12 Strategies I Used To Avoid Getting Buried in Student Loan Debt

Today, I have a great guest post from Matt from Method To Your Money. Here are the strategies he used to graduate (nearly) debt-free from college. If you’re getting ready to attend college, or if you’ve got kids who are preparing to go off to school, student loans can sometimes feel like a forgone conclusion. In…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: June 24, 2023

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Today, I have a great guest post from Matt from Method To Your Money. Here are the strategies he used to graduate (nearly) debt-free from college.

12 Strategies I Used To Avoid Getting Buried in Student Loan Debt #payoffstudentloans #studentloans #debtfreejourney #moneysavingtipsIf you’re getting ready to attend college, or if you’ve got kids who are preparing to go off to school, student loans can sometimes feel like a forgone conclusion.

In fact, over 70% of graduates leave school with significant student loan debt. That’s 44 million people who owe $1.5 TRILLION dollars, or around $37,000 per person!!

It’s all a bit INSANE!!

But what if I told you that I have found a way to avoid being one of those indebted graduates, a series of strategies to avoid the anchor of student loans and to start your career off on the right foot? A method that I’m already starting to instill in my children so that when they go to college, they’ll be fully prepared to CRUSH it both in the classroom and with their bank accounts.

My family was firmly entrenched in the middle class. My dad is a pastor and my is mom a nurse. Growing up, money was not a limitless resource and my parents always made decisions with finances in mind.

When I graduated from high school and prepared to enter college, I knew that finances would always be a factor in where I went and how I paid for it.

I went to college for 5 years and got 2 bachelors degrees. In between, I studied in Europe and travelled. One year after graduating, I was TOTALLY debt-free.

How’d I do it?

A combination of suave sophistication and a charming personality?  Yeah, right.

How about hard work, frugality, and not trying to impress people I didn’t care about.

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1 – I lived at home

I know that this may not be possible for some people, but for many, it is.

About 80% of Americans live in urban centers. This means they’re really close to the colleges, technical schools, and community colleges that pepper these metro regions. For the overwhelming majority of people, this close proximity to post-secondary education means that living at home may be a possibility.

For me, living at home worked GREAT. Not having to live in residence or with roommates meant that I saved a BOAT LOAD of cash. My parents charged me a small amount of rent but then ended up giving it back to me as a gift when I graduated.

It did mean, however, that I didn’t get the FULL college experience.

I didn’t have to avoid my dorm room while my roommate and his girlfriend “hung out”. I didn’t experience the raging dorm parties complete with drunken coeds and the poor choices and regrets that go along with them. And I didn’t experience the culinary delights of the campus meal plan.

If you’re willing to forgo those “perks”, then maybe living at home is for you!

Now I know that for many, living at home while in school isn’t an option. Maybe you live too far from school or you don’t get along with your parents. Or perhaps your parents didn’t give you the option.

If that’s the case, living with multiple roommates can significantly lower your housing costs. Next to tuition, room and board accounts for the biggest chunk of college costs, over 25% of the annual total bill. Living with several roommates may be be a big sacrifice, but it can pay HUGE dividends when it comes to saving cash over the course of your degree.


2- I went to community college…and saved a TON of cash!!

I live a major urban center with about a million people. As a result, there were several options for me as far as where to attend school close by.

At the top of the list was the main university with about 40,000 students where almost EVERYONE went. After a few smaller private colleges, there was the local community college.

To be honest, I had never really even considered going there, until a frugally-minded friend of mine asked if I wanted to check out the open house with him.

After sitting through the presentation, I was convinced! I’d take my first two years at the community college and then transfer over to the university.

Not only was there a transfer program in place with the university guaranteeing I’d get in after the two years, but class sizes were WAY smaller (100 students compared to 400) and the tuition was about HALF as much.

As Michelle wrote in her great piece on community college, the cost difference is SIGNIFICANT:

  • Private four-year college is $32,410.
  • Public four-year college for out-of-state students is $23,890.
  • Public four-year college for in-state students is $9,410.

And, community college is $3,440.

For me it was a no brainer and I’ve NEVER regretted my decision.

I can say having attended both schools that the quality of education I received at community college was EVERY BIT as good, if not BETTER in some respects, than the one I got at the university I graduated from.

I grew very close with my classmates and got to know my professors VERY well. In many cases, I even got 1-on-1 instruction with them during their office hours, something which is much tougher at a large school with thousands of students all vying for a tiny amount of their instructor’s time.

Community college gets a bad rap, but I have to say it was awesome! It’s something I’ll be STRONGLY encouraging my kids to consider as they get ready to plunge into that next step of their academic careers.

