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How I saved money while paying for college

You can read a million articles about how to pay for college. (And you should! On our blog.) But sometimes the best advice comes word of mouth from those who have gone before you.

To that end, we reached out to four University of Phoenix students and alumni to learn what worked for them, whether they were pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree — or all three.

Leveraging all the options

Alum: Thomas Shelton

Current role: Manager of software development and engineering at Comcast

Degrees: Bachelor of Science in Management (2020) and Master of Business Administration (in progress)

Ways I saved:

I leveraged the benefits available to me to avoid paying as much of it myself as I could. With some planning and building a good relationship with my academic advisor (who offered methods to reduce the overall expenses), I ended up having to pay less than an average of $1,200 per year out of pocket to complete both of my degrees with no student debt.

1. Tuition assistance through Comcast. At the lower degree levels, the tuition assistance program allowed for $5,250 per calendar year. The tuition assistance was paid through a “deferred Direct Bill” agreement so that I didn’t even have to spend the money up front and then wait for reimbursement.

I arranged my schedule to maximize these benefits. I also scheduled a couple of leaves of absence for life events or just time off for a class period or two in order to draw out the timeline enough to leverage the benefit for four calendar years.

2. Alternative credits. During the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I was given the opportunity to take alternative credit-hour courses toward my bachelor’s degree through Study.com, which allowed me to save on six courses on a self-paced schedule that I completed over a two-month period. This not only saved me a substantial amount of money, but also pulled back the timeline so it didn’t stretch into a fifth calendar year.

3. Smart scheduling. All told, these elements allowed me to avoid paying out of pocket to complete my undergraduate degree. The handful of classes I did end up paying for myself were put on a credit card, and I paid those off over the following couple of paychecks.

I am currently working on my Master of Business Administration degree, which I am targeting to complete in September 2022. Again, I scheduled my classes so they were spread out over two calendar years, which enabled me to maximize my employer’s tuition assistance benefit.

Additionally, my tuition assistance helped me stretch out the annual tuition assistance benefit to cover six classes per calendar year rather than roughly four classes. These two elements helped me avoid personally paying for tuition, so I will complete my master’s degree with no out-of-pocket expense.

In summary, with some planning and patience, there are a number of creative ways to finance your college education, which can minimize out-of-pocket expenses and avoid student loan debt!

How I paid: Employer-based tuition assistance, alternative credits and personal savings.

The art of the side hustle

Alum: Isabel Alonso

Current role: ESL instructor and trainer

Degrees: Master of Arts in Education/Adult Education and Training (2015) and Doctor of Education in Educational Technology (2021)

Ways I saved:

Saving money while pursuing my education was very challenging. I tried to save as much as I could, but sometimes it was just hard since I needed money for other things such as traveling or my children's school supplies or supporting my sick mother. I didn’t want to sacrifice my family for the sake of my education. Moreover, my income as a part-time educator was not stable at that time. So, to find extra money to help to pay for my education, I did three things:

1. Focused on the essentials. I bought only what I really needed. It’s important to know the difference between what you need and what you want.

2. Shopped smarter. I would buy groceries in different places to save as much as I could. I used coupons, shopped on special days and found discounts.

3. Hustled. My husband and I took on freelance projects. My husband would do website design, and I did private tutoring and work during the summer to make some extra money, all of which went to pay for my tuition. 

How I paid: Financial aid and personal savings. When I graduated, I negotiated a payment plan so I could afford to repay my loans and be able to pay for my family expenses.

Be aware that consolidating federal financial aid isn’t the only option — and might not be the best since it can increase the interest rate. Federal loans come with different repayment plan options that can help with lowering payments.

You can’t spend what you don’t see

Alum: Ruben Mireles

Current role: Director of human resources at a medical center in Harlingen, Texas

Degree: Bachelor of Science in Business with a Human Resource Management Certificate (in progress)

Ways I saved:

1. Eating in. We tended to order in quite a bit, so we stopped eating out as often. Cooking at home and meal prepping helped us save a lot.

2. Automatic savings. We opened a savings account with automatic deposits. At work, I set up an amount to be siphoned off my paycheck and deposited directly into my savings account. That way, I never see that money in my checking account.

3. Credit over debit. Our credit card gives us cash rewards back, so we started using that instead of our debit card for payments. We would pay off our bill in full each month, while benefiting from our reward perks and increasing our credit score!

How I paid: Financial aid, tuition reimbursement, scholarships and personal savings.

Eagle-eyed evaluations

Alum: Marian Toronka

Current role: Nurse leader and owner of GoodHeart Nursing Care

Degree: Master of Health Administration/Master of Business Administration

Ways I saved:

1. Getting reacquainted with the kitchen. The first way that I saved money while going to graduate school was by cooking. I realized that eating out added up quickly, so I cut that cost by buying groceries and cooking healthy meals for my family.

2. Regular expense assessment. I created a spreadsheet and tracked where I spent my money on a monthly basis. Then I would go back and see what I could eliminate.

3. Going electric. I got rid of my gas vehicle and switched to an all-electric vehicle. This was my biggest savings as I eliminated the regular cost of gas and oil changes. 

How I paid: Tuition reimbursement, loans, scholarships, personal savings. I constantly looked at the scholarships University of Phoenix offered and applied.  

Wondering if you can afford college? Here’s how to plan for success!