College: A Step Toward Financial Freedom or A Life of Debt?

College, where it all started for the Elephant Eaters
Where it all started for the Elephant Eaters

When thinking about starting out on the right foot financially, college is an issue that has me very torn.  On one hand, I look back at my college years as one of the best times of my life.  I also appreciate the value associated with Mrs. EE and I having each earned three college degrees.  The skills, knowledge and social network developed obtaining our education has set the foundation for being able to achieve financial independence and retirement at a very young age.  At the same time, I work with many young people going through college now whose experience is 180º opposite of ours.  I frequently mentor interns who are preparing to graduate.  Students preparing to enter my field complete a 6 year program.  I’ve worked with numerous interns, coming from a private university, who have accumulated $100,000-$200,000 of debt obtaining a degree that will get them a job with an average starting salary of around $60,000.  While our educations gave us the ability to achieve financial freedom, for many like them, it can be the start of a life sentence of living with debt.

Our country’s student debt crisis is in the news daily.  Everyone from President Obama to Mark Cuban seems to have an opinion, but no fix is in sight as more and more students graduate with increasing levels of debt.  According to this article, over 70% of those graduating from college this year utilized student loans and the average debt of graduates was about $33,000.

Teens and their parents are repetitively fed the idea that college is the only way to get ahead and so obtaining a degree can justify any costs.  School loans are considered “good debt”.  In a recent post, we discussed some of the many unwritten “rules” that most people follow, simply because it is what everyone else does.  The current “rules” of paying for a college education is that the wealthy can afford to send their kids to school, allowing the rich to get richer.  For the rest, college is becoming too expensive and so either you must use debt to pay for school or it may be better to not go at all.

Other people use debt to live beyond their means while in college.  Another “rule” is “You’re only young once, so you might as well have fun and live it up.”  This way of thinking is based on the idea of having only a few years to really enjoy life before having your life revolve around 40+ hour work weeks until retirement in 40-50 years.

Are those really the only options?  They certainly weren’t for us.

This post is not meant to serve as a how to guide or a comprehensive list of ways to pay for college.  It is also not to suggest that everyone can or should go to college.  That is a very personal and individual decision.  This post is simply meant to illustrate that by thinking outside of the box and breaking some unwritten rules you can achieve things far from ordinary.  We used 5 different ways to pay for our 6 degrees.  We hope that by showing how we combined the core principles of highly valuing education and at the same time doing everything possible to avoid debt, we were able to obtain high levels of formal education that greatly increased our earning power without going into debt.  The principles are key and could be followed by anyone willing to work hard and use a little creative thinking.  After giving you a brief overview of how we paid for our schooling are some key lessons that we learned along the way.

We’ll start with Mrs. EE.  Her first degree was a B.S. in Math.  She actually started like many, planning to pay for school and living expenses entirely with loans.  Her parents didn’t give her one penny toward her schooling.  After one year, she realized the amount of debt she would incur by graduation and decided it was unacceptable.  She committed at that point to pay for the remainder of her school as she went, working her way through school with the goal of taking on no more debt.  She started this her second year working several jobs including working at a pizza shop and the campus library, managing to cover her living expenses and most of her tuition.  The summer after her second year she got a full-time job as a bank teller.  She was able to finish her last 2 years working full-time at the bank while scheduling classes around work, utilizing evening, Saturday and correspondence courses as necessarry.  She graduated with honors while advancing to a supervisor at the bank.  As important as being able to pay for school without debt was the fact that she was developing real work experience simultaneously.  Upon graduating, the bank wanted to promote her to a manager.  However, she was able to utilize a bit of financial freedom allowed by having minimal debt to pass on this opportunity.    Instead she took a lower paying entry-level job, but one with much more potential upside, with an actuarial firm that let her utilize her math degree and develop different skills.  After a few years, she leveraged this experience to get a better job with a company that offered tuition reimbursement.  Her second and third degrees were both entirely paid by her employer.  She utilized this work benefit to obtain 2 master’s degrees in technical fields, making her very marketable for a wide variety of jobs.

