Paying for College: Our Experience (Part I)


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Our Freaking Graduation

Even though it’s another 18 years down the road, Johnny and I have started to think about college tuition for Baby Girl. It’s never too early to start preparing… right? (Please say yes.) Depending on where she goes to college, Baby Girl’s tuition costs could range from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So we’ve been contemplating how much money we should start setting aside in a 529 plan. Johnny and I have spent hours discussing how we’ll approach our kids’ tuition, and I’ll outline our options in tomorrow’s post. But first I want to talk about our own college experience since it has affected our thoughts on the matter.

If you’ve read our debt story, then you know that Johnny and I left college with $20,000 in school debt. Most of that debt was mine, which Johnny found out about as soon as we got engaged.

Johnny: “Joanna, will you marry me?”

Me: “Yes, with all my heart… and $13,000 of debt.”

Well, no, it wasn’t quite like that. I waited a few days to tell him, but you get the idea. But let me explain.

Joanna’s College Finances

I started college with a partial scholarship, but the rest of my expenses had to be covered by loans. While every family approaches college costs differently, mine expected each child to pay their own way. No one had explained the loan process to me, and out of necessity I figured out how to take out my first loan as a barely 18-year-old. I only qualified for unsubsidized loans (loans that start to accrue interest immediately). I also got a job as a grill cook in a restaurant on campus. Thanks to that gig, I can now cook a mean reuben sandwich. It was my first real job (excluding my go-to neighborhood babysitter role in high school), and I used that income and my loans to cover all of my expenses. And until Johnny and I met and got married, that’s how it went: I worked and took out loans to cover my college costs.

Johnny’s College Finances

Johnny was fortunate enough to not have any school loans when we got married. His parents had helped him through the process of getting financial aid in the form of Pell grants. He was covering the rest of his expenses by working in the office of our apartment building. He checked me in on my move-in day, which I remember but he doesn’t. In true Johnny form, he told me not to lick the walls because they had been painted with lead paint at some point. But I digress. Money was tight for him, but he found a way to make it work.

Our Married College Finances

Once we got married, though, we were both 100% in charge of supporting ourselves through the rest of our schooling. We were able to get Pell grants (insert hallelujah chorus), which meant not adding to our debt. We also took out subsidized loans to pay off my unsubsidized loans. But the summer before our last semester of school, Johnny had the opportunity to intern in both New York City and Los Angeles. And despite Johnny getting a scholarship, we took out another $7,000 in loans in order to cover the costs of living in both cities.

That brought the grand total to $20,000 in school loans by the time we graduated. The damage could have been a lot more significant if it weren’t for the fact that our tuition was a paltry (compared to most schools) $2000/semester.

By paying for our own schooling, we learned a lot about saving, budgeting, working hard, and not taking a cent for granted. But we probably also missed out on some experiences. We were perhaps more stressed out than a college student who didn’t have to focus on finances. I couldn’t justify going into more debt for a study abroad program, and I couldn’t focus solely on my academics. As a result, my grades suffered when I was especially strapped for cash.

But in the end, it all worked out great, and because of everything we learned, I don’t think Johnny and I would have had it any other way. But would we have it any other way for our own children? That’s what we’ll discuss tomorrow!

What were your college finances like? From where or whom did you receive financial backing? OR, did you skip college for another route altogether?

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36 Comments

  • Reply Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies February 11, 2013 at 7:23 am

    My college finances were really piecemeal. I had scholarships for tuition, but then cobbled together loans and savings for housing in year 1. After that, I worked in the dorms to cover housing and food, which saved a bundle. Books and plane tickets were another story since my parents said they would pay for those and then didn’t. (Bitter? Maybe a little, but it’s a long story.)

    Whatever you decide to do in terms of support for the little one, as long as you’re honest with her, I think you’ll all be fine. =)

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      It sounds like you worked for every bit of your education! And agreed on being honest. It’s scary being on your own for the first time, and every kid needs to be able to at least rely somewhat on their parents!

  • Reply r February 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

    When I was in my late teens I was fortunate to live at home when I was going for my College degree. That saved a lot on residence fees. Other than that, I paid all my other tuition expenses by working weekends year round as well as full-time during the summers. I was also fortunate that back in those days tuition costs were much lower than they are today and I was able to sign on with a large Montreal retail store chain for steady employment. I thus had no student debt when I graduated.

