How to Pay for College on Your Own: Debt Free Options & Student Loan Tips

College Life Made Easy is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.
How to Pay for College on Your Own Debt Free Options & Student Loan Tips

How to Pay for College on Your Own

Many college students have to figure HOW to pay for college on their own. Not everyone’s parents can afford, or even want to help with, the high price of tuition.

As a young adult, the struggle to come up with extra money is hard. And saving enough money for college – well, that can sound impossible!


Just because you don’t have thousands of dollars in the bank, does not mean you can’t afford college.

There are many ways to pay for college. Thankfully, there are even ways to pay for college without loans giving you the ability to stay debt free.


If you do end up needing to take a loan, some options are better than others. Being smart with your student loan choice can help you save LOTS on interest fees.

The less you have to pay back, the better!


In this article, I’m going to show you 4 different ways to pay for college on your own. That includes debt free ways without loans, and how to shop for the best student loans.

Here’s an outline of what I’ll be covering (click the link to jump to that spot on the page):

First things first…

Evaluating How Much Money You Need for College

Gotta start with the basics here, figuring out roughly how MUCH money you’re going to need for school.

This goes beyond just tuition.

The cost of college includes:

  • Textbooks
  • School supplies
  • Housing
  • Food
  • Car/Health insurance
  • Cell phone bill
  • & Other expenses!

Will you still live with your parents? Do they charge rent?

Or will you being in campus housing? Or an apartment?

You get the idea…

…Unfortunately, life and all its costs don’t stop when you’re attending a university. You’ll be paying for all your regular expenses + college expenses.


When determining how much assistance you’ll need to pay for college, you’ll want to consider a few things:

  1. Will you be going to college full-time or part-time?
  2. Will you be working while in college or not?

If you’ll be going to school part-time, your college expenses will be less per semester. This will spread your costs out over a longer time.

If you plan to hold down a job while taking classes, will that cover all your non-college expenses?

These are all questions to ask yourself and consider when figuring out the total amount of money that you still have to come up with.

And I promise this is easy to do. I know that it all sounds like A LOT of work to figure out, but once you have the numbers, you’ll see it’s simple.

You only have to do this once and then it’s done.

Quickly find out how much you’re already spending (before factoring in college) by using my free monthly budget worksheets or semester budget worksheets.

Add that amount to tuition, book fees, school supplies, and other new costs you’ll be acquiring at college.

Calculate your costs on a semester basis, then add together how many semesters you expect to take to finish your degree.

Subtract any expenses that will be covered by work or savings you might have.

Here’s a simplified equation to spell it out:

Semester school expenses X total semesters for your degree

+ (regular living expenses per semester X total semesters for your degree)

– job income/savings = how much $$ you need


Wah-lah! That’s how much money you need to pay for college on your own.

Once you determine your overall costs for school and housing, you can decide how to pay.

Before you look at any student loans, think about free money.

Will there be ANY family contributions?

Sometimes your parents or even extended relatives can help you pay for it. They want to see you succeed!

Remember that if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Don’t discount asking grandma if she can spare some money to help you.

Debt Free Ways to Pay For College on Your Own (Without a Loan)

When starting on your quest for college money, I advise beginning on the local level.

Each state has specific programs to help aid students.

For example, Oregon has the Oregon Promise Grant where most tuition costs at any Oregon community college for recent high school graduates and GED recipients are covered.

They pay for books, fees, transportation, tuition, and more.

Now there are only 11 states total that offer this program, but it would be a shame if you didn’t take advantage of it.

Check the map at the bottom of this page to see if this is something you can get.

If your state has a similar program, then your first two years are gonna be soooooo much cheaper (only living expenses).

And if not:

It’s always a smart idea to start your college degree at a community college when possible. Wait to pay the big bucks for a university until you absolutely HAVE to progress on your degree path.

Something to watch out for, though:

If you are planning on starting at community college and then moving on to another college, check to see if the classes will transfer.