My degrees were obtained as follows.  I got a bachelor’s degree with tuition paid in full by my parents, while I payed only my living expenses.  While you may believe that this follows the rules of conventional wisdom above, I grew up in a family that would by no standards of income, lifestyle or pedigree be considered wealthy.  However, my parents were able to pay not only for my bachelor’s degree, but also my brother’s through disciplined saving, planning and prioritizing over a long period of time.  I next earned a master’s degree which was paid for in a variety of ways.  I was able to get my first year of school fully paid with a scholarship.  The second year, the scholarship was much less, but I was able to pay my way because I had worked multiple jobs throughout school and was already building savings.  This allowed me to graduate with a Master’s degree completely debt free.  One of the clinics where I was working while attending school offered me a sign on bonus to work for them as a therapist after I graduated.  This offer came months before graduation and at a time when many of my classmates were having a hard time finding any jobs.  I accepted and used the money to help Mrs. EE pay off her remaining college expenses.  This is how we were completely debt free within a few months of finishing school.  Finally, I obtained a doctoral degree in my field, paid for primarily by my current employer.  This is actually different from Mrs. EE’s experience because I work for a company that does not offer tuition reimbursement.  I sold my employer on the idea of paying for my tuition because it would make me more marketable to prospective patients and referring physicians.  He was receptive and we negotiated a deal where he would pay all tuition and I would pay any other expenses which were minimal and required no debt.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE 1:  THE MOST VALUABLE THING WE LEARNED IN COLLEGE WAS TO LIVE WITHIN OUR MEANS

For most people, going to college represents a time of getting out on your own and finding your way.  What most people don’t think about is that the habits and routines that you develop when you are young will be very hard to change once they are established.  If you develop the mindset and habit of accepting debt and living above your means it will be hard to break this pattern, especially if it means taking a step backward in lifestyle.  However, if you learn to live happily within your means even while having little money, this will be much easier to continue when you actually do have money.  Then when you begin to make more money, which is the ultimate goal of developing your knowledge and skills in college, you have room to inflate your lifestyle while continuing to live below your means.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE 2:  FINANCIAL FREEDOM IS GAINED IN STEPS

In the financial independence/early retirement community, most people write of being financially independent when your assets are 25X your expenses and can support you indefinitely.  However, we look at financial freedom as coming in steps.  Being debt free is a huge step in having some control over your life.  This is true in the case of Mrs. EE who took a lower paying entry-level job because of the upside, rather than a higher paying bank manager position.  She had the freedom to make this decision because she didn’t have the burden of large amounts of debt to take care of.  Starting out without debt gave us the freedom to seek out the types of jobs we wanted with companies we’d be willing to work for and gave a large deal of leverage to negotiate for the things we want, providing a degree of freedom and increased satisfaction well in advance of achieving actual financial independence.  Being burdened by starting out with debt, these options can be limited as you must pursue the highest paying option.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE 3:  YOU CAN BECOME “LUCKY” BY WORKING HARDER, CREATING OPPORTUNITIES AND PLANNING

Many could read our stories and say we were lucky.  Lucky to have parents pay my tuition.  Lucky to both have job offers before graduation and never be unemployed.  Lucky to get a full scholarship for a year.  Lucky to have an employer give me a sign on bonus.  Lucky to have a FUTURE spouse pay off the remainder of student loans with that bonus.  I agree that I am very fortunate to have parents who were willing and able to help me.  We’re even more fortunate that they’ve taught us to save money and what it can and can’t do for our lives.

The rest is a matter of working to create opportunities and good planning.  Our job offers were a result of experience and contacts made while working our way through school.  Working for the school is what made me eligible for the scholarship I received.  The sign on bonus was a result of working closely with the company owner and learning all aspects of his business, making me valuable to him.  The decision to use my bonus money to pay Mrs. EE’s loans, before she was even Mrs. EE, was part of a plan we developed to use her income to support all of our living expenses and use my income to pay off debt.  Many factors will affect your financial successes or failures.  Luck is rarely one.

As you can see, we didn’t do anything radical or extreme to get our educations without debt.  We also didn’t have any grand plan.  We simply both have the mindset that debt is unacceptable, even for something as valuable as educating ourselves.  Once you take away the option of debt, other options become visible that you otherwise may miss because you weren’t looking for them.  Understanding this is a great first step to starting on the right foot.

 

Elephant Eater

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3 comments on College: A Step Toward Financial Freedom or A Life of Debt?

  1. Hard work, mutual trust & cooperation coupled with early developed habits of avoiding wasteful lifestyle is what played a key role in your lucks. Thanks for another great post, EE!

    1. Thanks for the feedback Herkunft. I think people grossly underestimate the importance of habits established early in life.

      EE

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