    As for our kids, again we were lucky. From the time both were babies, we set them up with RESP plans (which I guess are similar to your 529 plans). However, in addition to that source of funding, both our kids worked summers to save for their education and, again fortunately, both were able to apply and receive 4-yr scholarships from the companies where my wife and I were employed at the time. So they too both ended up tuition debt free.

    These days, it’s even harder to afford college educations and this especially relates to our grand kids. Sooo, in addition to our kids taking out RESP plans on their kids (as well as helping them out as best they can financially, whatever our grand kids still owe, after they also save up with whatever they can earn, we plan to make up the difference owing. Thus, we hope to have them as well graduate student debt free. They’ll have enough on their plates then to get their careers going without having to worry about that debt problem.

    One important point to remember:
    Don’t fully pay for your child’s education. Over the years I’ve seen too many kids totally goof off in collage, wasting their parents’ money, not taking a vested interest in earning their own way, either through saving and/or through applying for and earning scholarships. They too have to take responsibility for their future otherwise they will not succeed in life.

    Now I don’t expect every family out there can handle things as we did but all you can do is try to support your kids in their futures as best that you can. Right?

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      Definitely! You just do your best and hope it’s enough!

      Love hearing your insight, Rob, as you’re someone who’s already gone through the whole process. I would consider it a major success if things worked out with our kids how they did with yours. :)

      And I think it’s awesome that you plan to help out your grandkids if necessary… Johnny’s Granddad let us use a car for a couple years, which was huge for us.

  • Reply rob February 11, 2013 at 8:04 am

    oopsie – somehow my name got truncated (to just r) in my comment above. :-)

  • Reply Michelle February 11, 2013 at 8:31 am

    I had to pay college by myself. While I did graduate with a decent amount of debt, I don’t regret it. I’m able to pay it off less than a year after I graduated so I’m happy about that!

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      That’s great, Michelle! For those of us who do end up with school loans, the key is paying it off ASAP!

  • Reply Brian February 11, 2013 at 9:14 am

    I went to a large public state school for undergrad and came out with no debt, thanks to my wonderful parents who footed the bill (like their parents did for them and I am going to do for my kid(s)).

    Since I hated my undergraduate degree (Aero/Astro engineering), I decided to get a masters in finance. I took out a couple small loans to pay for that and graduated just in time for the job market to tank! Good news for me? I was able to land a solid government contracting gig, where I sort of use my finance degree, but use my engineering degree more.

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      That’s great you were able to get your undergrad without going into debt! It probably made the decision to get your master’s easier since you weren’t already in debt.

      And it sounds like things ended up working out perfectly in the end! How sweet that you found a job that uses both of your (*seemingly* unrelated) degrees.

  • Reply Budget and the Beach February 11, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Like you I had a partial scholarship, but I was very fortunate that my family paid for my school, and I only had to work summers. The flip side to that story is that I probably should have been made to pay for some, or work all year round. Maybe that would have helped me start off my life with a better financial education. But, life happens how it’s supposed to I guess. :)

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      Yeah, I’m not sure what the perfect balance is. But like you said, you live and you learn from whatever experience you’re given! In the end, you’ve still become financially responsible. :)

  • Reply Tina February 11, 2013 at 11:05 am

    My parents were generous and paid my college tuition. I worked part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer to make money for books, rent, and living expenses. For me, I feel it was the right balance and something I would like to replicate for my future children if finances allow.

    Oh, I don’t think it’s too early to start saving for your child’s college tuition!

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      That’s awesome, Tina! The way your parents did it is something Johnny and I have discussed. Your kid can still focus on his/her schooling, but they learn financial responsibility at the same time. Win win!

  • Reply Elizabeth @ Broke Professionals February 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

    First time visitor to your site!

    Like you, I was the person who came into my marriage with debt from college – $55k when you factor in undergrad and grad school. My husband was a D1 football player and was on scholarship, so he came into our marriage with ZERO debt. I don’t know that we would have made it financially through those first few years if we’d had another set of student loans to worry about!

  • Reply John S @ Frugal Rules February 11, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Mine was somewhat piecemeal as I got a little bit of help from my parents, but was largely funded by me taking on loans. I ended up with somewhere around $20k in student loan debt and thankfully got them paid off a little over a year ago. I did work part time in the dorm I lived in and that usually went towards living expenses and towards books.

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      Way to go on getting those school loans paid off. It’s nice to just be able to reap the rewards of your education without worrying about those monthly payments!

