How to Avoid Student Loan Debt While Earning Your Degree

Being we have four kids, the subject of college and how to avoid student loan debt is near and dear to my bank account, er, I mean heart. As entrepreneurs and big believers in self sufficiency, two of the main things we’re working to teach our kids about money is how to earn it without depending on a job and how to avoid debt. Being that at least two of our kids right now are set on going to college, we’re also talking early about how to get a college degree without going into debt. Being that the average 2015 college graduate graduated with over $30,000 in student loan debt, this is no small task.  Here are some of the options we’re considering for accomplishing that feat.

The Case for How to Avoid Student Loan Debt – “But, it’s Normal!”

We bucked “normal” in our child-rearing techniques a long time ago. We began bucking normal by choosing to home school our kids; the first in our family history to do so. As you can imagine, our decision to home school was met with respectful reservation. “Normal” is to send kids to a traditional public school.

One of the reasons we chose to home school our kids is that normal doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of kids these days. Let’s look at some normal statistics for today’s adults.

  • 76% of American families are living paycheck-to-paycheck
  • 51% of college grads aren’t working in their field of degree
  • 52% of Americans are unhappy in their jobs
  • 80% of Americans carry some type of debt

Normal didn’t work for us. In fact it almost ruined us. Heavy debt loads and a 65% DTI was putting serious strain on our marriage and our money. We don’t want normal for our kids, so we’re working to teach them differently.

Since home schooling allows us to tailor their curriculum toward their talents and interests, we’re using home schooling to help our kids to discover what they want to do – not just what makes the most money or what is a “smart” career choice based on statistics.

For instance, my oldest daughter wants to be an artist/animator. This kid has been drawing for several hours a day since she was 3. Art is in her blood, and she’s good at it, if I do say so myself (and I do.)  Check out one of my 11th grader’s latest works.

Pretty awesome, don’t you think? Home schooling has allowed Madelyn the time she needs to perfect her gift of art and focus on the training she needs to one day have a career in the comic art and animation industry. She takes free online classes regularly and has a few mentors who are already working in the industry who have taken her under their wings. Her home schooling schedule allows her to complete standard class work in about three hours a day, and the rest of the day she spends learning and practicing art.We’re working on similar curricula for our other three children as well.

We’re bucking the system in the area of how we teach our kids, and we’re bucking them in the area of having to take out student loans for college as well.

The last thing we want is for them (or us) to graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Here are some of the techniques we’re going to put into place to help them be able to pay cash for as much of their schooling as possible.

Exploring All Education Options

It’s not mandatory to get your entire four year degree at an expensive private college. It’s also not always cheapest to go to a state college as opposed to a private college. Grants and scholarships must be taken into consideration, as must all college expenses, before you can get the full college picture to make your decision with.

One of the education options we’re considering for our college-bound kids is to enroll them in our state’s PSEO program. This program allows kids to take college classes during their junior and senior high school years that are paid for by state funding. Kids who can handle the schedule have the capability to graduate with a free 2-year AA degree, but even if they can’t handle a full course load, every class completed under the PSEO program means less out-of-pocket costs for them.

It’s very important when searching for college options to know every cost and option for grants and scholarships available at each school before making decisions. It’s also important to know a school’s transfer rules so that you can explore the possibility of PSEO type classes or getting your AA at a community college and then transferring to a bigger school for the last two years. When it comes to college costs, every bit saved adds up.

Online schools can be another way to get a degree at a much lower price. The point? Do ALL of your research before accepting a spot at a college.

Researching Scholarships and Grants

There are thousands upon thousands of scholarships and grants available to help kids with college costs. Talk to your school’s financial aid office representative or check out the websites below for information on available scholarships and grants.

Finding Ways to Cut Other College Costs

College carries more costs besides tuition. There are books to buy, room and board to pay for, meals, etc. For instance, in our state, the major state school costs as follows:

  • Tuition: $14,142 for in-state
  • Room and board: $9,377 (your room and 14 meals per week)
  • Books and supplies: $1,000
  • Other expenses: $2,200

(Source: http://www.collegedata.com/cs/data/college/college_pg03_tmpl.jhtml?schoolId=991 )

Buying used books as opposed to new, living at home and attending a local college and scrutinizing “other” expenses will all help cut down on the amount of money one ends up paying for college.

