Affording College

On Being Debt Free

No credit card debt

This is a good feeling!

Having debt sucks! Last year at this time, I had $2600 in credit card debt, $1300 that I still owed on my ridiculously amazing laptop, and several thousand on an auto loan.

In the last year, with a part-time job and being full-time in school, I paid off all of my credit card debt, my laptop, and about $3000 on my auto loan. I accomplished it by changing my priorities, getting a part-time job, cutting down my expenses, selling most of my belongings, and living frugally. It’s a good feeling to be pretty much debt free.

I know that $2600 isn’t a lot of credit card debt, but it hangs over you like a crowd of menacing clouds, and even a small amount like that sucks up interest, and it takes a long time to pay off when your income is limited. At the time, I was spending a lot of time on an entrepreneurial endeavor. A colleague from a former job and I were trying to make a go of it selling Amish furniture online. Like all startups, it took a lot of time. Unfortunately, the sales were not yet at the point where it could support our lifestyles, and so I supplemented mine with credit cards. It’s an investment, I thought. Once the sales really start rolling in, I’ll be able to easily pay of the credit card debt that I used to buy food and pay bills.

Then last march I made the life-changing decision to pursue a college degree. After several years of babying our company, always believing that huge sales were just around the corner, I decided, essentially, to cut my losses. I’m still a partner in the business, and it’s actually doing pretty well at this time, but the commission checks we pay ourselves are nowhere close to covering life expenses. Besides, I’ve always known that I don’t want to do online marketing for the rest of my life–it just doesn’t exhilarate me like studying math and science does. Although I’m still considered a partner, I don’t put much time into the business, and it’s not on my list of priorities for the future. Making the decision to pursue a degree forced me to face reality, and find an alternate source of income.

Now I mow lawns. Seriously. I maintain forty or so lawns, I trim trees, bushes, and hedges on the side, and sometimes I fill in for another lawn care company. I work about 2-3 days a week, and last year I made between 15k and 20k doing this. It’s  not much, but by cutting my expenses, and living frugally, I was able not only to survive, but actually to pay down existing debt. It helps that for much of the year I can live rent free by “house sitting” a relative’s winter home. I don’t like mowing lawns. After years as a white collar worker, it hurts my pride. Sometimes, pride just has to be swallowed for the greater good.

My ridiculously amazing laptop was also one of those “investments”. I thought I needed it for the business, and the manufacturer allowed me to purchase it for monthly payments of $30 or so. The interest was high–like 30%–but I figured I would have it paid off within a month. It took most of a year. Now I know that I don’t actually need an i7 processor, a backlit keyboard, and an extra-large battery. Live and learn.

As for my auto loan, I’ll have that completely paid off in a few more months. I purchased a nice, used SUV about a month before I got laid off from my well-paying job (three years ago). I had money, but my girlfriend (fiancee now) and I were heading to Switzerland for a vacation, so I decided to take out a loan on the vehicle and wait to pay the rest until we were back from Switzerland. Life had other plans. We cancelled the Switzerland trip and swallowed the $1500 or so in tickets we had purchased. I just didn’t feel comfortable going without a stable income. Two years later, all of the money I had planned on using to pay off the car had been spent on food and other bills, and I was falling back on credit cards while we were trying to get rich selling Amish furniture.

Now, two and a half years later, my SUV is almost paid off. I haven’t taken out any student loans–those will probably come when I transfer to a university. As of right now, I am essentially debt free, and it feels great.

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Financial Aid: Good News and Bad News

Yesterday, I discovered to my delight that the state of Florida is giving me a $500 grant for college (FL. Student Assistance Grant). I didn’t know they did that, and I didn’t know I was getting it, but hooray! It looks like they’ll give me another grant of the same amount in the spring. That’s not much toward the $17,000 estimated cost of attendance for the year, but it’ll sure help when the rent bill comes.

Now the bad news… Apparently, some colleges are charging students an additional fee, and they don’t allow financial aid or scholarships to be used to pay them. Some stupid shit about students being better students if they have to pay out-of-pocket for it. Well, what about poor people such as myself? I’m struggling to pay rent and maintain an internet connection. How the hell would I be expected to pay some stupid $1500-$4000 fee because a school thinks it’ll make me a better student? Read the story here and the original report here. The obvious solution to this problem is that scholarship providers need to pay cash directly to the student instead of to the school.

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I Saved $500 a Year by Switching Cell Carriers

It's not a cellphone, but you get the sentiment...

It’s not a cellphone, but you get the sentiment…

You know how Verizon charges you $200+ for the latest cellphone, and then they don’t allow you to use it with any other carriers? Yeah, that’s absurd. I finally scrounged up the courage to wean myself from the great big teat that is Verizon Wireless. While I can’t complain about their coverage or cellular service, I can complain about their high bills. I was paying $90 per month, and that was the lowest plan I could get with a smartphone.

Despite being only halfway through my latest 2-year contract with Verizon Wireless, I decided to switch to Straight Talk. Why? Even if I pay a hefty termination fee, I’ll be saving money over the next year. Unfortunately, with Straight Talk I won’t have Verizon’s amazing nationwide coverage. Originally, I come from the boonies of Montana, so giving up that coverage really feels like giving something up. However, I live in the city now, and Straight Talk has me covered, so why not? Here’s how my savings stack up:

  • Verizon annual access charge: $1080
  • Verizon annual technology cost: $100 ($200 every two years if I get the best new phone)
  • Total Annual Verizon Cost: $1180

My early termination fee is $230, but I should be able to recoup that by selling my old phone on eBay. Used S3’s are going for approximately $250.

