Like a lot of people, I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree. However, my parents did not have a college fund for me, and my G.P.A was a 2.0, so scholarships were even more elusive. Oh, and I should mention: At 15 years old, I had a son. As you can imagine, I had my work cut out for me. However, I managed to pay off my school loans five months after completing my undergraduate degree with distinction. It wasn’t an easy journey, but here’s how I did it.
A brief setback made me realize what was at stake.
I took the slow and steady approach toward my higher education goals. It took me four years to complete an Associate of Arts in business administration at my local community college. Each course cost $425. In order to complete my degree, I needed to complete 20 courses. So that totaled up to (hold on let me get my calculator) $8,500. How did I pay for it? For a few semesters, I qualified for financial aid. That worked out fine until one semester, overwhelmed and exhausted, I failed world history. My GPA dropped below 2.0, which meant I no longer qualified for financial aid. I cried as if someone had died, then I took a semester off to refocus.
To remind myself of what was at stake and to recalibrate my goals, I took a break from school. After all, this college degree was expensive, and I had to take it seriously. It was an investment in my son’s future, and I wanted him to be financially secure. I couldn’t afford to fail again. So I returned to college, determined to “rise and grind.” I passed the rest of my courses with mostly B’s, some C’s, and a few A’s.
I kept my eye on the prize.
Once I no longer qualified for financial aid, I paid for my courses by working full-time. My college expenses were my top priority: I paid my school fees with cash before any other expenses. I figured out how to live on whatever I had leftover. During the four years working toward my associate degree, I also moved four times. I lived with my mom at first, then I moved to a home for young moms, then I moved to temporary housing, and then into the apartment I live in now. It was not the best living arrangement for me or my son, but it helped me save money for school, and I had the bigger picture in mind. I knew this wasn’t going to last forever. After years of late nights studying, caring for my son, and living a very frugal life, I finally received my degree.
With my associate degree in the bag — debt-free, may I add — I set my eye on getting my bachelor’s. I was blessed to have landed a higher-paying job a year before starting my university courses. It paid $1,000 more than my previous job and offered a yearly bonus. I desperately needed this salary boost because I went from paying $425 a course to paying over $2,000 a course. I kept the same habit of paying for my courses before any other expenses. Whenever I got a bonus, it usually went to paying for courses.
But I still needed additional funds, so I took out two loans which roughly totaled $8,000.
I did what worked for me.
By 2017, things had changed for the better. I landed an administrator’s job. My salary and yearly bonus increased, and I was able to use my voluntary pension (similar to a 401k) from my previous job to pay for four summer courses, which totaled $8,000. I didn’t even know I had a voluntary pension! Before I left my previous job, one of my co-workers told me to ask HR about it.
Now, I know many personal finance experts would strongly disapprove of taking funds out of a retirement fund, but for me, it was the best choice at the time. It meant I could continue my education without going further into debt.
My current job boosted my self-confidence, which helped me study harder. By the fall of 2017, I received my first and only scholarship of $5,000, which paid for my courses that year. Looking back, I shake my head at how much money I could have saved if I would have applied for more scholarships.
I started repaying my loans while I was still in school.
As I mentioned before, my student loan debt roughly added up to $8,000. For four years, and while I was still in school, I made monthly payments of $250. This was not always easy and I was late with a few payments. What helped most was communicating openly with my local bank about my situation. I tried to inform them ahead of time if I was going to be late with payments. and they worked with me whenever they could.
In 2018, I created a spreadsheet to track my expenses and budget, and I tried my best to stick to it. I highlighted my last payment in red: March 2019. This helped motivate me because after that payment, I would officially be debt-free! I was excited about my coming graduation but I was very careful about overspending on that special day, too. I needed to keep up with my student loan payments.
With a financial plan in place, I focused on making 2018 the year I finally got my bachelor’s degree. I had four courses left, and I took two in spring and two in summer. I’ll never forget the day I completed my coursework, the day I finally graduated, and the day I became debt-free. The journey was rough and required a lot of commitment, but by making that degree a priority, I was able to graduate with distinction and pay off my debt, making all the hard work and long nights completely worth it.
Sophie Isaac is a Purchasing and Sales assistant based in Bermuda. In her spare time, she enjoys writing inspiring blog posts on her website and reading personal finance books. You can reach Sophie on Facebook.
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