How To Pay For College Without Student Loans

Group of college graduates throwing academic hat in the air in celebration

I was able to earn 3 degrees, AS, BS, and MBA, and not go into debt. I didn’t take out a single student loan. I had no college savings account (529) and I never received financial aid (FASFA). Nor did my parents or anyone else solely pay my way. Through wise choices and strict spending and saving, I was able to pay for college without student loans and graduate debt-free. Knowing how to pay for college without loans is vitally important.

How To Graduate College Debt Free

One of the hardest aspects of going to college is figuring out how you are going to pay for it. It’s a scary thought, especially when the average cost for a 4-year degree from an in-state college is $110,000 ( That’s a lot of money. Fortunately, there are some strategies that almost everyone can implement that will help you graduate with no student debt.

In order to graduate college debt-free, you must be willing to do what others won’t. You will have to dig deep and make sacrifices. It will be uncomfortable, at times difficult, but at the end absolutely worth it. “Small hinges move big doors.” If the hinges don’t work nor will the door. It is not the size of the action, but the impact it creates. It is all the little things that will add up and create great success. What little things are you willing to do? What undesirable habits are you willing to give up?

Realistic Look At What College Costs

I will use my alma maters, California State University Sacramento (CSUS), and Butte Community College as examples. This will give you an idea of what I paid and how I saved on costs. You can do research on your schools, plug in the numbers and calculate where you can save. Annual costs are taken from

Undergraduate Tuition For A Bachelor’s Degree At Sacramento State

California State University Sacramento tuition is $5,742 per year for in-state residents. The university charges additional fees of $1,676 in addition to tuition bringing the total effective in-state tuition to $7,418.

Housing Costs

On-campus room and board are provided by the university at a cost of $16,134 per academic year. Students electing to live off campus elsewhere in Sacramento should budget at least this amount.

Books and Supplies

The estimated annual cost for books and supplies is $1,096.

Other Living Expenses

If living on-campus, students should budget for $3,174 in additional living expenses per year. While off-campus students should budget for $3,944 in other miscellaneous living expenses.

Total Costs:

The total tuition and living expense budget for in-state California residents to go to Sacramento State is $27,822 for the 2020/2021 academic year.

For a bachelor’s degree at CSUS, the total 4-year cost is $111,288. This is the number we will work with. *Don’t let this number scare you, we are going to cut this cost substantially.

Undergraduate Tuition For An Associate’s Degree at Butte College

Butte College tuition is $1,104 per year for in-state residents. The school charges additional fees of $264 in addition to tuition bringing the total effective in-state tuition to $1,368.

Housing Costs

Butte College doesn’t offer on-campus housing. If you’re not living with family, you will need to budget for food and housing in the Oroville area just like you would for a college with dorms. The estimated rent and meal expense per academic year for off-campus housing is $15,084.

Books and Supplies

The estimated annual cost for books and supplies is $1,970.

Other Living Expenses

Off-campus students should budget for $3,142 in other miscellaneous living expenses.

Total Costs:

The total tuition and living expense budget for in-state California residents to go to Butte College is $21,564 for the 2020/2021 academic year.

For an associate degree at Butte College, the total 2-years cost is $43,128. This is the number we will work with. Of course, we are going to cut this cost substantially.

Let’s Start Saving

Now that we have the numbers, $111,000 (university) and $43,000 (community college) we have a starting point to start saving. As we break down the numbers there are going to be a lot of moving parts. Getting an education is multifaceted, there are countless ways you can earn your degree. Therefore there will be many different avenues to take. When it comes to saving money being smart as well as having a little creativity is key.

Living At Home Or With A Family Member

If we look at the above numbers, housing costs are the highest, higher than tuition, double tuition. This is the expense you want to cut the most. I cannot emphasize this enough, this is going to be your biggest savings. This is how you will save money and pay for college without student loans.

To earn your bachelor’s degree in four years it’s $111,000 in total. However, if we just focus on tuition ($29,672) and the cost of books ($4,384) the total is $34,056. The $34,056 is required. This cost is not a cost that we can manipulate or change much at all (books are where we can save on this cost). What we can control is the remainder, housing costs, and other living expenses.

    $111,000 (total cost for a 4-year degree) You can find ways to cut this cost          

—$ 34,000  (tuition and books) You CANNOT find ways to cut this cost

    $ 77,000  (cost of living/other expenses) You are going to cut the most

Best Financial Decision A Student Can Make

You need to find a way to cut that almost $77,000. There are a lot of things you can do. But the number one thing is if you can live with your parents. I will repeat that the best financial decision you can make while going to college is to live with your parents. If that’s not possible then find another family member. Do you have a grandparent, uncle or aunt, or cousin that lives near a school? Reach out and asked them if you can stay with them. Explain that you want to save money, you want to pay for college without getting loans. Strike up a deal, you can help take care of the house, yard, or animals in exchange for room and board. You can give them a small amount of rent. Most people want to help someone who is working hard.

