How I Graduated University #DebtFree


This is a long post so brace yourself. 

Graduating debt-free is one of my greatest accomplishments, along with buying my house at 24. I’ve always been an annoying over-achiever, mainly because staying busy and reaching milestones is good for my mental health.

I need to feel in control, and financial freedom is one way to keep my anxiety levels in check.

In 2008, in my last year of high school, I had my first panic attack. All of a sudden I was getting ready to apply for university. Nobody in my family knew the process of applying and paying for school. I had never even considered the costs and with three kids all around the same age, getting financial assistance from my parents was not really in the cards.

I didn’t even consider college as an option or taking time off school to work. These options weren’t encouraged or presented to me. I was a ‘smart’ student ‘destined’ and encouraged to go to university.

The most important piece of advice I can give pre-university Liz is to not stress so much. In the end, everything worked out and I graduated without student debt. Here’s how I did it:

Paying for 1st year

After dropping one of my math classes in grade 12, I had a spare block. In this time, I went to the library and guidance counselor’s office and got to work! I researched scholarships and bursaries and applied to everything under the sun. Most applications required essays about achievements and academics. While I had good grades, I wasn’t gifted or anywhere close to genius. Academic awards typically reward uber smart people, and I wasn’t one of them. I was very active in school activities and the community so I wrote about that. My volunteer work was pretty basic, I never built a school in Mexico or anything like that. Most of my volunteering was picking up garbage at events and in rivers.

I collected references from my teachers and submitted all of my applications by the deadlines. By the time I was applying for school, I had secured funding for my entire first year. Many of the bursaries were small; $200-$500 here and there but they added up.

I also got a $1500 entrance scholarship and a $2,400 Aiming for the Top scholarship for having good grades.

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Paying for 2nd year

By second year university, I was working full-time on weekends and still living at home. I was saving around >$500 a month (so I saved around $6,000 a year while in school).

How did I manage that? 

I was commuting 3 hrs a day to get to school which was brutal. I transferred to 3 city buses every day, using my school bus pass. On the weekends, I worked at a residence and stayed there from Friday-Sunday, supervising teen girls. My living expenses were low because my parents fed me and gave me shelter free of charge. I also didn’t have a cellphone because I was trying this ‘hippie’ thing, and just used my iPod and wifi. I mostly packed my lunches and had no bills to pay. For ‘fun’ I hung out with my group of friends in the library and watched videos online, took webcam photos and annoyed everyone around us. All of this ‘entertainment’ was free. I didn’t really go out (because there was no late bus to take me home)

Paying for 3rd year

In 3rd year, I paid off my OSAP. When I applied for school, I applied for OSAP but didn’t really end up needing it. Somehow, because I took summer school and didn’t fill out a form, OSAP started charging me interest on the loan, so I was pissed.

I think I had around $8,000 in loans so I decided to pay back the loan. I had less than $500 in my bank account left after that but I knew I was still working so I could manage.katimavik_logo-svg

In the second semester, I was questioning school, and life choices and realized I needed a break. I was itching to travel and enjoy life so I moved to Vancouver and volunteered with Katimavik. This was a government program and while I was not being paid to work, my living expenses were covered and I was gaining valuable life and work experience.

Paying for 4th/5th year

A few months after I returned from Vancouver, I got a co-op job with the City of Hamilton. It was my dream job! Outreach for the waste team. As a co-op student, I spent all of my time at work and went to school part-time after work. I also did field work so I could finish my credits faster. My timeline gets a bit blurry here because then I took 4 months off to travel around the world and then I was hired again at the City of Hamilton and then eventually I graduated.

I worked full-time for the City on and off for 2.5 years and this paid for the remaining years of school.


Graduating debt-free was not a walk in the park. I was stressed for most of my undergrad, and working non-stop. Yet, I still managed to travel to 15 countries and live in a different province, so I worked hard, and played hard.

I lived with my parents for the first two years of school which was NOT COOL. It seemed like everyone was partying and having a blast all the time, and I was either on the bus or at work. All of that doesn’t matter now because I get to host parties at my own house and go out whenever I want, to cool paces downtown. Though I couldn’t fully enjoy university, my life after university has been great!

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My first home. Bought 3 years after graduation.

To sum up, here are my top 10 tips for graduating debt-free from university.

  1. Apply for scholarships– even if you’re not the smartest kid in the class, there are scholarships for all different kinds of things. Do your research and apply to everything, no matter how small. Most importantly, meet the application deadlines and have your documents in order.
  2. Don’t buy books– After 1st year, I never bought books. I shared the cost with friends and photo copied pages, or went to the library to check out the book on reserve. The public library was also a great resource and they tracked down some textbooks for me and shipped them to my closest library. I also spent a lot of time on YouTube and Wikipedia trying to fill in the gaps.
  3. Work– duh. Don’t just rely on your student loans. Paying off your loans after graduation will suck. Do you want to feel trapped to this loan for the next decade?
  4. Go to school part-time- It’s not the end of the world. It might seem like a big move, and you probably won’t graduate with your friends, but seriously, your true friends will stick with you regardless of your schedules.
  5. Do a co-op- This was one of the best decisions of my undergrad. Not only did I make money, I gained relevant work experience which is what matters after graduation. I have never been asked about my grades, but employers ALWAYS ask about past work experience.
  6. Avoid temptations- Temptations in university are everywhere. Bars, clubs, pubs, cover fees, latest gadgets, trends, spring breaks, vacations, welcome week, reading week, homecoming etc. Yes, you should enjoy your university experience, but in moderation. You will have time to live it up later in life and it will be easier to enjoy life if you’re not drowning in debt you accumulated while in school.
  7. Save aggressively– Saving while in school may seem impossible. You’re barely making money, but trust me, expenses are SO much lower while you’re in school vs. after graduation. Start saving and develop good habits.
  8. Invest- If you can, invest part of your student loan. OSAP is interest free while you’re in school so when you pay it back, at least you can keep what you made off of it. You can’t invest if you’ve spent it all though. ** I am not a financial adviser and don’t know if this is advised- but I did it.**
  9. Remember how a loan works- this seems like common sense but a loan is money you are borrowing. It is not yours! So don’t spend it foolishly.
  10. Plan– At least once a year, check in with yourself and your financial situation. What is your budget? Compare your income vs. your spending and try not to get overwhelmed.

 

Published by

Ambitious Adult

A mid-20s independent lady trying to navigate the world of personal finance, travel, entrepreneurship, and homeownership.

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