Sometimes only the FIRST year of classes will transfer to your preferred college. Even if you took the second year for free, you will have wasted a year on college courses you have to take again.

And that would SUCK!

Be smart and plan ahead to avoid major headaches in the future.


If your state is not listed above, it doesn’t mean they don’t have programs that help pay for college.

Do your research by asking parents, school counselors, Google, and other students about scholarship programs.

You may qualify for Grants. Grants are money that you don’t have to pay back.

These include state programs and scholarships.

When looking for scholarships/grants, you’ll need to think outside of the box. Search in places you may not normally think of.

Tips for Finding Scholarships & Grants

While one school may offer you a $2,000 scholarship, it also may end up costing you more overall.

Start by considering if there is anything particularly unique about you or about how you grew up.

For example:

If you were in foster care, there are programs and scholarships, especially for foster youth. Programs like the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and others can help you greatly if you qualify.

Another option to look into:

If you had a parent that is or was in the military and has a GI Bill, this may help you pay for college. Parents that did not use their GI Bill can sometimes pass them on to their children or spouses.

Find out more about what you may qualify for here with this handy tool.


As a child or spouse of a veteran, there are many scholarships out there just for you. Start with this long list of them.

More ideas for finding scholarships to win:

If you participated in any volunteer programs or took FFA classes in school – there are scholarships for that.

Do your research – it’s worth googling EVERYTHING you are looking for.

Searching for niche type scholarships is a good idea, as they typically have fewer applicants. That gives you a BIGGER chance of winning.

The same goes for lesser value grants/scholarships. The less one is worth, the fewer applicants there are.

Apply for those “little” scholarships! They add up once you have a few, and every little bit is less money YOU have to pay out of pocket.

–>> Find TONS of Current Scholarships I’ve Complied into Lists Here <<–

When you DO start applying for them, just make sure to keep track of it all. You can do that easily with these scholarship application tracker worksheets.

Why bother doing that?

Not all scholarships/ grants notify winners, you’ll want to check back to see if you were one. It also saves you from wasting time, because it’s easy to check if you’ve already applied.

Work smarter, not harder to avoid repeating work that’s already been done.

Once you have applied for scholarships and state aid, if you still need money to pay for college you can look into federal aid. The easiest type of grants and loans you can get come from federal aid.

What FAFSA Can Do For You

FASFA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Notice how the first word is FREE? You should NEVER pay to fill out this form, only scams will try to get you to pay.

Filling out your FAFSA form is super easy to do. It should take you about 30 minutes or less to complete.

But what does FAFSA do for you?

The FAFSA form determines how much you and your family can contribute to your college education. This is based on how many family members there are and their income.

From there, a certain amount of aid is issued to you for the next academic year. That financial aid can come in the form of:

  • Grants – aid that doesn’t have to be repaid (unless you have one of these reasons listed below).
  • Loans – borrowed money for school that must be repaid with interest.
  • Work-study jobs – work programs that allow students work part-time through the school to help pay for college.

Federal student aid covers: tuition, fees, room & board, books, supplies, and transportation.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that you will qualify for any federal grants. If you DO get financial aid in the form of a grant though, you’ll want to make sure to follow a few rules so it STAYS free.

Federal Grants – Are there times you have to repay a grant?

Yes, there are instances where what you were given has to be paid back. Such as:

  • Withdrawing from a class early
  • Changing your enrollment status from full-time to part-time (grant normally would have been less, the difference must be paid back)
  • If you were given another scholarship and they felt your financial need was less
  • Not fulfilling obligations of a TEACH grant

If you get a grant, just make sure to know what could jeopardize the status of that money. Again, we’re trying to avoid spending more than we have to.

And even if you KNOW you won’t qualify for anything but a loan:

You should never skip filling out the FAFSA forms. Some schools, won’t consider you for any scholarships unless you’ve filled out a FAFSA form.

This includes academic scholarships!

Think your parents make too much money for you to qualify for aid?

Still fill out the form, ’cause it may be your best loan option if need be.

