How We Avoided Massive College Debt


As the new year starts to take shape and I take inventory of all that I have and all that I have done, I realize that I am oftentimes too hard on myself – I’m guessing many of you are in the same boat. I don’t give myself enough credit for the things I’ve actually done right in my life. Given my Type A personality, I usually just focus on the bad stuff and why I’m not already early retired. Read all about that here. Today I’d like to share with you something Mr. MMM and I did right, before we started on our personal path to financial freedom. We both graduated college with very little debt, on our own, years before we even met.

High School

Mr. MMM and I had polar opposite experiences in high school. We grew up two hours apart and lived in completely different worlds. He was class president and the King of Cool – at least that’s how he makes it sounds when he retells his stories – which I totally enjoy! I, on the other hand, was a very quiet girl that floated through high school with very little aspirations of college. I always had dreams of going to college; my family just didn’t have the money to help with it, nor did they know how to navigate the financial end of getting aid/scholarships. Because of this, I believed my path was to gain full-time employment after graduation.

Note: I mean no disrespect to anyone who chose/chooses to skip college for a different route. It certainly isn’t the only route to a happy, fulfilled life. I had just always wanted to go to college and thought it wasn’t an option for me. Hence, my envy when I watched my high school friends filling out applications and showing off their acceptance letters. Ugh.


Mr. MMM was accepted to a big STATE school. His parents didn’t have a ton of money when he was growing up, but they did manage to squirrel away enough to pay for his first semester at the big STATE school. What did he do? He partied his butt off and failed out since he saw no way of paying for the rest of his college career. Nice. This is a big regret for him. Ultimately, it all worked out. Read on fellow Mad Money Monsters!

Full-Time Employment & Community College

As expected, I started working full time after high school. First it was McDonald’s, then I sexed chicks (I am not even kidding – I had to pick up baby chickens and put them down a male or female chute at a hatchery), and then I landed a great job at a local factory soldering electrical components. There I met a pivotal person who changed the entire course of my life. He was a younger engineer who questioned why I wasn’t in college if that’s what I wanted to do. I explained to him that my family didn’t have the money to send me and that I didn’t think I was smart enough to handle the coursework. At that moment, he burst into embarrassingly (is that a word?) loud laughter. He then explained to me that he thought I was definitely smart enough and that I should apply to the local community college.

I was so extremely encouraged by our conversation, as a starry-eyed 18-year old, that I secretly applied to the community college. When the acceptance letter came in the mail I couldn’t contain my excitement – I had no idea what an open admissions policy was at the time. Ha! Unfortunately, my excitement was still met with financial concern from my parents. I eventually told my friend at work that I was accepted but couldn’t go because I still couldn’t afford it and didn’t want to go into huge debt. He encouraged me to take two classes each semester, including summers, and pay for them with cash. I did just that until I graduated with an Associates Degree.

LA Or Bust


Kudos to Mr. MMM!

Meanwhile, Mr. MMM threw caution to the wind and hopped a plane to LA at 19 to pursue a life on the west coast. He worked 3 jobs for 2 years to make ends meet in the glittery town until he threw in the towel and headed back home. His parents welcomed him home but insisted upon him paying rent to live at home.

He quickly got a job at a local theater and worked his butt off to get his own place and make his way as a true adult. He worked that job for years until one day a former high school teacher came in and struck up a conversation about all the dreams he had before graduation. Shortly after that, the theater rolled out a college reimbursement program. Mr. MMM jumped at the chance to get a nearly free degree. He worked double shifts and went to school on overdrive. He graduated as a teacher in record time and started his education career immediately upon graduation.

He quit that career after many years to pursue his passion in film. This is where I come into the picture! We met a few years into his new career. Woot woot!

Graduation From A 4-Year School


Kudos to me! After all, I should get a celebratory beer, too :)

Back to my story, I was accepted to two private, 4-year colleges to finish my undergraduate degree. I graduated with honors with my AD and was hoping for a nice financial package at the 4-year schools. Unfortunately, my DREAM school refused to offer any financial help to transfer students. I was crushed. I sat down with their financial office and talked through my options. My only option was paying for it cash – which wasn’t an option (see above) – or take out loans to cover the entire $50,000. As much as I wanted to go to this school, I knew the smart financial move was to go to school #2, offering a scholarship, resulting in me paying only $14,000 for both remaining years.

Note: The sticker price on both schools was about the same. School #2 just offered help to transfer students with excellent grades. Sweet! I ended up borrowing the full amount plus a few thousand to have money for living expenses, since I had to quit my factory job to finish school.

The Aftermath


Mr. & Mrs. MMM!

After graduating, I started working in my scientific field of study and never looked back. Both Mr. MMM and I, unbeknownst to each other, went to college with no help from our family, and graduated without amassing a pile of debt. We met a few years ago, blended our two worlds to become Mr. and Mrs. MMM, and started on our path to financial independence, which we chronicle here for you fine people! Read all about our super awesome wedding on a shoestring here!

In light of this extremely positive, pat-on-the-back post, please know that we have probably each made more poor decisions than awesome ones – but today we focused on the awesome ones. :) Not to worry, we’ll be sure to post our past failures in a future post, or posts. *sigh*

What If You Already Have Massive College Debt?