Saving On Other Costs Is How You Pay For College Without Loans

When you live at home or with a family member you also save on other costs too. For the most part, I didn’t grocery shop, my mom did. I didn’t pay utilities; power, water, phone, internet, television, or for household items; cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, toilet paper, bedding, towels, etc. I was responsible for my gas, car insurance, and any personal items I wanted. This is where I saved the most.

If you can find a family member or friend to stay with this will be your biggest savings. It’s only for a very brief time. I had a friend who moved a town away to live with his grandma while he attended university. He has some of the best stories and memories.

Every morning before he went to school his grandma would fix a bowl of fiber cereal because she wanted him to be “regular”. She then read an article where she learned that a smoothie filled with greens was good for memory. She ditched the fiber cereal and blended up fruit and all types of greens, which he gagged down before he left for school. He helped her remodel her kitchen and did a lot of chores. The time they spent together was priceless. His room and board and utilities were completely free. He also worked part-time. He graduated with his BS in 4 years and was able to pay for college without getting any student loans. By living with his grandma he was completely debt free.

Going To A Community College Is The Best Way To Save Money

You will get tired of reading how frequently I preach community college. There’s a reason why I recommend it so often. It can literally save you thousands of dollars. This is not an exaggeration to try and convince you, it’s a fact. Community college tuition is vastly cheaper than university. My community college tuition was approximately $1,370 per year while my university was approximately $7,400 per year.

If you attended a community college for the first 2 years, you’d save $12,060. You can save even more if you live at home. Remember that $34,000 tuition and books cost that I say you CAN NOT find a way to cut the cost. Attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a university (that is what I did) is the only way you can cut that cost. When you cut it, it is cut in half. A 50% savings, that’s efficiency.

There are 20 states where community college is free. If a student takes the right number of credits (a full semester load), they have the potential to earn an associate degree for free. It doesn’t get more efficient than free.

This is for all the high school and homeschool students reading this. If you attend community college through concurrent enrollment, tuition and fees are waived. Concurrent enrollment was how I graduated high school at 16, and received my AS degree in Business Administration at 17. I only had to pay for one year of community college.

Apply To Scholarships To Pay For College Without Getting Loans

Searching for scholarships was something I did constantly for years. You will get tired of it, trust me. You will write essay after essay trying to convince some mysterious panel of people that you are worthy of a scholarship. I probably applied to over 100 of them. Once you write a few good essays you can simply modify them slightly to fit the scholarship requirements. I would search for scholarships while I was at the Community College and bookmark any scholarships that I could apply to once I was at the university, once a scholarship is awarded one year, it will likely come back the next year at the same time, be sure to check back.

There so are different types of scholarships, some get pretty wild. However, there are basically 3 types of scholarships, need-based, merit-based, and minority-based. I was never need-based so that got rid of a lot of them. I am Native American so I could apply for minority-based scholarships. However, I couldn’t apply for scholarships that were for minorities who were low-income. Know what you can apply to as it will refine your search and save you time. I encourage you to apply for every scholarship that you can.

Getting A Job So You Don’t Have To Get Student Loans

Every penny counts. Getting a job, full-time or part-time is a good strategy to help pay for college without loans. Many businesses will pay for college while you are collecting your paycheck. They do this via tuition reimbursement programs. Tuition reimbursement is an employee benefit where an employer pays for college coursework that is to be applied toward a degree. Also, you can it an online job or a side hustle. Here’s a great list of online and work-from-home jobs, The Best Online And Work-From-Home Jobs For College Students.

It goes without saying if you qualify fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). I’ve earned 3 degrees and never filled out FAFSA once. For those of you who don’t qualify for financial aid, don’t think you can’t get a college education without a student loan or federal financial aid. I’m proof that you can. 

This Is How I Implemented The Above Suggestions

When I graduated high school, I had one year left at community college to earn my associate’s degree. My parents said they would pay for that (community college was free while I was in charter school/ high school so up until now my parents didn’t have to pay for anything). They didn’t mind paying for two semesters. I took full advantage of this and took all the credits I could.

Upon graduating and transferring to Sacramento State my parents made an agreement with me. They didn’t want to pay entirely for my school. However, my dad said, if I paid for half of it myself, I would have, “skin in the game”. That meant I would have a personal vested interest in my success because my hard-earned money would be used to help pay for my education. My parents also wanted to teach me to invest in myself. This concept was something I had already learned. Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, was required reading in our house when I turned 13.

Negotiating With My Parents

Though I was only 17, I already had a business degree, and I’d already started a small side hustle when I was in community college, so I was willing to make a deal. To flex my negotiating skills, I asked my parents how they wanted to split the bill. They were open-minded, and we discussed several options. I asked, for simplicity’s sake, if could they pay a semester and I pay a semester. We would just take turns, every other. This was for tuition only. I was responsible for books and parking passes (I also had to pay car insurance, fuel, and a few other personal expenses). I asked if any scholarships I received could I keep for the semesters they paid for. They said of course. I was more than happy to accept these terms. They said they would pay for the first semester. The deal was struck.

