I remember my mom telling me about the $6,000 set aside for my college fund. That amount of money does not go far for college in most places in the United States, though it definitely does depend on where you are. Regardless, I understood from a pretty young age that if I wanted to go to college like the rest of my friends, I would have to go into an insane amount of debt.
However, I didn’t take out a single student loan for school. I didn’t have $40k in scholarships from sports or academics, either. As college was approaching in late high school, I felt the pressure to do what everyone else was doing: take out loans, live in a dorm, gain the freshman fifteen, and party.
If you’re curious about my situation and how I really ended up going to school without going into an insane amount of debt, you’ve come to the right post.
A tiny disclaimer
I want to acknowledge that this is just not possible for everyone; it isn’t advice on how to go to school for free. Everyone’s parents are different, and some parents want their kids out of the house as soon as they’re 18. I’m very fortunate for my parents. If it weren’t for them, none of this would have been even remotely possible. My intentions here are not to dissuade you from taking out student loans; do what you have to do to succeed and live your life! This is just my experience, and I’m sharing it in order to demonstrate that everyone lives differently and can still succeed.
My high school experience
High school was not the easiest time. I didn’t really have a consciousness of education, so to speak. It hit me maybe halfway through high school, but that wasn’t enough to compare to my peers who had SAT tutors and endless familial and financial support to help them succeed. My parents were going through a divorce, I had a lot of my own issues, and I was never really “apart” of anything. I wasn’t being thrown any scholarships, and I wasn’t really well versed in the college process like most of my friends seemed to be. I didn’t do any sports, I didn’t excel at anything specifically besides English, and honestly, I was just average. I didn’t really find my academic drive for success until I got to college.
The traditional college experience? No thx.
One of my least favorite things about the United States is how much they glorify going to college and going into debt for that “college experience” of living in a dorm and partying. It is insanely hyped up, this idea that anyone can go to college, transform their identities, make friends, party and have fun, and get laid. They’re supposed to be the “best years of your life.” Personally, I had no interest in it. I found nothing appealing in the idea of living in a small dorm, dealing with others’ loudness and habits, and spending an absurd amount of money to do so. Yeah, I’m introverted AF.
In other words, I wanted to go to school to learn. I wanted to earn my degree in the cheapest way possible and skip all of the frat parties and sorority life.
There are a lot of reasons why I strayed from the “traditional path.” Honestly, college in general really isn’t for everyone. I’m not here to give you all of the resources and other options besides going to college, but there are plenty; I, personally, need a degree in order to do what I want. However, I didn’t get one the same way everyone else did, and there are a lot of people who took the same path as myself.
My unconventional “gap year”
After high school, I took a gap year. This wasn’t your traditional “I’m going to go backpack around Europe and find myself at the age of 18” gap year. I worked at least 40 hours a week during my gap year. I lived at home, went to work every day, drove a sh*tty car, hung out with my piece of sh*t boyfriend, and that was about it. I was comfortable in my finances, but I still didn’t have a credit card or really even understand the concept of credit. I was saving all of my money, but I didn’t really know what I was saving for. I played with the idea of staying in New York, but it’s a really expensive place to live and just about everyone in my family was relocating to Florida. If I wanted to stay in New York and go to school there, I would go into debt from the cost of living alone.
And then… I moved to Florida!
A little over a year after I graduated high school, in August 2014, I moved from New York to Florida, and I enrolled in the local community college. I had about $11k in the bank. I got a car with the money I had saved from New York (PSA, never get a least when you’re 19 years old…but at least I was able to build my credit a bit), so I was able to commute to college from home without any issues. I took one class at a time until I was able to pay in-state tuition about a year later. While I was paying “out of state,” I was paying 4x the amount and making a quarter of the money I was making in New York. This is where the $6k my mom set aside came in handy because financial aid was pretty minimal at the time. I didn’t want to waste money, so I took it slow. In the summer of 2015, I took a full course load and got a job as a waitress. I powered through until the end of 2016 and received my Associate’s of Arts with Magna Cum Laude honors.
Transferring to a University with Honors
When I finished my Associate of Arts degree, I applied to the local university (University of West Florida). Choosing to go to a state school was easy because it’s so much cheaper than private school. It was about a 50-minute drive each way. They offered me an academic scholarship that equaled to about $4,000 at the time; the $4,000 was applied over the course of a few semesters and was dependent on my academics. In addition to the $4,000, I received the Pell Grant, and eventually, I started receiving the Florida Student Assistance Grant. Both of these grants were given to be based on my mother’s income as well as my academics. Between federal grants and my academic scholarship, I did not owe any money in tuition. This was a huge shock to me, to be honest. Some semesters, I even had money left over that I could use for all of my textbooks. I was expecting to have to dish out a decent chunk of change at some point. I lived at home with my mother, worked part-time as a waitress, and had no expenses beyond my car, insurance, gas, and whatever else I wanted to buy (alcohol, food..). I was saving pretty much everything I made working in a sports bar.
I think what’s important to remember here is that if I did have to pay some excess money in tuition, I would have been able to because living at home afforded me financial freedom while earning my degree. I ended up not having fees leftover, so I was able to save that money for traveling instead.
Then, I went to Europe for 3 months on my own dime.
I had hit my financial goal for this trip in October of 2016; I started at UWF in January of 2017, and I was off to Europe in May of 2017. If you want to read about my experience and how I made that all happen, you can read that here.
The End of the Road
I came back from Europe in August 2017 and barely took a breath until I graduated in December of 2018. I was working my ass off during this time. I took one class over the summer of 2018 and worked as much as I could, throwing all of that money into the bank.
During my last semester, I still lived with my mother, but I honestly wouldn’t even see her most days. I wouldn’t really even interact with anyone beyond my peers and professors. I went from campus (about a 50 minute drive each way, 4x a week), to work, to locking myself in my bedroom reading and doing homework, and back to doing the same thing all over again the next day. Not every commuter is like this; I was just an overachieving student who strived for perfection, a big contrast to the kind of student I was in high school. Being an English major was not easy, but I absolutely loved it. I ate, studied, read, worked, and breathed. I still had my fun, but it was mainly with regulars at where I worked once I got off the clock. By the time I graduated, I had a 3.97GPA, a wonderful Honda civic, a lucrative waitressing job, and a fat bank account. I have absolutely no regrets, and more importantly, I HAVE NO STUDENT DEBT!
Yes, I’m content with my decision!
I know a lot of people who are in a lot of debt or who are going to be in a lot of debt. I know some people who aren’t in any debt. You can do whatever you want, and I know more than anyone that everyone’s life situation is totally different. This was just my experience, so I felt inclined to share in order to demonstrate that straying from the “traditional” path is OK. You will end up all right. I think I’m more than all right, right now!
A lot of people seem to have trouble understanding my decision to skip the traditional college experience; a lot of people even like to criticize my decision, but look at where I am. I’m in Vietnam, living out my dreams. I have friends all over the world, have met so many wonderful people, and have absolutely no regrets. I never, in one million years, thought that this is how my life would be.
If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or find me on Instagram!
Until next time,