It saddens me that so many college students today take on such large amounts of debt.

Students graduating from college are now walking away with more debt than ever – over $30,000 on average.

CNN has an emotional and poignant short video about the reality of paying back this debt and what it actually looks like in the real world.

When it comes to how you go about paying for your college experience and education, you need to be informed when choosing two within the trio of good, fast and cheap.

Good Fast Cheap - pick two

My Story

Not too many years ago I began my college career. I took 12 credit hours each semester while working 30 hours a week to maintain an income to pay for tuition and fees, housing and food. I didn’t spend much for entertainment or recreation. This meant not eating out much and generally finding cheap recreational alternatives to more expensive ones.

You don’t have to live like you did under your parents (if you were well off). You can live meagerly for a time, saving money and preparing for your future.

I had this philosophy throughout my entire undergraduate career. And I was able to graduate debt free from a state university.

I was able to accomplish this because of two primary reasons: first, I took general education classes at an affordable community college and not an expensive state or private institution; and second, I paid in-state tuition rates. Here’s what that looked like.

Community College

I began my college career at a community college. Here I took many of my general education classes, which were required for any degree in any field.

During this time I was working at a non-profit and not making lots of money, but I was able to pay for this schooling out of pocket and not take out any loans.  The tuition costs were relatively low because I had established residency and was able to pay in-state rates. Residency requirements can vary by state, so check the requirements for the state where you plan to attend college.

When I finished at the community college I was debt free.

My First Experience at a State University

A few years into my college career I had a transition to another state. I waited a year to take classes so I could get in-state rates. If I had not done the waiting here, I would have paid much higher rates. During my “year off” from school I worked full-time, saving my money in every area I could.

When I started up classes again at a state university I was paying in-state rates and still working part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer months.

While at the state university I finished many of my general education classes and began taking classes specific to my major.

When I finished at the state university I was still debt free because I had continued working and had paid the less expensive in-state tuition rates.

Finally, Graduation

Lastly, I had another transition and finished at another state university. Again, I waited for a year, established residency and started attending classes again at the cheaper in-state rate. While at this university I worked as a “student worker,” which helped pay the bills.

It was here that I took a few remaining general education classes and the majority of classes specific to my major.

When I graduated, I had paid all my bills and was debt free.

Was it easy? Certainly not.

Were there times I wish I could have sped things up? Yep.

In the end, it took me 8 years to complete a 4-year degree. But I didn’t have any debt when I was done. This is the intersection of the Good and Cheap circles.

Intersection of Good and Cheap

The Alternative

Let’s just look at an alternative for a minute.

Let’s say I did everything in 4 years and didn’t work any outside jobs except maybe through the summer months, earning minimum wages to cover basic summer expenses.

So, in our intersection from above (Good, Fast, Cheap) we now choose Good and Fast.

Intersection of Good and Fast

This means that I’m now paying out-of-state tuition rates for the entire 4 years. The average out-of-state tuition and fee rates for 2016-17 in the U.S. is $24,930. So we can multiply that number by 4, for each year we’ll be in school. That comes to $99,720, which does not include interest.

Now let’s use a student loan calculator to see how long it will take to pay back our debt and what those payments will look like. I used the loan amount of $99,720 and an interest rate of 6%.

Note: Your rate and debt load will probably be different, so use the link above to customize your payback period and monthly payment.

Here’s what mine would have looked like had I chosen this alternative plan.

Loan Payback Period Monthly Payment Total Payments Interest to Lender
5 years $1,927.87 $115,672.20 $15,952.20
10 years $1,107.10 $132,852.00 $33,132.00
15 years $841.49 $151,468.20 $51,748.20
20 years $714.43 $171,463.20 $71,743.20

If you choose the good and fast route, what you may actually find is that it’s not so fast. It is fast when considering it’s just 4 years to get your diploma. But it is, in fact, not fast when considering just how long the payback period is on your student debt.

Let’s be realistic here. A $1,927.87 monthly payment isn’t going to be possible for 99.9% of us. So the 5-year payback option really isn’t even on the table for most people.

Even the $714.43 is a huge chunk of monthly income. If you already have a car payment or are thinking of a house payment, that $714.43 may still be a showstopper.

This type of debt can be crushing to your future plans. So be smart when considering what college you’ll go to and how you’ll pay for it.

Here are the steps I’d like you to consider:

  1. attend community college or other affordable private alternatives where you are a resident or can get in-state rates
  2. work 20+ hours a week to pay the bills throughout the entire year
  3. work at the institution you’re attending to receive free or reduced tuition

It is possible, you can graduate debt free!