Debt Free Bachelors Degree – Overcoming Overwhelming Odds

A few weeks ago, after I wrote about my struggle overcoming some of my graduate school debt, my friend Grounded Engineer suggested I talk more about how I got my undergraduate degree completely debt free. I’ve also talked a bit about my story in my guest post on the Notorious D.E.B.T. and my prior article on going from community college to an MBA, but I never talked about all the details. So today, I’m going to share my secret to how I put myself through college and came out with a four year degree – with no student loan debt.

Believe it or not, you can actually still use this exact same strategy today and it would still work. So if you don’t have help from family, and can’t get loans because they won’t complete the FAFSA, there’s still a path forward. You just need to work hard, do research, and be patient.

The Short Version

I’m currently 36 years old, and went to college back in 1998-2003. I spent two years at community college, and two years at my states least expensive state college. I was at school while working full time in a Fortune 500 companies call center, making between 22k (at the start) and $30k (at the end) per year. For most of those years, I worked full time during the day – 40 hours a week – and went to school full time nights and weekends. When I say full time, I mean that I took five courses per semester, summer courses, and even winter break courses.

I graduated with high honors as a member of several honor societies and having won an award. I was the proud owner of a degree in Accounting, which I promptly did not use for work. Instead, I had started working in corporate IT in November 2002, where I still am to this day. The Accounting degree has come in handy in dealing with the financial side of IT, in my personal finance hobby, and in writing this blog. It also gave me the foundation I would later need to study abroad during my MBA at my states flagship university.


Community College – The Start

I graduated high school back in 1998, heyday of the stock market. I was always very smart and tested well, but had a lot happen during high school that made my grades not what they should have been. So my parents basically gave up on me, and told me I was on my own for college. They also refused to complete the FAFSA because they “didn’t want me to know what their assets were”. When your parents don’t complete the FAFSA, you can’t get loans. So I was essentially stuck.

But not for long. At the time I graduated I was working at Stop and Shop behind the customer service desk. I had always been a good saver, and had some money set aside. I decided I was going to try out community college, because I could afford that with my grocery store earnings. They didn’t have any kind of reimbursement, so I was on my own.

I took five classes at the community college and did OK, but I wasn’t really motivated. I was getting a general business degree and the subject matter wasn’t that interesting. So after one semester I decided to take a break and start looking for work, so I could move out of my parents house. Lets just say we didn’t get along.

In early 1999 I put in an application at a local Fortune 500 companies call center/paper processing facility near my house. I didn’t hear back for a few months, and then got a call in March. They interviewed me for two different positions, both of which paid more than the grocery store. I accepted the one that paid $22k per year, taking phone calls from people asking questions about their car and house insurance applications, and started in May of 1999.  I was still 18 years old at the time.

Yes, car insurance like it covers you in a car accident

After working in this job for a few months, I had an epiphany that you can only get from working horrible jobs. This sucked.

This was not the kind of thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was working with people who were 10, 20, 30 or more years older than me, for whom this was the latest in a string of bad jobs. I wanted to get a degree so I could get the heck out of this place. The people calling into the call center were angry, confused, and I would have to deal with problems I didn’t create and I couldn’t solve. I wanted out.

So I did some research and found out that the company had an educational reimbursement program, where they would pay you back several thousand dollars once you completed courses with a certain letter grade threshold. I calculated that the reimbursement was enough to cover community college, although since it only reimbursed tuition, I was on my own for books and “fees”. I signed up for night and weekend classes to start again in, I believe, the Spring of 2000 (note – in full disclosure my memory of the exact year is a bit fuzzy. It’s been a long time now).

I then worked full time during the day, and took five night/weekend classes every semester. I also went during the summertime, knocking off two more classes. I would get my report card, file for reimbursement, then I would then turn around and use it to pay for the next semester – and paid for books, supplies, and fees out of pocket.

In the Fall of 2000 I moved out of my parents house once and for all, buying a condo to live in. Everyone in my family thought was a terrible idea, but it made me $65k in just under six years. I attribute that to luck rather than skill. My rationale at the time was that if I could just sell the condo for what I had bought it for, I would come out ahead of renting (which was my other option).

Completing The Four Year Degree

Once I was approaching two years of classes at the community college, I started to talk to the nearby four year college about transferring. I knew that a two year degree was an accomplishment but wouldn’t get my where I wanted to go. I had done my homework and knew these two schools had a partnership where all your credits transfer, and sure enough, they did.

This was essentially my whole life

So I never officially got my associates degree – I jumped right into the four year school. I still took a full courseload, going nights and weekends, summers, over winter break, and finished in 2003. So after accounting for my year off at age 18/19, it took me four years to get my four year degree.

