(Updated in March 2019)

As an imaginative and ambitious child, you probably dreamed of graduating from college and landing the perfect job to finance the perfect lifestyle. Unfortunately, you forgot to factor in the impact of soaring college tuition fees and the probable need to rely on student loans to fund your education. Had you known that over 44 million Americans owe payments on their student loans, with a total portfolio of $1.5 trillion, you would have had been less optimistic. Luckily, there are still many ways you can avoid taking out large student loans that take decades to payback. As a student, you can minimize your expenses, make use of free resources and live as frugally as possible to graduate from college without debt, or at least, a very small and manageable debt portfolio.

We recently wrote an article about different debt relief options for students, but this post is more about ways to get a college degree without borrowing any money, which will push you several years ahead on your path to financial independence.

1. Save for college as early as possible

Many banks offer youth savings accounts, which not only teach children about financial discipline but also provide much-needed support when it’s time to enter college. It may not seem like a lot to put $15 in your savings account at the young age of 15, but over time this money multiplies, and you can regularly add a part of your monthly allowances as well as any income you earn while working part-time jobs prior to college years. In addition to this, you can set saving goals to stay motivated. You’ll certainly thank yourself later when you graduate with minimal or no student debt. Start saving up now to protect your future self from the burden of student loans.

Related: 8 Ways Parents Can Teach Children About Budgeting and Saving

2. Minimize your tuition expense

The biggest chunk of your college expenses belongs to tuition fees and the easiest way to fund them is through scholarships, student aid and grants. If you find it difficult to pay for your college tuition without the help of student loans, you can ask others to pay for you, provided you are deserving and have a good academic record. Apply for every grant and scholarship available in your country, be it from your college board, an NGO, local businesses, a religious establishment such as churches, synagogues or mosques. Cast a wide net when applying for these programs, even if it’s for a paltry sum of $50 or $100 per program – you may be surprised how quickly the numbers add up in the end. Let’s not forget that some generous celebrities also offer to cover education expenses for fans. A while back, Nicki Minaj recently pledged to pay the tuition fees of numerous fans, who simply requested her to do so over Twitter! She pledged over $30,000 in one night.

It goes without saying; you need to maintain decent grades to be eligible for academic financial support and complete your degree in the shortest amount of time possible (without switching majors or failing classes).

3. Get tuition assistance from your employer

Some well-established companies may pay for your education while you work, but require you to stay on board for a few years to recover the cost of your tuition. If you choose to work someplace else after relying on the tuition assistance program, you may be required to pay back the company, with is only fair because you didn’t have to borrow money or use up your savings to expand your academic qualifications at the expense of the company. These progressive human resource policies encourage employee growth as well as retention, and offer students a great way to balance their professional and academic lives without being burdened by student loans.

4. Save money on college textbooks

College-level textbooks can be surprisingly expensive because each teacher prescribes the latest edition to stay relevant. In most cases, changes in subsequent versions/editions of the book are incremental, such as a few new questions at the end of the chapter, or a couple of extra paragraphs explaining a new industry trend. That said, there are a few ways you can lower this expense. Once you get your book list:

  • Head over to the library at your college or city to see if you can borrow the book on a renewed basis for the duration of the semester,
  • Request a student senior to you to sell you their textbooks if they no longer need it.
  • Find an electronic copy of the textbook – this should be less expensive considering there is no printing cost linked to the price,
  • Ask your professor if a previous edition of the text book will work, and purchase that instead. Older editions are less expensive than the latest ones so look for them online at places like Amazon, Craigslist or Ebay,

Sure, second hand books may not look as clean as new ones, but that’s hardly an obstacle in your drive to pursue a college degree without relying on student debt.

4. Avail student discounts whenever possible

Retailers realize that most students are financially troubled and therefore offer various discounts to customers who can prove they are currently enrolled as college students. In most cases, your student ID will get you a few dollars skimmed off your bill, or you may have to provide a valid email address that ends in “.edu” to prove you’re a student for an online purchase. Here is a list of services that often offer student discounts so be sure to ask whether you’re eligible for the extra savings:

  • Clothing outlets,
  • Grocery stores,
  • Museums and public parks,
  • Cinemas and other types of theaters,
  • Tourist spots,
  • Sporting events like football or baseball matches,
  • Restaurants and hotels,
  • Concerts,
  • Public libraries,
  • Public transport services like busses, trains and some airlines,
  • Magazine subscriptions, both online and offline.

Some websites even hook you up to all the different companies that offer student discounts based on where you live, making it easier for you to save money and avoid debt.