I Was A Good Investment

What is important to note is that my parents were willing to help pay for college because I was willing to do all I could to save. I chose an in-state university and to live at home. I worked and saved my money and I took full semester loads and I also took summer and winter sessions. In addition, I filled out every scholarship I could find. They could see I was doing everything I could to keep costs to a bare minimum. Since I was paying for half of my education I wanted to be a good investment. My parents could see that I was a good investment for their money too. Their money wasn’t going to go to waste nor was mine.

Calculating How Many Semesters It Would Take Me To Graduate

I immediately began calculating how many semesters I would need to graduate. By now you know the saying, “Through In Two, Finish In Four”. Typically, as a transfer student, it would take two years to graduate with my BS. That meant I would pay for 2 semesters and my parents would pay for 2 semesters. But what if I could graduate in 3 semesters? That would mean my parents would pay for 2 and I would only pay for 1 semester, after all, they were paying for the first semester.

To keep things affordable, I only wanted to pay for tuition, books, and parking passes. I knew if I would cut out all the other costs, especially housing, and a few other living expenses, I would only pay for school and not go into debt.

Total Cost Of College

Tuition was about $7,200 an academic year. Books usually cost $600-900 (the actual cost of my books was significantly cheaper at both university and community college. The above estimates are high in my opinion) and my parking pass was $200 each academic year. An approximate $8,000.00 would pay for all that. When I break that $8,000 down 2 semesters, that is only $4,000 a semester. $4,000 is a lot of money but it is doable when you’re trying to pay for school without taking out a loan. I paid $4,000 one semester and my parents paid the next. Technically, I was only responsible for approximately $4,000. This is efficiency, it was easy for me to work the year and save at least $4000 to pay for school.

Of course, the years did fluctuate a little, it depended on how much books were, how many credits I took, and any additional fees that came up. I took a summer session which in the long run cost me less because I took one less semester. However, the per-credit cost of summer courses is usually higher than a normal semester.

While In College I Lived At Home

I lived with my parents all through college. This was my biggest savings and how I was able to pay for college without getting loans. I enjoy my parents; they are supportive and understanding. They understood what I was trying to accomplish, and they supported me. We had mutual respect. I went to college full-time and worked. I rarely saw them. We planned dinner every Friday night because that was when they saw me. I drove to school, which was a 45-minute commute. For me the cost of gas and my time outweighed living on or near campus—I didn’t want to have to pay housing costs. I used the drive to catch up with friends and family. I would also study. With my phone, I would record notes, study questions, and play them on my commute.

It’s Important To Note

I do want to point out, that I started college at 13 and loved it. I enjoy learning and early on I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school. This was when I started planning and saving. Every birthday, Christmas, and graduation I usually received money from family and friends. I saved this. I opened a checking account, with my parents, deposited the money, and forgot about it. When I turned 16, I worked several days a week at a small locally-owned business that had flexible hours. I deposited my paycheck and forgot about it. I also started a side hustle of selling mandarins.

If you are looking for a job, check out, The Best Online And Work -Work-Home Jobs For College Students.

Make A Plan And Follow Through

Many students don’t enjoy school, they are just trying to get through, and that’s perfectly fine. But you don’t have to love it to start planning for it. All you have to have is follow through because without it you will get little done.

Orange fruit in a brown wooden crate

Side Hustles And Earning Extra Money

My parents had a friend who owned a mandarin orchard. I reached out to him to see if I could buy wholesale. Fortunately, he agreed and we worked together for many years. I put all this money in the bank. There were many other little jobs over the years, including babysitting, dog sitting, yard sales, and selling items online. I even entered an Oral Speech Contest put on by our local Optimist Club. Here is the contest I entered, Optimist International Oratorical Contest. It’s a great contest to enter. I learned a lot about speech writing and public speaking. I believe the experience and what I learned, along with the skills I gained in karate are why I have no problem with public speaking. Unfortunately, I didn’t win the contest but I did advance on in a few rounds which had a very nice paycheck when I did.

All the money I made was deposited in my bank account. When I was ready to transfer to my university I had enough to pay for my tuition. The key is to start early and save. At 19, I earned my BS in Business Entrepreneurship. I immediately applied to a local Fortune 500 company and got the job. I also immediately applied to the MBA program and got accepted. The money from my paycheck was how I would pay for my MBA. Of course, I would keep filling out scholarships too.

Set The Goal To Pay For College Without Getting Student Loans

Set the goal that you want to graduate college without student loans. This will be your motivation, the entire reason you will work hard. Once this goal is set, do not give up. Start with a plan. The plan will help you map out your course of action, it will allow you to keep track of your progress and it will keep you on course. It will be through good discipline and sacrifice that you follow the plan. Remember an ambitious goal requires considerable personal sacrifice. Embrace the pressures you may feel and celebrate your milestones. Don’t worry if you stumble along the way, get back up and don’t give up.

You might be interested in, How A College Student Should Start Investing.