  • Straight Talk annual access charge: $576
  • Straight Talk annual technology cost: $95 (assuming I buy a lesser quality phone every 2 years)
  • Straight Talk incidentals: $3 ($15 SIM card spread out over 5? years)
  • Total Annual Straight Talk Cost: $674

Total Annual Savings: $506

In making this switch, I had to give up my Samsung Galaxy S3 ($700) for a smaller, older, and more modest Galaxy Ace Plus ($175 on eBay). Downsizing isn’t that bad, though. I’ve always thought the S3 was too large–it barely fit in my pocket. Why do I need a large screen gadget in my pocket when I use my laptop for virtually all internet access?

The switch itself wasn’t entirely free of headache. To save my existing phone number, I had Straight Talk “port” it in from Verizon Wireless. The moment that happened, Verizon disabled access to my online account. I was completely unable to log in to download old statements or check the existing balance on my account. I had to endure a lengthy chat with a customer service agent just to find out how to pay the rest of my balance and the early termination fee. As for Straight Talk, my data didn’t work at all for the first couple of days. I spent a long time on the phone with an agent before he told me that I would just have to give it more time. After several days and still no data, I started searching online for APN settings that would give me data access. After about six tries, I finally found one that worked. It was for iPhones. Yeah… I’m running Android, and the APN settings given to me by Straight Talk don’t work, but settings for a completely different operating system work perfectly. I’m glad that’s over. Now that everything is running smoothly, I’m very glad to be rid of my $90/month two-year contracts.

Image credit: Smashed phone image copyright (c) 2012 Solarbotics and made available under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Summer 2013 College Cost: $843

My first semester in college (Summer 2013) is almost over, and I’ve decided to take a look at what it cost me, financially. First, I want to show what it could have cost me, and then I want to show what it really cost me. I saved a lot of money… I think. Let’s see.

Note: This semester I took only 3 courses (9 credit hours) instead of the full 4 (12 hours).

My college’s cost of attendance calculator for summer 2013, was as follows:

  • Books and Supplies: $550.00
  • Personal Expenses: $533.00
  • Room and Board: $3110.00
  • Tuition and Fees: $1383.00
  • Transportation: $509.00
  • Total Cost of Attendance: $6085.00

Here are my actual costs:

  • Written Communications textbooks purchased from the school: $154.59
  • Sold above textbooks back to the school: ($58.00)
  • Literature Textbook from Amazon: $15.50
  • TI-84 Plus calculator from Craigslist: $40.00
  • Writing Textbook: $4.19
  • Backpack from Target: $72.75
  • Notebooks from Walmart: $7.02
  • Poetry textbook: $14.86
  • Personal Expenses: $0
  • House sit for my aunt for three months: $0
  • Transportation: $43
  • Tuition and Fees: $549.32
  • Total Cost of Attendance: $843.23 (Total Savings: $5241.77)

The first set of textbooks I purchased, I purchased at my college bookstore. Nothing could have prepared me for the sticker shock. $155 for two textbooks! It was utterly absurd. Then and there, I vowed to buy all of my textbooks online, if at all possible. If I would have known the outrageous prices I could have saved an additional hundred bucks by purchasing that first set online.

Instead of paying $90 for the calculator at Walmart (or $130 at the school), I looked on Craigslist. It didn’t take more than five minutes to find one and another three hours to have a perfectly good TI-84 Plus calculator in hand for only $40.

I admit, I splurged a little on the backpack. It took me a good half hour to find one at Target that I deemed suitable. Instead of saving money and going with one that would last for a year or two, I decided to pick a good one and hope it would last eight or ten years.

Here in Florida, rent is ludicrously high (compared to some random place like Ecuador). Here we would pay $500+ per month for a bare studio apartment. Fortunately, I have an aunt that owns a winter home here in Florida, and she needed someone to house-sit over the summer. We pay all utilities and expenses, but hey, we still save thousands of dollars.

I saved on tuition by applying for and receiving $413 from FAFSA. I may have made a grievous error. Keep in mind that I knew nothing about college. I’m the first from my family and the first of my friends to go to college. Keep that in mind before judging too harshly. Before I applied for FAFSA, I researched it a bit and learned that I could get FAFSA for a maximum of six years. Okay, no problem. However, I assumed they used the same definition of “year” as most people do. I had no idea that the current year would be over in several weeks. Well, I received $413 for those several weeks, but I used up one of the six years. If I would have applied several weeks later at the start of the next school year, I would have received closer to $5000. Let’s just hope I don’t need six real years to finish my undergraduate degree.

I live about 15 miles from campus so how could I possibly get through a semester on $43 in gas? Elementary, my dear Watson–I opted for online courses. My college offers most of its course selection online. For both of the writing courses I took, I never had to visit campus. For the algebra course, however, I had to be on campus for orientation, the mid-term, and the final.

I love online courses for several reasons. I suffer from moderate to severe social anxiety which makes it harder for me to learn in a classroom environment. The online courses allow me to study without distraction, and they allow me to revisit lectures again and again–something that is not so easily done with classroom courses. Taking the online courses saves money on gas. Last, but not least, taking them online, allows me to fit them into my random part-time work schedule.

My goal is to complete the first two years of my undergraduate degree at the community college, and do it without incurring debt. This means saving money at every chance I get, and it means working my ass off to make money when I’m not studying. So far, it’s looking good!

Categories: Affording College, College | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Doing College on the Cheap

Here are some things that are making college a lot more affordable for me.

1. Do the first two years in community college before transferring to a university
2. Submit FAFSA every year
3. Buy textbooks online (e.g. Amazon)
4. Sell textbooks back to the school if they have a buyback program
5. Take web/blended courses where possible to reduce transportation costs and to accommodate work schedule
6. Get reimbursed for costs through income tax deductions and credits
7. Apply for scholarships

If you have any money-saving tips for college, please comment!

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