The average early 20-something graduating school today tosses their hat in the air and catches $37,000 worth of student loan debt. That number is terrifying to think about -- especially when you consider the average starting annual salary of most grads isn't much higher.
In fact, that average student loan debt surpasses the annual salary I earned from my first job after college (which was just $20,000 in 2011). At the time, I just kept telling myself, at least you don't have student loans.
I was one of the rare students who made it through 4 years of undergrad without taking out a single student loan (or even racking up credit card debt). Before you hate me, that didn’t come without sacrifice. It took a lot to make that happen.
Before I even left for college, my parents told me I shouldn't even bother going to my ideal school, the University of Georgia. They were honest with me and told me they could not afford to pay for the cost of college there. Or many other places, either.
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So I chose to go to a very cheap college closer to home. By doing so, the scholarships I earned from good grades and high SAT scores almost covered the tuition. I worked part-time, year-round, and always took a full course load (even during the summer) to graduate as quickly as possible and reduce the fees I needed to pay.
You might ask where's the sacrifice in all this -- I worked part-time and went to a no-name school. So what?
Because I refused to take out loans for my college education, I faced a number of disadvantages in the first few years out of school. It took a lot to dig out of that hole -- and to catch up. My peers who graduated with debt were able to kickstart their careers and adult lives.
The Disadvantages of Working to Pay Your Way Through School
My job meant I had a little disposable income, which many of my friends most certainly did not. But it also meant that I worked during the week and weekends. It meant I didn't have the ability to take internships or explore study abroad programs.
Between my job, classes, and assignments, there was little time left to get involved with community groups on campus. I didn't have the energy to volunteer or to sign up for events that my friends went to.
I didn't have work experience in my field when I graduated, which contributed to my failure to get a job putting my degree to use. I also lacked the same kind of network some of my classmates developed over their college years through being involved in groups, communities, and organizations.
I earned enough to help get me through school, but it cost in ways that hurt in the long-run.
Choosing a Cheap School Hurt My Job Prospects
In my situation, a cheap school also meant a no-name school. Even today, 5 years later and a world away from my first post-college days filled with struggle, I feel embarrassed when people ask where I went to school and they've never heard of it.
(This shame is probably highlighted by the city I settled down in, Boston, where there's a prestigious university every 10 feet and MIT and Harvard sit across the river in Cambridge.)
Today it's just something I shrug about -- but when I graduated, it was a real problem. People with degrees from better-known schools like UGA and Georgia Tech were chosen for the jobs I applied for. When it came to competing with other students and hiring managers had to do something to narrow the field, it was easy to throw out my resume proclaiming my degree from Kennesaw State University.
After months of confidence-crushing job searching, I got a data-entry position at a small company in the town I lived in at the time. I was broke and miserable, and seriously questioning my choice to refuse to leverage debt for a better education.
How Did Classmates with Debt Fair?
The drawbacks of avoiding any debt in college were highlighted for me when I looked at what my friends where doing.
There was the girl who interned every single semester and went abroad every summer who landed her dream job in a big city. There were friends who graduated with business degrees who went on to get MBAs at even bigger-name schools. There were others who easily landed jobs in their field -- entry level, but still, they were doing what they wanted to do with their careers.
And almost everyone made more than me in my irrelevant data-entry job. The first two years out of college weren't filled with making debt repayments. But there was a lot of penny pinching and scrounging around for every last dollar to try and cover living expenses and build savings.
Overcoming the Drawbacks to Graduating Without Debt
In those first years, it felt like we were all pretty much on the same page financially. My friends with debt struggled to repay it and manage mounting credit card debt, too. I struggled to stretch my meager salary and figure out how to get out of a dead-end job.
I think I would have continued to struggle more than my friends even though they had debt and I didn't, had I not drastically changed my job situation. I was stuck and I knew it. So I took a leap.
In 2013 I started taking some freelance work on the side. I hustled hard and started working 80 hour weeks between my full-time position and my freelancing. Eventually, I started earning more by freelancing than I took home in my paycheck.
I quit my job and haven't looked back. Freelancing allowed me to triple my income -- and finally start building my wealth. Eventually, that gave me the opportunity to take a position as director of marketing for a financial services company, where I spent the last two years.
I'm now back out on my own as a full-time freelancer and once again, earning almost three times as much as I did with my old job. Had I not worked hard to build that career and break free of positions in someone else's company, I don't know if I would have found my financial footing.
While I'm happy at where I am today, the drawbacks of graduating without debt were a high price to pay: it meant a lot more work after college ended to create my own career and grow my network from scratch. Responsibly taking on student loan debt to get the education I wanted could have made a huge difference in my years after graduation.