How To Pay For College Without Loans: 15 Practical Tips

By Zach Buchenau

Last Updated: September 30, 2021

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These days, more and more students are looking for ways to pay for college without loans.

While student loans have become seemingly synonymous with a college education, people are starting to realize the benefits of a debt-free degree for both themselves and their children.

But how, exactly, do you pay for college without student loans?

In this article, we’re going to cover 15 practical tips to help you cash flow your education so you can graduate debt-free.

1.  Take A Gap Year And Save

Taking a gap year to save for college eliminates the need for debt during your first years of college.

Being able to work full-time during this year will likely be easier without the time restrictions of your class schedule. As a result, you’ll be able to save more money in a shorter amount of time.

A somewhat unexpected benefit of taking a paid gap year is the experience and clarity you’ll gain.

By accepting entry-level work in your desired employment field, you can gather real-life experience.  This can also give you a chance to network with individuals that may be able to help you get a job after college.

2.  Work Your Way Through School

If you’ve already enrolled in school and find your funds coming up short, it may be time to find a full- or part-time job.

Plenty of successful individuals have taken work while in school, and it’s not an uncommon practice.

The key to working while enrolled at school is to stay organized and efficient with your time.

Stay in communication with your employer, and communicate realistic availability for scheduling.

As long as you’re frugal with the money you earn, pulling a few shifts throughout the week should keep your education funded and help you avoid the need for student loans.

3.  Apply For Financial Aid

Hopefully your admissions or financial aid office has directed you to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

FAFSA is a form provided by the U.S. Department of Education that you can fill out in order to see if you qualify for certain federal grants and scholarships.

By filling out this form, you may become eligible for substantial grants, like a Federal PELL Grant. In fact, some available grants may cover an entire semester’s tuition and supplies.

Just remember, as with any contract you sign, be sure to read terms carefully, including how to stay eligible for your grants, and whether or not the money you receive will need to be repaid.

If it does need to be repaid, avoid it.

15 Practical Ways To Pay For College Without Loans | Be The Budget

4.  Apply For Scholarships

One of the best ways to pay for college without loans is to apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can.

Seriously, there are thousands of scholarship opportunities out there, and the more scholarship money you receive, the easier it will be for you to pay for college without any loans.

There are scholarship opportunities available for everyone, regardless of talent or background—you just need to go out and find them.

You may even want to check with your current employer for scholarships or tuition reimbursement benefits.

5.  Live With Your Parents

Living with your parents may seem like a drag until you realize that paying for your own living expenses can easily siphon off more than half of your monthly earnings!

You can avoid playing into the “broke college student” trope by living at home while pursuing your college education.

Anyone who has ventured out on their own would agree that the various complexities of setting up your own home can be expensive and time-consuming. Neither of these aspects will propel your study habits or your pocketbook.

So, if you plan on attending a hometown college, you can make your funds last longer by staying put with mom and dad.

6.  Live With Multiple Roommates

Perhaps one of the time-honored traditions of college, living with roommates is a great way to save money and avoid student debt.

You can drastically cut your living expenses by splitting rent and utilities with roommates.

And the more roommates you have, the lighter your expenses will be. Thus, you’ll be able to save more money and put it toward paying your tuition.

7.  Start With Community College

Never hesitate to start small when searching for a school to call home.

Community colleges are an affordable way to mark classes off of your desired degree plan.

You’ll find that four-year universities often come with a significant mark-up over community or “junior” colleges, which often offer associate degrees and certificates.

By tackling your core classes at a community college, you can significantly lighten the financial load of your education and stay debt-free.

Do your due diligence to ensure your community college credits will transfer as their intended credit.

In your research, you may also find that schools will often have reciprocity programs with designated community colleges where you can find specialized degree plans and lists of transferable credits.

8.  Go To An In-State School

Attending an in-state school will likely cost far less than an out-of-state college, thereby lessening your need for student loans.

When inspecting tuition costs, you’ll find that in-state tuition may be half (or less!) of what out-of-state tuition may cost.

Generally speaking, you will need to provide proof of residency in a state for 6 to 12 months prior to applying.

This is usually proved by the date on a driver’s license or through proof of utility bills in your name.

9.  Live On A Strict Budget

This goes without saying, but living on a strict budget is imperative if you want to pay for college without loans.

