classes let alone if i had to commit half of my time to athletics.

    Totally agree with your take on textbooks, most of the time I could have done without them.

    Regarding debt, my biggest mistake was underestimating it and asuming everybody borrowed for school. I wish I had examples like your story to encourage me to find ways to go the debt free route.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 1:19 pm

      Those textbooks were ridiculous man.

      I do not think you were alone in your thinking. In fact, I think that is the norm so unless somebody you knew was doing something different you would have just accepted. At least you became aware of personal finance after the fact so you are way ahead of the game!

  • Finance Solver Oct 10, 2016, 11:35 am

    Nice man, graduating college debt free is no easy feat and getting internships for the summers is no easy feat either (I found out the hard way).

    I resonate with the fact that while other students were drinking adult beverages, you were out there hustling. I remember being the only one to walk the streets at 1:00AM coming home from the library. And that happened at least 5 days out of the week. Man, I got to the point where I wanted to quit countless times but after going through it, nothing seemed to be too hard for me. By senior year, school wasn’t even stressful because I was so used to studying and would know how to study.

    I’m also with you in the parental help camp. I’m so grateful to my parents and every surplus I earn will go to them in a HEARTBEAT if they needed it for any reason at all.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 1:20 pm

      I feel the same way as you. If they ever needed help I would do as much as I possibly can. They want a trip so I expect to give them this at some point.

  • Kate Oct 10, 2016, 12:10 pm

    Congrats! I’m debt free too. When my parents divorced, it didn’t look too good for my college career but, my mom and I made an agreement. She would keep a roof over my head but, I had to pay for all of my college. It took me extra time, my four year bachelors in Economics took six years but, I paid it all out of pocket. The main reasons I was able to pull it off was 1. I lived at home 2. I waited tables 30+ hours a week 3. I don’t drink alcohol and 4. Dedication.

    It was a learning experience for sure. Cheers to being debt free!

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 1:22 pm

      Wow that is a great accomplishment on your part! Congrats on persevering through those six years! I am sure that work ethic carried through afterwards. Not drinking alcohol is also a great way to save money. I think the first two years are very expensive as partying is done multiple times a week!

  • Mustard Seed Money Oct 10, 2016, 12:38 pm

    Congrats on being able to graduate college with no debt.

    That is a huge accomplishment that not many of your peers can say. I know that you say that you are lucky but I’m guessing that you put in years of effort to become an accomplished swimmer and student.

    I think it has less to do with luck and more to do with your perseverance and discipline. I had too many friends that graduated from college with debt all because they didn’t want to “ruin” their college experience by working.

    Great work…I know this is the start to an amazing journey for you.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 10, 2016, 1:24 pm

      Almost 10 years of effort went into swimming before college haha. Those are the things people do not see I guess.

      I had many friends that had the same mentality as yours. I let them do what they wanted and I continued to hustle. I still got to enjoy college but had to restrain more than others. Something that I was perfectly content with.

  • Apathy Ends Oct 10, 2016, 4:23 pm

    That is quite the accomplishment Stephan, Student Loans can handcuff your progress for years if the balance is big enough (speaking from experience on that front).

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 11, 2016, 7:57 am

      They definitely can be handcuffs. The sooner you become debt free the better.

  • Charlotte Oct 10, 2016, 7:05 pm

    More people need to realize this is possible. I came out of community college with an Associate’s degree in nursing at age 21. It took me 4 1/2 years. I only had $2500 in debt and had paid all the rest myself. Either lived with my parents or had an arrangement for 2 years where my housing was covered. My parents covered my car payments for the 2 years I couldn’t. It’s difficult to work alot when in the actual nursing class portion. My husband is now getting his bachelor’s in nursing while we raise 3 kids without any school loans. It will take him 6 1/2 years, Pell grant, scholarships, a little state aid, and our money, but no school debt. It can be done. He should graduate in May 2017. Kudos to you for getting a handle on finances so young.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 11, 2016, 8:00 am

      That is an incredible feat from both of you! Taking advantage of some of the government tax breaks is a great way to cut the cost of college. Nursing can be a grueling program so that is very impressive!

