Growing up in Atlanta, I always knew I wanted to attend the University of Georgia (UGA). There wasn't any question in my mind about that — I was going.
However, when my junior year of high school rolled around, and it was time to seriously start evaluating schools, my parents broke the bad news to me: They couldn't afford UGA's pricey tuition, fees, room and board.
While they still encouraged me to apply to and attend college, they were frank about what that meant for me: Student loans would pay for the majority of my education.
Decisions, Decisions & Debt
At the time, this was hard to hear and accept. I felt somehow betrayed. Was it not my parents' responsibility to send me to the best school possible? Didn't they want to set me up for success in my adult life? Looking back today, however, I firmly believe my parents did me a favor.
For one, they didn't make my life easy. I had to learn and struggle and succeed on my terms, which pushed me to grow and get out of my comfort zone. I wouldn't be a successful entrepreneur today had my parents removed all obstacles from my path.
My parents also put their own financial needs ahead of sending me to college. Instead of emptying their savings, they told me the choice was mine but that I would be responsible for the cost. That benefited us both, as today they're able to fund their retirement rather than leaning on me to pick up the bill.
Still, I faced a hard decision at the time. I could do whatever I wanted and face the financial consequences later — or I could make decisions based on the reality of my economic situation and avoid student debt.
Zero Student Debt: The Game Plan
If I stayed in-state for school, I qualified for the Helping Others Pursue Education (HOPE) Scholarship, which pays a portion of the tuition at in-state schools. I was also awarded other scholarships from the state of Georgia based on my academic merit. The majority of my tuition, fees and other costs would be covered by scholarships if I chose a cheaper, in-state school.
Although I had dreams of attending UGA (and considered venturing out of state), I knew choosing a small school nearby would let me stretch my scholarships further. It also allowed me to commute from my parents' house to save money on room and board.
Ultimately, I decided to attend Kennesaw State University (KSU) because it was close to where my parents lived and the cost of attending was only about $2,000–$3,000 per semester in the years I attended. When I compared that to what I needed to spend out of pocket to attend a university like UGA, there was no question.
It was the difference between graduating with potentially no debt and graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
Avoiding Debt 101
The loans weren't worth it to me, especially since I wanted to get a degree in a less-than-lucrative field: history. Unless I sought an out-of-state school known for producing incredible historians, it likely wouldn't make a difference if I went to UGA or KSU.
Of course, just choosing a cheaper school based on the assumption that a history degree is a history degree and university name didn't matter wasn't enough. Here's what else I did to manage costs and handle my finances in college — so I could graduate free from student loan debt:
- I took advanced placement (AP) courses in high school that helped me earn college credit, and attended college a year early. I enrolled in KSU's Joint Enrollment Honors Program and was able to start my freshman year of college during my senior year of high school.
- I worked part-time at the university during my first couple of semesters. This gave me access to early registration, which allowed me to build a class schedule that minimized my time on campus and freed me to spend the rest of my week at another part-time job that paid better.
- I lived frugally — and became downright cheap sometimes. I lived off-campus with roommates, which was cheaper than living in the brand-new housing on campus. I was the stereotypical broke college kid, eating ramen and spending a period of months living off cereal (and not much else). I didn't feel deprived at the time because I was just so happy to be living on my own.
Financial Lessons Learned
I was happy and debt-free, but that didn't mean those years of college were financially easy. I was living on a razor-thin margin, which forced me to learn to manage my money smartly.
It also made me realize I didn't want to live this way forever. I was a good saver and a frugal spender, but I knew nothing about investments. If I wanted to one day have more than a few dollar bills in my pocket, I would need to educate myself.
My experience living on next to nothing sparked a desire to learn everything I could about money. I applied my ability to research and disseminate information (learned from that history degree) to the financial field, which helped me get a handle on my money for good.
None of that would have been possible had I simply financed my education with student loans and spent years dealing with the outstanding balances after graduation. It was a hard slog, but it set me up for long-term financial success.
529 College Savings Plan