How I Graduated from University Debt Free

Does graduating from post-secondary school without debt sound intimidating or unrealistic to you?

At first, it did to me too. With all the pressure to take out student loans, it seems like the norm is to graduate with at least some debt. However, have you ever considered that there’s another option and it doesn’t include a bunch of scholarships or working two jobs while in school?

It’s a lot simpler than that but it does take planning and intentionality.

Does graduating from post-secondary school without debt sound intimidating or unrealistic to you?At first, it did to me too.

I recently completed my four-year undergrad to achieve a BA in Human Ecology. I finished without any student debt in four years. While living away from home and getting married. Plus I didn’t have to work during the school year.

It is possible to not have student debt hanging over your head when school is over. Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to take the money you’re earning after graduation and save it for a house or car?

Keep reading to learn about the strategies I used to avoid the all too common student debt trap.

1. Work + Save as Much as Possible

The most efficient way to save money is by not spending it. While planning for school start working as soon as possible. I began working part-time in grade 12. I saved my meagre minimum wage paychecks. After a while, I had saved my first thousand, which was a huge milestone for me!

At the same time, I didn’t spend lots of money on clothes, makeup, entertainment or much else. It wasn’t the most fun. However, I had a goal of cash flowing school. My future would be more enjoyable if I made some sacrifices now.

In my final year of high school, I deferred my acceptance to university for one year. During my gap year, I went from a part-time to a full-time position (still minimum wage). Working 40 hours a week I put most of my paycheck into a savings account. At the time I still lived at home so my expenses were very little. My parents also supported my desire to pay for school without debt.

During that almost year of working full time from September to July I saved up enough cash to cover over two years of tuition ($16,000). As a result, I didn’t feel pressure to work part-time during school. Rather I could focus on my academics. I’m grateful I didn’t need to work because to succeed in academics I have to work really hard, the extra time to study was a great blessing.

2. Buy Used: Laptops, textbooks, household items


On my first day of classes, the majority of students had shiny, new Apple MacBook Pro laptops. In contrast, I had a white 2010 Apple MacBook. However, I paid $500 for my used laptop off of Kijiji whereas the other students (or their parents) had paid upwards of $1000 for theirs. I’m still using the same laptop four years later and it works great! I’ve never had a problem with it. Plus I saved at least $500 while still getting a quality laptop.


Next, textbooks can be crazy expensive! Some sell for $150-$200 especially psychology ones. If you’re taking 10 classes over the entire year costs add up quick. A great way to save money is to buy used. To find used textbooks try to find the used textbook group for your school on Facebook. It can be helpful to post what books you’re looking for and then consider multiple offers to find the best deal.

At the end of the semester, you can sell your textbooks and hopefully break even or make a profit. Another great option is Amazon, although it’s not always cheaper than the bookstore, you can find good deals on used books.

Another note on selling your textbooks: don’t sell them during buyback days at the bookstore because you won’t get very much for them. It’s a lot more profitable to sell them on Facebook.

If you’re really strapped for cash professors often leave a reserve copy of the textbook in the library that can be checked out to complete each week’s readings. While completing summer school I utilized this option for one of my classes, although it wasn’t convenient I saved $150 for a book I would only use for 2 months.

Household items

Finally, when starting school you may be moving away from home and need some extra things. Instead of going out and buying everything new or at full price take your time and wait for clearance or sales. Since I had a year to prepare for school I was able to stock up on a lot of things I would need over a long period of time. One of the stores in our area closed, and I was able to score a lot of things at liquidation prices.

I also combed thrift stores for kitchen items like a utensil holder, mandolin slicer, and glasses. Additionally, my aunt gave me some old dishes to use. Honestly, when you’re a student it’s not about having nice things, that will come later when you can afford to upgrade.

3. Start Looking For a Summer Job Early

The number one way I have gotten all my jobs is through personal connections. Start talking to people that you know now if their company hires summer students. A lot of companies reserve spots for students entering full-time school in the fall. You could possibly begin working the summer before you start school.

Try your best to find a job that doesn’t pay minimum wage. Since you are only working for about 4 months it is imperative to make as much money as possible. Unless you don’t mind working during the school year. I ended up working in an automotive factory (that my cousin worked at) making double what I did on minimum wage. It was hard work but I had solid 40-50 hour work weeks plus overtime some weeks. As a result, each summer I was able to save enough for tuition plus around $5000 extra.

