5 Alternatives to College and Student Loan Debt

5 Alternatives to College and Student Loan Debt

Hey everyone! I’ve got a REALLY good guest post for you today. Mrs. Picky Pinchers is back on the site again with some tips for avoiding student loan debt or college in general. This is something I wish they taught kids in high school!!!! Enjoy! ~M$M

I’ve loved school my entire life.

I was the kid who couldn’t wait to board the bus every morning. I eagerly raised my hand to answer questions in class with Hermione Granger-like spunk. In college I whipped out research papers with satisfaction, feeling like a hungover, sleep-deprived genius.

Education has changed my life for the better in many ways. But, like many millennials, I find myself buried under the heavy shadow of student loans.

Americans have a combined $1.2 trillion in student loan debt—a number that grows by $2,726.27 every second. Often this debt hangs over people’s lives for decades. While some are able to pay down the debt, it can often strangle the life out of others’ finances. Owning a home, starting a family, and living a debt-free lifestyle are pipe dreams to people with huge student loan debts.

After managing to pay off $14,000 in credit card debt and aiming to pay off student loan debt in 18 months, I now look at student loan debt in a different light. While my education gave me the ability to get decent jobs, was it really worth it?

Is college always worth it?

I don’t think so.

Sure, there are a lot of great things about the traditional four-year college experience. It feels secure because that’s the path most traveled—but it also can be the most expensive.

Here are some alternatives to consider instead of the debt-loaded traditional college experience.

Take a Gap Year

Does anyone else think it’s ridiculous that you’re expected to plan out your entire life when you’re 16-18 years old?

I was hyper and obsessed with video games at that time—I wasn’t thinking about what it took to make it in the adult world. I never had a job or bills to pay, and I always knew where my meals were coming from. I had no idea how tough life can be if you’re in debt or if you aren’t in a profitable field.

There’s value in taking a gap year to mature. You have time to explore your options, see the real world as an adult, and figure out where you want to go in life with less distractions.

With a gap year, you can explore a lot of different options. You can travel, get a job without school (see below), or volunteer.

Community College

Okay, okay, so community college is still college. But it’s often much, much cheaper than attending a university from year one. By taking care of your basics first, you have time to determine what path you’d like to be on.

It’s also possible to attend community college part time while holding down a job to either pay as you go or to build your savings to avoid debt.

Trade Schools

Sure, this is still going to cost money. According to The Simple Dollar, the average trade school degree costs $33,000. The cost of a bachelor’s degree varies, but some studies say the average is $127,000.

Plus, trade schools usually take two years to complete, which means you get into the workforce more quickly. Plumbing or A/C maintenance might not sound exciting to you, but they’re actually really lucrative fields.

If sitting in a cubicle isn’t for you, trade school could be the answer.

Join the Military

The military is an incredibly frugal post-high school move.

It’s not for everyone, but the experience builds structure and can set you up financially. The military isn’t an option for the faint of heart, but serving your country can be a great way to start off adulthood with less debt.

My dad joined the Army right out of high school, which taught him useful professional skills and provided networking opportunities. He’s an incredibly successful professional today and
achieved that without a college degree!

Get a Job—Sans School

I do have to say that it’s more difficult to find entry-level jobs without a degree in some fields.

But there are always jobs you can get without a degree. Whether it’s working as a cashier at a store, an administrative assistant at a family business, or starting your own business altogether, it’s possible to become a professional with just a high school diploma.

You can get a jump on your peers by climbing the corporate ladder — four years ahead!

The Bottom Line

While I enjoyed my four-year college experience, it was absolutely not the frugal option. I wish I had explored my options more before committing to such an expensive experience.

But with student loan debt becoming a crisis for our generation, it’s important to note that there are other opt ions out there. There isn’t a singular path to success. By taking the time to plan the most frugal option for your ideal future, you can start off on the right foot.

Question for you:

Did you try an alternative to a four-year college degree?


Live differently. Your bank accounts will thank me later. ~M$M

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18 comments… add one
  • PeterB Dec 21, 2016, 8:27 am

    Great post and good options to consider. I would also add “Become an autodidact learner” to the list. These times there is so much information out there. If you have a topic which you really like you can master it and be a professional by yourself (for free or at low cost). Using websites like Udemy, Treehouse, etc. offer great opportunity to develop good skills outside of regular schooling system. Millennials have a special entrepreneurial instinct and if you are good at something (never do it for free /Joker/) and you give quality work probably nobody will ask for a degree. Even if you are an employee like myself you can find a company where knowledge matters not printed papers. I have a degree, but that has zero impact on my job and time to time I am questioning the decision that I spent so much time to get the paper. Looking back I am pretty sure that developing only the skills I use by myself would have been easier, faster and financially less stressful.

    • Millennial Money Man Dec 21, 2016, 8:34 am

      That’s a good point – I learned how to do everything for this site online!

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 8:36 am

      This is a good point! Heck, I learned most of my 9-to-5 skills with Google. 🙂 It’s very true that you can learn a profitable skill like coding without any formal training whatsoever.

  • Kyle Dec 21, 2016, 8:29 am

    Great options! As a teacher, I’ve started to hint around to these things to my students. If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve done the community college thing first, then finished my degree at a 4 year. When it really comes down to it, most degrees from private/public end up being treated as equal in the job world. There’re no reason to spend 20k at 1 place if you can get the same result for 5k at another. Just my 2 cents!

    • Millennial Money Man Dec 21, 2016, 8:32 am

      I totally agree with that Kyle! When I had students that weren’t sure what they wanted to do, I tried to steer them in whatever direction would cost them the least.

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 8:37 am

      I ended up going to a pricey 4-year private university (translation: Debt City). I wish I had done community college first myself, and then transferred. The best part is that your diploma is from the Fancy School and no one will be any the wiser that you went somewhere else for two-ish years.

  • Deryl Dec 21, 2016, 8:36 am

    Great post!! I wanted to add info about joining the military. Active duty isn’t the only option, as there’s also the reserves. Joining the Navy Reserves allowed me to experience the best of both worlds (military/civilian). After high school I started at a private 4 year university, however I had to withdraw after the first semester due to concerns about funding future semesters. My EFC was 0 when I started, so I received max financial aid, then my mom returned to work, then my EFC skyrocketed. I was terrified of being in a position of needing a student loan, but not being able to secure one without a cosigner (mom had terrible credit at the time).

    I returned home (spring 2006) after 1 semester of “real college,” and honestly felt as though I was a failure. I reluctantly enrolled in evening community college courses . I was sitting in my communication class one evening listening to one of my peers deliver a speech about the Navy Reserves. She talked about receiving financial assistance with college and paid travel just for joining the reserves, I was sold! I shipped out to bootcamp 06/13/06, then returned home 12/15/06. The rest of my time in the reserves consisted of working at the local base one weekend a month, and 2 weeks of annual training (usually during the summer). I served a total of 6 years in the reserves. So for those who don’t think they can tolerate active duty military, I’d say the reserves is an amazing compromise!

    I completed community college (essentially paid for with the reserve GI bill), received an associates degree in nursing, then secured a job at hospital as a registered nurse. I went back to school receive my bachelors (all online, so I was able to continue to work full-time), which was paid for with tuition reimbursement from the hospital. I went on to obtain my masters in nursing and I was able to pay out of pocket. This year I started working in my new role as a Nurse Practitioner, so I get paid a 6 figure salary to help others. All without the burden of student loan debt. I just purchased a home with a VA home loan, no money down, no PMI, and essentially the best interest rates available (one more military perk).

    10 years ago I made the decision to drop out of the traditional four year college, but that didn’t mean I would be a failure 🙂

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 1:08 pm

      That’s right, I completely forgot about the reserves! Thank you for your service!

  • The Accountant Dec 21, 2016, 10:54 am

    I found out about this too late in high school to sign up, but there was a cooperative program between my high school and the local community college. All students had to do was take certain curriculum classes and as long as they got good grades, they could opt out of up to a semester’s worth of gen-ed credits if they chose to go to that community college. I know a few people who did the program and were able to transfer to the state university in a year and a half and keep all the credits. It’s definitely something I wish I had done because they all saved a few thousand dollars worth of tuition and got ahead in school.

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 1:09 pm

      I agree. My high school offered this option, but it separated the advanced classes from the college-credit classes, so naturally I opted for the advanced classes as a hoity toity 16 year old. Looking back I wish I had done the dual credit classes. College credit is really where it’s at!

  • Mrs. COD Dec 21, 2016, 11:07 am

    Oh, how I wish I’d made different choices for college! Four year school was expected in my family, which is good in many ways, but I never really considered community college to save money. Instead I did a four year private school, not thinking of how much it would cost me and my parents. I encouraged my students to think of what they want to do, maybe going the trade-school route if it would be better for them.

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 1:11 pm

      I also did the four-year private school, so I feel your pain there! My mom was a first-generation college graduate, so she kind of nailed it into my head that college was the only option. In hindsight I think higher ed was right for me, but I still could have gotten the same lessons much more cheaply.

  • Christa Szabo Dec 21, 2016, 11:12 am

    A great article! What I really hope I had in high school was not knowing about these options, because I did know about them, but having someone tell me that they were ok! Perhaps it was just in my family, but I had this idea in my head that the only “right” way was the 4 year university. I had this idea that the military was only a last resort and that trade schools and community colleges weren’t “good enough”. And traveling or getting a job WITHOUT a degree?! Absolute heresy!!! If somebody would’ve said that not only do these options exsits, but are GOOD options, I probably wouldn’t be in debt now and probably would’ve known myself a lot better to go to school for something I truly love. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I went to my four year schools and took the classes I did, but I feel like if I went now, I would get WAY more out of those classes because I have much more real world experience to put into their context

    • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 21, 2016, 1:12 pm

      That’s SO true! People place a stigma on trade jobs or jobs that don’t require traditional degrees, and that’s really unfair. There are so many ways to make a living, and many of them don’t require crazy amounts of student loan debt, either.

  • Martin - Get FIRE'd asap Dec 21, 2016, 3:54 pm

    One option that you didn’t touch on but is an extremely viable one is entering a trade apprenticeship. One thing the world needs more of is skilled trades people and in most western countries there is a shortage of electricians, plumbers, builders etc as, unfortunately, doing trade work isn’t considered a trendy career options for many school leavers these days.

    Qualified tradies can earn far better money than college leavers and can go on to start their own business later on. I did an apprenticeship when I left school apprentice it provided me with a sound base that got me where I am today. What’s even better is that you have a full time income and, in most cases, no student debt when you finish.

  • Nick Dec 22, 2016, 7:56 am

    I SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO relate to this… type A, hand-raising, question-answering kid here for sure. I’m so glad you wrote this article. This is some much-needed stuff that our generation needs to hear. I’ve only been out of college for 1.5 years and I already regret parts of it. This opinion isn’t popular among a lot of people yet, but it’s growing as more and more people realize how college typically doesn’t have a great ROI.
    Killer post!

  • Finance Nize Dec 29, 2016, 1:28 am

    Great options to consider, I personally recommend getting a part time job when you are in college level. Save the money you earn by doing small jobs so that you can invest your money in some business when you complete your studies. I guess student loans will have a low-interest rate than any other, so don;t hesitate to take student loan if you are actually planning to do something beneficial after your studies. Thanks for sharing such amazing tips/alternatives brother, keep sharing!

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