YOUR MONEY: College on the pay-as-you-go plan is doable"My daughter Sarah completed her bachelors degree debt-free. She did this in only four and a half years. She worked in high school, established a self-made savings plan and was able to pay cash each semester for school. She received little assistance from her parents, as we were not financially able, not unlike many families. ... She is now 24 years old and has been an inspiration to others who talk with her."
By: Kara McGuire, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
This spring, I wrote a story about the burden that excessive student debt places on college graduates, especially in this economy. The day after the story ran, my in-box was flooded with e-mails from readers in this unfortunate position.
Buried among the cries for help was a message from Sandy Sweep: "My daughter Sarah completed her bachelors degree debt-free. She did this in only four and a half years. She worked in high school, established a self-made savings plan and was able to pay cash each semester for school. She received little assistance from her parents, as we were not financially able, not unlike many families. ... She is now 24 years old and has been an inspiration to others who talk with her."
Heck, we could all use some inspiration right about now. So I met Sarah Lukemire over coffee. Lukemire started her education at the University of Northern Colorado when she was a resident of Colorado and finished up her business marketing degree at Metropolitan State University as a Minnesota resident.
Recently laid off from her marketing job, Lukemire, of Bloomington, Minn., is currently waiting tables and considering a master's degree in education or nutrition.
Here's her advice for getting a degree sans college loans:
Save money. Lots of it. Sarah figures she's a natural-born saver, but she also credits her father for instilling this important virtue. "When I was, like, 14, my dad was, like, 'You might want to start thinking about saving for college. It's expensive.'" She took his advice to heart and began to save at least 50 percent of her earnings.
Sound tough? "Put any and all spare money into an account and tell yourself that account's off limits," she said. Sarah would stop by the bank and make a deposit, even if she had just a few bucks in her pocket. "If it was out of my hands, it was kind of like 'out of sight, out of mind.' "
Using these strategies as a teen, she saved enough money to pay for her first two years of school.
Work. A lot. "I started working when I was probably, like, 13 and I was baby-sitting. I pretty much saved all of my money," she said. Most of her jobs paid above minimum wage and she never worked someplace where she liked to shop. "I had friends that were working at Abercrombie & Fitch because they got a discount on their clothes. Well, guess where their whole paychecks went?"
Also, she always worked at least 25 hours per week while in college. "I killed myself the first semester of college," she admits. It took a while for her to learn how much work she could handle on top of her college courses. "I obviously couldn't go out with my friends as much as I wanted to. You have to make sacrifices."
Be cheap and practical. She only drives cheap and reliable used cars and only buys clothes on sale. She remembers her dad telling her, "You can have the cute car and clothes and everything you want now and nobody is going to remember that in five years."
Instead of buying textbooks at the campus store, she'd copy down the ISBN number and head online to comparison shop, buying them at deep discounts. She also sold her textbooks when she was finished to recoup some of the cost.
Sarah also lived at home instead of in the dorms at the University of Northern Colorado. Her friends in the dorm would say, "It's so much fun, you're missing out on your whole college experience." But today, some of these friends are struggling to make student loan and car payments and can't even begin to think about buying a house.
Have a healthy fear of too much debt. "I did not want to get into trouble with money and have to worry about paying back all of those loans," Lukemire said. "I knew that as soon as I got out of college, I did not want to have the pressure" of paying down debt. When asked why she thinks so many of her peers have a different attitude about debt and savings, she replied: "I think it's the whole attitude of 'I'll worry about it later. ...' Or they've simply thought about saving too late. It's hard when you're 14 to save all of your money when you want to spend it on other things."
Take school seriously. Sarah had some classmates who didn't care if they flunked a class because their parents were paying. Others switched majors and paid for several extra courses. Then there are students who took out college loans without much thought about paying them back one day. There's been a belief in our society that any student loan debt is good debt. That's beginning to change.
Sarah doesn't want to give the impression that paying for school herself was a cinch. She admits that sometimes she was jealous of freewheeling students with more financial leeway. But today she has no regrets about paying for school on her own. "It definitely teaches you a lot about life in general when you actually have to worry about your finances" before you're out of college.