The Ultimate College Hacking Guide

The Problem of Student Loans

Basically people owe A LOT of money in student debt. This debt can cause extreme stress for its borrowers years down the line. Student loans keep people from getting married, buying houses, pursuing new opportunities and financial independence. Most would agree that having a huge amount of debt having over your head can really put a damper on your lifestyle.

  • Current U.S. Student Loan Debt = est. $1.53 Trillion
  • 1 in 4 Americans have student loan debt: An est. 44.7 Million people
  • Average student loan debt amount = $37,172
  • Average student loan payment = $393/month  (source)

In short, student loan debt is a huge problem that does not seem to be getting any smaller.

Student Loans

How I Hacked My Way Through College

I got my B.A and Masters without taking a drop of student loans, and no, my parent’s did not pay for all of it either.

I also did not do the “traditional college experience” which many people would not be willing to forgo. Was it worth it? Maybe. It’s hard to say. But I wanted to share with you how I did it.

  1. HOPE scholarship/In-state school: I grew up and went to High School in Georgia which made me eligible for the HOPE scholarship. I had to attend an in-state college which limited the colleges I could even consider. However, the scholarship amount was too good to pass up. There are other states that offer similar programs as well: Florida, New Mexico, West Virginia and Tennessee all have similar scholarship programs. More states offer significant financial and student aid to those who meet their requirements and stay in-state for school. HOPE covered the bulk of my tuition and was the biggest contribution to my college expenses. A simple google search can help you find out if your state offers a similar program. 

  2. Living at home: Since I went to an in-state college I decided to live at home rent-free for most of my college career. My parents were kind enough to let me live rent-free at home which significantly reduced the amount I had to pay in housing, food and even entertainment costs. I did have to buy a car to do the commute. I found a $4,300 car (ten years old). It took a hefty amount of my savings at that point but was a great investment. It lasted me for 5 years.

  1. Work: I got a job before I even started college. It was not easy and quite stressful at times. I was lucky enough to be able to arrange my school schedule to accommodate work and vice versa but there were times where I was running back and forth:) I also took some online classes which allowed to have even more flexibility. I used the money from work to pay for whatever HOPE did not cover as well as my books and other fees. I was also able to put some money into a ROTH IRA and start saving up for graduate school. I completed my B.A not only with no debt but with money in the bank and a car.

  1. Summer and Mini-mesters: With my CLEP and AP credits I had quite a few of my non-major credits completed. The first summer I decided to knock more out. Since I worked in a school during the year I took advantage of the summer semester to double up on my classes. I took 24 credits. How? I took 4 courses (the limit I was allowed to enroll according to the University) and then took another 4 in community college. Then I transferred them over. It took some research to make sure that all the credits I took at CC would transfer properly. A few of those courses I took online as well to lessen the physical workload. Mini-mesters are a small semester tacked on during winter or spring break. They usually consist of enrolling in one class all day for one week. Its a great way to get a specific course or per-requisite in. What is the purpose of stuffing so many credits into a short period of time? While colleges charge per credit they also charge certain fees per semester. Every semester you spend in college will cost you more. By taking less semesters in school you will save yourself significant amount of money. In my University, mini-mesters did not have separate semester fees so you only paid for the actual credit.

  1. Used Books: Textbooks are expensive!! I used a variety of used book stores, rentals etc to buy whatever I could second hand. I looked at message boards from former students and emailed professors to see how important it was too have a newer edition of a textbook. In many cases, an older edition had no significant differences and was half the price. After the semester was over I tried to sell many of the textbooks again. Some I was able to, some I was not. I did not recoup the the price at all! But every little bit helps!

My college experience was not traditional at all. I am not sure if that made an impact on my life today. Maybe yes, maybe no. There is no way to know. I do know that no one has asked me in a job interview about the details of my college experience as it pertains to where I got my credits or where I lived during college. The intangibles of college are hard to quantify. Perhaps if I had lived on campus I would have made some connections that would have helped me later in life. Perhaps it would have just been a waste of money. Maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard to pay for school I would have had more experiences or more time to excel with my schoolwork. Perhaps the experience of working with teenagers in a school during those years was a better experience than any college experience. There is not way to know.

What I do know is that I have never had to deal with the stress of debt. When I was unemployed for a stretch I was able to focus on things that we NEEDED (shelter and food) without defaulting on debt that would have haunted me for years. I am extremely grateful o my former self for making those choices.