Even if your parents are not citizens, you can still get student aid to pay for college. This won’t disqualify you on your application, and you can enter 000-00-000 when it asks for their social security numbers.

And just because you fill out the FAFSA:

It does not mean you HAVE to use it. But if you don’t apply – then you won’t have the option if you DO need that money to pay for college.

Bottom line:

Make sure to get your FAFSA form in on time every year you attend college.

It’s free to do, doesn’t take long, and gives you a backup plan.

Tips for Filling Out Your FAFSA Form

Great news:

FAFSA is not just for students with good grades.

FAFSA is not based on academic grades from high school. The only requirement is that once you start using federal aid, you keep an average grade point until you are finished.

Be aware:

For those who live on their own and support themselves, you may still be considered a dependent student according to the federal student aid. You usually aren’t considered an independent student under the age of 24 unless you meet very limited criteria.

Check your dependent status here. If you are considered a dependent, you will need to provide your parent’s information on the form.

Another tip:

If you didn’t qualify for FAFSA the last time you applied, keep applying every year. Your school may create new ways or scholarships for financial assistance.

The FAFSA calculations can change for your school or other state programs, so make sure to apply again.


If you haven’t applied for school yet, you can still fill out the FAFSA form. You have to list at least one school on the form, but you’ll want to add all the schools you are considering.

You can always delete schools from the form later. If you don’t have a school listed though, they cannot receive federal aid for you.

This is the most important tip:

Fill it out as early as possible, because federal funding CAN run out.  Start filling out your FAFSA in October for the following school year.

After you fill out the FAFSA form and it is processed, your college can use the figures to see how much aid you qualify for.

Since you may have to take out a loan to pay for college, let’s focus on that type of financial aid. 

Now, I’ll go over the last way to pay for school on your own.

Understanding Your School Loan Options

Federal Loans

Some people will say that loans are not considered financial aid, but for this purpose, we’ll say they are. Federal student loans are another option that can be used to help pay for college.

Just know that:

These are loans that you have to pay back no matter what. Waiting 7 years or filing bankruptcy will not spare you from the cost of them.

These are loans that cannot be “forgiven”.

Federal student loans are funded by the federal government. Final amounts are determined by financial need (FAFSA), amount of other aid you received, availability of funds for your college, and your year in college.

With all that in mind:

Don’t be afraid to take out loans because you are investing in your future, but BE SMART about it.

You should always start with federal loans.


Because they have LOWER interest rates than private loans and much lower rates than credit cards. Federal school loans are also fixed rates, which means the interest rate doesn’t fluctuate during the duration of the loan.

That means they won’t be changing the interest rate on you.

How much lower are the interest rates?

SIGNIFICANTLY lower! A Federal Perkins loan has an average interest rate of 5%, the national average interest rate of a credit card is over 16%

That’s a big difference and it will make a big difference in how much you have to pay back.

The amounts for subsidized and unsubsidized loans you can take are a little different depending on the school, financial need & other factors. This chart explains more details about that.

What does subsidized and unsubsidized mean for loans?

Undergrads usually qualify for subsidized loans, which is where the government pays the interest of the loan while you are in school at least half-time. Half-time status at a school usually means taking 6 credits or more but varies depending on the college.

Unsubsidized loans mean that the student is responsible for all of the interest that is charged on the loan. This includes the in-school and grace periods.

Perks of using a Federal Student Loan:

  • Most do not require a credit check (except PLUS loans).
  • These loans help you establish good credit (when paid responsibly).
  • No cosigners are needed. (A huge plus when you can’t find someone who wants to sign for a loan for you).
  • Sometimes interest is tax-deductible.
  • You don’t have to repay it until you graduate, leave school or go to school under half-time.

Something else to know:

Direct Consolidation Loans are available in the future when you use a federal student loan to pay for college.

This means you are allowed to combine multiple federal education loans into one.

There is NO fee to do this. If you are contacted by a private company that offers to do this they will charge you a fee, they are just trying to make money by tricking people.

Don’t pay anyone to do it for you when it’s free! Learn more about how to consolidate federal education loans here.

