How to graduate debt-free from university

Disclaimer: *This article may contain affiliate links* I’m not a licensed investment advisor. Also, I’m not a tax advisor and this is NOT tax advice. Please talk to a licensed investment advisor before making any investment or financial decisions. Please talk to a licensed tax advisor before making any tax decisions.


We all know the story, the U.S. has a student loan debt crisis. It reached a record 1.6 trillion dollars in 2020. That number is staggering but you can graduate debt-free. Just be aware, it will not be easy.


I did graduate debt-free with an undergraduate degree. However, this was several years in the making and it started in 11th grade and the hustle continued until my junior year of college. If you are no longer in high school and are still looking on ways to graduate debt-free or with less debt then you can still follow along.


Speak to a mentor

Some people say to speak to a guidance counselor so they can help prepare you for college, except not everyone has access to a good counselor. Many do not have enough time to give each student a personalized preparation, so a lot has to be done on your own. Especially if your parents are unable to help you. Find someone who inspires you, this individual does not have to be in the field you want but at least someone who can give guidance. 

Start taking college level high school

There are other ways to do this, not just taking AP classes. I only took one AP class and I managed to have 1 year of college credits by the time I finished high school. This was through a program called Dual Enrollment. Many public schools have an agreement with a local community college in which high school students can take college-level courses. These are generally paid for by the state and count towards a high school diploma. For instance, I had to take a math class my senior year, which would have been a year-long course at the local high school. I was able to take a college-level course that only lasted one term and have that count as both a high and college class. Killing two birds with one stone!

Apply for scholarships

Apply, apply, and when you think you are finished, apply some more. Even if you think you are not eligible for the scholarship, just apply. Something many people do not realize is that many funding bodies will lose the money if they do not send it to an applicant. Meaning they would rather send it to a person who applied… even if they did not meet the eligibility requirements.

Have a part-time job or start a side hustle

Honestly, I hate recommending a PT job, since a minimum wage position cannot pay expensive tuition. Many positions available to a high school graduate barely pay above minimum wage. However, the benefit of having a part-time job is that it can help cover your living expenses. Many scholarships do not cover this and you can get student loans to cover the cost but then you would be paying it for years. This is because the initial loan would grow due to compounding interest. 

Another option is to start some sort of side-hustle, we live in a gig economy and that means you can create your own hours. Check out this post for more inspiration. Several people I knew had started their own businesses and have continued it after graduation. Use this time as a stepping stone. It is one of the few times in your life that you will have the time. 

Attend community college and take your general requirements there

I understand that many people want the freshman experience at a new university, in a new city, and starting off on the best four years of your life. Apparently, it is a load of crap… from what I have been told by friends who went to university first. Now, community college is not as glamorous but there are many upsides, the classes are smaller so you are most likely to know your professor and build that relationship which is great for recommendation letters. It also has the added benefit for being cheaper. You will still build great friendships and relationships. To be honest, ‘the college experience’ is what you make of it.

Take advantage of student discounts

Many stores and restaurants offer student discounts to entice students to shop and eat. Some are good deals, so you have to shop around. 

If you can, live at home

This cannot be stressed enough, but if you are able to live at home, for free, then it is one of the best things you can do. Yes, people might think it is weird. Yes, people might try to make jokes. But, jokes on them when they’re paying a $60k student loan bill for 20 years and you graduate debt-free. You can help out your family financially if you would like since you may have a PT job or side-hustle. Remember, moving fees are expensive. 

Start investing

If you have any money left over from your job or side-hustle then start investing. There are a few online brokerages that now have free trades and fractional share purchases, which is great for someone who does not have $80.00 to purchase one share. See below on posts about that.  

Now, this may not help you graduate debt-free but you can start earning dividends, which is another source of income. It does start off small, my first dividend was $0.05. Not something many would celebrate but it was the beginning.

Check out M1 finance, we both get $10.00. 

Different posts on investing here at Richful Thinker.

Consider if the university path is right for you

Going to college is not for everyone, and it is marketed as a necessary path. Some companies require it  for positions even though it should not be necessary. Consider attending a vocational school or learning a trade. Not everyone needs to be doctors or lawyers, we need plumbers and electricians too. 

Remember, these are supposed to be some of the best years of your life, but you do not need to be paying for it on a monthly basis for 20 years. If you get a student loan, use it only for necessities, do not waste it on a spring break vacation. That will end up being an expensive vacation, once interest is compounding. 

Comment if you thought this was helpful or if you have other suggestions you would like to pass on. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

9 thoughts on “How to graduate debt-free from university

  1. Liz says:

    Ah – everyone should read this before going to college! Most people (at 18) can’t/don’t make logical financial decisions, but instead emotional ones. The ‘experience’ of college is more important than the financial debt side of it. I had grad school debt and ended up moving back home with my parents to pay down a significant chunk of it. Sucks doing it later in life. But good on you for taking an active financial approach to your college education and graduating debt free! That’s awesome!

    • Crista says:

      Exactly, it should completely be a logical decision. Another thing I did not really recommend but it should be as well, is taking a gap year to do something else.

  2. Steveark says:

    All three of my millennial kids got free four year degrees including room and board. They paid for everything by scholarships. That’s in spite of the fact their parents were high earning millionaires, none of them were need based. They all declared STEM majors, including the youngest who had no intention of being an engineer, because STEM majors are given preference when scholarships are awarded. She switched her major immediately after obtaining her scholarships.
    None went to community college or had concurrent class credits. None had perfect test scores, just good ones.

    • Crista says:

      That sounds a lot like the state scholarships that were downsized financially during the Great Recession (I received a similar one but it did not include R&B). But yes, there is more than 1 route to university.

  3. Steveark says:

    They were primarily those, chancellor and governor scholarships but also smaller ones from my work and area organizations and the lottery. My youngest was eligible for a scholarship funded by a local company that pays free tuition and fees to every kid that goes through the public school system here. If you graduate from our school system you automatically get tuition and fees paid at the rate equivalent to the most expensive public university in our state. And you can take that money to any school in the country.

    • Crista says:

      Yes! I wish I could ‘love’ your comment. This is also an option. Although, only a few people I know that joined soon after high school took advantage of the GI Bill when they got out. I know the other option, because I looked into it, was join the ROTC during undergrad and then serve as an officer. However, I do not know many people who did that.

  4. Gulpmatrix says:

    Many folks especially those from underprivileged homes incur a huge amount of debt prior to their graduation from college. This could partly be attributed to their lack of financial knowledge, budget discipline, lack of investment initiatives or sheer wasteful spending. Information such as these could help in no small measure.

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