During that time, I had continued to work full time in the call center. But since I hated the actual work so much I would volunteer for any assignment that involved not taking phone calls. One of those assignments was to help out an IT project with some redesign work they were doing of our paper applications for car insurance (back when that was a thing). So I lent them a hand, and in conversation with one of my contacts, happened to mention that I was wrapping up my degree soon and would be looking for other jobs. She mentioned that they were looking for something called a “Business Analyst” on her project. I interviewed, I got the job, and the rest, as they say, is history.  So for my last semester of college, I worked full time in IT while taking five courses.

I was proud of myself and everything I had accomplished, despite overwhelming odds. I had a bachelors in Accounting, with high honors. This was an honor many of my classmates didn’t receive, despite their parents paying their way through. I was inducted as a member of several honor societies, I had a job (albeit poorly paying) in corporate IT, my own condo that I owned. I was still only 22 years old.

The Money Side

Since this was so long ago now, I don’t have the bills anymore, so I can’t give you exact dollar amounts from back in the day. But I can definitely say there were a few key things I used to get things paid for:

  • Know The Policy: I studied my companies reimbursement policy. There was an annual cap, but if you exceeded it, the money would roll over into the next year. So the year I graduated, I was reimbursed all the “extra” I had accrued over the years
  • Good Grades: I made sure I hit the grade needed to get reimbursed. This also helped me get high honors and those honor society inductions I talked about earlier.
  • Buy Used: I sought out used books, and bought the absolute minimum in supplies
  • No Life: I had no social life, other than hanging out at the condo with my then-boyfriend (now husband). Working 40 hours a week, taking five classes, and doing all the homework/tests/etc. associated with it leaves no time for fun
    • Note – I’m not saying this was a good thing, it’s really not. I am envious of people who have fond memories of their college days as fun, carefree, and so on. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice-I was there to get that degree as quickly as possible so I could better my life
  • Tax Deductions: I got the tax deduction as soon as I could. For the first few years, I was unfortunately under my parents taxes as a dependent, so they claimed everything. Even the year I moved out they claimed me, because I was living with them for the first half of the year (I moved out in September). But once I was able to claim the tuition deduction myself, that money helped with the cost of the four year school
  • No Room and Board: Instead of paying for room and board, I bought a condo. The mortgage payment at the time was much lower than room and board would have been at the college
  • Make Sure You Can Pay: Since loans weren’t an option, I saved all the money I’d need to pay for the extras not covered by reimbursement. The biggest thing was the “fees” – at the four year school, the tuition was only half the cost! The other half was “fees”. So I made sure to save enough to pay those out of pocket
  • Live Like a Student: I kept costs low, living, essentially, like a college student. I had my car I had bought for as a teenager, and kept it the entire time. I didn’t go out to eat except very rarely (no time, anyway), brought my lunch to work, ate breakfast at home, and shopped inexpensively. I don’t think I bought clothes this entire time.

When I get laser focused on a goal, it gets accomplished. Whether it’s finishing college debt-free despite all the odds against me, earning six figures, being a breadwinning mom, getting through my husbands near death from septic shock, or now paying off my mortgage and funding kids college – it gets done. I can see now, looking back, that overcoming enormous odds and meeting my goals is a consistent pattern in my life.

Can You Do This Today?

Sure you can! There are thousands of companies that reimburse for college expenses. Dunkin Donuts. Starbucks. UPS. Most large companies. You just need to look hard, do some research online, apply for jobs, and ask around.

At the same community college where I went back in the day, the cost is now $4,200 for a year. The four year college costs about $10,000 per year. So a bachelors degree can be had for $28,400 plus books/supplies. That seems like a lot, but think of it this way. The average cost is $7,100 per year on this plan, right?

  • Dunkin Donuts will reimburse up to $5,000 per year
  • Starbucks will cover the full cost to get a bachelors degree through ASU (generous!)
  • UPS will pay $5,250 per year
  • Most large companies will reimburse around $5k per year, if this is a benefit they have

Don’t forget the tax benefits – that will cover around $2,500 per year for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, or $2,000 for the Lifetime Learning Credit. Or you can take the tuition and fees deduction. Note that this applies only to the portion that isn’t covered by reimbursement.

You also don’t have to be quite as crazy as I was. You can go to school and spend only the amount covered by reimbursement each year. For my real cost example above, you would be done with your bachelors in six years. Or you can only spend the amount covered by the reimbursement plus the tax credit, which would have you finishing around five years.

So even if you have no help for college – you’re on your own, and can’t get loans – you have options. I met many awesome and amazing people during my time at college, most of whom were 10 or 20 years older than I was and were going back to school with families and full time jobs. College was a dream of theirs and they were working hard to achieve it. You can do that too.