  • Reply debtperception February 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    I went to a for-profit school known for lies and deceitful tactics to get students to take out student loans. They had me take out private student loans first, having me believe that they were federal. The amount of grant and scholarship money I received was equivalent to the amount of interest my loans gained while I was in school (a fact I didn’t know until my grace period ended). $0 help from the parents. Worked part-time, minimum wage while going to school on the quarter system. That mostly just paid for groceries and transportation. Being uneducated about student loans was the biggest mistake of my life, next to falling for a for-profit scam.

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      I’m sorry that happened. That’s just sick to take advantage of a new college student like that! You’re obviously a hard worker, so you’ll be able to move past this and make sure your own kids are educated on the subject!

  • Reply Gary February 11, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    $65,142.87 to go to college. That is how much I took out on college loans. Yes, I still know the figure and it has been 15 years since I graduated college. I was extremely fortunate and was able to pay off this loan in 2.5 years. At, one point I had a job where I made some decent money. It stills blows my mind that no one ever talked to me about loans during the college application process. My parents told me the only way to go to college was to take out loans. Were they wrong.

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Super awesome that you paid that much money off in 2.5 years, Gary! No one talked to me about school loans, either. Sometimes I wonder why the adults in our lives didn’t take more interest in our financial futures!

  • Reply Jeremy February 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I’m agreeing with a lot of people on here… high school does not educate students on debt! And parents sure as heck aren’t doing it. I graduated with around $33,000 in Dec of 2009. Thankfully I’m down to $11,500. Can’t wait to write that last check!

    PS-Joanna, I can’t believe you are finding time to reply to each post. You guys have great posts and are interactive with repliers… it’s awesome.

    • Reply Joanna February 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      You’ve really paid down those loans, Jeremy! That’s awesome. It does seem like a lot of us blindly went into debt as fresh college students… hopefully we can remember how it felt and be better with our own college-aged children someday, amiright?!

      And, thanks, Jeremy! We feel like if people take the time to read and comment on our nonsense, then the least we can do is reciprocate! :)

  • Reply Do or Debt February 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I had to take loans for all my schooling as my parents didn’t help me out. I lived with them in undergrad which helped a lot, but I moved to NYC for grad school which was expensive. I worked every year of undergrad and grad school, usually multiple jobs. This helped me not accrue a total of 100k in debt! Now I am still left with 55k and I can’t wait to be done. I also signed my first loan paperwork at 17 and had no clue what I was doing.

    • Reply Joanna February 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      It sounds like you worked your tail off for your education! Well done. That unstoppable work ethic you have will help you get those loans paid off!

  • Reply Lyn @ Pretty Frugal February 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I didn’t know until I graduated high school that I didn’t have a college fund in any way, shape, or form. I had a full ride at my state university, but I graduated with about $14,000 in debt due to living expenses, and $5,000 from my year of grad school. I worked part-time but $4.50/hr doesn’t go too far! I wasn’t a huge spender, but I wish I’d been a little more responsible about what I was spending my loans on. I visited Chicago several times on my student loan’s dime before graduation. Oops.

    Also found out last year that my parents paid my sisters’ living expenses while they were in college. Since they split as I started college, neither of them contributed toward my college costs as they were too busy fighting each other. Nice.

    • Reply Joanna February 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      It sounds like you did the best with what you had! And I think most college kids spend their loan money on unnecessary stuff… no one has taught us otherwise! For me, it was clothes. :)

      And major bummer getting gipped on the living expenses! My parents paid for my oldest sibling’s college but no one else’s. I try not to think about it!

  • Reply Jen February 11, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I was able to get scholarships & need based aid but still had to pay for school with subsidized loans AND come up with 4-5k of my own money each semester. Plus pay for books. And living expenses. But…I went to a school that was 45k a year undergrad and only went up each year so there’s that (I think its in the 60s now). I worked up to 5 jobs at a time while going to school (generally added up to over 40 hours a week) and doubled up on credits in order to graduate early. Jobs included tutoring, nannying=free laundry, managing bartender=free drinks when not working, dining hall card swiping=free food for my husband and I, plus events manager for said bar. My family was unable to pay for my schooling but I certainly don’t carry a grudge over that.

