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How I Graduated from University Debt-Free

This is an article from Sean Cooper, Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer.

Saving for university is difficult, especially in Ontario, which has the highest tuition fees in Canada. In 2010, undergrads in Ontario paid average tuition fees of $6,307, a 5.4 per cent increase from 2009. When I started university I had no savings and I didn’t have a part-time job. So how did I manage to graduate debt-free? Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.

Part-Time Jobs

Working two part-time jobs is a great way for students to earn income. By working 25 hours a week you can earn $300, which will help pay for next semester’s tuition. While going to university I worked on campus – the pay was great, the hours were flexible, and it was a great opportunity to network. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement, so be sure to take advantage of that, too.

Summer Work

The bulk of my income came from working full-time during summer. By working 50 hours a week, I was able to earn $10,000, enough to cover next year’s tuition fees. Be sure to attend career fairs and apply for internships. Internships are great because they pay better than part-time work and can potentially lead to a full-time job.

Buying Used Textbooks

You can save 50% off retail prices by buying your books second-hand; I saved $300 a semester. My university, Ryerson, had a used book store where students could buy and sell textbooks. Be sure to sell your textbooks at the end of the semester; that way, depending on how much you sell them for, the textbooks may not cost you a dime in the end.

Tutoring

If you have strong grades, tutoring is a great opportunity to get paid to share knowledge with fellow students. Most universities hire tutors for difficult subjects like finance and accounting or have a tutoring service where you can set your own hourly rate and schedule.

Eliminating Wasteful Spending

Being debt-free requires discipline. Two of the biggest expenses for students are food and transportation. While some students can spend $100 a week on fast food and coffee, I brown-bagged my lunch and saved a bundle – I estimate I saved $5,200 a year. Transportation is another way you can save. Instead of buying a transit pass or driving, why not bicycle or walk? Besides getting exercise, you can save over $1,000 a year.

Bursaries and Scholarships

Don’t be shy to apply for scholarships or bursaries –they are a great way to help with the steep cost of education. While scholarships are only awarded to a select few, bursaries are great because they are awarded based on financial situation, not just academic performance. I applied for bursaries and received $500 each year.

Closing Thoughts

Through hard work and careful spending, I was able to graduate with money in the bank; meanwhile, some of friends will be paying off their student loans at least for the next five years. Graduating debt-free is a rewarding experience, and now I can concentrate on buying my first house and planning the rest of my life.

About the Author: Sean Cooper is a single, 20-something year old, first time home buyer located in Toronto. He has experience in the financial sector as a Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce in business management from Ryerson University.

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About the author: Sean Cooper is a single, 20-something year old, first time home buyer located in Toronto. He has experience in the financial sector as a Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce in business management from Ryerson University. You can read some of his other articles here.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Steve June 24, 2011, 10:14 am

    I think the ability to graduate debt-free depends very much on the program you are in. Obviously I wouldn’t expect someone to make it through law or med school debt free! But let’s just talk about Bachelor’s degree’s here.

    I’m a pretty darn frugal person and a chronic saver, and I couldn’t get through 4 years of engineering debt free. For starters, Engineering tuition costs more than any other undergraduate degree at my Ontario University.

    Second, the workload for engineers is much higher than most other disciplines. At my school, a normal workload is considered 30 units per year, but engineers had some 40+ years in there! Many courses (5 per semester) involve 2-3 lectures, 1 tutorial and a 3 hour lab in a given week on top of the homework and studying.

    I truly believe that working part-time while completing an engineering degree can have very negative impact. Either your school will be affected, or your work life balance if you try to work any significant number of hours.

    Also, If you come from a rural area and move home during the summers, it can be tough to land high paying jobs, so working 40+ hours per week at or just above minimum wage isn’t going to cover a year of school.

    Funny how my friends in humanties seemed to have enough OSAP money left over to buy stereos for their cars? They also did things like work the campus bar a couple nights a week and many didn’t finish their degrees.

    However I’m not complaining. Engineers earn a good enough wage you can eliminate student pretty quick upon graduation.

  • SB June 24, 2011, 10:37 am

    Interesting article.

    I wonder if anyone out there has advice on returning to school as a mature student who can not qualify for OSAP and has a mortgage/utility bills etc to pay?

    I’m considering returning to a private college for a diploma program that will allow me to change careers and I’m looking for creative way to fund my possible return to school outside of the usual bank student line of credit.

  • Goldberg June 24, 2011, 11:10 am

    I have a very different experience but with similar results.

    I studied in Quebec where avg tuition per year is $2500. ($3500 if you do a full summer semester to graduate quickly)

    I did a four year degree, double major accounting and finance, in three years through studying full time in the summer semester. This saved me one year of living expenses without any salary. It did not affect my grades since I graduated with an Honours BBA with distinction (in the top 10% of my faculty).

    My income consisted of $4000 debt, $8000 bursaries, $1000 tutoring, and $500 scholarship. My spouse had the same income and also did her 4-yr degree in three years so our combined revenue was about $27,000 per year (net of tax).

    In the summer prior to my Honours thesis as well as my senior year, I worked part-time as a research assistant and probably made an extra $3000…

    We purchased used books and brought our lunch. We also tried to reduce our beer consumption to ensure we had fun but did not waste money either.

    End results was $12000 each of debt (more for me since I followed on with a master). However after our first year of work, we had saved enough to repay it all in full. We didn’t since rates are so low, my TFSA investments return twice as much.

    At $125 per month ($105 for her) for ten years, that’s really cheap for an higher education. We are lucky in this country.

  • Juan June 24, 2011, 11:37 am

    As someone coming from America I can only say that Canadians are really lucky. I’ll be stuck with over 20k in debt even though I’m going to a state school and I live at home and I did community college for free for the first 2 years.

  • Snoopy June 24, 2011, 12:09 pm

    I believe that most students can graduate debt free or with very little debt. When I step on campus, I see a majority of students with new clothes, new texbooks, eating in the expensive cafeteria, drinking their Starbucks or Tim Hortons coffee and many of them even drive to campus with their car. I used to be one of them during my first degree. By the end of my education, I had $60k in debt but this amount could have been significantly lower with proper budgeting and lifestyle changes during my first degree.

    I was in school for a total of 9 years for two Bachelor’s degrees, one of which was in engineering and a Master’s in Engineering. I made a lot of financial mistakes during my first degree. Looking back, I over-spent on social activities when I could have worked part time at least half that time and spent half of my original budget.

    During my second degree which was in engineering, I found there was a lot more time available to work part time. I had 2 part time jobs, one which was in engineering and the other one which was working security where I could study. In the summers, I found full time jobs. I personally found engineering school straightforward and relatively easy unlike my first degree which was very stressful and time consuming. Working 2 part time jobs ensured I didn’t spend my money in pubs and other social events. Tuition was slightly more expensive by $500-1000 annually but was no excuse to go into debt. I made some frugal changes in my life by buying used clothes, brown bagging all my meals and not buying most of the useless textbooks. Even as a woman in engineering, I wasn’t able to get scholarships past my first year of school.

    During my Master’s, I worked full time and was able to buy my first investment property. Within 6 months after finishing school and having bought more investment properties, I paid back all my student and consumer loans and kept a lid on lifestyle inflation. Another 6 months later which is today, I am happily financially independent.

    Being a student is expensive but I’ve seen another student less fortunate than me graduate with no debt and zero parental help. She followed the same methods as described in this blog.

  • Brandon June 24, 2011, 12:26 pm

    Don’t forget to check Amazons prices for your books!

  • thepinkpeppercorn June 24, 2011, 12:34 pm

    Great article! I used a similar approach myself.

    I do have to disagree with the statement “two of the biggest expenses for students are food and transportation” – it seems most (many?) students use “food” to mean pub expenses!! THAT seems to be a contributing factor to why there are many students with debt after university… Earning $300 a week could be blown in a few minutes by some. I am obviously kidding, at least somewhat, but bar tabs do seem to be quite high for some!

  • blake June 24, 2011, 1:43 pm

    Debt free graduation is the way to do it haha! I got a finance degree (pretty heavy workload) but worked full time during my entire university degree. My secret…. I took an extra year to finish lol. Big deal that I finished a year later than I wanted. I had no debt (actually had about $60k in the bank), was a year older, and had more work experience. the biggest benefit was that I was never stressed out from school lol. work ate up time but I was never “swamped” from my classes. The trick is time management…. and less time at the pub haha

  • Will June 24, 2011, 2:34 pm

    Sean, did you live at home while going to school? As a mature adult, I spent $14,000 (about $4800 of which was for food and shared accommodation) for one year of college in BC.

  • Elbyron June 24, 2011, 6:04 pm

    Food and transportation can be big expenses, but only after accommodation. The lucky ones (like me) that can live with their parents while they get their degree will save thousands on rent or mortgage payments. It also drastically reduces the food bill since parents usually provide meals. A monthly student buspass only cost me about $60/month. I bought all my books used whenever possible, and sold them for very little loss. There were a few books I couldn’t sell so I lost maybe about $200 per year.
    In Alberta we are fortunate to have the Rutherford Scholarship, which pays up to $2500 if you can maintain your grades over 80% in 5 courses throughout high school. High grades also qualified me for a scholarship offered by the University that paid for half my first year’s tuition. So doing well in high school meant all I had left to pay in tuition fees was about $13000, which I easily earned working part-time during the year and full time during the summers. I didn’t party much or buy a lot of drinks, and mostly brought my own lunches.

