It goes without saying that getting through college or university without taking on any debt can be a challenge. After all, student loan debt has surpassed $1.5 trillion. Rising tuition prices combined with the general cost of living can quickly add up to a final and hefty price tag once you’ve graduated.
However, I am convinced that regardless of the school you attend, it is possible to greatly reduce or even eliminate the amount of student debt you take on. By making smart financial decisions and hustling your way out of debt, students can greatly reduce the financial burden of debt later in life.
I’m fortunate to have attended a cheaper Canadian university. Annual tuition costs were between $8,000-$9,000. Despite the cost of tuition and living, I was thankfully able to graduate without any debt. All thanks to a mixture of part-time jobs, internships, and $20,000 worth of side hustles.
Now, I know my story takes place before graduation and not afterwards. However, I hope my story of side hustling as a university student provides some inspiration to accelerate your journey to becoming debt free!
A Part-Time Campus Job to Pay for College
In my first year of university, I fortunately had a lot of my school expenses covered by entrance scholarships. This income boost, plus some savings, meant that I was able to buckle down and focus on my grades and meeting people.
However, I realized that income was going to be a problem come next fall.
Luckily, the Starbucks inside my residence building was looking to hire for the following school year. It was even including paid training over the summer to get new hires up to speed. I decided to hand in my resume. Before I headed home for the summer, I was able to secure a campus job for the start of my second year.
Outside of learning how to make a pretty great latte, working here 10-20 hours a week provided a baseline income for me to survive on. Plus, I was able to snag free food and beverages from my workplace all the time. That was another frugal win for me (and my hungry housemates).
It was a decent start. But as I learned more about personal finance and the true math behind debt, I decided I was going to avoid debt no matter what it took.
Catching the Money-Making Bug
My quest to avoid debt inevitably lead me to one of the greatest hubs of information on the internet: Reddit.
I had been using Reddit for several years to look at memes and procrastinate, but it was the discovery of the r/SideHuslte and r/LeanFire communities that truly caused me to think about diversifying my income. These communities are full of people actively trying to improve their income through side gigs, investing, and frugality. After discovering those communities, it didn’t take long before I was trying to make additional money outside of my regular Starbucks job.
Using side-hustles to pay for college
The first small hustle I started was to flip textbooks online whenever someone on my campus needed a particular book. It was incredibly easy to find free or cheap PDF versions of online textbooks. I would then sell them to students for cheap, undercutting the actual campus bookstore in the process.
Definitely not kosher, but hey. Maybe textbook companies shouldn’t charge students $300+ a book … I digress.
This wasn’t a huge money-maker, but it helped spark the interest in increasing my income. I was quick to look for more opportunities!
Paid Internships and Remote Work
Paid internships can be difficult to come by. But finding relevant work experience as a student is one of the most important things you can do. If you want to avoid working a dead-end job or going into a field you won’t enjoy, it truly pays to be proactive.
I studied psychology for my degree. At that point in time, however, I knew I was more interested in marketing. So I aggressively applied to every paid marketing internship in the area that I could find!
It took sending out dozens of emails and landing a few interviews. But I eventually secured a four month summer term at a digital advertising agency in the city. The pay was $16/hour, and my job would involve helping with the setup and monitoring of paid advertising campaigns for business owners.
My job involved supporting an account manager with creating and monitoring campaigns. Over the course of 4 months, I was able to learn about how to effectively advertise online and to help businesses grow.
At the end of my internship, I was actually presented with the chance to continue working with my employer in a remote position while I finished my degree. The remote job also had the potential to pay a commission based on the performance of our advertising campaigns.
Between working my internship a few hours a week from home and still picking up shifts at Starbucks, I was able to make anywhere from $1,000-$2,000 each month. However, I was still interested in learning more and making more money.
Digital Marketing Freelancing
As it turned out, one of my roommates had also landed an internship where he ran paid advertisements. At the time, the whole ‘start a digital marketing agency’ side hustle idea was also booming in popularity on the internet.
We decided to take the skills we had learned from our internships (and my ongoing remote work) and to pitch some clients ourselves and people we knew in our network.
This whole side hustle took some time to get off the ground. We eventually managed to find a business owner who needed help with their online ads for a patio furniture store. This helped increase my student income even more, as well as enhance my knowledge of digital marketing.
This additional monthly income of $500-$1,000, plus my other income streams, meant I could get by each month while still saving enough to pay for tuition each semester.
I ultimately sacrificed some of my grades and study time to work.
But focusing on increasing my income gradually became more rewarding to me than attending class. Especially since I’ve never been a massive fan of school!
By the time I was finishing my third year of undergrad, I decided I wanted to try something new. I wanted to build something that would have a longer-lasting impact on my finances compared to an hourly side hustle or commission gig.
Since I was interested in marketing and have always enjoyed writing, I eventually decided to start my own blog!
Creating This Online World
Now, I will preface this section by saying that if you need quick cash, do not start a blog. I think blogging is an incredibly rewarding and potentially lucrative outlet. However, you truly have to put in months of hard work before you start to see any kind of return. And you’re looking at years of work if you want to really generate some revenue.
There are anomalies to this rule, of course, but I am not one of them!
I decided to start blogging as I entered my fourth and final year of university. Nowadays, This Online World reaches more than 30,000 monthly readers. However, when I first started out, I knew nothing about growing an online presence unless. Since I wasn’t able to spend money on advertising, I was stuck at square one.
My blog was jumbled mess of content and was also an eye-sore.
Regardless, I chugged along with content creation and started to slowly network with other finance bloggers, and gradual growth occurred.
It still took me more than 5 months to steadily break the $100/month mark in blogging revenue. It took more than a year to reach the $500/month mark. Only after nearly 2 years of blogging at This Online World, I’m finally approaching the $1,000/month mark when I break down advertisement income and affiliate sales.
Outside of allowing me to network and meet some pretty awesome people in the personal finance space, this additional income has helped me to become 100% location independent since graduating. I’m currently working remotely for the same company I worked for back in school. At the same time, I’m blogging and freelance writing to support myself during my travels.
I know that most of my story took place during my undergrad and I’m a (very) recent graduate. However, I hope my story about avoiding debt helps inspire or assist others to avoid debt themselves to to accelerate the rate at which they can become debt free.
Diversifying your income in any way you can is incredibly powerful. We’re also living in a time where it’s never been easier to start a side hustle.
It doesn’t matter if you start blogging, pick up a part-time job, use a gig app to find extra work on the side, or invest your money: just do something. Even earning a few hundred dollars a month in extra income can dramatically improve one’s finances.
Just remember to start out with something reasonable and to remain focused.
Pick one money making idea, play to your strengths, and put in the time to turn your idea into a profitable side hustle.
I almost gave up on my blog after about 6 months. But it’s truly remarkable at where you can get with some persistence and just a touch of luck!
This is a guest post by Tom, a recent university graduate from Toronto, Canada. Tom is currently location independent, and runs the blog This Online World – a personal finance website dedicated to helping people make and save more money by using the internet and technology.