    I met my husband there and 4 degrees later (from the same school & grad degrees triple the cost of undergrad) we had six figures of debt. It took about 5 years of scrimping and saving to pay them down but we also got married (and paid for the wedding/honeymoon), moved twice and switched jobs a combined 6 times in that time frame as well.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to how we did it (my husband’s situation was the same as mine) but overall neither of us has any regret. After all, that’s where we met! :)

    We choose fields that pay decent and don’t feel the brute force of economy as much as other jobs. We also picked a school who’s name carries a lot of weight in our field. While it may seem trivial, the very fact that that school’s name is on our resume has lead to recruiters salivating over our resumes and companies wooing us away from current positions. It’s also weighed heavily in the decision factor when up against a a large pool of qualified applicants. Obviously, we still had to do the work of making the grades, joining the right organizations and obtaining our certifications & licenses early.

    Frankly it’s a toss up. If we had picked a less expensive school, would we be paid the same amount and working the same jobs? For us there has certainly been something to the statement that you sometimes have to spend money to make money.

    We certainly plan to do what we can to fund our children’s education but as of right now, we are in agreement that we will match their scholarships and contributions up to a fully funded education (If they were to get a full scholarship, we will not be doubling that money for spending money !!! but would certainly give them a chunk to cover living expenses). We both worked very hard for education, never had the funds for partying or spring breaks and we’d like our kids to have it a smidgen easier (like maybe only work 1 or 2 jobs) and be able to graduate debt free. Also, while I would never recommend my kids pick a school just for the name alone, I will certainly be advising them to keep it in consideration.

    • Reply Joanna February 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm

      You’ve got an incredible story, Jen! You and your husband did whatever it took to get the best educations possible! I can’t imagine how hard you worked at the time, but it totally seems like it was worth it.

      And paying down all that debt in only 5 years? That took some serious dedication. Also, I loved hearing your perspective on going to a school whose name carries an incredible reputation. It sounds like picking a great school (and working your butt off while there) really paid off when you entered the workforce!

  • Reply Sharon February 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Oh my gosh, I LOVE reading about ‘kids’ who pay their own way. (Especially since I have already paid for two college educations for my older two, and I have another two to go!) I like that you want to start saving for your baby girl, but don’t forget to put away for retirement first. It’s really important to take care of YOU first. AND, if the baby doesn’t fall far from the parents, then Baby Girl will be able to pay for some of it herself!

    • Reply Joanna February 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Great reminder, Sharon. We’d be doing our Baby Girl no good if we didn’t save up for ourselves first. It doesn’t matter if we can pay for her education if she ends up having to support us in our old age!

  • Reply Jrm February 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I took out $15K in loans that covered half tuition and living expenses. I went to an out-of-state state school but tuition then was only $6K/yr for me. Parents paid half of tuition, gas and car insurance. I worked part-time 20-30 hrs during school year and about 60 hours in the two summers I wasn’t in summer school. I would have borrowed a lot more so I didn’t have to work as much but thankfully my Dad didn’t allow that.

    • Reply Johnny February 12, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      $6000 a year is pretty close to the steal of a deal we got on tuition. What your parents did sounds like an awesome system. They help, but not enough that the student can coast. We totally believe that students are better off when they’re responsible for some part of their education.

  • Reply Sara February 11, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    I started out with a scholarship for tuition and took out loans for room and board. Currently paying off about $35,000 but I knew this going in to college. My parents were very forthcoming about the loans they were taking out on my behalf. On the other hand my boyfriend ‘s parents were not as helpful nd he had no clue what he was doing, just borrowing all willy nilly, to the tune of about $70,000 (he used loans to live on while in school). Oh what we know now that we wished we knew then! I’m not opposed to helping my kids pay for college but I won’t put myself in the poor house or jeopardize my retirement to do so.

    • Reply Johnny February 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      That’s great that your parents prepared you for what you were getting yourself into. Joanna and I both missed that conversation. And it sounds like your boyfriend did, too. Total bummer. Loans are super deceiving as a student. Everyone around you is telling you that it’s “good debt,” but leave out the part about still living within your means. Parents, teachers, and colleges are generally doing the young folks a huge disservice right now.

  • Reply Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin February 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    That is a fairly low tuition cost. You can’t get much better than that! In all honesty I believe the entire higher education process will be revamped within the next decade. It is becoming crystal clear that the majority of students are not getting their money’s worth from a college education. I personally had my college tution paid for by the United States Army, in return I had to give them 8 years of service.

    • Reply Johnny February 13, 2013 at 8:44 pm

      I sure hope you’re right about the college system getting fixed up. It’s a complete mess right now.

      I had a few friends that opted to go the military route to pay for their education. It actually seemed like a really great option, but my tuition was low enough that I didn’t consider it for too long. In any event, thanks for your service!

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