A new school year is upon us and the streets are filled with crowds of eager fresh-faces hurrying to college classes in crisp new fall wardrobes, $5 lattes in hand, and blissfully unaware that their financial freedom is creeping further and further out of reach.
Student debt is one of financial freedom's most dangerous enemies. It might even be a more sinister adversary than credit card debt. Luckily, it can be avoided in most cases and at the very least minimized in others.
1. Get a Job
The easiest way to avoid borrowing money is by making money. Get a job! Any job. Spending your weekends wiping tables instead of doing keg-stands might not sound fun but I promise it's more enjoyable than working overtime for the rest of your life to meet your monthly loan payments.
If your class schedule doesn't afford you time to commute to and from work, ask about on-campus work at the student services center. Most colleges offer a number of employment opportunities in school libraries, athletic centers, and campus pubs.
2. Skip the Coffee and Lunch Lines
I was standing in line at the coffee shop waiting for my dark roast when I overheard two 20-somethings complaining about the interest rates on their student loans. I almost felt a shred of sympathy until I heard their order--two soy vanilla lattes with an extra shot of espresso. "That will be $6.50 each," the barista smiled.
$6.50 might not seem like a lot but when you're buying two or three lattes a week it adds up. These two students will likely spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on caffeinated sugar bombs by the time they graduate.
Make coffee at home. Pack a lunch. Walk or bike to work. Any time you have a chance to avoid spending a dollar or two, seize it. A caffeine and sugar rush can't compare to the rush of reading your bank statement and seeing more than just zeros.
3. Don't Buy Anything New...ESPECIALLY Books!
Anything new comes with a hefty tax. Cars, clothing, textbooks. If you can buy it second hand, do it. That shiny history anthology with the "BRAND NEW" sticker won't improve your GPA, even if its $150 price tag would suggest otherwise. Head to the used book store or post on student groups to connect with people selling last year's editions.
4. Forego the Fancy Apartment
Moving out of mom's house and into a fancy apartment sounds like the ultimate step of independence...until you're two years out grad-school with a poor-paying job and six-figures worth of debt, begging your parents to let you move into the spare room. Finding an affordable housing situations is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to save money and cut debt as a student.
As much as I sympathize with your parents who have been counting down the days until they can convert your bedroom into a TV room, if you have the opportunity to live at home while you earn your degree, SEIZE IT. You'll have plenty of time to revel in independence when you graduate.
If you're determined to leave the nest, or mom and dad have already sold your bed, look for affordable housing options on campus--or better yet, apply to be an RA. Most colleges and universities will offer free room and board in campus residences to students who work as RAs or dons!
5. Invest in a Degree that Pays
A lot of people who care about your well-being far less than I do will fill your ears with sweet inspirational sayings like "follow your heart and the money will follow" or "don't worry about the pay check, find a career that makes you happy". That's all well and nice, but it's hard to be happy when the numbers on your bank statement are red and the debt collector is calling you three times a day. If you're investing tens of thousands of dollars into your education, you'd better be certain it's an investment with a high return rate.
When I was a teenager, my stepdad asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up. Without hesitation, I answered "I want to be a photographer."
"That's not what I asked you," he said. "I asked you what you want to do when you grow up. To be a photographer you'll be a lot of side jobs and long hours until you can start making money doing what you love...IF that ever happens. For many it doesn't."
I didn't want to do that. George's advice prompted me to pursue a career in business instead. A career that today affords me the finances to do what I love--spend time with my family, enjoy quality wine, and finally pursue my dreams of photography.
Before you invest $50,000 (or more!) on a degree that will serve as nothing more than a wall-hanging I urge you to carefully consider what you want to do with your life. If that "do" involves anything other than living your life as a prisoner of debt, choose an area of study that will lead to a lucrative career and ultimately, financial freedom.