When I tell people that I managed to get two university degrees and graduate with around $40,000 in savings and no debt, they look at me like I'm crazy. Or if they're still paying off their own student loans they often look like they want to slap me. How could I have pulled off something like that when the majority of students struggle through school only to graduate with mountains of debt? The average debt load for Canadian students is around $25,000 and the average debt for American students is just under $30,000. In British Columbia, where I did both of my degrees, the average debt is even higher at $35,000 per student.
That debt is keeping others in my generation from working jobs they love rather than jobs that pay their bills. It's keeping them from getting married, having kids, and buying their first homes. It doesn't help that Millennials are graduating at a time when youth unemployment and underemployment are rampant. The belief that you will quickly be able to pay off student loans when you get a well-paying job as a graduate just doesn't hold up anymore. Generation Y can't afford to make that assumption.
While it's too late for those who already went to school and racked up high debts, it's not too late for those who are in school now or heading off to school soon. Those members of Generation Y can stop the cycle of racking up debts that will take decades to pay off and potentially derail their most important life plans.
As someone who successfully graduated with money in the bank, I feel like I have a unique story to tell and important knowledge to share. I've also spent the last five years doing admissions and scholarship consulting, work for which I've been featured in publications like The Canadian Campus Companion.
So, how did I do it?
Scholarships, Scholarship, Scholarships. Free money is a wonderful thing. I received around $60,000 in scholarships and research grants over the course of my two degrees. Each year tens of billions of dollars in scholarships are given out across North America and tens of millions of dollars go unawarded every year due to lack of applicants. Sure, it took a lot of time researching and applying for scholarships, but it was very much worthwhile. Think about it this way - the average scholarship is worth $2,000 and you usually have to apply for 10 scholarships to win one award. Let's say applying for those 10 scholarships will take about 50 hours. How much would you earn per hour at that rate? That's $40 per hour. I don't know very many teenagers who can make that much per hour! Don't fall for the myth that only students with the best grades and the most extracurricular activities get scholarships. There are scholarships out there for everyone, you just have to know where to look.
Be Frugal. Don't subsidize your lifestyle with student loans. I lived far from campus in order to take advantage of cheap rent, and I had two other roommates to keep costs down. I took the bus and brought my lunch to school every day. I didn't spend money frivolously and found all sorts of tips and tricks for saving money on things like textbooks, and outfitting your dorm or apartment. By finding easy ways to spend less, you require fewer student loans or none at all.
Look for Opportunities to Make Money. I did all sorts of things to make money while I was a student. I worked during the summers as most people do, but I didn't have a full-time job during the school year while I was in undergrad. Instead, I tutored other students, was a notetaker for students who were hearing impaired, and did casual work like street team promotions. While I was in graduate school where the pay for grad students was fairly high, I said yes to everything I could fit into my schedule, and at one time had seven part-time jobs in which I worked anywhere from one hour to 10 hours a week.
Live at Home. I lived at home during the summers and sublet my apartment. While that saved me a significant amount of money, I could have saved far more if I had lived at home while attending school. In fact, a TD study showed that you could save up to $25,000 over the course of a degree by living at home. Even if you can't do your whole degree while living at home, consider doing your first few years while you get all your prerequisites and electives.
Graduate in 4 Years. A lot of people are taking longer to graduate and that can mean that they rack up more money in debt. I did my undergraduate degree in four years and my master's degree in two. By sticking to the recommended amount of time, I was able to save money and get working faster.
It's very possible to graduate without student debt, but it can be difficult. These suggestions only skim the surface of how you can graduate without drowning in debt. If you're serious about graduating debt-free start working on it now by learning as much as you can about how to win scholarships, live frugally, and make more money. I share all my knowledge in my new book The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education, but I'm always willing to share tips on how I managed to do it, so I'm also happy to answer any questions in the comments!
This post was adapted in part from my new book The Complete Guide to a Debt-Free Education, available via Amazon and Kobo.