Why is this a good thing?

This allows you to have a SINGLE monthly payment instead of several payments. In addition:

Federal student loans give you access to other loan repayment options and forgiveness programs. I know I said earlier that these loans are unforgivable, but in very specific and rare circumstances they are.

See what those situations are here.

The other options for loan repayment include:

  • Postponing or lowering payments, if you have trouble repaying on time.
  • More options for repayment that tie into your monthly income (eg…how much you make determines your payment).

There is also no prepayment penalty, aka extra fees for paying them back early.

Yep, some loans penalize you for paying them back early – an insane concept to me!

Private Loans

Finally, let’s talk about Private Loans…

Private student loans are loans you take from a lender such as a bank, credit union, state agency, or a school. These always end up costing you more.

I would only take one as a last resort.


When you take a private loan to pay for college, payments are required WHILE you’re still in school.

The interest rates are higher (some more than 15%), and variable – meaning they can go up or down.

The interest rate is determined by your credit score.

Another negative:

You’ll need good credit to get one. As a young adult, your credit probably isn’t established, yet.

Without the required credit score, a cosigner is needed. A cosigner is a person who agrees to pay a borrower’s debt if he or she defaults on the loan.

It’s a big risk most are unwilling to take.

More details to be aware of:

  • The interest is usually not tax-deductible when you use it to pay for college.
  • You will not have availability for a direct consolidation loan.
  • You will not get options on paying it back. In other words, if you cannot pay on time or need lower payments, you are OUT OF LUCK.
  • These sometimes have penalties for paying early.  So if you do take a loan and want to pay it off fast you can pay even more!

I’m sure you’re starting to see why a private loan should only be taken as a last-ditch effort.

Lastly, the type of private loan you take will also affect the interest rate.

Types of private loans that you can get from a bank to help pay for college:

    1. Secured – this is a loan where you leverage your personal property to obtain the loan. This could be cash or other valuable items. The problem with this is: if you want to use the cash – you can’t. The bank holds onto it. Or, if you used a vehicle as collateral you cannot sell it while the bank secures it.
    2. Unsecured loans – these loans you take without leaving collateral. These are usually only given to people who have a long history of positive established credit.  These also have high-interest rates and are called personal or signature loans.
    3. Open-ended loans – these are usually credit cards. These loans have an amount of credit you can borrow, pay back with interest, and borrow again.

Smart Loan Handling Tips

I’ll leave you with some more tips when it comes to handling a loan like a pro.

1) Always keep track of how much you borrow and think about how much it will affect your finances in the future. You’ll only want your student loan payments to be a small percentage of your salary after graduation.

It’s important to know how much your entry-level salary will be after graduation. Research the starting salaries in your field!

2) Don’t borrow more than you need – it’s not a free ride. Remember, you will have to repay your loans with interest.

You still must pay student loans back even if you do not complete school (or didn’t like the education your received).

A common problem college students face today is that their career field is not offering enough jobs upon graduation. Choose a degree with care, and spend time researching how much the job field is expected to grow in the future.

3) Keep copies of loan documents, understand all the terms, and keep in touch.

When you graduate, withdraw, drop below half-time, transfer, change your name, address or have trouble paying, you need to contact the servicer of your loan(s). They will help you make changes and give you options to keep your loan in good standing.


4) Pay on time always, even if the bill doesn’t come. It’s your responsibility and your credit that is affected.

Okay, so I’m pretty sure I covered just about everything. That sure was LONG, huh?

I had to make sure to share all that valuable info though, so you don’t get tripped up by any little mistakes.

Now you know the options to pay for school on your own that are debt-free and the other options for getting help. Some help options are better than others, just remember that.

Keep your future quality of life in mind when making any loan decisions. Only take what you can handle on your plate to ensure you don’t leave college feeling buried in debt!

Are there any questions that I didn’t answer for you?

Drop me a comment below, I’d love to help!

Related: Budgeting for College Students – 12 Simple Tips for Success!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *