Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How I completed over 60 college credit hours while putting nearly $10,000 in the bank

Graduating in May 2014
with my AA in Business Admin,
100% debt free!
Just 12 months after graduating from high school, I was walking the stage for my Associate of Arts in Business Administration. Not only had I completed a 2-year degree, I was also graduating debt free with thousands of dollars in the bank. Not even 12 more months passed before purchasing my used $8,000 vehicle by writing a check.

How many 20 year olds can say that?

It boggled people's minds that I was already halfway to a Bachelors degree and hadn't even filled out a FAFSA, much less taken a loan.

Truth is, it wasn't that hard. It took what felt like a sacrifice at the beginning but turned into a reward once I realized the benefits of my choices.

During my senior year in high school, most of my friends were packing up and getting ready to go off to college. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to join them.

Problem was, I had no idea where I wanted to go to school, what I wanted to study, or even why I wanted to attend college. I kept hearing cliches like "You can't get a job without a degree" and "It'll be fun" and "These are the best years of your life"...

Feeling overwhelmed with choices and hating the idea of taking on loans with no goal in mind, I opted to stay home and attend community college.

Yup, I continued living at home with my parents and attended the local community college.

Don't stop reading! I promise it wasn't as lame as it sounds and the results were worth it. I'll make my case below. 

But first, let’s talk about some important steps I took in high school that would pay off after graduation.

My first car, a 1999 Ford Taurus,
purchased September 2012.
When I was a junior in high school, I got my first job (which paid minimum wage) and that's when I started getting serious with my savings account, socking away whatever I could. When I was a senior in high school, I got my first car. My dad and I split the cost -- $1,000. It had some difficulties and needed some expensive repairs (which we painfully forked up the money to cover, again splitting the cost), but it got me to and from classes both my senior year and the year following when I attended community college. I also purchased a laptop at the end of my senior year in high school with the generous graduation money that friends and family gave me. This was another great tool to my future success.

The other major step I took in high school which set me up for future success was enrolling in a dual credit program through the community college system. The classes I took in this program counted for both high school and college credit. And in my city, the tuition for this program was free! Many community colleges around the country offer these programs, or something comparable for free or discounted rates. (AP classes are another option.) Through this program I racked up 33 college credit hours -- about a year’s worth of college classes. That one year jump start made the next year fly by.

If you can't take advantage of a dual credit program or AP classes, getting two years of college knocked out in just over a year is still possible if you take summer classes the two summers following high school. You can also CLEP out of classes to speed up your education while saving time and money.

So I was on the fast track to finishing my degree even before graduating from high school. But how did I save all the money?

Living at home helps. A lot.

I realize this is not going to be everybody's story. Sometimes parents insist their high school graduate move out and move on. Sometimes disagreements arise and it's the best thing for the family. Sometimes parents want to charge rent after graduation. I get that. But if you have a good relationship with your parents and they're okay with you staying home for another year or two (especially for free or a hugely discounted rent), consider doing it.

It sounds lame, I know. But did you know that 4 out of 10 college graduates end up moving back in with family anyway? Imagine getting a taste of freedom just to find yourself unable to get a job or unable to cover both rent and student loans, then having to take a step backward into your family’s home. I’d rather frontload the benefits of living at home than have to step backwards later. And trust me, you'll be so busy outside of home, it won't matter. You just need a place to sleep and shower. Oh, and freeload on groceries.

Once graduated from high school, I enrolled at the community college full time and drove 12 miles each way, twice a week, to campus (we have five community colleges to choose from in my city and I was within a 25 minute drive of three of them). I was never on campus for more than 5 hours each day because I took some online classes as well (utilizing that laptop I purchased and saving time by not having to be in the classroom or drive to campus more than two times per week). In the afternoons, I worked as a nanny making $12 an hour. I'd work anywhere from 10-20 hours per week, depending on the family's needs.

Tuition and fees at the community college was only $1,000 for a 15 hour semester. This was already affordable but I managed to earn scholarships which completely covered the cost of the already low tuition rate. I spent about $150-$200 per semester renting my textbooks or purchasing them used. The only other things I regularly spent money on were gas and coffee. Gas was necessary, the coffee not so much, but I still got ahead and put money in the bank.

Attending school full time and working part time kept me busy. Finals weeks could feel a bit overwhelming on occasion as it will for any college student. And looking back, it really wasn't all that bad. Living at home actually made it easier in some ways -- I had my family to support and encourage me and of course to bring me snacks ;) For harder classes, I would befriend one or two classmates and we'd share notes or study together on campus. Believe it or not, we didn't have to live in the same dorm or even on the same campus to study together *gasp*.

Over 60 college hours under my belt, 100% debt free,
and spending the best summer ever with my little sis.
We lived just 3 miles from Mt. Rushmore and could see
it from our bedroom window!
One week after graduation with my Associates degree in May 2014, I drove to South Dakota for the summer with my little sister and worked another (nearly) minimum wage job about 30-35 hours/week for 13 weeks. We had a blast exploring the Black Hills and meeting all sorts of cool people in the evenings and on days off. I didn't save much money that summer, but the job paid for the adventure.

In September of 2014, I came home to Texas and started a job working 30 hours/week making $10-15 an hour. This employment was done in conjunction with a program called Praxis. Praxis pairs young people with a business partner to learn about entrepreneurship firsthand by being in the midst of it and just doing it. Participants also complete online coursework, discussion groups, and other assignments. Because I was already "ahead" one year on my college career and I was still unsure about the direction I wanted to go, taking a year to work and do Praxis made sense and was totally worth it! Not only did I get some real work experience and study with some super smart individuals, I also got to continue saving money. At my job, I was netting anywhere from $300-$500/month after paying Praxis tuition and income taxes. I still had to pay for gas, but I continued living at home to save on other living expenses. By March of 2015, I was ready for a car upgrade. So I paid cash for my SMART car.

Just signed the papers and paid cash for my SMART car (March 2015)

Overall, I couldn't be more pleased with how my education and my bank account balance has turned out so far. Especially since I didn't have a clear direction when I graduated high school, I believe it was the wisest choice not to get into debt during those early credit hours. The first 60 college credit hours or so are mostly basics anyway. Why pay 10 times what you need to pay to get the same exact credits?

I had some great professors at the community college. I had a few lazy ones too -- but that's at most colleges. So again, why pay more?

Since finishing Praxis, I have begun working full time at a new job. My college education is currently on hold for a number of reasons -- one of them being that I'm not completely convinced a four year degree is necessary for me to get where I want to go. So again, I'm staying away from college loans and hope to continue to do so, even if I do go back to finish.

If you're set on attending college, I will always recommend starting at the community college. It gives you an opportunity to stay debt free and to put money in the bank. Even if you can't live at home like I did, you can cut major costs on tuition which could allow you to at least stay debt free, even if you're not putting much into savings.

What greater gift could you give yourself than that freedom?

So stay free, my friends. It's not only possible, it's not that difficult to accomplish.

{Interested in Praxis? Apply now and tell them Mary Kate sent you!} 

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  1. You are so fiscally responsible MK!! Ridiculous!

  2. Excellent story and excellent advice.

    1. Thank you! I hope it helps inspire others to realize they have choices when it comes to their education (:

  3. Great Story MK!! You are a smart girl!! What great choices you have made! Hugs and Best Wishes !

  4. Amazing article Mary Kate! I have a lot of respect for these decisions you've made. Keep going ~

    1. Thank you! I appreciate your kind comment (: