“It’s ok, my student loan comes in on Thursday, shots are on me,” – 2011 university student
“I have my mortgage, car payment, and student loan payment coming up,” – 2002 university graduate today
I don’t want to start this article off misleading anyone. I definitely owe a debt where my university education is concerned…a debt of gratitude to my parents for all their help and support. My parents did help me out with the RESP account they had set aside for me years before. If it wouldn’t have been for their help (probably to the tune of $4,000 a year overall) I would probably be 15K+ in student debt right now. I realize that many people don’t have this advantage and I am very thankful for it. It should be pointed out that my parents’ help was contingent upon my sound fiscal management and relatively high grade levels. My parents were upfront with me about how much they were taking out per year from the RESP account, and the various chores I would be expected to do in return (my father cuts trees for a living, so there is never a shortage of work).
Even still, finishing two degrees while going to school away from home and having an active social life while only needing 15K-20K of help is not a bad achievement in and of itself. As I start my career I am definitely able to appreciate not having a large part of my paycheque going towards trying to pay down student loans no matter how nice they would have been in school.
Here are a few ways I kept my student account from going too much into the red and allowed me to graduate debt free:
1) I went to the University of Manitoba
Tuition at the University of Manitoba is amongst the cheapest for graduate schools in North America. It is also the closest university to my hometown. In addition, attending the U of M allowed me to live on campus. This was ideal for me because of the 8 month contracts and cheaper transportation fees. Those pamphlets from distant universities always look nice, but are they worth the extra money? Not for me.
2) I got out as quickly as I could!
I took (and passed) a full course load each of the ten semesters I was in school. Many students believe the better option is to take an extra year or two to get their degree and then get a part-time job. My logic was that I would be making a lot more money in one year of after-degree income, than I would in 5 years of part-time relatively low paying work. I think it was an overall smart decision. If you manage your time properly there is no reason why this cannot work. Keep in mind that every course that you fail or drop will add to your overall cost.
Related: Should You Take a Full Course Load?
3) Great summer job
I was fortunate enough to land a great job my first summer out of university working for the Canada Border Services Agency as a Student Officer. Yes, I was that guy who asks for your passport, and then tries to catch that extra bottle your trying to sneak across. My pay was merely decent the first summer (11.50 per hour), but it escalated every summer after. My last summer I made about $19.00 per-hour, which I think is pretty great for a student. The job was also ideal in that it was close to my hometown, so it allowed me to live at home for the summer. While this was not an easy transition to make each spring, it was without a doubt the fiscally responsible thing to do. Once again, I would be remiss if I did not mention my parents allowed me to live and eat rent free during the summers. As a side note, this job also looked great on my resume and gave me some interesting experiences to say the least.
4) Free Money – Scholarships, Grants and Bursaries
Check out my article on how people will throw free money at your tuition bills if you ask them very nicely. To summarize, by applying in variety of places I was able to garner about 15K in various scholarships, awards, bursaries and grants.
5) Made common sense money choices
I’d be lying if I said I followed all of our tips for living frugally while I was in university. The fact is that I often spent pretty obscene amounts of money on entertainment of various kinds (the usual university stuff). That being said, when I didn’t have much left to spend, I had the discipline to budget my spending to last however long it needed to. I never went into credit card debt, and only dipped into my student line of credit my very last semester.
Related: Student Lines of Credit
It helped that I enjoyed cheap hobbies that mostly revolved around recreational sports and free activities organized by my residence. I also never got into the major gambling binges I seen friends of mine get into. Apart from one trip to Vegas, the occasional 5 dollar game of poker, and a few Sports Select tickets during college basketball season, I spent my leisure dollars on other pursuits. An often overlooked cheap activity in Canada is going to university sporting events. The admission is almost nothing (for me, because I lived on campus it was part of the package) and it’s a great time. We could take a page out of the USA college experience on that one. I was actually recognized as the number one sports fan on campus my fourth year (the first year they gave out the award) and got a cool prize package for it. (*Note from Justin*: ‘Teacher Man” is pretty humble about this award, there are 27,000 students that go to the U of M)
6) Random Side Jobs
I was fortunate enough thanks to the above considerations to never badly need a true part-time job over the school year; although, I definitely could have used one in retrospect, and might have even been able to put some money away or travel more had I decided to do so. Instead I spent a lot of time volunteering which more or less got me a job as a teacher. I did make money going home and briefly working for my dad, refereeing basketball, and in coaching honorariums. These odd jobs helped offset my active social life.
Related: 5 Great Reasons to Student Volunteer
7) High School Savings
High school was a much busier time than university for me. I always had multiple summer jobs, a part-time job during the school year, and was always playing as many sports as possible. With all this activity it was pretty hard to spend money. It helped that I lived in a rural area and only seen a shopping mall 3-4 times a year. My parents were big on encouraging me to save for university, and the money I saved through high school basically bought the car (a used Grand Prix) that I still drive today.
If my goal would have been to get through university as cheaply as possible I definitely would not have met my goal. Luckily, that is never how I saw the big picture. I simply wanted to have the most amount of fun I could without ever worrying about money, yet not falling into a black hole of debt. Looking back, I probably didn’t have to buy the first and last rounds so often, but since I came out of it pretty much debt free I have to say I met my financial goals; however lax they may have been. I definitely encourage you to figure out where your priorities are and budget to maximize the things you get the most joy out of. Graduating without debt is certainly a very enjoyable experience!