      • Charlotte Oct 15, 2016, 4:52 pm

        Thank you Stefan. I should clarify the $2500 I owed was school loan. I did have additional car loan as well. Which is probably better not to have either! However, I was able to pay both off less than a year after graduation. My husband did start at a community college first as I think some people recommended in the comments. So he is able to work as an RN while pursuing his bachelor degree. This is common for nurses. He did not grow up in a family that valued education so is now doing it later in life. I think we would encourage our children to pursue their education before they have the added needs of raising a family. It adds more stress. We don’t have plans to pay for their education though.

  • Rob @ Money Nomad Oct 10, 2016, 8:40 pm

    Congrats on graduating debt free! That’s quite a feat. And yes, having parents that are willing to support you are huge. Personally, I like the idea of the pay-it-forward mentality. If you are able to now pay for your own kid’s education the process can continue — while still leaving your children with the freedom to take risks right after college.

    Great read and keep up the awesome blogging!

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 11, 2016, 8:04 am

      The pay-it-forward mentality is probably the best way to stop the debt cycle. Who knows what the cost of education will be over two decades from now though! Crazy to think of.

  • MrSLM Oct 12, 2016, 12:46 pm

    I came to the exact same realization about text books in my 2nd year of university. They were generally worthless, most of the material could be found with a quick google search for many classes. Some of the worst offending classes were the soft sciences (ie. sociology type classes) where the textbook(s) were written by the professor, and cost a fortune. Luckily there, if you could hunt down 2nd hand copies, they barely changed from year to year. All in all I think I saved close to $1000/year by not buying the textbooks or being extremely selective about it.

    If you have kids in the future, do you think you’ll pay for their college/university?

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 12, 2016, 6:58 pm

      Glad you realized that early on as well! Definitely a huge money saver.

      I definitely will be paying but who knows what the cost will be in 25+ years. I expect the cost will be far different and maybe even how people view higher education but we will see. The culture I was brought up in places a strong focus on not going into debt so I will make sure they do not have that burden.

  • Annika Oct 12, 2016, 2:16 pm

    Congrats to you on your perseverance and being debt-free. I agree purchasing textbooks is for the most part a waste of $. When I was in college we didn’t have the option to rent or find them cheaper online.
    My son earned a free ride to a state school so that has been a Godsend. He still has 3 part-time jobs but that keeps him on his toes.
    One thing to note is that usually there are additional scholarships available after you are in college. Unfortunately this doesn’t help you when you are deciding which college to pick but it can help you later in your college career.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 12, 2016, 7:00 pm

      Wow your son is very active, good for him!

      Yes that is something I will touch on in future posts. There are so many scholarships available if you just look! I honestly should have tried to look harder but everything is always clearer in hindsight.

  • Gary @ DebtFreeClimb Oct 14, 2016, 8:12 pm

    Congratulations on the impressive accomplishment! That discipline you developed through college will transfer to many different areas of life.

    Unlike you, I graduated college with $55k of Student Loans. I made lazy choices in college and had paid the price. Luckily through this, I was able to learn self-discipline, and I’m happy I went through it. Ideally, I would have significantly less to pay for, but through the process, I owned it and attacked the debt.

    I didn’t have a financial role model growing up. I think for my future kids I am going to teach them about money at an early age. I hope they can learn from my mistakes and take proactive steps (as you mentioned) to stay ahead of the costs of college. I like the idea of supporting them but also if they have to take some small loans out. I think that could be a good learning experience for them, as it was for me.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 15, 2016, 10:34 pm

      I can see where you are coming from. I think if you instill the proper qualities in them while they grow up they will learn a lot. Having debt can sometimes be a blessing for people as it forces them to realize they need to mature with their money habits. For others, it can be a disaster.

  • Joy Oct 20, 2016, 2:17 pm

    I did my first 2 years debt free. Had I done it over, I would have used my job’s tuition reimbursement and scholarship program to go completely debt free. I avoided buying books from the school unless they weren’t available elsewhere. I also rented textbooks, lived with my parents and worked full time to

    I agree that school books are a money scam. I majored in biology so most of my texbooks were over $150.00. I recently bought 10 science, math, and accounting textbooks online from a website that were published during my time in college for less than $25.00 total.

    • Stefan Sharpe Oct 20, 2016, 4:37 pm

      The moment a new version is issued the price of the books drop 90%! Complete waste of money but sometimes it is necessary. Glad to see you utilized those cost saving measures even if you did not fully graduate debt free. You saved yourself a lot of debt and your work ethic would be far more valuable. Keep it up!

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