It’s true that sometimes massive debt for higher education isn’t always avoidable. If you are in massive debt, the only way is up! You start where you start. It might be a good idea to take inventory of your situation, make a plan, and stop at nothing to reach your goals. Don’t beat yourself up about past decisions that resulted in debt.

***It’s possible the debt was actually worth it!***

I would never take back the decision to borrow $20k for the last two years of college. It was truly one of the best financial decisions I ever made.

Tell us your story. Have you taken on massive debt for something you regret? Better yet, have you taken on massive debt for something you don’t regret? Or, have you managed to avoid debt altogether?

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13 thoughts on “How We Avoided Massive College Debt

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. Of course, here in the UK, back in the day when Mr BOTRA went to University in 1976 there were no fees and you got a grant for living expenses so no debt there – hurrah! My story is not dissimilar to Mrs MMM, my parents had little money and I started work at 16 and didn’t get to college (usually 17-18 years in the UK) until my 30s and was accepted for a place as an undergraduate at my local university at the age of 32. By then the government were phasing in student loans for living expenses but there were still no tuition fees, so I had a loan of about £2,000 to help with our living expenses over the three years studying and also received a similar amount as a grant- if I had waited any longer to do this it would have got more difficult. I didn’t have space for working as well as studying as we also had a six year old boy at the time. We paid this off long ago. Then I was lucky enough to get funding through work to study for my post graduate masters in public health when I was just over 40 years old and I got a day a week study leave. We were lucky enough to be able to pay the fees for our son in cash when he went to university (thanks to well paid graduate jobs) but ten years on he is still paying off a massive loan for his living expenses loan which he seems to take in his stride. As these stories demonstrate, there is lots of luck in the education we all get but it is also often about being patient, flexible and taking the opportunities when they come up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. You must take the opportunities when they are presented. I was also fortunate to have an employer that covered 100% of my graduate degree. I left that part out of the post but I definitely hopped on that opportunity. Same goes for Mr. MMM. We both got our grad degrees for zero dollars out of our pockets. It sounds like you did it the “smart” way as well. Kudos for your son for taking his living expense debt in stride. It is often “worth” the expense for the education. Being smart about how much you take on and knowing what the pay off will be is key. Thanks for sharing your story!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also avoided college debt but it was purely by chance. My dad started working for a local private college when I was in 7th grade. Luckily my grades were good enough to get me so there was no question regarding where I’d go to school — it was the only place I applied to.

    As his dependent, I only had to pay 10% of the tuition cost (around $1300-1400/year back in the 90s). Room and board was full price so I lived in the dorms for 2 years, covered by EE savings bonds my great uncle had taken out for me when I was a toddler. My parents covered the last two years of tuition and I worked part-time to cover rent/food in an apartment off campus (with roommates, of course).

    Because it’s small school, the majors offered were somewhat limited — I ended up with Economics but went into an Accounting career (no accounting major offered back then). It all worked out fine, since employers care more about the degree than the specific major, although I definitely had to start at the most basic entry level because of it. It’s taken much longer to climb the corporate ladder.

    My MBA was mostly paid for by an employer and my share was around $3000.

    I couldn’t have been more fortunate to have most of my education paid for and I’m so thankful for it every day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a wonderful way to get an education. I have a professor friend who had two children fortunate enough to get tuition-free degrees. There can be drawbacks, as you mentioned, like limited majors, etc., but mostly the pros outweigh the cons. Even without having a parent working at a college/university, obtaining a degree doesn’t have to send anyone to the poorhouse. I know education costs have skyrocketed but it’s still possible to get the degree you want without incurring huge debt – it just takes some planning and strategizing. I’m already prepping our little Mini Monster to start thinking outside the box when it comes to higher education. Although, by the time she’s ready to go to college it’ll probably all be virtual. :)


  3. I was very lucky because city university was practically free when I attended college. Decades later when I got my masters, I took out a loan of app. $13K to also attend a city university, which was walking distance from my NYC apt. That’s where I met Mr Groovy so I like to say that my $13K got me a husband! We paid off my loan when we sold our condo.

    If you’re strategic and thoughtful there are ways to get a degree without incurring massive debt. IMO there are very few professions and college Institutions worth going into debt for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree with you on that last point. Unless you’re accepted into a top-notch professional school that will guarantee connections after graduation, it is likely not worth incurring debt. I get really frustrated with young people thinking higher education will inevitably plunge them deep into debt. In their defense though, it’s what everyone accepts as truth because it’s what mainstream media pushes. Ugh.


  4. I love reading how other folks handle the decisions about funding their educations. We are in massive student loan debt, though we don’t regret the decision. As a graduate student in an engineering field, I was fortunately able to receive a stipend to cover tuition + living expenses. At the same time, though, my wife went to a private dental school in pursuit of her dream to become a dentist. Between that education + loans from undergraduate school that we both had, we somehow ended up over $500k(!) in debt by the time we had finally graduated. We’re three years into our climb back out. The education wasn’t “worth” the price tag yet, but it moves toward that direction with each passing month.

    Thanks for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! That’s is pretty impressive debt. Thank goodness you and your wife are are in high income fields and are also smart enough to focus on eliminating the debt over inflating your lifestyle. It sounds like you’re definitely on the right track!


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