5. Share housing expenses

This tip can be used by young adults who do not have stable, well-paying jobs yet and there’s no reason students can’t benefit from it too. The easiest way to cut thousands of dollars from your college expenses is to stay with your family instead of moving out. True, it may not be as thrilling an experience but you’ll save a lot of money and not regret a thing when you graduate debt-free. If staying with mum and dad is not on the cards, there was other ways to save money. You can share a low-budget apartment near your college with fellow students, rather than living alone on campus or renting an apartment by yourself.

If you’re up for some extreme adventure, read about Ken Ilgunas, who lived in a mini-van while attending university. Surprise! He also graduated without using student loans.

6. Attend college in your home state

If you choose to live at home while attending college, you will automatically enroll at colleges near your house. However, even if you choose to move out during your college years, you will still benefit from lower tuition fees as some public universities are less expensive for student who live within the state. The tuition fees for in-state residents is often lower than the tuition for out-of-state residents/student at public universities and this surcharge can be avoided if you choose to attend a university within your home state. Alternatively, some families choose to establish residency within the state of their child’s college before enrolling, but this can be a pretty difficult solution because it costs a lot of money to uproot the entire family to re-settle elsewhere, and can be impossible if parents have jobs.

7. Consider community colleges

Community colleges are significantly less expensive (cheaper) compared to public and private universities that offer 4 year degrees. You can study the first two years of your degree at a comprehensive community college and then transfer to a regular college to complete the remainder of your credits. This will get you a more prestigious label on your degree while saving you thousands of dollars. The problem with transferring colleges is that your credit transfer may not go smoothly, as expected. The second college may require more study credits to complete the degree, which means it may take longer to graduate. Still, the money you save may be worth the hassle if it means you can cut or totally eliminate the need for student loans.

8. Make your own food as a student and save on groceries

If you attend a college where cafeteria food is expensive, dull or unhealthy, you can consider cooking your own food, which is a frugal hack for people others than students. When it’s time for grocery shopping, look for coupons and don’t hesitate to visit a variety of stores to get the lowest possible prices. Another way to cut your grocery bill and cooking time is to buy in bulk and cook in batches for the entire week. Set aside a strict budget for eating out, because while it’s fun to go out to a cafe or get some fast food, it is not economical in the long run.

9. Start working as early as possible and save that income

It’s never too early to start an internship, part-time job or even a full-time summer job to save up for your college education so you don’t have to borrow from banks. If there aren’t any vacancies you fit into, do whatever you can to monetize your interests and hobbies, such as writing articles for the local magazine/newspaper, babysitting, putting your photographs up on micro-photography websites, or something else you can do to earn money from home. The added of working as a teenager is that all these ventures add to your resume and you’ll have a lot more experience added to your credentials, compared to other candidates your age, when you start job hunting after graduation.

10. Keep a reasonable entertainment budget

Contrary to popular belief, college is not a time to party. Certainly, do everything you want to have fun with your peers, but don’t let that come at the expense of your finances or grades. This requires a lot of financial discipline but it’s possible if you keep a strict budget, where you track your entertainment expense closely. If this means you can’t afford to see a movie next Saturday, you’ll have to skip the cinema and go for a hike instead, or find some other low-cost healthy activity to entertain yourself. Remember that entertainment is more of a ‘want’ and not a ‘need’ and does not require regular splurging if you’re trying to graduate college without student debt.

11. Use credit cards wisely

Banks encourage college students to apply for credit cards, without properly educating them about responsible usage. Credit card debt comes with extremely high interest rates calculated on a compounded basis – this means you pay interest on interest, which will make the money you owe to your credit card company multiply very quickly. The easiest way to save yourself from credit card debt is to use a debit card instead, because that will only let you spend the money you already have in your account. If you have the ‘option’ of spending more money than you have, as you do with credit cards, you may be tempted to live extravagantly. A debit card, on the other hand, will help you control your expenses.

Another great way to limit your expenses, while at college or elsewhere, is to know the difference between needs and wants. This will help you prioritize your spending so even if you do swipe your credit card and gain a bit of debt, you can be sure it was necessary.

Related: 7 ways to lower the interest rate on your credit card bill.

These tips may seem difficult to apply to your student life, but the hassle is worth the financial relief. Students who successfully graduate from college without massive student loans can search for jobs without the pressure of debt repayments. They can take up the right job, instead of the first one that gets offered because they’re worried about making their loan installments on time.

There are millions of people who struggle with student debt – they have to put their life on hold, declare bankruptcy, move to tiny apartments, support a family by taking more debt and that leads to a perpetual state of debt.

If despite all these efforts you’re falling short of funds, you can avail student loans but, at least, your reliance on them will be minimal.

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