Hacking college is not for everyone, There are people who feel that the college experience was the greatest experience of their life. There are opportunities available in college that are not available anywhere else. I think that the college setting is the quickest and easiest way for someone to change their life than anywhere else. For many people, the opportunity is literally life-changing and worth any money and debt in the world. For a lot of people, not as much. It’s hard to quantify what going to college can do for you. However, spending and borrowing tons of money for something that may or may not pan out is not a great move. There are ways to cut down on the amount of student loans you have to borrow.

The Experts Weigh In

Student loan debt is widely discussed and analyzed in the personal finance twitter “world”.

I posted this comment on my timeline:

I read a lot of PF blogs and I want to say: IF YOU ARE GOING TO COLLEGE OR IN COLLEGE: DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO REDUCE YOUR STUDENT LOANS. Take extra classes each semester, get a job, live on less, take out less. Starting adulthood with… Click To Tweet

I then asked:

A/o else have ideas?

And they did have ideas! Below are some of the responses I got from the great people of Twitter:

“Take dual enrollment & AP classes if you can. Do first couple of years at a community college. And make sure you live like a broke college student so you’re not a broke college grad.”


CLEP tests. Saved me a few hundred $$$


Look at options to get college credit in high school. Dual credit courses, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate. They’re often cheap or free, and the more early credits you get, the fewer you pay (and borrow for) later. Just make sure they’re usable credits.


I’m late to the party but SCHOLARSHIPS!!! So many scholarships actually have a small applicant pool because nobody takes the time to apply. Especially scholarships that have a brief written component; do a good job and your chances skyrocket!


Take AP classes in High School. If you get a certain score, the credits will transfer over to college and you may be able to graduate a semester or even a year early. Apply for local scholarships, go to college locally so you can live at home.


Apply for scholarships over and over again. Not just senior year of high school. And small ones!


I’d say college choice is a huge factor. If your family has an extra half million sitting around, a private college is a luxury you can afford. If not, unless you get a big scholarship, go instate. 99% of employers will take a state grad as fast as they’ll take an Ivy.


See if you can get class credits for an internship. Get ahead in the workforce before graduating. Perfect world, a paid internship to help keep costs down as well.


While I don’t recommend enlisting in the Army National Guard SOLELY to get out of or avoid student loan debt, IF one is ALREADY so inclined, however: … Some individual states also have even more generous programs. SPC Johns, #TXARNG ’89-95


If you are in a STEM degree, consider summer internships and CO-OPs. CO-OPs might go by a different name these days. They consist of taking a semester off to extend an internship. STEM interns can earn $12-$20 per hour. Use that money to avoid debt when you go back to class.


My son watched us struggle under the weight of st. loans and was determined not to go that route. He chose an inexpensive but well respected program in his field and earned a pile of scholarship money in bowling tournaments of all things. He’s covered most of his tuition himself.


3 Containers and Brown Fruit

What do you do with Brown Fruit?

Save them, of course!

What do you do with brown fruit?

Save them for smoothies, stock or dessert by freezing them.

Reducing Food Waste in Your Home


Frugality and zero-waste often go in hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, my taste buds and my kids pickiness often work hard to overcome my desire to save food and eliminate extra waste. I pack lunches for my kids and every other day (consistency is not their strong point) I unpack those same lunches from their bags. The apples are brown and the carrots are hard. A whole week can go by with brown apples being unpacked from lunch boxes, when on the 8th day I don’t pack them apples the ensuing tantrums are vicious. So apples go in their lunch every day and very often come home brown.

The frugal side of me cringes if they go in the trash yet the picky side me refuses to eat them.

I have the same issue with soft vegetables, slightly browning bananas, mushy fruit and browning greens.

Freezing for Zero Waste

So I keep 3 Containers in my freezer. They basically live there.

  1. Stock
  2. Smoothies
  3. Apples.

Fruit and vegetables that are “gross” to me and my family (i.e. mushy, hard, brown) yet not moldy go into one of the 3 containers.

I have a container where I put my vegetable stock- leftover carrots, browning greens, etc go into this box. I also put carrot peels, the strings from my celery and other scraps. These sit in my freezer until I need a new chicken or vegetable stock. Occasionally I have to add some vegetables but more often than not, some water and these scraps make a delicious stock. I will buy some chicken necks or bones and make a flavorful chicken stock as well. These get frozen into individual containers and are the base of many soups, stews, sauces and other dishes. Low-sodium and basically free!

