A few months ago, I had a long discussion with someone close to me about my student loans. This person was under the impression I had scholarships that covered my entire college education expenses. Um….no. Not for my undergraduate, anyway.
I’m going to lay out all of the ways I gathered money to pay for my undergraduate education. Why? Well, partly just because I want to. I haven’t looked at it for a long time and it’s good to remember where you started. Also, to show that my life isn’t all maxed-out TSPs and fully funded Emergency Funds. There was a time when I had a lot of debt, even though I was working a lot of hours. So trust me, I get it. I have been in the “put on a sweatshirt because we can’t afford the heat” situation. I’m very lucky that in a worst case scenario I could have reached out for help, but I was determined not to.
Note: My numbers are not going to be super precise on some of this, because we are talking about things that happened in the early 2000s. This was before I became the personal finance nerd you know today. Let’s just say I wasn’t writing everything down. Where I can, I’ve listed exact amounts. Everything else is close enough.
How Much College Cost
I went to a very expensive private university. At the time (early 2000s), a student at my school was spending about $80,000-$85,000 for a four year degree there. Tuition and fees were about $15,000/year, while room & board was about another $5,000-$6,000 depending on where you lived. Many students were in a five-year program or one that had a lot of additional costs, so it was pretty normal for people to spend $100,000+ on their degree.
Things like clothes, travel, spending money, transportation, etc were more on top of that. I estimate that my total college experience including a four-year degree, a new-to-me car, and living expenses came out to about $115,000.
These days, that same university estimates about $45,000 per year for tuition, fees, and room & board – that’s $180,000 for a four-year degree before adding in living expenses! Oy! That is a lot of money!
Anyway, I received a lot of help paying for my degree, but because I chose such an expensive school it still wasn’t enough to cover everything. My scholarships, a stipend, a free laptop, and taking a few classes at the local community college during the summer meant my tuition and fees were basically taken care of. But I had to figure out something else to cover the remaining expenses.
How I Paid For College: Scholarships
I received four scholarships/grants for college: two through local civic organizations in my hometown, one through my university, and one through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC).
The two local organization scholarships were relatively small, but hey every dollar counts, right? I believe one was for $2,000 and the other was $1,500? Something like that. Both of these scholarships were awarded based – basically – on me being who I was and applying. One was based on my ethnic heritage and the other was based on the career I eventually hoped to get (I ended up changing paths two years later). Neither had much competition.
This is one of the secrets of scholarships and grants – a lot of it goes unused every year because either nobody applied, or nobody met the qualifications. I’m hesitant to say just how much is unused because the reports are, uh…conflicting. But there definitely are at least some scholarships that go unclaimed each year. Make sure you or your children are applying for everything possible.
The university scholarship was a merit based scholarship for $5,000 per year, plus a laptop computer. Unfortunately, I didn’t do so hot in the grade department my freshman year and was disqualified after the first year. Lesson: don’t be stupid when it comes to free money. The requirements weren’t even that strict – I believe I just needed to maintain a B average and not fail anything. Considering I received nearly straight As in high school, it’s really, really stupid that I managed to lose this one.
Luckily, I held on to my AFROTC scholarship. This is the big ‘un. AFROTC offers three types of scholarships – a full ride (type 1), a standardized amount (type 2), and one that covers in-state tuition (type 7). I had a three-year type 2 scholarship, which at the time was worth $15,000/year (it’s now $18,000). I could have converted to a type 7 scholarship if I’d gone to an in-state school, but my state didn’t have my desired degree program so instead I chose the expensive out-of-state private school…and lots of student loans.
There were also no AFROTC programs at my local state university so I would have had to go to one that was my hometown rival. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen, not when I’d been accepted to my dream school (and the only one I applied to). If I had to do it again, I *probably* would have still chosen the same school but worked harder for more scholarships.
That’s a total of approximately $53,500 in scholarships, give or take a grand since I don’t remember the exact value of the first two.
