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How I got through school debt-free

By Jessica M. Barr


Yes, it's true. I was one of the lucky few who graduated from university without student debt. I'm not rich or a super genius, and I studied English, not something lucrative like Engineering.

How did I do it? It was a combination of hard work and luck, and although each person's situation is different, I've turned my experience into a list of points for you to consider as you devise your post-secondary pecuniary plan. (By which I mean your cash flow!)

Nose to the grindstone

I didn't get much sleep during my last couple of years of high school. By the end of it, I was exhausted, but I had a 94% average. Granted, when I was in my last year of high school I had the extreme good fortune of not being forced to take courses that I wasn't good at. I was in school at that utopian time when us artsy types could simply take all the English and drama courses we liked and could ignore those pesky maths and sciences that made our skin crawl.

As I understand it, most high school students don't have it so easy these days. Which means you have to work even harder than I did to make sure your graduating marks are as high as they can possibly be.

Based on my high school marks I was offered entrance scholarships at the schools I applied to - lucky me! I just had to choose the school that offered the best combination of cash and the kind of environment I wanted to spend four years in.

It was the best of times...

Despite my stellar marks those entrance scholarships weren't enough to cover everything. And also, I was just tired from all that hard work in high school! So I decided to take a year off from school in order to work, save money, and travel.

Through a family friend I got a job working in an office. It was kind of boring, but the pay was decent and I managed to save up a good amount of cash. Which I then went and blew on a trip to Europe. But that's beside the point.

Taking a year off to work and save money can be a great plan. It gave me time to think about what I really wanted to be doing. And when I finally walked on to campus for the first time, I really appreciated the fact that I was there. It was so much more interesting than doing data entry!

The Bank of Ma and Pa

This is where I give a big shout-out to my dear parents, who put education money away for my sister and I. When my parents opened that savings account, they thought they'd be able to save more than enough to put their kids through school. Unfortunately, they didn't count on steeply rising tuition fees.

Even so, by the time I entered school, my folks were able to give me some money to cover a portion of my tuition, which was amazing and without which I definitely would be in debt today.

Uptown girl

When I entered first year at the University of Toronto, I watched a lot of my friends go into residence or get cool apartments downtown, far from the watchful eyes of their parents.

I was not one of those cool kids. But I saved a huge amount of money (perhaps as much as $25,000.00!) by living at home and commuting to university. It wasn't exactly ideal, and it certainly isn't an option for everyone, but if you do happen to be going to school in the same city as a family member, it's something to consider.

Keep up the good work

After the initial glow of the entrance scholarships and frosh partying wore off, I realized that this was probably one of the most important and valuable times of my life, and that I shouldn't take it for granted.

So I did my best to keep up the kind of work ethic I'd had in high school. Now, I wasn't getting 90s all the time, but I did manage to maintain a high average, which meant more scholarships and honours such as the Dean's List, which doesn't pay but looks great on a résumé or scholarship application.

It is important to remember that there are many scholarships available for students who are in their second, third, or fourth years of university or college. You have to apply for many of these, and that's where you have an advantage: when I was in school I wasn't aware of the many great resources that have developed over the past few years. Check out to search for scholarships that will help you get through school debt-free, and talk to your school's Financial Aid office to make sure you aren't missing anything.

Summers aren't for working on your tan

Unless you're working hard at that lifeguard or construction job. I worked every summer and I worked part-time during several of my school years as well. You don't want to burn yourself out, but you do want to make sure that you're able to save enough money.

To avoid temptation, I recommend putting chunks of money into high-interest savings accounts (such as GICs). You promise not to touch the money for a certain period - say six months - and the bank in turn promises to give you a sweet amount of interest (maybe 5%) when they return your money to you. I did this a couple of times during school, and I never regretted it.

Resist temptation

Speaking of not touching your hard-earned money… Through most of my undergrad I never had a credit card. If there was something I wanted, I had to have the money for it up front.

So I did not have the fanciest new laptop or a shiny car or the trendiest shoes. I wrote my essays on an ancient computer that someone had given to me used, and guess what? I still got 'A's. I walked, cycled, or rode the bus to school, and I tried to shop for clothes only when I needed them, and only when there were sales. And I still got to school on time and looked great for job interviews.

Not to sound preachy, but a final word about resisting temptation to all you partiers out there: ask yourself if you're really sure you need to be spending your student loan money (or job savings, or scholarships, or…) on excessive amounts of stuff that kills brain cells and leaves you feeling wretched for days afterward. Fun moderation + being able to actually remember what you're studying = long-term success!

When in doubt, be honest

When I got close to the end of my final year at U of T I looked at my student financial account and realized that I owed several hundred dollars - and I was broke! So instead of freaking out or getting a loan to pay it off, I went to have a chat with my friendly college registrar.

I walked in and told her honestly: "I owe some money and I can't afford to pay. Can you help me?" And to my delight, she said yes! She looked at my marks, left the room for a little while, and when she came back she told me that she'd found me a couple of small scholarships that would be applied directly to the debt in my student account.

I walked in to that office owing money and I walked out a free woman. I even got to attend a little awards ceremony, including free lunch - sweet!

Now don't worry

I'll be the first to admit that all this money stuff is very stressful and pretty boring too. It's good to plan, it's good to spend wisely and save money, it's good to work hard and learn lots of cool stuff at school. But it's also important to just enjoy yourself and make the most of this wonderful time of your life. Good luck and have fun!

For more great tips about saving money and budgeting while in school, check out

Modified on April 23, 2009

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