    So that’s how I got my Bsc debt-free. And bought a car partway through as well. Hard work, and living with parents are the key things.

    My wife also worked hard in high school and got some scholarships, but being from Saskatchewan she didn’t get the big Rutherford one. And since she had to stay in residence, her costs were a lot higher. Still, she graduated with only a small student loan which she quickly paid off before interest began to accumulate.

  • nobleea June 24, 2011, 6:22 pm

    I agree that engineering can have a higher workload, which makes it difficult to hold down one or two part time jobs during the school year.
    During the summer break though, the sky’s the limit. Engineering student or co-op positions start out at $18/hr and I’ve seen them as high as $30/hr with accomodation allowances.

  • TSM June 25, 2011, 11:09 pm

    I went to school full time and lived at home, and still left with a debt. the good part though, is the debt was fairly manageable, and I’m a couple months away from it being gone for good

    My biggest thing from university, was the text books. I’ve never flushed so much money down the toilet then buying books that you “HAD” to have, and the “NEWEST” edition. My advice? Grab last year’s version, for the firesale price, and work from that. Unless your in a bleeding edge field, the information is the same!

  • michael lee June 29, 2011, 5:19 am

    The key is to take as many AP classes as you can in high school so you can get the credit in college. This way you eliminate a lot of the extra classes you would have to take that has nothing to do with your major.

    In high school I took AP Calc, AP Bio, AP Eng, AP History and took all my SAT II for math, science and japanese. During my last year in high school I took math classes at Stanford for college credit.

    I was able to go to UCLA as a sophmore right off the bat. Saved my parents a LOT of money, but I worked my butt off in high school.

  • Frugal Greenie June 29, 2011, 8:38 pm

    Because it hasn’t been mentioned…I had a fulltime job and completed both my BSc undergrad as well as my MBA while I was working. How? Join the military and get a free education, they pay you to go to school, and employ you during the summer semesters. (There are of course caveats and qualifications, etc, etc etc). I then completed the mandatory work committment and then got a job with an employer that felt that supporting employees’ personal development was important. I got my MBA paid for too by my employer as well. If you think I’m unique – my spouse did the same thing for both his undergraduate (Engineering in the military) and his MSc as well. Opportunities do exist – you have to find them.

    Never have had a bit of student debt. Did have to do one hell of a lot of work though. It was really ugly at times. Glad to have both the work and life experiences that came with it.

  • Greg July 1, 2011, 8:46 pm

    Graduating debt free is possible for some. However, the basic costs for university are: 10k for tuition (engineering at u of Toronto), 6500 for residence, 2000 for food(250 per month), 500 for books and other incidentals. Maybe 700 for a laptop, 500 for transportation back home… You get the idea. 10k is a GOOD summer income, but what about the other 10k? These campus part time jobs are only for people who can generate financial need…. And apparently going 40k in debt is not a need. Lastly, some students must study during the summer, purely because there was no space in the class during the school year. In short, the author was really lucky, because I did the exact same things. Keep in mind, I have no animosity here, I just want people to be realistic. The only thing that saved me was a year off internship that paid real market salary.

  • Poor Student January 24, 2012, 7:37 pm

    I am only in first year but my first goal is to graduate debt free. I have additional goals of having savings and investments left over but first and foremost I do not want any debt when I am done school. I would love it if when I go to buy my first house that my mortgage will be my only debt.

  • Geoff October 31, 2013, 11:28 am

    I know this is an old post, but Sean, isn’t your biggest expense Rent/Shelter?

  • SST August 4, 2014, 12:55 am

    “While going to university I worked on campus – the pay was great…”

    “In 2010, undergrads in Ontario paid average tuition fees of $6,307, a 5.4 per cent increase from 2009.”

    Hmmm…wonder what the correlation is…

    (Hint: you paid for your own great pay.)

  • Dean Jones November 27, 2016, 12:40 am

    I think it’s awesome that you graduated debt free. I agree that students decline getting part-time jobs when they totally can! But to each their own. Some people are go-getters, some people just aren’t. Capitalism paves its way and the people who actually work rather than complain aren’t left to live on the grubble! Anyway, I think you should be proud of yourself. Students who work hard during university will be the ones who buy their first investment property before others, and in the long run will be less stressed financially.

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