How to save money and still earn a degree

Debt-free living … It’s foundational to the topics I cover on Living Rich on Less. It’s also something I am deeply passionate about and committed to personally. Why? Because I have seen the light! I’ve experienced the peace, joy and limitless opportunities a debt-free life makes possible.

I’ve found that getting and staying out of debt is dependent on two major factors: spending less and earning more. Shocking, I know.

Spending less is perhaps the easier part of the equation because there are ways we can put this principle into practice right now. The “earning more” part can be a little trickier. However, it also has the potential for the most long-term impact on our budgets.

The main way my husband and I have increased our earnings potential over the years is by improving our level of education. We’ve both finished associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Completing a college degree inspires and motivates you, making you believe that anything is possible.

At the same time, I understand how freakin’ expensive it is to earn a college degree these days. That’s why I wanted to share three key strategies we’ve used to put ourselves through school, while keeping the student-loan debt way down (we ended up with a total of $35,000 for both of us and we completely paid it off within four years).

(Above, my husband and I soak in the joy on the day I earned my bachelor’s degree.)

1. Bag the room and board.

I’m convinced that many fresh-out-of-high school students choose a college simply for the social and dormitory experience. One tell-tale sign that your motives are out of whack is if you’re exploring schools exclusively because your friends (or significant other) plan to attend there.

Although I would never discount the value of social experience, the goal of attending college is to earn a degree that will land you a job in the field you want, right? You can do this without the wallet-busting expense of room and board.

I am a big fan of schools that offer online bachelor’s and master’s programs, like Western Governors University. They allow you to attend school from home – on your terms, your schedule and your current budget. You can hold a job while attending classes, paying out of pocket as you go, if possible. Plus you can still hang out with your friends at home and keep your focus where it needs to be – on your education.

If you take the time to do your research, you can find an online school that will accommodate your current lifestyle and future career goals. The flexibility of a college education has improved exponentially since I attended a few years ago. 😉

For example, Western Governors University has the same accreditation as state universities and private colleges, yet it costs half the amount of many other online schools. Student programs are individually paced. And courses incorporate real-world competencies developed with employer input, so students are ready and equipped to enter the job market with confidence.

2. Loans are a last resort.

If you’re serious about getting a college degree because it will help you land your dream job and live comfortably, you should be equally as serious about finding ways to get it paid for without loans, as much as possible. After all, nothing is quite as uncomfortable as the realization on graduation day that a mountain of hefty loan repayment bills are right around the corner.

The good news is that there are still a lot of attainable ways to get your schooling paid for. The first goal is to pick a school you can afford!

After choosing the right school, spend the time necessary to explore scholarship and grant opportunities. These gold mines of free money are grossly overlooked, perhaps because loans are so readily accessible or because potential applicants believe it’s a waste of time to apply.

Don’t write off the military as an option, either. One of the reasons my husband and I joined the military was to take advantage of the many educational benefits, including the college loan repayment, tuition assistance and GI bill programs. Without the military, our loan repayment would have been much more painful and our educational goals more difficult and lengthy to achieve. And yes, you can be in the military and attend school at the same time. Online schools like Western Governors University make this possible.

3. Find yourself first.

Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing of a young student heading onto campus and into years of school loan commitments despite that fact that he or she has absolutely no clue which career to pursue.

I realize it can be challenging to pick that one degree program that will perfectly match your talents, skills and desires. Life doesn’t often reveal these things by age 18. Fortunately, you can often spend the first year or so of college knocking out the general education classes required by most degree programs before declaring a major.

However, there are methods that will save you time and money by helping steer you in the right direction toward a degree program that fits you best.

In Chapter 3 of my free e-book, “The Heart Improvement Project: 5 Steps to Overcoming Obstacles and Building the Life You Crave,” I share tips for how to evaluate your life, exploring clues that could uncover a potential career path.

Consider spending a few minutes answering the following questions. The answers could help you choose a potential degree track/career.

  1. What have I accomplished that has made me feel significant?
  2. What projects/moments have brought me joy and satisfaction?
  3. What have I been praised for and what do I seem to be good at doing?
  4. How would I like to make a difference in the world?
  5. When was I asked for advice on a topic?
  6. What could I do for a long time without paying attention to the clock?

I would also encourage you to take advantage of career assessment tests, tools and quizzes. These tests ask a series of questions that help match your personality with a career that’s right for you.

Education is a force multiplier. It improves your income potential, boosts your confidence, opens doors of opportunity, helps you connect with career and life-improving people, and sets a positive example for your family members.

(Above, my sisters and I pause for a shot on my graduation day in 2001. My baby sister (left) is now working toward her master’s degree from the same university and my middle sister (right) is pursuing a business degree.)

If you’re ready to hit the books, here’s a code that will waive your application fee to Western Governors University: WGU App Fee Waiver Code

If you’re thinking about going to school (or going back to school), what dream would this degree make possible?

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Western Governors University. The opinions and text are all mine.

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1 Response

  1. Kala says:

    It only took me about 2 years to pay off $26k in student loans, so I guess that wasn’t that bad, but I totally agree about how unfortunate it is that most of us sign up for a degree before we really know what we want to do. I wish it was common to spend a couple years working THEN go to college. 6 months after graduating and being in the real world I wished I could go back and change about half of my classes to things I would love to have some background knowledge of now.

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