12 Practical Ways to Graduate Debt Free in 3.5 Years

University of South Dakota Student Shares His Journey

Alex Thomason graduated December 10, 2016 with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance degree with a minor in Entrepreneurial Studies from the Beacom School of Business at the University of South Dakota (SD) in  Vermillion. He graduated in 3.5 years and debt free.

The most frequent questions asked were HOW did you accomplish this without unlimited scholarships, loans or parental financial support when 44 million American borrowers owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt? How did you avoid an average monthly student loan payment of $350 after turning your tassel and collecting your diploma?

Click Here for State-by-State Information on Student Debt.

Smart Planning, Hard Work, Sacrifice & Creative Thinking

Alex is an only child. In some families this is the single most important variable to achieving a debt free college experience. Not ours. We voluntarily relocated from South Carolina to South Dakota at the start of the second semester of  8th grade. (Not the best planning to leave 82 degrees in January and arrive in sub-zero temperatures.). There were many roadblocks and challenges along the way. However, that relocation and the practice of Open Enrollment in the Sioux Falls, SD School District paved the way for most of Alex’s academic success and debt free graduation.

  • Get Career-Ready in High School

Middle school career tests revealed Alex has an aptitude for finance and business. He was encouraged to explore the Academy of Finance (AOF) within Washington High School (WHS). If you want to be a programmer, banker, baker, engineer or nurse, consider enrolling at a NAF-Be Future Ready affiliated high school. Most Academies offer college credits and paid internships. Some of his classes were taught by USD business professors. Others were led by high school teachers with real world accounting and business experience. Professor taught classes earned college credits. Credit hours were charged at a much lower rate than if he’d have taken those courses enrolled as a college student. Alex entered college with 7 credits-a half semester worth of credits before stepping foot on campus.

Passing Advanced Placement (AP) course tests earns college credit. Many high school students take advantage of AP classes to earn college credit before going to college. Because there was little leeway in the AOF core requirements, Alex only completed three AP courses. Explore AP courses while in high school. Early on, ask your guidance counselor about AP courses and which ones to take for your expected college major.

  • Start 529 College Savings Program

Teach savings and big picture thinking at a young age. [Consult with a tax or financial advisor for more information on 529 Plans.] Replace some toy and other material gifts with contributions to the Plan. And, when age appropriate, talk to your child about the Plan so they take ownership and are invested in the education savings plan.

Like most young boys, Alex enjoyed gaming systems. However, he was strongly encouraged to limit purchases and contribute half of all cash gifts to his 529 plan. It was a disciplined trade-off and difficult sacrifice. The rewards of this discipline are now fully understood as a young adult with degree in hand.

  • Work and Save While in High School

Yes, some families need the income from the jobs their children have while in high school to offset household expenses. If yours doesn’t, your child working while in high school is invaluable for future employment. Of course, the money earned and saved is excellent but so are the skills learned.

As one who’s hired and trained interns and new college graduates, I always gave greater weight to applicants with high school and college work experience. Having the discipline to show up to work, contribute fully on the job and manage a school and extra-curricular workload were signs of future success. Discipline, time management and dependability are timeless, valued skills learned while working as a young adult.

  •  Non-Traditional Contests

Unless you are cash rich and super smart, you’ll most likely have to find funds for college. Think about your strengths and your career path. Alex happened to like business and entrepreneurship. So, he did online research to find business plan and essay contests to enter. He found three business plan competitions in South Dakota:  The Big Idea, Bankers Association and The Governor’s Giant Vision Student Competition. Alex placed in all, earning $5500 in cash awards. He also won second place and $5000 in the South Dakota State Securities Division Essay Contest.

Keep in mind that these contests are student-driven. It is up to the student to take the initiative to come up with a business idea, enter the contests and meet the requirements. If you rely on the school or a teacher to lead you, you will be disappointed.

Whatever your interests, do the research to find contests with award money to offset college costs. The truth is few enter. It takes a lot of extra work. Those who enter are rewarded not only with prize money but invaluable experiences and professional connections.

  • Scholarships

Everyone knows scholarships are available for college expenses. In fact, go to any bookstore and you can find volumes of books with lists of available scholarships. Don’t forgot to look locally. Alex applied for a number of scholarships through the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation. He was awarded several. The challenge he found was that our family income was too high and his GPA, while good, was not exceptional. He was caught somewhere in the middle. This makes the hunt more challenging, but not impossible. We did attend several poorly attended parent meetings at his high school on college financing. The information was good but, once again, scholarships seemed more readily available to those with lower incomes and those with superior academic grades.

  • Get a Great College Advisor

The value of a knowledgeable college advisor cannot be stressed enough. There are certain classes that must be taken and passed to earn a degree. Sometimes these classes are only offered certain semesters. Missing a class can postpone one’s graduation by a semester. Therefore, being assigned a great college advisor and taking ownership of one’s own path through college are essential to graduating on time.

  • Choose Right College

Alex was fairly certain he wanted a career in insurance and/or finance upon graduation. There are certain colleges that specialize in risk management and insurance. The summer before his senior year we visited three: Florida State University, the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. Each offers an outstanding curriculum. After touring each school and meeting with professors and department leaders, Alex chose to continue with the professors and the coursework he had started at USD while a WHS student.

On his own, he calculated the expense associated with out-of-state tuition and forecasted projected income post graduation. The fact that the Beacom School of Business has an accreditation from AACSB and regularly appears on the US News & World Reports Best Colleges Rankings List played a part in his choosing USD.

  • Work During College

Alex was so focused on graduating college without debt that he worked during college. He got up early and served breakfast to hotel guests and for the last two years worked on the campus grounds crew. He did everything from trimming grass to shoveling snow to planting trees. This was manual labor totally unrelated to his career choice. However, he took great pride in the appearance of the university and the safety of students and staff, even returning to campus while on winter break to shovel sidewalks and de-ice steps. Graduating debt free was the goal and he took pride in whatever job he did to achieve this goal.

  • Share the Rent & Buy Used Books

I have to admit that the roommate issue concerned us. We wondered how he’d adapt to sharing space with another student since he’s an only child. It didn’t matter. He easily adapted and had a roommate every semester. He lived on campus the first two years and off the next year and a half. Alex also researched the most affordable sources for classroom books and sold them back when the class was completed.

  • Take Online Summer Classes

Alex secured two summer insurance brokerage firm internships. In addition to working 8-5, he took online courses for two summers. Once again, this takes discipline and focus. Instead of going to the beach or attending parties, he was working and studying. He did have fun, but  kept his eye on the prize-graduating in 3.5 years debt free.

  •  Drive a Used Car, Drink Water + Choose Friends Wisely

Social costs of college can add up. Beer drinking and partying are expensive. Alex visited fraternities, but chose not to join. He decided there would be little time between studying and working to participate in the many charitable and social events offered. It’s worth noting that friends greatly affect student success. Alex has always chosen friends who share his values. It’s both a skill and a gift.

Alex is driving a 3rd generation car. It doesn’t have anything fancy on it, but it does get regular oil and tire changes. The moral of the story-keep costs down and only buy what’s necessary.

These are the 12 ways one student achieved his goal of graduating in 3.5 years debt free with a B+ average. 

What other ways can you add? List them below in the comment section.

Share with families in the midst of college financial planning. They will thank you!

Linda Leier Thomason is a former CEO who writes freelance business and travel stories, along with feature articles. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Find out more about Linda by clicking the “Meet Linda” tab above. Interested in working together? Complete this form below.

©Copyright. December 2016. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Become a Consignment Shopping Beast

8 Tips: Furniture Consignment Shopping + 1 Superstar Shopper

 Here’s a true story. One of a “senior citizen” with more courage, determination and smarts than most decades younger than her.

20160709_150125In September 2016 Brenda relocated from upstate Maine to Des Moines, Iowa. That in itself deserves applause, regardless of age. Similar climates. Similar people. Yet, major geographical change.

All last summer, together with her retired sister and brother-in-law, they sorted, donated and sold not only her accumulated items but also those of her parents whose house she was living in after her father’s recent death. [Years before, when Brenda’s husband died, she sold their Louisville, Kentucky home. Then, she moved herself to Maine to care for her aging parents. Care-taking became her life. So had becoming self-sufficient.]

After sorting and selling the Maine house, the trio loaded a moving trailer. They hitched it to a pick-up truck and caravanned three vehicles half-way across the country. All were relieved when they arrived.

Brenda purchased a condo prior to the move. Therefore, she had a sense of what would travel to Iowa with her. Yet, letting go of decades-old heirlooms is not easy. Some were taken by a brother remaining in Maine, making the letting go less painful. Others she photographed as a way to remember.

Mom’s Got Decorating Style + Smarts

What she did when she got to Iowa surprised all, mostly her children and grandson. She expertly and smartly furnished her “new pad,” combining items that made the trip with pieces purchased at a high-end consignment store. The first time her daughter saw her mom’s newly furnished home she exclaimed, “Mom, I just never expected you to furnish and decorate your place like this.” Well, she did. She used the opportunity to smart-size (a trendy word for downsize) and to create a space that fit who she saw herself as today.

For the first time in decades, she had no one to care for but herself. It was time to start over. She deserved a place she was proud to call “home.”

Tips for Furniture Consignment Shopping

  • Keep photos of room layouts and measurements on your phone. They’ll be handy for quick purchases. Most consignment stores have a no-return policy.
  • Find a consignment store that chooses well-cared-for pieces, timeless or trendy. Buying secondhand and re-purposing are now trendy. However, you’re not looking for torn or smelly upholstery or rotted wood. There are some outstanding furniture consignment stores. Find them and patronize them.
  • Get to know the consignment store staff. Make sure they have your contact information and know your style and vision. Have them contact you when a piece comes in they think is an ideal fit for your space.
  • Visit your favorite consignment store often. Inventory turns quickly. Know if the store accepts cash only,or if you can use a debit or credit card.
  • Do your own price research. Comparison shop online to guarantee you’re getting a great price at the consignment store.
  • Understand that some pieces require a bit of work. Did you find a well constructed, designer brand dresser or sofa? Be willing to upholster or refinish the piece. Make sure neither costs more than purchasing new.
  • Have any of the pieces been recalled? Do they have lead paint? Ask. Work with a reputable consignment store that doesn’t sell dangerous items.
  • Visit the store with a vehicle large enough to haul away your purchases. Some stores charge a holding fee.

Brenda purchased a new sofa and two side chairs, but nearly everything else, including wall hangings, came from consignment stores.

Take a look.  Would you know the difference?

She did an outstanding job!

Leave your comments and questions below.

All but glasses from consignment shop
All but glasses from consignment store
Table, chairs and centerpiece from consignment shop
Table, chairs and centerpiece from consignment store
Vase adorns fireplace ledge. It from consignment shop.
Vase adorns fireplace ledge. It’s from consignment store.
Wall hanging, lamp and chest, which doubles as file cabinet..from consignment shop
Wall hanging, lamp and chest, which doubles as file cabinet..from consignment store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consignment shop chairs
Consignment store chairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower vase from consignment shop
Flower vase from consignment store.
Plant from consignment shop
Plant from consignment store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dresser being primed for painting.
Dresser being primed for painting.
Painted dresser
Painted dresser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it time for you to down or smart-size? Check out tips for doing this successfully on the “Real Estate” tab above. And, good luck with the move.

Share this post.

© Copyright. August 2016. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Waiting For the Other Shoe To Drop

Omaha June 2015 House Hunting 047Less than 12 hours after watching my hard-working husband Ken sign a purchase agreement on a house in our new home city-Omaha, Nebraska-it dawned on me that my family has been living a life of “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” We need to change that. Rather than battle life, the Thomason trio needs to begin enjoying life, starting today.

It’s true. Since moving to the Midwest in 2009, we’ve had our share of challenges on many fronts: employment, health, housing and family. Yet, through it all, we’ve endured and remained intact as a family unit. As a parent, what matters most to me is that Alex, our 20-year-old son, sees us navigate these hurdles with willpower and grace. Knowing one can overcome challenges instills confidence and fearlessness; both attributes will guide him through his own life journey.

Last night while waiting for our outstanding real estate agent to arrive with the paperwork, the three of us walked around the house, checked out the landscaping and discussed immediate home improvements.  Omaha June 2015 House Hunting 009Then Megan arrived with pep in her step and asks, “Are you all excited?” No one responded. I jumped in and explained we are not an excitable trio; we’re pretty flatlined folks. It’s not that we don’t experience pleasure or delight, rather it’s that we are not demonstrative about it. Yet, during the remainder of our time there, I did wonder about the lack of excitement. Had the challenges worn us completely down and stripped all the joy from us individually, and as a unit? I hope not!

Omaha June 2015 House Hunting 006
Alex checking out view from back porch.

It’s my mission to pitch the idea of new beginnings to the number crunching men in my trio. To instill the need to celebrate and to feel and experience joy while bidding farewell to “waiting for the other shoe to drop” approach to each day.

Omaha June 2015 House Hunting 034
Megan’s upright shoes at new house.

It starts tonight.

We’re heading to the final game of the College World Series-a battle on the playing field, not in our lives.

It’s a new beginning and we’re celebrating!

And, gosh darn it, we’re going to be joyous about it.

Copyright. June 2015. Linda Leier Thomason.

The Fine Art of Moving

Ken & I at Vermillion, SD truck stop on May 2015 moving day
Ken & I at Vermillion, SD truck stop on May 2015 moving day

Decades ago while dating I recall being told the best way to determine long-term compatibility is to take a trip together. Ken and I traveled often and are celebrating 23 years of marriage in June 2015. I’d say that was timeless, sage advice.

Now I feel it’s my turn to offer some words of wisdom. If one wants to find out what character his/her partner is made of…MOVE. Move often. Who each is prior to sorting, selling, boxing, loading, driving and then unloading and unboxing remains through the entire process. I know this. We’ve moved seven times during our married life and each time the roles we play remain the same…in other words…we do not change much, despite our changing surroundings.

I am the planner, producer, facilitator and director. You get it…the boss…the leader. Ken, my husband, to use a good ole’ Southern phrase, “God bless his soul,” abides by my directives and does the heavy lifting and stacking. He hires the truck and labor. Apparently, time has taught him not to question or second guess my prep work and research. Alex, our son, the college dude, seeks to refine my directives with the precision of a logistics engineer, completely finding unnecessary my need for sentiment and time to pause and recall memories associated with items he considers ‘things.’

Sentimental item kept-my baby shoes.
Sentimental item kept-my baby shoes.

His goal is to get to the location and unpack, touching each item once while packing, once while loading and once while unloading. He fusses and hurries me along as I share legends of items stored away in cedar chests and cardboard boxes. I wonder if he thoughtfully considers his response when I ask, “Will you use or appreciate this one day?”

There is a fine art to moving. I equate it to a great symphony piece. First, I gather items by theme-kitchen cookware, flatware, linens, decorative items, etc. and sort. It sounds so cerebral, but in reality, it never gets easier, though with each move we downsize. What goes to a consignment shop? What will I attempt to sell? What is donated? What do I want to pass on to Alex? What can’t I part with just yet?

Fine art of moving-starts out messy.
Fine art of moving-starts out messy.

Actions ensue. I box and cart items to each destination. Ahhh. The house feels lighter. I feel good. I gather empty boxes we’ve saved from previous moves and do my best to pack alike items in a logical fashion. I bubble wrap breakables and touch each saved item with care, recalling how it came into our lives. I like doing this in solitude without the rush of deadlines and the push toward the end goal–boxing and moving on. I’m goal oriented, but not without nostalgia.

I call charitable organizations and schedule pick up times. During the recent move, we donated to the Furniture Mission in Sioux Falls, SD. They were gracious and expedient in their pick up. I watched them load items once considered valuable possessions but knew would not last through yet another move. I felt a loss of the material goods but joy at helping another family furnish a house. After they clear the garage, the items that escaped another cut and were boxed are moved to the garage awaiting the moving truck and the loaders. If these items had feelings, they’d be celebrating. They made the cut! They are prized and belong to the family.

Made the cut-boxed and in the garage awaiting truck.
Made the cut-boxed and in the garage awaiting truck.

I hesitantly sell items through the Internet, but never unless Alex or Ken is there with me when a potential buyer arrives. I’m 100 percent in my sales. Perhaps I missed my calling. I sell at list price and often the buyer leaves with more items than he came to get. Am I that good, or does the sentiment attached to the items I’m hawking come through so loudly that the buyer is purchasing that intangible as well? Either way. Ca..ching. Another item gone. One less thing to load on the moving truck.

All these actions happen virtually at the same time-list, respond to inquiries, arrange visits to see the items, greet potential buyers, sell, pull more items out of cupboards and cabinets, decide what goes and what stays, bubble wrap, touch each item, recall its’ origin, cart off to a donation site, wait on charitable organizations to arrive, box, move boxes to garage, on and on and on. If done well, the symphony of moving results in a feeling of relief, joy and peacefulness. If not, it’s utter chaos with shrieking and leaving in protest.

We’ve moved seven times. We each understand our role in the process and play our part. It requires practice but our individual character remains. As with musicians, each of us has learned a specialization in the process and sticks to it to make the overall piece and process flow smoothly and flawlessly.

We sorted. We donated. We sold. We packed. We loaded. We moved. We arrived safely. We can each say we enjoyed the fine art of moving in May 2015. We remember moving is like a symphony-each has a specific role to play for it to be a memorable production.

Sonata!

Jubilant moving producer arrives at destination.
Jubilant moving producer arrives at destination.

Copyright. June 2015. Linda Leier Thomason