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Reader Story: How I Graduated College (Mostly) Debt-Free

The True Story of How One Reader Paid for College in Cash

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The following is the true story of how one About.com reader budgeted his way through college mostly debt-free. His name and identifying information has been changed at his request, but the information in the story is real.

Luke didn't come from a family that had much money. His father alternated between low-paying jobs and periods of unemployment. His mother enrolled in a trade school when Luke was in elementary school so that she could learn a marketable skill. Her job provided enough money to pay for the basics, but not much more. There was certainly no money for college.

Luke knew he had two options: he could take out student loans, or he could try to pay cash to put himself through school. He chose the second route.

(Read more: What's a "reasonable" amount of money to borrow for college?)

Most of his high school buddies were taking minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants, movie theaters or retail stores. Luke knew there was no way he could earn enough to cover the cost of tuition and textbooks by working those gigs. He needed to earn more.

He started working for a construction company during the weekends and summertime while he was in high school. He taught himself, on-the-job, basic carpentry skills like framing and sheetrock. Over time, he discovered that he had a talent for laying tile, and he began to take on additional "side jobs" laying tile in the evenings after school.

By the time he graduated from high school, Luke had bought a car in cash, and had saved enough to pay for one semester's tuition at an in-state school. But he knew he had to continue earning more.

He started a landscaping company the summer between high school and his first semester of college. He spent some of his money on tools. He hired a handful of employees and began advertising around the neighborhood. He spent his day organizing the crew's schedules, supervising the work, and acquiring new jobs.

By the end of the summer, he had earned back the cost of the tools, plus a full year's worth of tuition, textbooks and other incidental expenses.

He didn't, however, have enough money to move into the dorms, so he continued to live at home with his mother and commute to college. He didn't make this decision casually, though: he calculated the cost of driving an hour round-trip everyday (fuel, vehicle wear-and-tear) and compared it to the cost of living closer to campus . The math clearly stated that living at home was the more frugal choice.

Luke continued to live at home all four years of college. He ran his landscaping crew every summer. The first summer, he discovered, was the leanest; after that, his repeat customers gave some stability to his business.

He did end up taking out a few small student loans during his junior and senior year, when tuition escalated beyond the amount that he could earn. But those loans were small - just a couple thousand - and he paid them off within a few months of graduating.

What were the primary factors that helped Luke pay for college?

  • He attended an in-state public school.
  • He worked a series of "skilled" jobs - doing framing, drywall, tile and landscaping, all of which require a basic level of skill and knowledge.
  • He thought creatively about ways to earn more.
  • When he began earning good money, he didn't spend it on frivolous things like going out on the weekends or getting accessories for his car. He saved it for his tuition.
  • He lived frugally. By living at home, he was able to avoid the cost of rent and utilities.

Read more real-life stories of About.com Budgeting readers:

Here's the true story of how David and Lauren Weliver, a thirty-something couple living in Maine, budgeted for the high cost of having a baby, which includes an astonishing $1,400 monthly daycare bill.

Read the story of Travis, a married father in Wisconsin, who lives on a tight budget but wanted to take his wife and kids on a family vacation to an amusement park. They trimmed the little "extras" from their budget so that they could pay for their dream vacation.

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