Finding Ways to Make Money Before and During College

We’re also encouraging our kids to start saving for college early. We’re helping them to consider job options as well as business ownership options. Some ways they’ll be making money to save for college before and during their stay?

  • Traditional jobs. There are a number of jobs available in this area starting at age 14; jobs in stores and restaurants and jobs at different farms and small businesses. Our oldest started working and saving a age 14 and we expect our other three will want to do the same. High school and college kids can consider delivering pizzas, working as a restaurant server or working at a retail or office establishment that has flexible hours to work around school schedules.
  • Side hustles. We’re also encouraging our kids to do side hustles that coordinate with their talents and interests. For instance, oldest daughter does drawings for commission and has a Redbubble account where she features designs for tshirts, coffee mugs and laptop covers. Other options for kids considering making money before and during college include tutoring, dorm/house cleaning, kid/pet setting, etc.

We’re also encouraging our kids to have a high savings rate, and so far it’s working. Our oldest daughter saved 70% of the money she made last year.

We’re Not Presenting College as a Non-Negotiable

Not all kids want to or have to go to college. There’s no sense in sending your kid to college for a degree in engineering if he has his heart set on being a plumber. Likewise, not all careers require a college degree. Our art student is doing most of her education through free online classes and mentorship, as mentioned above.

We’ll Prepare Ourselves to Help

We haven’t quite decided how much we’re going to contribute to our kids’ college degree costs yet, but we are currently taking steps to help prepare us as parents for any help we give. Here they are.

We’re Letting Our Kids Know that College Costs are Their Responsibility

There’s no free rides in the Frugal Farmer house. We have found that our kids value more that which they pay for. Therefore we’ve let them know that while we will indeed help with college, we haven’t shared to what extent and have told them to expect to pay for college on their own. That way they’ll take earning and saving seriously and any help we give them will be a bonus.

We’re Paying Off All Debt

The more debt free we are, the more money we’ll have available to help the kids with college costs. By bettering our own financial situation, we’re lessening any potential financial burden our kids will inherit by taking away any chance that they will have to support us in our later years. And we’re also freeing ourselves up to have money to help them pay for college.

We’re Offering Them Free Room and Board at Home

We’re offering our kids the option of staying home for free and providing meals/transportation if they choose a local school. This is a way we can contribute for them at a lower out-of-pocket cost.

We’re Considering Buying Rental Properties

Another option we’re considering for our kids during college is buying near-campus housing that they can live in for free and have roommates that will pay the rent to us as their parents. This move will help us fulfill our dream of accruing wealth through real estate and provide a room for our kids should they choose to attend college further away from home.

Getting a college degree does not have to result in tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that will result in thousands of dollars of interest paid. Take advantage of the avenues above to help cut down on your (or your child’s ) college degree costs.

Here are some resources that can help you find additional ways to avoid student loan debt and graduate from college debt free.

Info on scholarships

Books on Cutting College Costs

Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents

How to Graduate Debt-Free: Proven Strategies for Avoiding Debt Traps

Friends, don’t resign yourself (or your kids) to a decade or more of paying off student loan debt. Save in advance, and look for ways to cut college costs before your feet hit the college campus. You’ll thank yourself on graduation day.

What steps are you taking to avoid student loan debt?

31 comments

  1. “One of the reasons we chose to home school our kids is that normal doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of kids these days.”

    This statement stuck out to me so much! I am the first in my entire family to attend college, so we were pretty uneducated when it came time to apply and pay for school. Of course, I chose the most expensive school in our area, lived on campus, paid for the meal plan, and bought most of my books new. As a result, I have about $80k in student loans I am currently paying off. I will not let my daughter make these same mistakes!

    Your daughter is so talented! It’s amazing to me how much time homeschooling takes vs. traditional public school. I am a full time working mom and will stay that way, but I am looking at every option I can to homeschool our daughter!

    • Laurie says:

      Mrs. Daisy, wonderful that you are choosing to buck “normal” with your daughter too!!! It’s been a tremendous blessing to us. All four of our kids are really thriving in their journey toward their chosen fields, and I firmly believe it’s because we’ve been able to tailor their curricula so exclusively to include classes with their interests. It’s been amazing!

