10 Tips on How to Graduate College Debt Free

by Joe Plemon on July 15, 2009

Sarah_Grad_2009_211_17 Prospective college students: this is for you. The choices you make on funding your college will impact your life for years to come. Sure, you can take the easy path and borrow the money. But I challenge you to be different: make sacrifices and avoid the a debt problem. No College Savings? You can still do it.

If you accept this challenge, you will be celebrating a debt free diploma. If you ignore it, you will be starting your career burdened by accumulated debt.

Accept the challenge. It won’t be easy, but you can do it. These tips will help.

Creative Commons License photo credit: nsaplayer

1. Decide now to avoid debt.

Once you draw the line in the sand, you will figure out how to do it. Without this commitment, you will drift into debt.

Nineteen percent of bankruptcies in the United States are filed by young people age 24 and under. The culprit? Credit card debt.

2. Don’t go.

I know. This column is about graduating without debt. But what if you just aren’t ready to start right now? You should consider working and saving and learning about life. If you later choose to go to college, you will have more purpose, be more motivated, and have a college nest egg.

3. Say “no” to credit card offers.

Once on campus, you will be enticed with free T-shirt offers and free pizza for filling out a credit card application. Don’t do it, even if you don’t plan to use the card.

Nineteen percent of bankruptcies in the United States are filed by young people age 24 and under . The biggest culprit? Credit card debt. There is a 100% chance that you won’t create credit card debt if you don’t own a credit card and succumb to credit card costs.

4. Work.

Plan on working two jobs every summer and one job during the school year. The sacrifices you make today will not only help you avoid debt during college but will also develop a work ethic essential for life after college.

then they all let go!
Creative Commons License photo credit: wiccked

5. Choose your college based on your budget.

A prestigious diploma can help you get that first job. Your value to your company, however, is based 100% on your performance, not your pedigree. Don’t choose that dream college if you can’t pay for it. Community colleges and state universities will give you a great and affordable education.

6. Don’t bet the ranch on your chosen profession.

Many students rationalize their student debt by telling themselves that this is “good” debt that will give them a great job.

Career coach Dan Miller reports that 80% of college graduates, 10 years after graduation, are not working in the field of their major. And what if you don’t graduate? You still owe the debt! As a financial counselor, I often work with people who still struggle with their college debt years after college.

7. Apply for scholarships: lots of them.

Dave Ramsey, in his book, “The Total Money Makeover”, tells of a high school student who made it her summer job to apply for Scholarships. She actually applied for 1000 scholarships and got turned down by 970 of them. BUT…the 30 which were accepted were worth $38,000! Not a bad summer job!

Your value to your company is based 100% on your job performance, not your pedigree.

8. Take Advance Placement courses and exams.

Many high schools offer college credits for Advance Placement courses. If you can get the college credit while in high school, you will save on college expenses.

9. Find a work co-op program.

Some companies will pay your tuition if you agree to work while going to college, or alternate work and college. Yes, it takes longer, but you are building that resume and learning about the business world while avoiding college debt.  You can even apply for internships that are paid for.  It might give you a chance to see if you like the career before you commit.

10. Join the Military.

M4 rifle
Creative Commons License photo credit: Army.mil

Of course this is a huge commitment, but some branches of the military allow you to attend college while still in active service. And once discharged, the GI Bill will basically pay for your education.  Usually, there are extra monetary incentives for military members to attend college.

You have the opportunity to avoid this debt before you get it. Grab that opportunity.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Patrick July 15, 2009 at 9:43 am

Joe, excellent article! The only thing I did differently was actually apply for a credit card while in college, but I only used it a couple times and the purpose was to start building credit history. I was disciplined in my credit card use though, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless someone will pay it off in full each month.


Studenomist July 15, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Join the military? Maybe if I had the balls lol. Kick boxing is as far as I’m willing to go.

Don’t go? Advice that TONS of my fellow college students should have considered. 23 with a history degree unemployed with debt is not the dream life.

Co-op? Best idea ever.
Say no to credit cards? What if I really want that t-shirt? Just kidding.

Great article with practical advice!


Peter July 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Great post! I wish I had taken more of this advice when i went to school. I especially like #7, the idea that you could take the summer applying for scholarships. Even if you get rejected for a majority, get accepted for even a few and you’re able to pay for your education!


Matt Jabs July 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I must regrettably admit that I too fell for the “free T-shirt” offers while in college. I fell into credit card debt several times actually. Once during college, then once again about a year & a half ago. I’ll be free from the nuece here in less than a year, Lord willing, so I am grateful and will NEVER let this bondage steal my stewardship again!

PS… I added your blog to the Christian Finance Directory. Thank you for submitting the link.


Debt Arbitration April 20, 2010 at 10:49 pm

That was a great tips I picked few new idea from the post.


joeplemon April 21, 2010 at 8:28 am

I’m glad you found some nuggets you can use!


DebT July 16, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Thanks for the great article. I’m going to have my son read it tonight when he comes home for the weekend. Maybe it will help him to see the reality of what’s happening.


joeplemon July 17, 2010 at 7:32 am

I am curious about what you son thinks of this article. Is he a college student? If I am not being too nosy, how is his education being funded? Keep me posted.


Chris September 1, 2010 at 3:32 am

Not only are AP courses a good idea for saving money in college, but so are credit by exam options like the CLEP and DSST exams. Many people think that the core curriculum of college is just a repeat of high school, so many college students could probably pass a number of these exams.


National Debt October 12, 2010 at 1:33 am

One more way: Get your parent to teach at a school that offers free tuition as a perk 🙂

Yeah, I got lucky.


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