For now, they’re focused on printing the alphabet and learning how to count (they’re 5 and 2).

One word of caution: Before you enroll in a community college, check with the registrar of the school you’re hoping to attend after to be sure that your credits will transfer. It’s a simple step, and many schools have agreements in place with local community colleges already!


3- I rocked the scholarships

I definitely wasn’t a genius or anything, but the standards to get scholarships or financial aid may be lower than you think! If I got a few, anyone can!!

With financial aid being available to many students, this is the first place to start. Not taking the time to fill out the forms is criminal. In fact, in 2015, $2.9 billion in grants were left unclaimed! Often people don’t apply because they think there families make too much but even households that make over $150,000 can get some form of financial aid.

As Michelle notes in an awesome post on the topic, by filling out the FAFSA forms you can potentially access a wide range of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study programs.

If you’re in high school, a great place to kick off your search is by talking to your counselor. They’ll be able to give you scholarship info and point you in the right direction.

In addition, you can head to a bookstore or library to grab the latest copies of scholarship books which are published every year.

A couple to check out are:

  1. The Ultimate Scholarship Book (2019) by Gen Tanabe and Kelly Tanabe
  2. Scholarships, Grants & Prizes (2019) by Peterson’s

Once you’ve gone through those and highlighted all the scholarships you’re going to apply for, go online and look at some of the scholarship databases out there. Among the best are Fastweb and Scholarships.com.

And you don’t have to be an academic to get money for school. People want to give you money to go to college for ALL SORTS of strange things.

Can you carve a mean pumpkin? You could be in line for $500.

Are you a trekkie? Your $10 fan club membership could be worth $1000!!

Do you have a child age 6-12 who loves peanut butter? Their creative sandwich creations could mean $25,000 for their college fund.

And there are LOTS more.

Finally, look for scholarships in your community. Oftentimes churches, businesses or civic organizations will have their own scholarships. All you’ve got to lose is the time it takes to make the phone call!

The final word on scholarships: APPLY FOR EVERYTHING YOU CAN.

You never know how many people have applied and you may be the only one!! Every year there are close to $100 million in unclaimed scholarships.


4- I drove below my means

This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I was NOT much of a ladies man in college.

I’ve convinced myself over the years, with a lot of positive self-talk and thousands of dollars of intense therapy, that this wasn’t due to a lack of charisma or good looks. No, it was because of the car I drove.

My first car was a 1987 Toyota Tercel hatchback. Bright red in color, it burned more oil than gas, to the point where I always kept 5 quarts of Castrol motor oil in the trunk. When the oil light went on, I’d pull over, fill up, and be on my merry way.

Other than its unquenchable thirst for oil, it ran like a dream (I may be exaggerating a bit for effect…it ran).

Not only did the sweet wheels and blue cloud of smoke that followed me act as girlfriend repellant, it also ensured that I didn’t have a massive car payment or expensive repairs to a fancy car.

Whenever my ride needed a bit of work, I’d take it to a local mechanic who LOVED working on old Toyotas. Maybe you’ve noticed that about car guys (not Ferrari car guys, the real car guys, the ones with grease stained hands and multiple cars sitting in their yard). They LOVE old Toyotas.

He’d whip mine into shape in no time and for next to nothing.

Even though that little car kept me from expanding my social circle when it came to members of the opposite sex, it also saved my a TON of money.

And I guess, indirectly, by preventing me from having a girlfriend, that little car saved me some money on dates and gifts too.


5- There is free lunch (or at least a less expensive one) and it comes in a brown bag

If you spend anytime reading in the personal finance world you’ll have heard this advice trumpeted repeatedly.

There’s a reason for that. It’s true.

Buying your lunch on campus can easily cost anywhere from $5-$20 depending on what you get. Picking up coffee in the morning can also impact your expenses, running between $2-$5.

These costs add up QUICKLY.

According to USA Today, the average cost to eat out is $11. Over your 8 months or so of classes,  if you grabbed your morning coffee and lunch on campus every day it would cost over  $2500.


As Michelle wrote about, if you don’t keep a close eye on these expenses, they can creep up and have disastrous effects like huge credit card debt.

How much could you save if you brown bagged it?

Well, bringing your lunch from home costs just $6.30.

With home brewed coffee costing you about 18 cents a cup (no wonder Starbucks is doing so well), your total daily cost is about $6.50. That’s about 60% cheaper than buying on campus, or an annual savings of $1500!!

That’s 1500 bucks you can use to pay tuition, room and board.

Or to buy more motor oil for your car.


6- I bought used textbooks

After tuition and room and board, books are the next biggest cost you’ll face in college. I was really fortunate to have my parents pay for my books, but many people don’t have this help.

