Growing up, it was expected of me to go to college. I had the grades and the drive, just not the money. To be fair, money was always pretty tight in my family’s house, and my baby brother didn’t make that any easier when he came (unexpectedly) into my parents’ lives during my sophomore year in high school. I knew that if I was going to go to college, I’d need to figure out how to pay for it all myself — without financial support from my parents.
I picked up an after-school job working for minimum wage ($6.67/hr at the time). The money I made there helped me buy my first car, a 14-year-old Nissan Sentra, for $1,200. I had just enough left over to fill the tank and pay for the taxes and a tag at the DMV.
My first job was a seasonal position, so it wasn’t long before I had to find another opportunity. Now that I had my own car, I was able to broaden my search. I ended up working as a hostess and then as a server at a brand new Chili’s in town. Even as a hostess, I made slightly more money per hour than my seasonal gig, but my shifts were often shorter. It was still pretty decent pay for a high school student, though.
Since my only bills in high school were insurance, gas, and food, I was actually able to save some of the money I was earning at Chili’s. It wasn’t adding up quickly enough to pay for college, so I knew I would need to find some help to get me through my degree.
At the time, I didn’t even know what I wanted to major in. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted future me to make enough money that I’d always be able to pay my bills. I never would have imagined that one day I would end up being able to save more than half my income.
Finding Scholarships and Staying In-State
Since I’d be paying for my education myself, I wanted to keep it as cheap as possible. I never even considered an out-of-state school because I just assumed tuition would be astronomical. I was also going to college without much of a plan for my future, so I had no need to go to any particular university. So, I applied to the two big-name schools in the state, UF and FSU, as well as the college closest to home, USF.
I got into all of them, and USF even offered generous financial aid right out of the gate. That looked like a solution to all my problems, but ultimately, I picked UF because it was the best academically, and learning is kinda the whole point of going to school in the first place. So, it was back to square one.
I took the SAT twice to get a high enough score to qualify for Florida’s popular state-wide scholarship, Bright Futures. I also had to find multiple community service projects to hit the 100-hour minimum. While I managed to pass the rest of my high school classes, I was spread thin between work and community service, so I definitely wasn’t getting straight As anymore. Thankfully, my GPA never sunk below the threshold needed to keep my scholarship.
While Bright Futures would cover most of my in-state tuition, I would still need to pay for textbooks, food, housing, car insurance, and everything else on my own. Any student looking for financial aid has to fill out a FAFSA application. And, as luck would have it, I qualified for a Pell Grant my first year in school.
I also qualified for something else I hadn’t really considered before — federal student loans. Even with Bright Futures and my one-time grant, it wasn’t nearly enough to pay for all four years of expenses. The huge loans I was “awarded” would easily cover those costs and then some. While that may seem tempting to some, I just didn’t feel comfortable borrowing money from anyone.
Loans were scary to me; the only context I had for them was the financial difficulty my family went through because of them. I decided to try to put myself through college with old-fashioned work. Almost everyone else I knew was taking on loans, and it wasn’t easy to go against that. But often in life you have to pick the best path for you regardless of what everyone else does.
On My Own for the First Time
As I made these plans, my manager at Chili’s told me he could get me transferred to the restaurant in Gainesville near UF, one that was much busier and made more money than ours. By this time, I was waiting tables more than working the host stand, which meant I was starting to bring in real money.
You might have heard people say that serving at a restaurant is an underpaid job, but I think that’s kind of a misunderstanding. As a hostess, I made $8/hr. The nights I worked as a waitress, my wage dropped below $5/hr. That sounds terrible at first, but after factoring in tips, I was able to consistently make over $20/hr in total as a server! That’s way more than any of the other part-time gigs I had available to me at the time. When you’re as young as I was and still developing your skills, a tipped position will almost always pay better than any of the other options available to you.
After pushing my income as high as I could get it, the only other thing I could do was keep my cost of living really low. I always had roommates (at one point, there were six of us in a three-bedroom townhouse off campus) to offset my housing expenses, and the only food I would eat on campus were $1 Taco Bell burritos or stuff I brought from home. My furniture was the same futon and dresser I’d had since middle school, and anything else we needed for the house we got from Craigslist or Walmart.
Good Wage Now or Better Wages Later
Waiting tables in Gainesville brought in what felt like really good money at the time. I was able to pay my bills and save money at the same time — as a college student! I was pretty proud of myself. But partway through my degree, I started to realize that I needed to be building a resume, and I had to balance that against making over $20/hr as a server.
The first step was taking an unpaid internship one summer in lieu of additional classes while I continued to work at Chili’s to pay the bills. When I was offered a freelance position with the newspaper after my internship, I felt another surge of pride…but that quickly gave way to overwhelming anxiety.
I couldn’t ignore what working for the paper while still in school could do for my journalism career, but my fears about financial security were very real. I could make more money at Chili’s that would continue to easily cover my college costs, or I could take an unstable freelance position to help lay the groundwork for my career.
Not only would my freelance income be more inconsistent than my income from Chili’s, it would also be more difficult to assess. I had to figure out how much I could make at the paper for my time spent. One night, for example, I spent 3 hours just attending a local election. After writing the story and going through the editing process, the job took 5 total hours of my time that night — for just $40. Effectively, I was back to making close to minimum wage at $8/hr.
I felt paralyzed by the math and the risk…and it sucked.
After deliberating for what felt like forever (and running the numbers with my soon-to-be-boss), I finally decided to take a major leap: I quit Chili’s to dedicate my non-school time to the newspaper. In all honesty, what helped me mitigate the risk and take that leap was the money I had been saving as a server. My fallback plan was the money I had in the bank from some tough choices throughout college — no partying, no eating out, no nonsense, and a lot of 10-hour shifts on my feet.
From Chance to Choice
The single scary choice to work as a freelancer set in motion a series of later choices that each helped level up my career, my income, and my general advancement in life.
If I hadn’t taken the position at the paper, I wouldn’t have graduated with two years of experience under my belt. I also wouldn’t have been nearly as good at photography or writing coming out of school.
Those skills helped me land subsequent jobs, each one increasing in responsibility and pay, helping us to save $100,000 in just two years soon after college, and ultimately getting us to financial independence faster.
Aside from the financial benefits of switching to a job in my field while in college, I also gained real experience in decision-making and taking risks. Without building up some risk tolerance (with help from saved money), along with a helpful dose of openness to new opportunities, I wouldn’t have had the courage to later entertain the idea of a six-month honeymoon or that we could quit our jobs to travel the country in a van for seven months to see all the National Parks.
By the time I graduated, I not only had zero student loans, but I had also saved nearly $12,000 — more than the entire sum of my Pell Grant. Looking back, I might have been able to squeak through college debt-free without even having it in the first place.
You don’t always realize what your choices will eventually mean for you, but looking back on my college years, I am glad I chose to work to graduate debt-free. Without the tough choices I made in college and the calculated risks I took along the way, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.
How to Pay For College On Your Own
Before going to college:
- Take as many AP and dual enrollment classes as possible during high school. Each one you pass represents credit-hours you’ll never have to pay for and classes you won’t have to sit through again.
- Make sure you’re hitting all the requirements to qualify for the highest level of any state-sponsored scholarships (like Florida Bright Futures). Think of it like a high-paying job, and remember the payoff can be well worth the effort.
- Save the money you earn from work while you still have the financial benefits of living at home. You’ll need that buffer of cash soon.
- Apply for student aid via FAFSA, and accept any money that doesn’t have to be paid back (like grants) — but think long and hard before accepting any loans. They look like an easy solution, but you may regret taking them later.
- When choosing a school, remember that you can save money by staying in-state, and you can save even more by completing an associate degree before transferring to a university (lots of community colleges have experienced educators and smaller class sizes). At the same time, the quality of your education is important. If you have the opportunity of a lifetime, don’t just give up on it — find a way to make it work affordably.
- Apply for other scholarships. With most private scholarships, you’re competing against other applicants. It might not be worth your time to write an essay for a high-profile award that you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of winning, but spending an hour applying to a $500 scholarship that only like 3 other people even applied for is definitely worth the effort. The harder it was for you to find out the scholarship existed, the less competition you’ll have.
As a college student:
- With schoolwork, you might not have much time to dedicate to earning money. Pick a job that pays the most per hour, even if it’s hard. Look at tipped positions, like waiting tables. If you have a unique skill (like computer repair, photography, or tutoring), going into business for yourself can boost your wage too.
- Cash in on free stuff, and have some fun. There is always something to do on campus, and there’s free pizza around every corner. Get involved in student life — you’re paying for it in your tuition already!
- Try to avoid paying for transportation if you can. A lot of college towns are super bikeable and have great bus systems. If you really need to own a car, find a cheap used one that’s in good shape (newer tires, mechanically sound), and ideally pay for it in cash. You can get your bike used, too.
- Continue to fill out the FAFSA each year (the earlier the better), and apply for more scholarships along the way. Financial aid isn’t just for freshmen.
- If you decide to bridge a financial gap with student loans, recognize the harsh truth: Every dollar you spend is borrowed money. If you find yourself with a surplus later on down the line, that’s great! Pay the loan off right away, even if it’s not due. You’ll thank yourself later.
This story describes Step 1 of our six-step Financial Roadmap — a money plan that can take you from zero dollars to early retirement in as little as ten years.