By keeping your expenses in check, you’re less likely to find yourself without the necessary funds for tuition.

When you give every dollar a job, you’ll easily be able to anticipate expenses for upcoming semesters, including living expenses, tuition, textbooks, and other supplies.

Managing your money proactively is one of the most important financial habits you can adopt if you want to cash flow your college education.

10.  Go Without A Car

Car expenses can add up quickly.

Around every turn, you’ll be paying for gas, car insurance, registration, repairs, and parking.

Therefore, going without a car is a great way to save money.

Whenever possible, take public transportation, ride a bike, or walk. Not only is this a great way to avoid student loans, but it might also help you avoid the freshman 15.

On the other hand, if you absolutely need a car, keep it as cheap as possible and pay cash for it.

After all, what’s the point of avoiding student loan debt if you’re just going to bury yourself in a car loan?

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11. Don’t Own A Pet

This might “ruff-le” a few feathers out there (sorry for the bad pun), but if you want to pay for college without loans, it’s best not to own a pet.

I mean, pets can get crazy expensive!

People overlook the cost of pet food, veterinarian costs for sick visits, well visits, vaccinations, and other medications like flea and tick control.

These expenses can easily run over $200 per month.

You also need to take into account that, moving forward, you will also likely be responsible for pet deposits in rentals, which can cost anywhere from $30 to $100 per month.

Finally, pets can throw a serious wrench into your school/work/life schedule.

You may find yourself rushing home on a lunch break to let Fido outside. Or you may be spending precious work or study time training Fluffy.

We love a family pet, but they do truly complicate your schedule and can detract from your financial goals in unpredictable ways.

12.  Start A Low-Cost Side Business

The more income you can generate, the easier it will be to pay for college without loans.

And these days, it’s easier than ever to start a side hustle.

By working as part of the gig economy or as a creator, you can have the flexibility in your schedule to complete schoolwork and earn money for your college degree.

Some examples of low-cost side hustles may include freelancing through sites like Fiverr and Upwork.

You can also promote yourself locally for services like manual labor, pet-sitting, or childcare.

As a creator, you can start a blog or YouTube Channel.

There’s also plenty of free information about starting a career in social media management or digital marketing.

From cleaning houses to meal prepping, everyone has a marketable skill that can earn income on the side. With a little marketing or word of mouth, you can stay loan-free during your college career!

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13. Avoid Debt At All Costs

Debt limits your financial margin. And when you’re trying to pay for college without loans, you need to maintain as much financial margin as possible.


Because keeping your expenses low allows you to save more money.

Financial services like car loans, personal loans, and mortgages are heavily marketed to people at all income levels. Layaway and interest-free loans mask the effect of large purchases over time. Credit cards have been known to trap individuals in debt for decades after opening a card.

Steer clear of all forms of debt as you save for college and as you navigate your college career.

Remember, your goal is to put as much of your income into college savings as possible—not use your income to repay debt.

14.  Consider Going To A Trade School

Don’t hesitate to investigate a trade school.

As the name suggests, trade schools focus on a single job that requires specialized training.

But here’s the thing, trade schools are much cheaper than a 4-year university.

And in many cases, you can make just as much (or more) money as you would with a 4-year degree.

What’s even better, if you choose to attend a trade school, you’ll find a slew of scholarships available for such programs. You’ll also be likely to find a paid internship or apprenticeship that will help you complete your certification without the use of loans.

15.  Stay Focused And Motivated

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, paying for college without student loans can be difficult. At times you’ll likely feel stretched between your educational and financial goals.

But don’t give up!

Loans can seem like an easy way out, but as thousands have discovered, they rarely are.

Really dig into the “why” behind your goals, and you’ll find that making smart money choices will be far easier every day.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be afraid to break from the norm of taking out student loans for your college education.

Proper planning and dedicated execution can keep you debt-free as you pursue your goals.

Hopefully these tips have given you some great ideas on how to cash flow your college education without resorting to student loans.

Zach Buchenau

About The Author:

Zach Buchenau is a self-proclaimed personal finance nerd. When he isn't writing about budgeting, getting out of debt, making extra money, and living a frugal life, you can find him building furniture, fly fishing, or developing websites. He is the co-founder of BeTheBudget, and Chipotle's most loyal customer.

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