With the average annual price tag ringing in at $1250, anything you can do to reduce the cost of your books is money well saved.

The best and most obvious thing you can do is buy your books used. I was able to do this by hitting up the campus bookstore and searching for used copies. The problem with this is that used copies are often tough to find and you’re not necessarily getting the best price.

That’s why using a site like Slugbooks can be really helpful.

By compiling prices on textbooks into one, convenient spot, SlugBooks helps students find the cheapest prices available.

Not only can you find cheap textbooks to buy, you can rent them too (who knew??!!).

Just type in the school and the class and voila – the cheapest available textbook prices appear. They compare textbook prices between the largest and most trustworthy online new, used, rental and digital textbook sellers, including Amazon and Chegg, to give you the best price.

If you’re looking to save money on books, whether it’s buying or renting, there are lots of great options to cut costs.


7- I embraced crappy jobs (literally)

As I was saving for college and while attending, I made a conscious decision to work hard jobs, jobs that typically involved a lot of manual labor, but that also paid more than the typical retail or restaurant job.

As a result of this choice, I had the privilege (misfortune?) of working several really CRAPPY jobs in the most literal sense of the word.

As I was working in high school and saving up for college, I worked as a excretory technologist, industry jargon for a porta potty repair man.

Now not only was I tasked with with repairing the portable toilets after they’d come back from construction sites or outdoor concert venues (those construction workers and drunken concert goes are so courteous and thoughtful towards the people cleaning up after them…), I was also responsible for waste removal.

I’ll let your imagination run wild on the details of how that looked (and smelled) but suffice it to say, it was a crappy job.

And my job next summer wasn’t much better.

Still in the waste management business, I was promoted to sanitary engineer, another made up title to help garbage collectors fall asleep at night. I would ride on the back of the garbage truck picking up trash for hours on end. Up and down, up and down, until my back ached and my nose was numb from the smell of rotting garbage in the summer heat.

Not all my jobs were quite that terrible, but I did always make conscious decisions to work jobs where the pay was higher. As a result, they were tougher jobs than working at the Gap or at the local amusement park.

But it was this ability to endure crappy work that helped me to stash away a bunch of money to pay for college without going deeply into student loan debt.


8- I didn’t party like it was 1999 (even though it was!) – I found cheaper alternatives

Let’s recap some of the ways I saved money so far:

  • I went to community college
  • I lived with my parents
  • I drove a terrible car
  • I worked crappy jobs

It’s beginning to be clear to me why I struggled to attract any girls during college…I wasn’t exactly a catch or anything.

Maybe it was because of my lack social desirability, my naturally low-key personality, or more likely due to my upbringing and heritage, but I didn’t live the party hard lifestyle that is so commonly seen amongst college students.

Aside from the occasional beer I’d have with friends, I HATED spending money on drinks when I went out. I’ve just always had a hard time spending $6 on a pint of beer at a restaurant or bar when I knew I could get it for less than half that at the supermarket, especially when I think of the meagre monthly income I was surviving on in college.

That’s not to say I didn’t have an active social life. I did. I just found cheaper alternatives to the high-priced, alcohol saturated, party scene.

We’d have video game tournaments into the wee hours of the morning, or play tennis and then crush big gulps after as the sun went down. We’d go wakeboarding and have bonfires with friends or hang out a buddy’s house and watch a movie and eat popcorn.

It may sound lame to some people, but I LOVED the life I had in college. It showed me that I didn’t need to spend scads of money to have a good time. To have a great time, I had to be with great people, and my friends were awesome!

This ability to have a vibrant and awesome social life without spending a ton of cash really helped me to live well below my means and save lots of the money I was making at my crappy jobs.


9- I refreshed reasonably- stay away from expensive vacations with friends

Although it’s awesome to recharge over Spring Break and take a warm vacation to Cabo or some other tropical locale, these trips are luxuries and not necessities.

That’s not to say you should be a homebody and never go away.

In college my friends and I would often go away over Spring Break, but we dialed it back a few notches from the all out, all inclusive resort trips many people take.

We’d often do a road trip to the mountains and go skiing, not for the entire week, but for a long weekend over the break. Sometimes we’d just hang around and enjoy some of the local entertainment and activities that our city had to offer.

The point is, we didn’t forgo taking breaks and getting away. We just didn’t break the bank by doing it.

Now, I get that I graduated from college in 2005, the year after an unknown computer programmer at Harvard named Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. Today there’s a lot more social pressure to “do it for the insta” and to get the selfie. It’s keeping up with the Joneses on steroids compared to even 10 years ago.

