How to Stay Debt-Free in University

3 September 2012

Whether you are just starting university or back for another round of post-secondary education, chances are you don’t already have a mountain of student debt looming over your head. Being debt-free is the best possible way to start out your student life, but staying the course throughout your four or more years of university isn’t easy. With the cost of tuition, textbooks, and project materials, on top of food, transportation, and other living expenses, it can seem like the only way to pay for everything is to fall back on student loans for relief. However, I am living proof that you can graduate on time without having a five-figure student loan to pay off after receiving your diploma, and you don’t have to eat ramen noodles everyday to do it.

Work while going to school – I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to take out a student loan until it was absolutely necessary, and that’s why I worked a part-time job throughout my five years of university. Not only did it help me pay for my degree, it helped me learn many useful job skills, as well as gave me a leg up when applying for full-time employment after graduation.

Apply for grants and bursaries – You may not think you are a candidate to receive a grant or bursary, but you won’t know for sure until you do your research. Most students don’t take advantage of the number of bursaries offered by their school because it can be a time-consuming process, and of course time is very precious when you have a full course load. That being said, if dedicating a weekend to filling out applications could mean receiving an extra $500 towards textbooks, it might be worth your while to roll up your sleeves and get cracking.

Take advantage of your school’s facilities – The money you pay towards tuition isn’t just so you can enroll in classes. It also means you can have access to your school’s facilities such as the gym, the pool, the track, and the library. Also, depending on what institution you are attending, your tuition may also provide you with a transit pass for the semester, meaning not only can you now cancel your gym membership, you can stop buying bus passes too!

Don’t take on more courses than you can afford – Although you may feel the urge to take on a heavy course load every semester to ensure you graduate as quickly as possible, it might be more financially sensible to take less courses instead if that’s all you can afford to pay in cash. Better yet, many institutions offer summer semesters, so why not spread out your course load throughout three semesters instead of two?

Sacrifice the fancy electronics for the basics – Do you really need a smartphone, laptop, and tablet? I finished my degree not 3 years ago and all I needed was my desktop computer, a notepad, and a ballpoint pen to finish my degree successfully. Separate your needs from your wants, and don’t just get the latest gadget because the salesman on the radio convinced you to. Remember, universities were around way before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born, and there still isn’t an app that will do your assignment for you.

Cut out any unnecessary expenses – If you really want to avoid taking out a loan, it might be time to sacrifice the niceties and get rid of your cable package, forego those daily lattes, and find creative ways to recycle your wardrobe instead of buying new clothes every school year. It may not be incredibly enjoyable living like a student for four plus years, but when you leave school without any debt to pay off, you’ll realize that sacrificing those creature comforts for a small time was definitely worth it in the long run.

Live with family or off-campus to save money – I was lucky enough to be able to live with my parents rent-free during my time at university, but if that’s not an option for you, it’s always worth a look to see if there are any relatives who live close by who wouldn’t mind a tenant for free or at a discounted rate. Otherwise, living off-campus is always a good idea, as usually on-campus residences can be quite pricey and off-campus suites are usually cheaper, nicer, and well, you don’t have to live at school.

Study hard and excel in school – Not only will flunking a college course hurt your G.P.A., it will also hurt your bank account when you have to pay another couple hundred dollars to repeat it. Studying hard and performing well in your classes will help you finish your degree sooner rather than later, and could potentially lead to monetary awards or scholarships on graduation day.

Bargainmoosers, what advice would you give to new students on how to stay debt-free?

(Photo credit: velkr0)


  • Tim
    Apply for co-op classes in your field. It might take a bit longer but I'm leaving Uni almost debt free because I made enough money during the work sessions and lived at home.
    • Jessica M.
      That's actually a great idea. My sister ended up doing that she had a great experience. It also helped her to realize she didn't want to work in that field and ended up switching majors because of it. Thanks for the comment!
  • Mish
    Great advice! Only thing I have to correct is the point you made about spreading classes out to make it more affordable. Often, one's tuition includes the amount for the number of courses taken and extra fees. The extra fees are per semester and by taking that extra semester in the summer you end up paying more. Just thought I should let you know because, unfortunately, spreading your courses out may make you're overall tuition higher.
    • Jessica M.
      That's definitely a good point, thanks for sharing! I meant more if your main source of income was your part-time job, taking say 3 courses in the fall, spring, and summer semesters would make it easier to pay for your schooling in cash instead of taking 5 courses in the fall and spring semesters then needing to take out a loan because the cost is too high. Thanks for the comment!

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