I'm paying for my graduate degree without student loans. Here's how.

I'm paying for my graduate degree without student loans. Here's how.

Making the decision to go back to school for a graduate degree wasn’t easy. I had an excellent full-time job with flexibility, great co-workers and excellent benefits. But when I thought about my long-term career, I knew I wanted to take a different path. I didn’t want a different job — again, my job was great — I wanted a different career.

In 2017, I traded my marketing job for a full-time graduate teaching program. Even though a career change is nerve-wracking, it wasn’t the change that scared me most; it was the cost.

After paying off student loans from my undergraduate degree and becoming debt free in 2016, I knew I didn’t want to take out any loans to pay for graduate school. So that left one option: Pay with money I already have. So, that's what I'm doing — and I will graduate without a single student loan in May 2018.

Here’s how I made it happen.

Work backward

Instead of starting with choosing the school and figuring out tuition later once I started getting acceptance letters, I did the reverse. After all, I knew my main goal was to graduate with no student loan debt.

Because I was heavily focused on price, I decided to only apply to one-year programs at state schools. The shortened timeline would help me save on tuition and public state schools ensured the tuition was as low as possible.

My total cost for tuition? $8,000. Working backward ensured I kept my goal in mind throughout the entire application process, and that I only looked at programs aligning with my money goal. After all, there was no point in falling in love with a program I couldn’t afford.

Genius tip: Get clear about your priorities before you begin applying to programs. If money is your top priority, then make sure that you understand the full price of admission. Be sure to account for testing fees, application fees, graduation fees and student wellness fees. For example, my graduate program requires the completion of a final project that is graded by the Board of Education. The price to submit? $300. Research ahead of time so you’re never caught unprepared. Want to know more? Check out these seven ways to save for college application expenses.

Do the math

After narrowing down my list of programs and deciding on a state school, it was time to do the math and determine how much I would need to earn ahead of time (and save) in order to make it work without loans. I knew tuition and fees would cost $8,000. Because I decided to quit my job and go to school full time, tuition wasn't my only expense.

I had been tracking my spending, I knew exactly how much money I needed each month to survive: $1,700. In order to give myself a buffer and account for any unexpected expenses, I increased my projected monthly budget to $2,000. (Note: I planned to save an extra $3,000 to serve as an additional cushion in case of an emergency or unemployment.)

So how does this all add up? To support myself for 10 months in graduate school without an income, I needed to save $20,000. With tuition, I needed to save a grand total of $28,000. When I first saw the number, I began to panic. $28,000 is more than half of what I was earning per year at my full-time job. But here’s the good news: This number doesn’t factor in any scholarships, grants or side hustles.

Genius tip: Do the math at least one year before you begin your program. Regardless of whether or not you want to take loans, you’ll need to save money to prepare for the switch from full-time income to no income. A year gives you ample time to adjust your budget and save (or decide if you need even more time). Also, remember: You're going to want to put some money aside to support yourself in case it takes some time after graduation to get a full time income.

Save, hustle & earn

Now that I knew my number, it was time to do to the work and save the money. I started by adjusting my budget and saving $1,000 every month from my full-time income. Next, I increased my side hustle income from freelance writing and social media management from $500 to $1,000 per month. After that, I applied to every scholarship my school offered. I submitted twelve applications and was selected as the recipient for two. In total, I was awarded $4,000, or half of my tution. A few months before school began, I received news that I was awarded a $2,500 grant as well.

Between my savings, side hustle income, scholarships and grants, I put aside $26,500 in a little more than 10 months. I didn’t quite hit my goal of $28,000, but because I built in a monthly spending buffer of $300, I knew that with a little frugality and the occasional side hustle project, I had set aside enough to complete my graduate program without loans.

Genius tip: Get creative. Apply for scholarships offered through your school and be sure to complete the FAFSA. Scholarships and grants are free money awards created to help students complete programs. And don’t be afraid to monetize your existing skill and earn extra money on the side before you begin your program. Whether it’s teaching fitness classes after work, picking up graphic design work or even babysitting on the weekends, every dollar counts and will get you one step closer to graduating with minimal or no debt.

Image: adamkaz