  2. Mr. Groovy says:

    GREAT FREAKIN’ POST! I don’t even know where to begin. For years I’ve been saying the there’s no reason why 11th and 12th grade can’t be used to get an associate degree instead. Why is it that all we expect a student to have after 13 years of public schooling is a basic understanding of algebra and a basic understanding of grammar? Can’t we do a little better? Can’t every high school student graduate with at least one concrete skill to bring to the labor market that will allow them to make more than the minimum wage? Why does college have to be finishing school? Anyway, I won’t get too crazed. I’ll just leave you with this. Student loan debt is an abomination. The only thing it helps is the college-industrial complex. I’m so glad your raising your kids not to be “normal.” Would be that more parents had the same mission for their kids.

    P.S. Madelyn’s art work is fantastic. Thank God you didn’t allow our public schools to crush her drive and spirit.

    • Laurie says:

      “Can’t we do a little better?” AMEN, Mr. Groovy! BTW, your last line brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t have said it better myself. The current school system is indeed crushing our kids’ spirits even though the schools are filled with some really great teachers. We need to also let teachers have more freedom in what/how they teach the kids and not force them to be confined to producing kids with good test scores. Yes, we must do better!

  3. My wife and I frequently serve 20-somethings in some local groups and it is scary how many – just about all – assume that student loan debt is okay and the “right” way to go. Many of them, with encouragement from their parents, are borrowing as much as they can. A decent chunk of the money is going to support their lifestyle too – not even directly related to the college education. When we try to talk to them about other options they look at us like we’re crazy. Work? Save in advance? Local community college first? Write essays for scholarships? Why bother when they can get money thrown at them for “free”… well, “free” today but with a heavy price down the road. I sure hope more people can wrap their heads around this issue and we can turn the tide. It’s a huge burden on our youth for sure.

    • Laurie says:

      That is awesome that you guys are serving the younger community, Brad!! But scary that they have such a laid back attitude about debt. Hopefully that changes soon.

  4. Great ideas. I hate when people’s response is “it’s normal” and they go on their merry way without trying to find a better solution. I went to a state university which was much more affordable. My other option was to go to a private college which offered a scholarship and I would live at home. (I chose to go away to state U…cause I just wanted to live on campus =)
    I also worked while in school…not a lot, but enough to pay for my own expenses. I also worked during the summers. The rental property idea sounds interesting…I’ve heard other parents mention that too.

  5. Fantastic! It’s cool to hear that homeschooling has helped the kiddos explore their talents and strengths. I think that’s something that traditional education really fails at. I’m a fan of the Montessori approach to let kids explore subjects they’re naturally interested in.
    We don’t have kids yet, but I do question the need for traditional college degrees. I would encourage our kids to also explore entrepreneurship and trade schools.

    A great plan would be to take dual-credit courses during high school and chep community college courses during the summers and for the year after high school. After that, transfer to a public school with plenty of scholarships and work during college to pay it off. I’m over-simplifying it here, but it’s a great way to save money by planning your higher education wisely.

  6. To avoid student debt, I tried to work as much as I could outside of school and also try to finish up my undergrad early. I ended up taking out a loan for $15k my last year of grad school and was able to pay it down fairly fast after getting a full time gig.

    Great post – have a good day

  7. I love everything about this post, Laurie! You hit on so many fantastic points!

    I love that Madelyn has the time to work on her art (and it is positively amazing, btw!). My 14 y.o. daughter has a similar interest and talent – and it’s her dream to make it a career. Unfortunately, she’s been told by some adults that it’s not a good career path and she won’t make any money. As her parents, we try to counter this advice, but I know she has doubts in the back of her mind.

    We are not making college a non-negotiable either. Neither Alan or I are using the degrees we have. That doesn’t mean they haven’t helped us along the way but, as you say in the post, there are so many options and alternatives to the traditional 4 year degree/student loan debt.

  8. Brian says:

    Love Madelyn latest artwork! My daughter who is on the same path often complaints of some of her traditional high school work. “When will I ever use this in my life?”

    Its one of the reasons I’m working with my local high school to change curriculum to introduce more life skills based studies, including personal finance. We are working hard to teach our three children similar lessons to avoid debt for college. It’s never to early to start.

