How to Dodge Debt During College

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By Sarah Blais – Dec. 31, 2014: 

You might already have a mortgage and some credit card debt on your plate… does the thought of adding a student loan to that pile scare you?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to take out a loan to get through college. It isn’t always the quickest way to get a degree, but paying back a hefty loan for ten years isn’t a field trip either.

Here’s how you can graduate without owing anyone:

Pick a reasonably priced school

There’s a lot of pressure in grade school and the media to go to the biggest, best college out there for the “experience.” However, more expensive doesn’t always equal better education. Do some research on programs that appeal to you, starting with your home state. In-state tuition is often lower than out of state schools by half or more. If you haven’t already, you could also start by getting your general studies out of the way in community college. Not only is this a cheaper option, but it’s easier to get your feet wet to school life in a smaller setting.

Apply for grants and scholarships

Most people forget about free money altogether. Particularly if you’re past the age of 25, there are many options whether you’re looking at getting a second degree or just starting out.

Both grants and scholarships don’t need to be paid back. Ever! The only difference is how the two are earned.

A grant is a federal sum of money given out based on need. The most common is the Pell Grant, which gives you a certain amount of money based on your or your parents’ take-home income. You should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what you qualify for. Every college is different, but the FAFSA website recommends filing your application as soon as possible after January 1.

Scholarships must be merited or won. You can apply for many different awards by showing off your talents in contests, or even requesting needs-based assistance from a parental or continuing education scholarship. There are also options to win a sweepstakes or drawing. Thanks to the internet, there’s a variety of scholarships available that are simple to find. Some of the best search engines are, Fastweb, and Zinch.

Request a payment plan

While a payment plan is similar to a loan because you have to pay a certain amount every month, a payment plan from your college will not accrue interest. However, they may charge a fee if you decide to go this route. Compare that to the cost of what your interest would be if you took out a loan. If you have some room in your budget, this is an effective way to keep up with your payments in manageable increments. And remember, you can always make more than the minimum payment.

Make money on the side

As if your full time job, family, and adult responsibilities aren’t enough on top of going back to college! You don’t have to get a part time job at your local fast food place to rake in a little extra dough. Places like the “gigs” section of Craigslist is a great resource to find small jobs without commitment that often don’t require prior experience and can be done on the weekends. You can also put your talents to good use. For example, if you play an instrument, give lessons. Or sell drawing commissions if you have a knack for art.

Ask for school-related gifts

If friends and family members complain that you’re difficult to shop for, don’t leave them guessing. Ask that the money they would have spent on a traditional gift for you, whether it’s $5 or $50, go to your college expenses. This could mean buying a gift card to the bookstore, logging into your school’s portal to pay a portion of your tuition, or buying a textbook you need for next semester. The people close to you will be happy to see you succeed in school and support you however they can.

Live within your means

Sometimes we need to make sacrifices to achieve what matters to us most. If your education is one of those things, it may be time to scale back on unnecessary items for a little while. Take a look at your budget and see what costs are superfluous to you. If you’re not watching TV, get rid of your big cable package. If you only go to the gym once a month, cancel the membership. Still not enough? You can keep certain items, but trim the fat. Be more aware of gas stations near you with the lowest prices, plan your grocery store trips in advance, and shop on the sales rack to put more money towards school.

While your peers will be up to their eyeballs in debt after six months of graduation, you’ll be no worse for wear and have the same piece of paper as them.


Sarah Blais is an education writer based in New York City. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Mass Communication in from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State.

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