My Answer to College Debt

I made it through 4 years of college the only way I was willing to: without borrowing money. Finishing debt free made it easier to finish without the pressure to pay a lender. Instead of moving straight into the job search, when I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go in life, I traveled to Alaska (on a dime) returned home and got married, still without debt.


To be honest, my plan worked, in part, because of my gender — I’m a guy. But everyone can be resourceful and that’s the key here: I simply worked to think outside the box and use every advantage I could see.


Advantage Number 1: Don’t Start Out Broke

I had no interest in college until I had been out of high school for a year. Then, the preparation for college took another year: SAT test, application, admission, etc. During these two years, I lived where I always had, with my parents, three sisters and two brothers and worked full-time, saving most of my earnings. When I started at James Madison University, I had enough savings to pay for several semesters of tuition.


Advantage Number 2: Don’t Spend Money You Don’t Have on Housing You Don’t Need

My high school locker partner had already started at JMU and was paying cheap rent in a house off campus. He and another male student each rented a room for $82/mo from Mary, an elderly widow, who wanted a little interaction with young people. When my friend asked Mary if I could share the room with him, she agreed and thought we should just split the $82. Understandably, my $41/month — perhaps $150 in 2016 dollars — only gave me a bunk in a bedroom I shared with a friend and a bathroom I shared with two. There were no kitchen privileges, no movie nights in any living room, no Wifi and no girls dropping in for the evening. But the “sacrifices” I made to save several hundred dollars a month on rent were small.


Advantage Number 3: Create a Little Income to Offset the Outgo

During that freshman year, I picked up a campus job for ten hours/week as a lab assistant in the Geology Department.


Advantage Number 4: Don’t Spend Money You Don’t Have on Food You Don’t Need

I also set up a campus meal plan through which I paid into an account and lost funds only when I showed up for a meal. I quickly learned a hundred tricks to keep from dropping too much money at “D-hall.” I never ate dinner there, as it was by far the most expensive meal of the day at over $4. I didn’t get a meal every day because I found it perfectly tolerable to get some of my calories from peanut butter on a spoon. I stored raisin bran, powdered milk and a bowl at my desk in the Geology Department. And, when I did pay to get into D-hall, I made it count: I took a textbook, spent an hour or two and consumed 2,000 calories before quitting for the day. Most people I know are convinced they cannot eat that way — my wife considers it straight up unhealthy. Yet, it worked for me nutritionally and saved me thousands during college. I’m now 55 and no one seems concerned about my physical condition.


Advantage Number 5: Don’t Spend Money You Don’t Have on Housing You Don’t Need…Does this Sound Like Number 2?

I took classes every summer because it was clear that maintaining any housing in Harrisonburg for 12 months while spending two of them in Arlington was another waste of resources.


Advantage Number 6: You Guessed It, Don’t Spend Money You Don’t Have on Housing You Don’t Need!

As sweet as our housing arrangement was, it lasted only my first year. Dear Mary moved into a nursing home and sold her house, so the three of us joined forces with two others the next year and rented a house of our own. This gave us some very real perks, but it came with a price: my share of the rent was over three times what I had been paying. So, with my savings depleted, when my second year ended, I determined there had to be a rent-free solution. In two years of college, I had discovered that anyone who wants to save a buck can actually save two simply by thinking outside the box. I had to pay the tuition; our family income was too high for me to get any tuition reduction. But, let’s face it, tuition accounts for less than half of college expenses for the average student. Room and board are where I found my savings. When I started my third year, I had no housing plan — because I had not yet found the one that met the criteria “free.”

So for a month, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the back yard of my sister’s rental house. I slept for free on the lawn while she paid the big bucks to not sleep because she worried about her brother on the lawn! Then came the big break; her landlord discovered me and offered a shed behind his other rental house across town. I moved in on my 22nd birthday, which also was the first night of rain since I had started sleeping on the lawn a month earlier; no electricity, plumbing or heat, but also no payment other than to mow the grass! I ate several times a week at D-hall and several times a day from the JIF jar. I studied on campus, showered at Godwin Hall, and slept in a 10×10 shed.


Advantage Number 7: Don’t Spend Money You Don’t Have on a Car, as long as a Bike Will Do

Through my years at JMU, it never occurred to me that I needed a car. In today’s dollars, the average car costs about 40 cents per mile. At just 10,000 miles per year, that comes to $16,000 for transportation over the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. When my Mom dropped me off for my first semester of college, frankly the only three items I remember in the load were the bunk beds we used that first year and the two bikes I used for 4 years. One bike was a $300 touring bike I locked when I went into class and never rode in the rain. The other was a 1-speed Schwinn with ugly rusty fenders: I never rode it more than a mile, never locked it up and never found it missing after class. I borrowed rides to Arlington from friends — who likely took on college debt — and sometimes rode my touring bicycle to Arlington or Charlottesville.


Actually, my four years at JMU took only three and a half due to the summer courses. Because I graduated in December, my graduation ceremony would have been a 5 month wait. By the end of my last semester, I was down to $20. For these reasons, I decided to avoid the ceremony and its expense. I imagine those twenty bucks were what I took as I left hitchhiking to Alaska.


Surely, there are several ways to fund a college education. Thanks to my daughter’s college experience, I now know that one of the best ways is to apply for every grant out there and that it helps to have parents with low income. It can seem that the easiest way to pay for it is to start a loan and add to it at every turn until you graduate with $50,000 in college loans — repayment of which is likely to hit you just as you want to get married and have kids. I’m thinking the real ‘easiest way’ is to avoid expenses, earn money as you go, graduate debt-free and then have fun paying only for the wife and kids for the next 25 years.