Written by: Mrs. Horizon
Many FIRE articles, blogs, and podcasts tackle one of the largest expenses in American’s lives…college. The debt that comes from higher education plagues young adults well into the later years of their lives. FIRE brings up many good ideas to “hack” college. Pick a local, public college. Consider going to a trade school or technical college. Get great grades and a great ACT score and hope to get a bunch of scholarships. The problem with many of the hacks is that they still focus primarily around paying for school through some form of scholarship, but this is not the path for everyone.
Mr. Horizon and I both graduated without any student loan debt which helped us jump start our path to FIRE. We did not get big scholarships or anything that most will say is needed to minimize debt. We both managed to graduate debt-free but following two different paths. Mr. Horizon joined the military and went to school after he completed his time with the Marine Corps. On the other hand, I followed a traditional route after high school, but saved money and cut costs where I could while working a lot.
As Mr. Horizon mentioned in Our Story, after high school he wasn’t ready for college, so he joined the Marine Corps. After serving for 5 years he got out of the military and enrolled in the collaborative program for electrical engineering. Due to his service he was able to use the Federal GI Bill to fund his college education. During the first two years of college he worked full time to help pay the mortgage on his newly bought house. Once he began taking more classes that were harder he cut down his hours to around 25 hours a week. The summer before his last semester he got an internship with the company that eventually offered him a full time position. He sold his house and moved, then finished his degree, and started his job with out any student loan debt! This meant he had a lot of late nights and a lot of travel to the university, but graduating without debt was very important to him.
I grew up in a very frugal family so the building blocks for saving were ingrained in my lifestyle. Due to this I didn’t even consider taking out loans for college. I saw loans as a last resort option. Growing up, my parents made it clear that we were responsible for paying for college ourselves. They were willing to let me live at home and avoid living expenses as long as I was going to school and I had a plan for my life. In high school I started my first job at an ice cream shop. It gave me a respect for my money and the time that went into making it. Since I knew that I needed to pay for college I began to work as much as I could manage while still maintaining my grades. I knew that my GPA and ACT scores were very important. Many scholarships were based on great GPAs and great ACT scores. But I only got a good GPA and an ok ACT score. My family was did fairly well financially, I wasn’t a first-generation college student, and I hadn’t solved world hunger so needless to say the scholarships were not falling into my lap. I was able to get a few small ones but no free rides on the scholarship train for me.
When it came time to pick colleges, I had limited options for chemical engineering. Almost every college that I could go to were all within $1000 of each other and the average price per year was $23k. Since all of the schools were essentially financially equivalent, I decided to go the school that I felt I would most enjoy due to its location near many outdoor adventures. Once I decided, I needed to find a way to pay for everything. I started by going to the community college in my hometown and lived at home for the first two years of my education. During this time, I began waitressing and working as close to 40 hours as I could while taking a full credit load. Since I had no real living expenses, I was able to save about $30k before heading to my 4 year university.
During the first year at my new college I had no car and ate a very low-cost diet which helped save money since I was not working. I also tried to take as many credits per semester as I could while maintaining good grades. Even with my frugal lifestyle, each semester cost nearly $10k since I was living on campus. Also, I applied for future internships and coops (9 month internships) and accepted one that started right after my school year was over. My coop was paid and was in my hometown so I was able to move back in with my parents and save on living expenses while I got manufacturing experience that would help me get a job in the future. During this time I was able to make around $20k and replace the costs of the previous year so my savings were back around $30k.
Over the next year and a half I took my final three semesters of school along with a month long class during the summer. I saved money by living off campus and splitting houses with 3-4 people. I also worked in an alternative fuel research lab for one semester which helped me pay for the groceries but also confirmed that I was not built to work in research! During the summer I worked as an intern and made a little bit of money and bought a car. Then, during my last year of school, I worked as a teacher’s assistant which basically paid for the gas I was using to drive to career fairs and job interviews.
Finally, I graduated! Since I took a coop, I graduated a year later than I initially expected but I was able to walk across the stage at graduation with an accepted job offer and no student loan debt. I had achieved my goal! Hard work and dedication got me further in my debt-free college journey than my GPA or ACT score ever would have been able to.
There are many ways to gain a debt-free education. Conforming to the American norm of simply taking out crippling debt is not the best way to get the most out of your college education. Take scholarships if they are available but remember that these are not the only way to graduate with money in the bank. Consider joining the military as Mr. Horizon did or maybe a trade school is better suited to your interests. Maybe living at home and working some extra hours will get you to graduation without student loans. There are many ways that are better than mindlessly taking out loans. Find the option that works best for you and HYOH!