How I Paid For College: A Stipend
My AFROTC scholarship also came with a small stipend for my sophomore through senior years of college. It wasn’t much, but it covered some basic expenses. The nice part was that the rules changed while I was in college, greatly increasing how much you could receive.
Previously, it was a flat $200/mo during school months, for the years you were on scholarship. Sometime during my sophomore year it changed so that you received incremental raises each year. By senior year I was earning $350/mo, I believe.
During the eight months of the year that I was in school, this stipend made a big difference. I didn’t track it, like I said, but I probably averaged $280/mo. At eight months/year for three years, that’s about $6,700.
Running total: $60,200. This paid for the tuition and fees. Now let’s see how I paid for room, board, and everything else.
How I Paid For College: Student Loans
Loans. Oh, student loans.
I’m glad to report that I personally did not take out excessive loans. I certainly didn’t take out a small amount (although this number may look small to recent graduates). But I also didn’t take out frivolous loans. Let’s just say I have a friend who graduated with the same degree as me, $100,000+ in loans, and an extensive weapons collection.
Thanks to the power of credit reports (check your credit at least three times per year and save the reports!) I was able to reconstruct every penny I took out in loans.
- #1: $6,502 opened August of freshman year
- #2: $2,000 opened November of freshman year
- #3: $9,676 opened August of sophomore year
- #4: $3,000 opened February of sophomore year
- #5: $3,000 opened February of sophomore year
- #6: $3,000 opened February of sophomore year
That’s $27,178 in student loans taken out by the age of 19. Ouch. That’s also about 25% of my total college experience. Put another way, this covered my housing and grocery expenses for four years. When I look at it like that, $27,178 seems like a relatively small amount, especially given how much I’m paying in housing right now! Okay, I feel slightly better. But it still felt like a lot at the time!
Running total: $87,378ish. So far we’ve accounted for tuition, fees, room & board.
BTW, I have no memory of opening three identical loans at the same time. I wonder why I did that instead of opening up a $9,000 loan?
How I Paid For College: I Worked!
Now for everything else. How did I pay for the rest of my living expenses?
I worked part-time 5 of 8 semesters, and full-time every summer. By part-time I mean 10-30ish hours/week, and by full-time I mean 40+ hours at 1-2 different jobs. All of my jobs were pretty low pay, although I earned tips in most of them and that helped a lot. I chose tipped jobs because I had more control over how much I could earn that way. I don’t know if this is true, but it also felt easier to pick up extra shifts in tipped jobs.
I delivered pizzas, waited on tables, and served as a student counselor for freshmen. Delivering pizzas was the best job because it was easy and had the least amount of interaction with strangers. But, I smelled like greasy pizza All.The.Time. Waiting on tables was the worst. It paid well, but man, people are weird and sometimes incredibly rude. Folks, the wait staff are not your slaves, and a lot more is happening behind the scenes than you realize. Be nice.
(side note: I’m really happy to report that, as far as I knew, nobody ever sabotaged the food a la Waiting. That movie was terrifying.)
Counting tips, I probably earned about $25,000 net of taxes while in college. This paid for everything else – eating out, clothing, trips, my car/gas/insurance/repairs, miscellaneous expenses, etc.
Grand total: $53,500 + $6,700 + $27,178 + $25,000 = $112,378.
This feels about right. I did graduate college with about two grand in savings. I’d been warned early on that military finance didn’t always get it correct right away and I should have some money to cover expenses for awhile. But, I also graduated with a few thousand in credit card debt, so…
What did I learn/remember from this trip down memory lane?
- Apply for all the scholarships you qualify for. You may be the only one that applies.
- Thank God for scholarships.
- My housing expenses weren’t nearly as expensive as they felt at the time.
- Smelling pizza sometimes is awesome. Smelling like pizza all the time sucked!
- Once upon a time, I lived very frugally. I think I’m pretty frugal now (I know people that would call me cheap but I disagree!) but man, you really can live on less than $15,000/year if you want to.
- Student loans suck, but doubling my work hours would have sucked more.
For those of you that went to college, how did you afford it? Would you do anything differently now?