Going to college can be a great way to invest in your future and get the training and education you need to thrive in the modern job market.
But we’ve all heard the horror stories of students saddled with thousands in loans that they struggle to pay back, sometimes for years. Student loan debt is often the most pressing financial issue for college students and recent grads.
So how do you take advantage of the benefits of a college education without burdening your future with years of debt? Here are some tips to help you avoid high student loan payments and pay your student debt off more quickly after graduation.
Work through school
The days of working a minimum wage job to put yourself through school seem to be over. However, working enough to cover at least some of your books and living expenses may make a huge dent in the amount of money you’ll have to borrow to graduate.
Work-study programs on campus are often good options, as they are willing to work around your class schedules. Off-campus part-time jobs can be a good option as well, and may offer better pay.
Live as cheaply as possible
Everyone knows the cliché of the broke college student existing on nothing but ramen noodles. While not many people would recommend trying to live on nutritionless soup every day, you should be able to find ways to cut your cost of living to reduce the amount of money you need to borrow to sustain your lifestyle.
Try living off campus with family or roommates and packing sandwiches instead of paying expensive meal tickets and dorm fees. Bike, walk, or take public transportation to avoid parking. Take advantage of free on-campus healthcare, counseling, free food events, free entertainment, and more so you can spend as little as possible on living campus life.
It’s okay to go out and have fun sometimes, but don’t borrow from your future in order to live beyond your means now.
Try to avoid unsubsidized loans
Subsidized loans are offered by the Department of Education at lower interest than many private bank loans, and they do not begin accruing interest until after you graduate. Take advantage of these loans first and try to avoid the unsubsidized private loans which begin accruing interest immediately and often have a higher rate. (1)
Be mindful of your future payments
It can be tempting to expect that you’ll have a great job earning plenty of money and time to pay back the student loans you’ve accumulated. But each time you take out a loan, you make your future payments higher and your payback time longer. Be sure to look at the numbers of how much your payment will be every time you up your loan amounts. Can you realistically envision yourself being able to pay that amount every month in just a few years? If not, it may be time to rethink the student loans you’re racking up, and possibly even reconsider your degree or career plan.
Go to trade school, earn an apprenticeship, or work in your chosen field before you commit to a college degree in that field
It’s not a popular topic with many high school guidance counselors, but learning a trade and finding a well-paying job without a degree is not only possible but a great option. Try finding an internship or trade school where you could get training for much less money than a university.
Consider community colleges and state schools
It’s a common misconception that private, ivy league, “big name” colleges are far superior to state schools and automatically the better option. However, state schools can often have great programs for far less money. Also, if you choose a local school, you can live close to your family support system while working through college. It’s possible to have a very successful career with a college degree from a state school, and be more financially stable in your future than someone struggling to pay off loans from an expensive private college.
Likewise, an associate’s degree from a community college can save money toward your bachelor’s degree, allowing you to pay far less than you would even to a state school. Just make sure your degree and credits will transfer to the university of your choice.
Find a graduate program that pays YOU
If you choose to pursue a Masters or Doctorate degree, try to find a program with a teaching assistant position, fellowship, or some other option for getting reduced tuition or getting paid to get the work experience you need.
Resist the urge to move up in lifestyle when you graduate
When you scrimp your way through school, it’s tempting when you get your first degree-related job to celebrate by loosening the reins on your frugal ways and start living it up as a young professional.
It’s great to reward yourself, and you need to adapt to your new financial situation (you may need a new wardrobe or a better car), but resist going too crazy with all the “extra” money a new job in your field can make you feel like you have. You should still live on a budget and manage your money carefully to pay off your student loans as soon as possible so you’re better prepared to move into the next phase of life unencumbered by a mountain of debt. Make paying back debt a priority, and pay extra when you’re able.
Education can be expensive and in some cases impossible to get without loans. But with frugality and an eye toward the future, you’ll be better prepared to get the education you need to succeed in life without being encumbered by debt for years. The high cost of education combined with the high cost of living can make a college education more of a financial burden for today’s students than ever before. By thinking outside the box and carefully prioritizing your educational goals—balanced with your finances—you can pursue your dream degree and have a better chance at a stable financial future.