Thanks to taking a gap year I was already one year ahead on tuition so the money I made in the summer was for next year’s tuition. I had a nice buffer between each year of school and less pressure to have to work during the year. With the extra saving’s I planned on buying a car (with cash) upon graduating.

4. Live Off-Campus or At Home

Living in residence is insanely expensive. Yes it’s convenient and you don’t have to worry about cooking but it’s at least an extra $8,000-10,000 a year depending on where you live and what type of room you have.

If I could have lived at home I definitely would have. Instead, I went to a school an hour and a half from home so I had to move to that city. Thankfully my mom set me up in her friend’s basement where I paid $400 a month all inclusive. All I had was a bedroom, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen. Over 8 months of school I only spent $3200 plus about $30-50 a week on groceries.

Compare that to living in Residence and you’re saving at least $5000 a year! I didn’t have a huge space, but I lived in a safe neighbourhood, I had a quiet space to study, I controlled my food costs and I commuted only  20 minutes by bus to school. Plus I was able to live with a godly Christian woman who actually cared about me.

5. Apply For Grants + Bursaries

A lot of advice tells students to apply for scholarships but I have never had any success in gaining a scholarship so I’m not going to advise that. If you do get a scholarship that’s awesome they are a great way to cover expenses like textbooks.

Instead, I’ve had more success in getting grants from the government. In Ontario, you can apply for OSAP (loan + grant) or 30% Off Tuition (grant). While I was eligible I applied for just the grant portion and received around $1600 for my first three years. In my fourth year, I had been out of school too long and was no longer eligible. Instead, I applied for a bursary through my school and got $1300. I also applied for OSAP but only used the grant portion ($1150) and paid back the loan in full as soon as possible.

The extra cash helped cover living expenses, textbooks and went into savings.

6. Live Frugally

One of the overall points I’m trying to stress here is to live within in your means. If you can’t afford school than work until you can. I know that may seem very counter-cultural especially considering the boost that education provides socio-economically.  It’s better than having debt hanging over your head causing unnecessary stress because you were impatient.

Furthermore, don’t rack up credit card debt because you have to have all the latest makeup and clothes or go out every weekend. Make a budget and stick to it.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding money and the future is from Dave Ramsey: “Live like no one else so later you can live and give like no one else.”. To me, that means suffering a bit in the short term to live financially free and prosperous in the long term.

In the last four years and especially since getting married I haven’t been able to buy all the trendiest clothes, I hardly ever buy makeup, I wear the same shoes every day and I don’t go to the movies or out to eat often. Yes sometimes it’s hard, but at the same time I’m not gaining debt, rather I’m letting interest work for me and building wealth. I know in five or ten years I’ll be a lot better off and won’t be putting my income towards a debt I didn’t need to incur.

Finally, education is a luxury, not a right. I would highly urge anyone considering going into student loan debt to work as hard as they can to save up the cash to pay for each year as it comes. Maybe for you, this means working part-time while in school or taking a semester off. Just remember there is no shame in taking time to work. In the end, you are going to appreciate your degree so much more and you’ll understand that it takes work to earn things. Your future will be so much more secure and prosperous if you make sacrifices now. It’s not easy but the reward is so worth it!

In Summary Remember:

    • Work + Save as Much as Possible
    • Buy Used: Laptops, textbooks, household items
    •  Start Looking For a Summer Job Early
    • Live Off-Campus or At Home
    • Apply For Grants + Bursaries
  • Live Frugally

For all my American friends be sure to check out Rachel Cruze for great advice on college planning and paying down student debt.

Live like no one else so later you can live like no one else

6 Replies to “How I Graduated from University Debt Free”

  1. Great tips. I had a huge student loan when I left University, I didn’t feel like I was living to excess but there were certainly things I could have done better.

  2. Great tips – obviously some of these are better suited for others (and depending on where you live) but some are things we can all do. I’m out of college now, but I know that most of my loans are actually for grad school – I had grants and scholarships as an undergrad, with only SOME loans. So yes, I do owe a lot now and I wish I’d saved more or done things a bit differently in the past – but it could be way worse, I know.


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