  9. Hi Laurie,

    I love that you’re offering your kids options to stay at home and go to school locally: there’s a lot of financial benefits to that approach. And I was most at risk of dropping out my first year — way too much partying, not enough studying. Had my parents been able to see what I was doing, I’d probably have been better off.

    We personally are looking at college as non-negotiable for our kids, if only because having any degree (even one like mine, in English) opens up so many other options. While many college graduates don’t work in the field of their major, I suspect this is generally true for anyone who didn’t go to college, either: that is, it’s likely you’re not going to follow the career path you thought you would when you were 18. If we assume workers will have unpredictable career paths, the best thing we can give them is a foundation that allows for easier transitions and more options.

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, DB40 – always appreciated! You make a great point about how a degree opens up other options. Now if only we can get people to see the financial side of it. 🙂

  10. Charlie says:

    Laurie – great article! I really appreciate you put down real costs for college in your state! It is startling to see how much it costs! That is $106k for just one kid to go to school for four years! I bet if they pay for it themselves, then they’ll definitely appreciate it more!

  11. While I don’t have kids, so college expenses aren’t something near and dear to my wallet/heart like they are understandably to your own, I do worry about it for my nephews and niece. Their parents don’t have the means to pay it for themselves but they also haven’t done as good as job as to prepare the kids for the reality of it either. Maddie is an amazing artist and next time I need artwork, I’m going to give her a holler!

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks, Tanya!!! Yes, it’s terrible the burden student loans are leaving on young people. We need to find a better way!

  12. Your daughter’s art work is amazing! Your attitude towards home schooling is great. It’s giving your kids fabulous opportunities. So much talent dies through under-use. My husband paid his way through post-secondary education with the help of a co-op program. He still ended up with some student debt, but he didn’t need to. He’d go to school for a 4-month term and then work for pay with a company in his line of study. There are ways to do it. All the best as your four children (yikes!) approach post-secondary age.

    • Laurie says:

      That’s great that DH did such a good job of minimizing student debt. Yeah, we’re working really hard to help them avoid student loan debt as much as possible.

  13. Awesome post! We also home schooled our two children. Both were offered partial scholarships for university. We split the remaining tuition costs with them, requiring them to buy books/supplies. Both of them worked thru college, lived at home and at graduation, neither has any school debt. They each have a Bachelors degree, Biology for our daughter and Computer Information Systems for our son.

    Keep on challenging this damaging mindset Laurie!

    My kids now own their own homes, and have no debt to stop them from advancing in their careers and financial goals.

  14. That’s amazing, homeschooling 4 children must be a real challenge for you guys! And helping them develop their real talents is so important!

    I wanted to work ever since I was a teenager but my parents were against it. I was still in school and their motto was “your job is to study hard”. I’m grateful for their support and everything they provided, but at 21 I still wanted more so I got a job behind their backs, so to say 😀

    The way I avoided student debt was working from home during my 3 years of college. I didn’t know saving money was a ‘thing’, so I didn’t save a dime back then, but still I managed to prioritize college tuition above everything else.

    • Laurie says:

      That’s so great that you made your tuition a priority, Adriana. I know many people (myself included) who spent their working cash on fun stuff while utilizing the “free” student loan money for tuition. Great job!

  15. Liz says:

    Scholarship grants can help you in this goal. There are so many grants out there, and only a few students take this great option. I must say that most of these grant stay untouched, so I think whether or not it’s not a full one, students should try to grab it as it does help them.

  16. Carol says:

    Great ideas! We have two home educated sons studying at University. They live about three hours away. We purchased an apartment where they pay rent. It is less than if they lived anywhere else. They are learning amazing life skills. Cooking, cleaning, shopping and paying bills. These life skills are almost as important as the academic subjects they study. We have great tenants and a couch to sleep on when we visit. One son has $10,000 in loans but we are encouraging him to keep it small and pay it off soon. He has started a little computer repair business that brings in food money. Keep up the good work of exploring options and not being ‘normal’!

    • Laurie says:

      Carol, sounds like you guys are doing it right too – yay!!! I love that your one son has started a small computer repair biz – way to go!

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