But if you’re going to get through college without student loans, and beyond that, if you’re going to be a financial rockstar, you’re going to have to learn that keeping up with the Joneses will put you on the fast track to financial ruin.

Because the Joneses are broke, even though they don’t look it.


10- I chose my friends wisely

We become like the people we hang out with, so surrounding yourself with a group of friends who support your frugal lifestyle is critical to getting through college without student loans.

The crew that I rolled with in college were kids that were a lot like me: they were from middle class homes where they had been taught both the value of a dollar and how to work hard. As a result, most of the things we did for fun didn’t cost a ton of money.

Not only that, but I didn’t have the intense peer pressure that many students face to go on exotic spring break vacations or out for expensive nights on the town.

This critical principle is not just true for students. It holds true after graduation as well.

In his often cited personal finance masterpiece, The Millionaire Next Door, author Thomas Stanley describes which professions are the most likely to have a high proportion of high net worth individuals.

You’d think they’d be doctors, lawyers, or business executives. You’d be wrong.

While people in these professions often have high SALARIES, they don’t usually have high net worths. One reason is that these careers require expensive advanced degrees which can cost 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of dollars.

Not only that, but there are professional and cultural expectations that come with these jobs: drive a nice car, own a big house, go on lots of expensive vacations throughout the year.

I know my brother-in-law, a successful surgeon, definitely felt the pressure to go out and buy an expensive car after graduating from med school and officially become a “Doc”. Rolling into the hospital in a used Honda Civic and parking next to your peers’ BMW’s and Audi’s can make a person feel as though they need to spend beyond their means to fit in. This can lead to lower net worths and higher debt levels amongst these professionals than you might expect.

No, the profession that had a large proportion of high net worth individuals was…


Wait, what? Teachers??

Yes, teachers.

But they don’t make much!


Because teaching is a profession where salaries are not crazy high, there is NO peer pressure to try to project a certain image. Teachers don’t have the pressure to buy expensive designer clothes, drive super flashy cars or have their kids in private school. As a teacher myself, I roll into work every day in my hail-damaged Nissan Versa, and wear it as a badge of honor.

And as an added bonus, no one gives me a sideways look when I pull out my lunch bag full of leftovers in the staffroom!

It’s the perfect profession for frugality, and oftentimes, frugality is one of the KEYS to getting rich!


11- I chose my degree wisely

Not only is choosing your friends wisely critical to avoiding student loans, so is choosing your degree.

When I graduated from college, I had about $15,000 in student loans to pay off.

Because I had a degree in Art History, focusing on 14th century monastic architecture in northern Italy, I did what all Art History majors do…I went to work at Starbucks (NOT!! I was a Biology major – sorry to all the Art majors I offended. Bad Science major joke).

Now nothing against the people who work at Starbucks, but if I’m going to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on a degree, I don’t want to be serving up lattes and cake pops after I graduate.

When I decided to go into education, I did it for three main reasons: The summers off, the summers off, and the summers off (just kidding, but it’s a great perk!).

No, first and foremost, I love teaching. I really do. I’m a teacher through and through. Even if I wasn’t in a school teaching, I’d be teaching somewhere else. It’s not just something I do, it’s who I am.

Second, I wanted to be doing meaningful work. I don’t know of any other profession where a person gets to mold and shape the minds of today into the leaders of tomorrow. Teaching really is a profession like no other.

And third, I knew that in being a teacher, I would have a reasonably comfortable middle class life. No, I wouldn’t have vacation homes in Europe, and we wouldn’t be going on fancy vacations every year, but we’d be comfortable. And I’d have a solid retirement plan in place with the teacher’s pension that I’d be contributing to.

I also knew that if I wanted, there were opportunities to grow in my career in leadership by moving into administration, which is what I’ve done as an assistant principal.

The point is, I THOUGHT about this BEFORE I decided what I was going to get my degree in.

Often we hear the advice, “Find what you’re passionate about and figure out a way to get paid for it.” While I understand the sentiment behind this advice, it can be dangerous. This is how you end up serving chai tea lattes with an Art History degree.

I think better advice is, “Find a passion that pays and get educated for it.”

At any rate, considering you earning potential when you leave school plays a big role in getting through the first few years of work without drowning in student loan debt.

In my case, I was able to amplify my debt repayment by living at home for the first year after graduating. This allowed me to aggressively pay off all of my $15,000 in student loans in one year on a beginning teacher’s salary.


12- I built a network to get to work

Getting a degree that pays is all well and good, but if you can’t find a job in your field, it can be frustrating and also financially destructive.

