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9 Things That Allowed Me To Graduate University Debt-Free

Graduating debt-free is one of my greatest accomplishments, along with buying my house at 24. I’ve always been an annoying over-achiever, mainly because staying busy and reaching milestones is good for my mental health. I need to feel in control, and financial freedom is one way to keep my anxiety levels in check.

In 2008, in my last year of high school, I had my first panic attack. All of a sudden I was getting ready to apply for university. Nobody in my family knew the process of applying and paying for school. I had never even considered the costs, and with three kids all around the same age, getting financial assistance from my parents was not really in the cards.

I didn’t even consider not going to college, or taking time off to work before going to school, as options. These options weren’t encouraged or presented to me. I was a “smart” student “destined” and encouraged to go to university.

The most important piece of advice I can give pre-university Liz is to not stress so much. But in the end, everything worked out, and I graduated without student debt. Here’s how I did it:


After dropping one of my math classes in grade 12, I had a spare block. In this time, I went to the library and guidance counselor’s office and got to work! I researched scholarships and bursaries and applied to everything under the sun. Most applications required essays about achievements and academics. While I had good grades, I wasn’t gifted or anywhere close to genius. Academic awards typically reward uber smart people, and I wasn’t one of them. I was very active in school activities and the community, so I wrote about that. My volunteer work was pretty basic — I never built a school in Mexico or anything like that. Most of my volunteering was picking up garbage at events and in rivers.

I collected references from my teachers and submitted all of my applications by the deadlines. By the time I was applying for school, I had secured funding for my entire first year. Many of the bursaries were small, $200-$500 ($157-$392 USD) here and there, but they added up.

I also got a $1,500 ($1,178 USD) entrance scholarship and a $2,400 ($1,884 USD) Aiming for the Top scholarship for having good grades.


By my second year of university, I was working full-time on weekends and still living at home. I was saving around >$500 ($392 USD) a month (so I saved around $6,000 [$4,712 USD] a year while in school).

How did I manage that?

I was commuting three hours a day to get to school, which was brutal. I transferred to three city buses every day, using my school bus pass. On the weekends, I worked at a residence and stayed there from Friday-Sunday, supervising teen girls. My living expenses were low because my parents fed me and gave me shelter free of charge. I also didn’t have a cell phone because I was trying this “hippie” thing, and just used my iPod and wifi. I mostly packed my lunches and had no bills to pay. For “fun,” I hung out with my group of friends in the library and watched videos online, took webcam photos, and annoyed everyone around us. All of this “entertainment” was free. I didn’t really go out (because there was no late bus to take me home).


In my third year, I paid off my OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program). When I applied for school, I applied for OSAP but didn’t really end up needing it. Somehow, because I took summer school and didn’t fill out a form, OSAP started charging me interest on the loan, so I was pissed.

I think I had around $8,000 ($6,283 USD) in loans, so I decided to pay back the loan. I had less than $500 ($392 USD) in my bank account left after that, but I knew I was still working so I could manage.

In the second semester, I was questioning my school and life choices, and I realized I needed a break. I was itching to travel and enjoy life, so I moved to Vancouver and volunteered with Katimavik. This was a government program, and while I was not being paid to work, my living expenses were covered and I was gaining valuable life and work experience.


A few months after I returned from Vancouver, I got a co-op job with the City of Hamilton. It was my dream job! Outreach for the waste team. As a co-op student, I spent all of my time at work and went to school part-time after work. I also did field work so I could finish my credits faster. My timeline gets a bit blurry here, because then I took four months off to travel around the world, was later hired again at the City of Hamilton, and eventually graduated.

I worked full-time for the City on and off for two and a half years, and this paid for the remaining years of school.

Graduating debt-free was not a walk in the park. I was stressed for most of my undergrad, and working non-stop. Yet, I still managed to travel to 15 countries and live in a different province — so I worked hard and played hard.

I lived with my parents for the first two years of school, which was NOT COOL. It seemed like everyone was partying and having a blast all the time, and I was either on the bus or at work. But all of that doesn’t matter now, because I get to host parties at my own house and go out whenever I want to cool paces downtown. Though I couldn’t fully enjoy university, my life after university has been great!


To sum up, here are my top 10 tips for graduating debt-free from university.

1. Apply for scholarships: Even if you’re not the smartest kid in the class, there are scholarships for all different kinds of things. Do your research and apply to everything, no matter how small. Most importantly, meet the application deadlines and have your documents in order.

2. Don’t buy books: After 1st year, I never bought books. I shared the cost with friends and photocopied pages, or went to the library to check out the book on reserve. The public library was also a great resource, and they tracked down some textbooks for me and shipped them to my closest library. I also spent a lot of time on YouTube and Wikipedia trying to fill in the gaps.

3. Work: Duh. Don’t just rely on your student loans. Paying off your loans after graduation will suck. Do you want to feel trapped to this loan for the next decade?

4. Go to school part-time: It’s not the end of the world. It might seem like a big move, and you probably won’t graduate with your friends, but seriously, your true friends will stick with you regardless of your schedules.

5. Do a co-op: This was one of the best decisions of my undergrad. Not only did I make money, I gained relevant work experience which is what matters after graduation. I have never been asked about my grades, but employers ALWAYS ask about past work experience.

6. Avoid temptations: Temptations in university are everywhere. Bars, clubs, pubs, cover fees, latest gadgets, trends, spring breaks, vacations, welcome week, reading week, homecoming, etc. Yes, you should enjoy your university experience, but in moderation. You will have time to live it up later in life, and it will be easier to enjoy life if you’re not drowning in the debt you accumulated while in school.

7. Save aggressively: Saving while in school may seem impossible. You’re barely making money, but trust me, expenses are SO much lower while you’re in school vs. after graduation. Start saving and develop good habits.

8. Remember how a loan works: this seems like common sense, but a loan is money you are borrowing. It is not yours! So don’t spend it foolishly.

9. Plan: At least once a year, check in with yourself and your financial situation. What is your budget? Compare your income vs. your spending and try not to get overwhelmed.

Liz is a 20-something-year-old, independent lady trying to be a responsible adult. She is an adventurer and a personal finance blogger whose goal is to inspire other millennials to take control of their finances and live life to the fullest. 

Image via Unsplash


  • Rahul Sharma

    Nice, Congratulations on your achievement!

  • I love this article! Congratulations on leaving school debt-free – that’s a real feat! Thank you for the specific and actionable tips. It’s not glamorous to hustle your way through and live with mom and dad, but it’s worth it in the long run. A few years sacrificing for your education not only means you don’t have to pay Sallie Mae (or the Canadian equivalent?) and the predatory interest rates that come with student loans, but you also gain the skills and experience you need to kick ass later in life.

    Also, I’d be livid if I found out I was already accruing interest on a loan I didn’t use or need… I was under the impression that most student loans are dormant until graduation, at which point you start getting hit by interest. I can’t believe they didn’t alert you first, either way!

    Digression aside, my hat goes off to you!


      Ugh, it was because I became a part time student and wasn’t a full-time student anymore so I wasn’t eligible for the loan I was receiving. I was notified that I didn’t fill in the proper paperwork so I was penalized and had to pay the interest. -liz

  • Janet Hélène

    What did you do with the City of Hamilton? I currently a Mac student and I’d love to know more about their student programs.


      Hey, I was a student on their waste management outreach team 🙂 -liz

  • Carolina

    This is awesome and detailed. I wish I had the sense to think about this stuff when I was younger. I’m not totally screwed though and I’m determined to pay mine and my partner’s student loans in 3.75 years or less!

  • Christine L.

    I really enjoyed your perspective on this issue! Congrats on working hard and seeing it pay off. I’ve read so many articles about graduating debt-free only to find out mid-way through that the author had family who paid their tuition or some such thing. The only point on which I’d disagree is going to school part-time, though I am from the US, so maybe our system is different here. At the university I attended and at ones I’ve looked at attending, if you take fewer than 12 credits as an undergraduate, you have to pay per credit instead of just a flat semester rate, which is generally more expensive than taking a full semester’s load. I’d caution other readers to make sure their university doesn’t charge per credit if they’re planning on going only part-time.

  • Sophie Zheng

    Hi, Toronto high school senior here! I’m actually looking for scholarships right now, but it’s so hard to find obscure ones. Do you happen to remember any you applied to? Anything would be an enormous help