Did you have a similar struggle through college? What other creative college financing options exist for students like me, who have no help and can’t get loans? Let me know in the comments!

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18 thoughts on “Debt Free Bachelors Degree – Overcoming Overwhelming Odds”

  1. I obtained my masters degree through reimbursement. Obviously this was not my undergrad which I did pay for, but it does not surprise me that it works both ways. My company at the time paid 10K a year tax free towards my MBA.

    1. The Grounded Engineer

      Great story, CMO!

      I love the path you took, and I think it is a path that students should look at pursuing if they don’t know exactly what they want to do. The reason, as you obviously know, is that you can save A LOT of money before committing to a four-year college that is probably double (or more) the cost.

      Your story parallels how I got through graduate school – leveraging my employer’s reimbursement that they offered. This helped immensely because the total cost for my MBA was a little over $70k!!

      1. Yes it’s a great way to save money-and company reimbursement is a great way to fund education. Luckily there’s all kinds of ways to fund college-you just have to look at less “traditional” paths

    2. Company reimbursement is also a great way to get a masters degree debt free-$10k per year is amazing! All the companies I’ve worked at cap graduate degrees more around $6k or $7k, so that’s very generous

  2. I also took the route of going to community college for my first 2 years and I highly recommend others to take this route to at least get their basics out of the way. Its a big money saver.
    Nice post. Thanks for all the details

    1. It sure does save a ton of money-as long as you’re careful about the classes you take so they transfer. Fortunately lots of schools now have programs with four year schools to help credits transfer. Great to hear of another community college success story!

  3. Another inspiring read, Liz! I’m currently getting my Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and part of my negotiations for taking a job at our school was that they pay for my classes. Even if you don’t end up using your degree, like in your case, having one is a huge boost when you apply for jobs. It’s even better when you can get it paid for!

    1. Good work getting your employer to pay for your classes! And a degree can certainly be useful even if you don’t work in the field. There’s no way I would have my current job without a degree of some kind.

  4. I was fortunate to have my BS paid for by my folks. My masters came out of my wife’s and my pockets. No debt.

    That was in 1983 and 1996, so it might be different these days.

    I do think that one can go to school without debt, if they look for the right ways to do it.

    As a college counselor, I was amazed at the loans that students took even at the Junior College. Most said that they needed the funds to pay the bills.

    Great info. Keep up the good work!!

    1. Thanks! I agree there are a lot of options out there, you just need to think differently and work at it. Even if you can’t graduate with no debt, there are some great ways to reduce it quite a bit. I often hear the “it’s different now” argument, but when I do the analysis, it’s really not that different from the early 2000’s when I went to school. Back then the media was also talking about how “it’s different now!”. 🙂

  5. Although I didn’t attend community college, I think it’s a great option for many 18 year olds that aren’t sure what they want to do.

    I lived at home during college – my parents paid the in-state tuition and I paid for books. I worked all through college, but certainly not a full-time job like you! 5 classes per semester with a full-time job sounds exhausting.

    For my graduate degree, I took advantage of tuition reimbursement at work. They paid 90% for As, 80% for Bs, and nothing for Cs and below. That way you have some skin in the game. Needless to say, I got straight As 🙂 I wanted as much reimbursement as possible.

    1. My company also only reimbursed certain grades, so I made sure to stay above that mark! It’s great to hear that so many others have done company reimbursement for graduate degrees. I went that route for my MBA too, although switching companies in the middle messed that up a bit. And yes, it was exhausting-luckily teenagers/early 20’s folks have a lot of energy! I couldn’t do the same pace today with my kids around.

  6. High Income Parents

    All I can say is you are one driven person! 🙂
    I was in a similar situation to you, except I only worked 25 hours a week. I didn’t know about tuition reimbursements but I worked for a doctors’ group in the hospital so I doubt that existed.
    Also my parents helped me out with the $1500 a semester or so my tuition cost, but I paid for everything else. Looking back they got a tax credit for all that so I don’t feel too bad for getting help. I lived at home the first couple years too and then got a cheapo apartment with a friend.
    I wasn’t business savvy enough to even think about buying a condo.
    I think you proved, if you want it bad enough you can do almost anything. Great job.

    1. Sounds like you also did a great job working your way through undergrad! And you’re right, if you’re determined to find a way to do something, you can find a way. It just takes some creativity and thinking differently than others do.

  7. Troy @

    I was lucky. University in Canada is so much cheaper (around $7-8k a year).
    I got $4k of that each year on scholarship, and my parents were kind enough to pay the other $3k. And plus I lived at home, so no expenses on that front.

    1. Nice! Here it’s possible to find inexpensive school, but not easy. And they tend to be lesser known, public ones. But they can still be a great option for people who don’t have help and need to make it on their own

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