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The year before I went away for college, I had the sit-down with my parents. I’m referring, of course, to the college talk. “Where do you want to go?” they asked. “What do you want to study?” they prodded. Finally, they cleared their throats and looked uncomfortable. Then they told me how much they could give me to help pay for my college.

I will be honest and say that it was less than I expected. I had recently realized that I would have to leave my hometown to study what I was passionate about. The amount that they could afford would cover tuition and some living costs, but I would need almost double that.

Growing up, my parents had always told me that they would pay for college. However, by the time I was ready to go away for school the costs had skyrocketed and they had experienced some financial setbacks. It was up to me to make up the shortfall.

This, of course, led to a few sleepless nights in which I imagined graduating loaded down with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. I felt like I was sinking beneath the weight of it all. When I did fall asleep, I’d wake up anxious and gasping for breath. There must be another way, I told myself. It turns out there was.

Over time, I came up with a game plan for how to go away to school, study what I love and not have to take out student loans. When I graduated in 2009 with my Master’s degree I wasn’t just debt-free — I also had $40,000 in the bank. To help others avoid student loans, I’m sharing the five most effective ways that I avoided student loan debt:

1. I Lived Frugally

If you want to avoid student loans, one of the best ways to do so is to spend as little as possible while you’re in school. Some people do this by living at home. Studies say that this can save up to $25,000 over the course of a degree. While I wasn’t able to live at home to save money, another easy way to live frugally is to learn to cook. I definitely experienced a learning curve in learning to cook but once I got the hang of it and found some great recipes featuring seasonal ingredients I was able to eat extremely frugally. I was also able to save significant amounts of money by developing a strict budget and adhering to it. I was less tempted to spend money on clothes or going out for expensive dinners when I had a clear idea of how much I could spend every month.

2. I Won Scholarships

Winning scholarships and grants definitely made the biggest difference. All told, I won $60,000 in scholarships and merit-based grants. So many students think that they can’t win scholarships, but the truth is that there are scholarships out there for everyone. You just need to learn how to find, prioritize, and apply for scholarships. Don’t just apply for the scholarships with the biggest dollar amounts but do your research and prioritize scholarships that fit you best.

3. I Found a Cheap School

When I was choosing which school to attend, cost definitely factored into the equation. If all else is equal, why pay more money to get the same degree? By choosing a college with cheaper tuition, I was able to save significant amounts of money and get a well-respected degree. There are a number of colleges that offer free or cheap tuition like Brigham Young University or Alice Lloyd College. Other schools like the University of Chicago have recently made no-loan pledges for certain students. Also, many Ivy Leagues provide such great financial aid that students from families with incomes under $65,000 can go to Harvard or Yale without a family contribution. There are more places to go to college without breaking the bank than you think.

4. I Found Jobs That Paid Well

The art of staying loan-free while in college involves finding jobs that pay you more than minimum wage. I was able to make $9/hour taking notes for students with hearing problems in classes that I was already attending. I was also able to leverage my experience volunteering for non-profits to make $18/hour one summer at a non-profit. Consider doing paid internships or co-ops that will allow you to make money and get school credit. Look into work study programs. Start your own small business by finding a way to market skills you already have or are learning in school. This won’t just help you stay debt-free but will also help you get a job once you graduate.

5. I Graduated in 4 Years

Many students take more than four years to finish their programs, but that can be costly. By drawing your degree out an extra year, you have to pay more in tuition and living expenses. Do your best to finish your degree in four years. Even better, take extra classes and graduate in three years if you can.

Why It’s Important to Be Debt-Free

I’m not going to say that it was easy. I had to work hard and be resourceful. In the end, however, it was definitely worth all the hard work. When I graduated I was able to take a job that I loved that didn’t pay very well but which gave me a lot of responsibility. Because of that, I was able to quickly move up the ladder and find a job where I now make significantly more than the average income for someone my age. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had taken a regular entry-level job right out of school.

There are a lot of reasons to avoid going into student loan debt, but having more freedom when you graduate and not feeling like you’re drowning from the weight of student loans are two of the best reasons. Why spend your 20s and 30s paying for your education when you could spend that money buying a house, getting married or seeing the world?

While it would be ideal to avoid student loans entirely, if you do need to do so, make sure you take out as little as possible and learn as much as you can about student loans before you sign anything.

If you do have student loan debt, make your payments on time every month, and if you have trouble paying them, contact your servicer to see if you can make alternative payment arrangements with them. Otherwise, defaulting on your student loans can hurt your credit, which can impact your ability to get loans for the next few years. You can find out how your debt is affecting your credit scores by checking them for free on Credit.com, and you can see how much your debt could cost you in your lifetime.

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