With the increasing costs of tuition, and fewer number of scholarships available, is it still possible to graduate without thousands of dollars in debt without help from your parents?

Anyone who has graduated from college (or is currently still in college) knows how difficult it is to graduate debt free. I know of several people who have accomplished this feat, but with great difficulty. In fact, some statistics suggest that the average debt for a student graduating from a four-year school is over $20,000. It is no longer a rare occurrence to hear stories of people having over $100 thousand in school loans.  That’s the value of a small house in some areas of the country (without the house). Despite the difficulty, I survived and not only graduated college without any debt, but with money in the bank. Here’s how I did it.

Getting Through College is Hard

It was in my first semester at college that I realized how much money I was spending. I am lucky. Some don’t figure that they are spending too much money until late in their college track. After spending over 1/5 of my savings on unnecessary items (like eating out, appliances for my dorm room, etc), I realized I needed to cut back.  Make sure to evaluate how much you are spending and if you have enough money to continue your current spending habits.

Establish a Simple Budget

I found that my major expense (at least that I could control; tuition, after all, wasn’t optional) was for food. I decided that I needed cut my spending as much as possible.  I was extremely frugal, forcing my monthly food budget to $100 per month.  I remember being told by my family that I was crazy when I told them of my frugal food budget, but I was able to accomplish this goal.  I was able to do this by going to the grocery store once a week and spending only $25 per week.  Any seasoned college student also knows to look for the free meals on university campuses as well as how to stay around until the events are finished to claim any leftover food.

Work Hard

Getting through college without any debt almost always means getting at least a part-time job.  The important thing to remember is that every little bit helps.  At one point, I was working a job that only required 3-5 hours per week but it paid well and fit with my schedule.  It wasn’t a lot, but it helped supplement my other part-time job.

The other thing that any college student ought to learn is the importance of good grades.  Good grades not only translate into acceptance to better graduate programs, if one chooses to go on, but also more scholarships.  Many universities offer some form of an honors scholarship.  By maintaining a 3.7 GPA or above, I earned over $16,000 in tuition because of an honors scholarship.  I would say that those few extra hours that I spent studying to ensure good grades were well worth the time.

It wasn’t always easy, but I was able to graduate without owing anyone any money.  This allowed great flexibility in what I chose to do right after school.  I wasn’t forced to get a high-paying job so that I could repay those loans. Instead, I could choose to go to graduate school and continue studying a subject of interest.

What are some ways that you saved money in college? How did your choices work out for you?

Update for 2017: When going through some of my old popular posts, I realized that I didn’t give any specific resources for people to check out. If you are looking for some information about paying for college and minimizing student loan debt, here are some of my favorite resources: