How I graduated college with no student loans and over $40k of savings (in 10 steps)

When I reflect back on the factors that have propelled me to financial success in my 20s, perhaps the most important one is that I was able to graduate from college with no debt and over $40k to my name. In 2020, graduating from college with a positive net worth of any kind is to be an exception and not the norm, but I believe with careful planning it can still be done.

My hope with this article is to help guide young people to follow a similar path to mine that sets them up for a lifetime of financial success. If you know a high school or college student that is beginning to make these big life decisions, please share this with them!

For me, graduating college with a positive net worth came as a result of a series of actions and decisions that really started back in high school. I want to emphasize the stair-step nature of my path, where each step built on the previous one and set me up for the next step in the path.

Here are ten steps I took that enabled me to graduate college with no student loans and a positive net worth:

1. Built strong momentum in high school

The foundation of much of my current financial success is the hard work I put in during my high school years. I became deeply involved in my school’s FIRST Robotics Competition which introduced me to mechanical engineering as a career path. Getting high grades and ACT and SAT test scores enabled the following steps #2 and #3.

2. Went to a state school with excellent merit-based scholarships

Perhaps my most impactful overall decision was choosing to go to a state university in the southeast which offered massive merit-based scholarships for out-of-state students. Based on my high school grades and ACT score, I received a scholarship that covered the full cost of my out-of-state tuition for 4 years (including tuition increases) as well as a $2,500 annual stipend through the engineering college. This made it so that I only had to cover my living expenses, which were costs that I could take steps to minimize.

3. Applied for and received several private scholarships

In both my senior year of high school and the following years in college, I made a point of applying to all of the relevant private scholarships that I could find. Since I didn’t qualify for any of these on the basis of need or diversity, I narrowed my search down to scholarships that were strong matches to my location, field of study, and my extracurriculars. Being involved in FIRST Robotics in particular opened up a lot of scholarship opportunities for me.

In general, the more specific of a scholarship (such as location-based, major-based, or extracurricular-based), the better your chances, assuming you are a close match. With this approach, I was able to win over $12,000 in private scholarships on top of the scholarships I received directly through my university. I calculate that the total value of all the scholarships I received was over $128,000, which still impresses me to this day!

Looking back, applying for these scholarships proved to be probably the highest value per hour work I could do as an 18 year old. To current students, I recommend you find scholarships that are specific and relevant to you and then try to tailor your essays and letters of recommendation for similar scholarships to save time.

4. Saved up cash from summer jobs in high school

After starting my first “real” summer job as a grocery bagger at the age of 14, I started saving up money from my summer jobs with the goal of being able to pay my way through college and avoid taking out student loans. My university required all freshman students to live on-campus and purchase the most expensive meal plan, so my freshman year ended up being my most expensive year of college. Between my scholarship money and a few thousand from my parents (the only help that I asked of my parents with college), I covered the rest of my freshman year expenses with a bit of my own savings.

5. Landed paid internships over the summer

As a student majoring in mechanical engineering, I had the opportunity to make good money over the summer through internships. During my college years, I did three summer internships and one fall semester internship, earning between $14 and $24 an hour. I used my savings from each internship to cover my on-campus living expenses the following year.

6. Worked as a Resident Advisor on campus

One of the best ways to save on living expenses in college is to become a Resident Advisor (RA). I worked as an RA my sophomore year and while it was stressful at times, it was a great experience overall. I had to be on-call for a few weekends each semester and be an always-available resource for my building’s floor, but I was compensated with free housing and a discounted meal plan.

7. Shopped at low-cost grocery stores

As a college student that raced triathlon for my school’s club team, I consumed a lot of calories. Luckily, we had an Aldi close by which became my go-to grocery store. And for students on the west coast, I am a huge fan of Grocery Outlet for frugal grocery shopping!

8. Lived in cheap off-campus houses with friends

In my junior and senior years, I moved into off-campus houses that I shared with friends where we each had our own bedroom. This worked out great because we got to have a more spacious place of our own while at the same time paying less than half the price of living on-campus. Looking back now, it’s crazy to think that we paid only $1,000 total per month in rent for a 3 bedroom house. The only downside was that I missed the convenience of living on-campus.

9. Rode my bike to class

When I moved off-campus, I chose places that were within a quick bike ride to campus, which made getting to class convenient. Riding my bike also saved me money compared to driving because a campus parking pass cost a couple hundred dollars per semester.

10. Minimized textbook expenses

Any college student knows that buying or renting textbooks is an absolute racket. Each semester, I waited to buy until after the semester started so that I could ask my professors what the actual textbook requirement would be for each class. In many cases, I was able to save money by buying a used previous edition textbook or the cheaper international edition instead of the more expensive current edition. I avoided buying new textbooks at all costs.

For my younger readers with a question about my path, feel free to leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer. And for my post-college readers, do you have any unique steps you took to keep college costs in check? I would love to hear about them!