In an age where LinkedIn and Indeed have replaced many face to face interactions and working remotely is commonplace, building your professional network had never been more important.

While I was in high school and university I was fortunate to develop a strategic network of professional connections in education.

These people mentored and coached me along in the early days of trying to find a job. They helped me with everything from keeping their eyes peeled for jobs, to helping put together my resume and preparing for interviews.

Without this incredible network, I never would’ve gotten a job where or when I did. Without the encouragement of mentors, I may not have gotten my masters and wouldn’t be a school administrator today.

As I moved into my latest role as a personal finance blogger, the power of networking has once again be driven home to me.

Since I began writing I’ve had the privilege of getting to know TONS of successful writers and online entrepreneurs. Many of them have coached and guided me, given me opportunities be involved with different projects they’re working on, and even let me guest post for them (thanks Michelle!!).

When it comes to building a network, there are two things you need to know:

First, you have to be nice. If you’re not kind, respectful and genuine, no one is going to want to connect with you. Avoid criticizing or complaining and negative talk in general. People want to be around those who lift them up, not drag them down. When you’re chatting, smile, even if you’re on the phone or behind a computer screen. People will feel the positive emotions in your words and respond in kind. 

And second, you need to be interested…in them! People love themselves, as they should! In order to build a great network you don’t need to be overly INTERESTING… simply be genuinely interested in people! Ask great questions and listen intently to the responses. Guide the conversation to the other person’s interests and let them do most of the talking.

One of the best books I’ve read when it comes to building a network is and oldie but a goodie, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. In this timeless classic, Carnegie describes countless simple tips and techniques you can use to build your network.

There’s a reason it’s been around for 80 years and has sold over 30 million copies. It’s that good. Check it out.


Bringing It All Together

So that’s how I was able to do it. One year after graduating from college with two degrees, I was gainfully employed and debt free!

It wasn’t easy. But it also wasn’t THAT hard.

Yes, I had some AWESOME breaks. My parents helped with my books and I got some scholarships.

Sure there were days when I hated my life cleaning porta-potties or hearing about crazy vacations people were taking, or seeing other kids roll around in fancy cars.

But overall, it was mostly just normal.

A lot of that has to do with how I was raised. My parents made living frugally seem normal, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for this.

It’s what I’m trying to pass on to my kids. My hope is that if I can teach them the value of a dollar, and how to work hard, and how to be grateful, then they won’t have to worry about how they’ll pay for college.

Sure we’re saving to help them, but they’re going to pay for school too. I want them to have skin in the game as well. Lots of skin.

Because for me it’s not being debt free that’s most important. It’s learning the lessons that COME FROM being debt free that are most rewarding.

And those are lessons you only learn from experience. This is something I’m working hard to give my kids right now when they’re young, and what I’ll continue to be intentional about as they grow up and eventually head off to college themselves in a few years.

Bio: A husband to an awesome wife and father to two little munchkins, Matt’s an Assistant Principal by day who teaches kids about money and a personal finance blogger by night. He writes about money, family, and mindsets at methodtoyourmoney.com.


12 Strategies I Used To Avoid Getting Buried in Student Loan Debt
Credit: Matt from Method To Your Money

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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. I think picking a good course is the key here. Many people go to college because they haven’t yet figured out what they want to do in life and then they regret it later when they see the mountain of debt.

    Given the high cost of college nowadays, It not so easy to use it as an extended holiday.

    I would only recommend my kids go to college if they had a targeted course which they needed for a planned future career.

    1. Matt


      That’s great advice! It can be such a costly mistake to either A) Get a degree without decent earning potential, or B) Waste time in college trying to figure out what you want to do. There’s something to be said for checking different things out, but there are WAY cheaper ways to explore different interests than taking expensive courses in college.

      Thanks for checking out the piece!

  2. Freedom

    The cost of College in USA is simply a scam between the loan companies and the Universities (similar to the heath care cost to get an awful service.

    It is unacceptable charging so much money for education and having our kids starting their working life already with a huge debit.

    Go to the community college indeed or study outside the USA (Europe?)

    1. Matt


      Thanks for the comment! You’re right that there are so many other options than just simply going to a college and going perilously into debt. Community college is a great option, and studying elsewhere may be possibilities as well.

      I do know that sometimes those other countries charge more for out of country students, but it may end up being cheaper than going at home. And I think one of the best options is to actually live at home while in school. I know it’s not possible for everyone but for many it is!

  3. Victor J

    love your website!

  4. This is a solid list that I need to keep bookmarked as my kids grow!

    1. Matt

      Thanks so much Victor!! That’s very kind!! And I hope you can use the list for your kiddos Andrea!! Thanks for checking it out!