This past Saturday I graduated college with a master’s degree. I also shared in a recent blog post that my net worth just surpassed $30,000. Today I want to outline the path I took over the last 5 years to reach this position.
This post isn’t meant to be boastful, it’s simply intended to show that it’s possible to graduate college debt-free, with a positive net worth and a useful degree. By no means is this the holy financial path everyone should follow if they want to take an affordable approach to college. It’s simply the approach that I took and worked well for me.
2012 – Freshman Year
I started my freshman year in 2012 with no idea of what I wanted to do in the future. I knew I was decent at math but I didn’t know how this translated into a career path. At my high school graduation party one of my friend’s dads made an offhand comment to me that Actuarial Sciences is a great field to pursue for someone who is good with numbers. Thus, I entered freshman year with Actuarial Sciences as my declared major. Really, that was the entire reasoning behind it.
As for the college I chose, I also did very little research and was essentially clueless as to how the process worked. I opted to attend the four-year college closest to my house that my older brother attended several years earlier. I also made the decision to live at home and commute to classes for the first year.
This college happened to be one of the most affordable in the state, with a price tag of just over $8,000 annually. I was fortunate to receive a couple scholarships and a Pell Grant which covered roughly half of my tuition. Financially my parents weren’t in a position to help pay for my tuition, but they were giving me a free place to live and a refrigerator full of food I frequently ravaged. This in itself was a tremendous blessing and one of the main reasons I was able to pay for my tuition out of pocket.
I was a Kroger cashier at the time working 20 – 25 hours per week making minimum wage. To pay for each semester I opted into a payment program that allowed me to make 4 payments of $500 each over the span of several months since I never had a lump sum of $2,000 at the start of each semester.
Already my path to college was radically different from most people I knew. I was commuting, paying for tuition out of pocket, and holding down a part-time job. Without even realizing it, I was taking a financially savvy approach to my first year of college.
Freshman Year Financials:
Earnings at Kroger: $4,000
Net Worth: $0
2013 – Sophomore Year
The next year we had a speaker on campus talk to one of my classes about data analytics and the growing field of “Big Data”. I found his speech to be fairly interesting, especially the part where he mentioned that this field could be highly lucrative if you had the right skill set. I promptly switched my major to statistics, thinking this career path seemed reasonably appealing.
I continued to work at Kroger making minimum wage. One day I actually looked at my paycheck (instead of cashing it in without a second thought) and noticed that after paying taxes and union dues, my effective hourly wage was about $4. But by living at home and obtaining a couple scholarships, my paltry earnings still allowed me to pay for tuition out of pocket.
Sophomore Year Financials:
Earnings at Kroger: $4,000
Net Worth: $0
2014 – Junior Year
Junior year was the year I hit the lotto. At least that’s what it felt like when I landed a job as a research assistant in the Math department, boosting my pay to an unbelievable $15 per hour. I immediately quit my job at Kroger.
Also towards the end of my junior year I stumbled upon Mr. Money Mustache’s website while sitting in a stats class one night. I still remember the night because I spent the entire lecture reading as many of his posts as possible, while failing to take any notes. This was hands down the pivotal moment that would impact my future outlook on both college and my finances.
I literally spent the last few weeks in this class with my phone on my lap during every lecture reading MMM articles. I was completely absorbed with this idea of early retirement and living radically different from everyone else. I eventually discovered other personal finance sites that continued to fuel the fire of my interest in finance.
I felt lucky to have discovered this weird, seemingly underground society of internet financially frugal weirdos while I was still in college. Through reading their blogs I finally began to see money as something one can use to buy freedom instead of stuff.
It was around this time that I became cognizant of the term “net worth”. It didn’t take me long to find out that my net worth was $0, which was actually a pretty good position to be in financially in college. Avoiding student loans without even realizing it would prove to be a crucial decision that would allow me to eventually graduate with a positive net worth. I wrapped up junior year paying off tuition (which had risen slightly) out of pocket like the previous two years.
Junior Year Financials:
Working at Kroger/Research Assistant: $5,000
Net Worth: $0
2015 – Senior Year
At the beginning of senior year I was faced with a difficult decision: I knew I wanted to continue on to get a master’s degree in Statistics but I had to decide if I wanted to pursue it at the same school where I completed my undergrad or go elsewhere. Eventually I made the decision to participate in a 4+1 program at the same college I had been attending for my undergrad. This meant I would take graduate courses during my senior year to allow me to graduate the master’s program in only one year of graduate school as opposed to two.
This proved to be an incredible financial hack: it allowed me to take half of my graduate courses while being an undergraduate student, which meant I paid tuition at the undergraduate tuition rate. By choosing to remain in state I once again avoided taking out any student loans and was able to live at home for one more year. Although I was itching to get out on my own, I was willing to live at home rent-free for one more year until I completed my master’s.
This was also the first summer I had managed to accumulate some savings thanks to finally being conscious of my spending. I landed an internship at a data analytics company near my house, which paid me $15/hr for up to 23 hours per week.
Senior Year Financials:
Earnings at Data Analyst Internship: $9,000
Net Worth: $4,000
2016 – Graduate School
The month before I started graduate school I chose to take a full time position at the company I had my internship with, giving me a modest salary of $52,000 and by far the most money I had seen in my life. This decision to work full time and go to school full time – a decision I wrestled with for a while – is ultimately what allowed me to save over $30,000 during my final year of college. Working 40 hours per week and attending classes two nights per week in the evenings was manageable but I wouldn’t want this schedule for more than a year.
Aside from my car and phone payment each month, I was able to save virtually all my take home pay since I was still living at home with no rent payment. I also gained access to a 401(k) plan offered by my employer which offered a 6% match on contributions.
It was around the start of graduate school I also decided to launch this blog, publicly track my net worth, and share my ideas on financially savvy living. Here is a look at my final graduate school financials along with the bar chart that shows my exact net worth through my ten months of grad school:
Graduate School Financials:
Data Analyst savings/stock investments: $37,000
Net Worth: $31,000
There will be some people who say students who don’t live on campus or choose to have a job during college miss out on the “college experience”, but I humbly disagree. College is what you make of it. Living on or off campus doesn’t guarantee an inherently “good” or “bad” experience. Likewise, having a job gives you a glimpse of what real work is like outside of school, even if it’s just a retail job.
I have met plenty of friends during college without living on campus and while maintaining a job. I have also kept in touch with several friends from high school since I had the flexibility to visit them on the weekends. For me, the key to graduating debt free with a positive net worth really came down to a few crucial decisions:
- choosing to live at home all five years
- choosing to always hold some type of job while going to school
- choosing to pay as I go instead of taking on student loan debt
- applying for scholarships and grants each year
This was the approach I took to graduate college with a net worth of $30,000.
Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.
Zach's favorite free financial tool he's been using since 2015 to manage his net worth is Personal Capital. Each month he uses their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track his investments and ensure that he's on the fast track to financial freedom.
Although the bulk of his net worth is invested in index funds, his favorite place to invest in individual stocks is M1 Finance, a site that allows you to build a custom portfolio of stocks for free.
His favorite way to save money each month on his recurring bills is by using Trim, a free financial app that negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone bills with any provider on your behalf.
His favorite micro-investing app is Acorns, a free financial app that takes just 5 minutes to set up and allows you to invest your spare change in a diversified portfolio.
His favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.
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