I love smoothies and they are a great snack. Frozen fruit can be really pricey though! Browning fruit go into a container just for that purpose. A lot of bananas end up there but sometimes berries, dates, kiwi, and pears go as well. When it’s time for a smoothie, I hack some pieces off, add a liquid and a green (basil or parsley) and a delicious smoothie is born. All made from items that may have ended up in the trash!

I don’t like apples in my smoothies but my kids love apples (sometimes). Browning apples get placed into their own container where I save them until I have enough for a cobbler, pie, apple sauce or apple cider. Fruits that would have been thrown in the trash are saved until they are useful once more. I actually made homemade apple butter once! It took forever and I don’t know if I would have the patience to do it again but it was delicious!

No More Guilt!

This system also assuages my guilt for not eating imperfect fruit (I am very picky to the taste and texture of my fruit and vegetables). It also helps me curb my inclination to buy less fruit and vegetables to have in the house. The frugal side of me has a hard time spending money on a variety of fruits and vegetables if I think it may not got eaten. But its really much better for myself and my children to have these options readily available for them to eat. By reducing the amount of food that goes to waste, I can feel comfortable by fresh fruits and vegetables because I know they will get used-even if its not in the original way intended.

Do you struggle with eating healthy on a budget? It doesn’t have to be difficult!

Feast on a Budget

Holiday on a Dime

How to Create a Feast on A Budget

Big family meals. Tables laden with food. Drinks flowing. Money being spent. It’s holiday season and a time for celebrating. But the holidays can be a stressful time if you are on a strict budget. When you are living very carefully on the money that you have, extra expenses can really be a struggle. There are some who go all-out on Thanksgiving and don’t really care to spend extra on this once-a-year occasions but remember that if you are putting money on a credit card to pay for your expenses you will regret it later on. You don’t want to be paying for your Thanksgiving meal in February. The best way to tackle the large expenses of the holiday season is to put aside money for holidays all year round. I have an “envelope” for holiday expenses which I try to fill every month. But even with saving, money is finite and holidays are expensive. So….


7 tips to save a dime on your big holiday feasts:

  1. Serve soup. Starting a meal with a nice soup is a good way to fill up on something cheap and festive. You want your family and guests to fill up on the cheaper items first so that you can skimp on the more expensive stuff. Don’t get carried away and make a fancy, expensive soup with lots of ingredients! A simple cream of potato or zucchini soup is fitting start to an elegant meal but a very cheap and filling dish. Soup can also be easily frozen as leftovers (see #7).
  2. Serve bread and dips. A yummy (homemade) bread or rolls is a good, filling way to start the meal. Any plain bread recipe can be elevated with the addition of some roasted garlic or herbs. A simple tehina or hummus dip (can be homemade) to dip the bread in will get the meal started.
  3. Lighten up the sides. Many traditional side dishes are based on pretty cheap items- sweet potatoes, potatoes, stuffing etc. Cut down on the margarine, butter, salt and oil to make the vegetables less heavy. The cost savings may be minimal but the lighter version will be easier to swallow and will encourage guests to eat more of these vegetables. A light lettuce or tomato salad is another easy, cheap side dish.
  4. Shop around for the turkey and other main dishes. While it not exactly practical to shop around for the best deal on each ingredient- especially if you are cooking all week!- pick the most expensive or most used ingredient and find a deal on that. For thanksgiving, this will probably be the Turkey. If you save $1 dollar a pound on a ten-pound turkey, you will save $10. That is worth driving a little extra for! Keep an eye out for grocery stores offering coupons or deals on other more expensive ingredients like nuts, throughout the week.
  5. Cut down on drinks. Soda, punch, and juice add expense to your meal. Consider serving water or a homemade lemonade or sumac juice to cut down on costs and make your meal a little healthier. Some lemon slices or fresh mint in a pitcher of water make a festive addition to your table with very little cost.
  6. Sweet potato vs. pecan? While it may not be worth it for you to cut down on all expensive ingredients or dishes (Thanksgiving is one time a year, after all!) it may be worth it to cut down on the more expensive dishes on the menu. A smaller piece of pecan pie can be served next to a larger slice of sweet potato pie. The more expensive the ingredient- the more sparingly it should be used.
  7. Leftovers! It goes without saying (but we are saying it anyways)- save leftovers. Take the time after your exhausting day to properly pack up and fridge or freeze leftovers. Don’t leave all food to be eaten the next day. Freeze some dishes to keep for those days when supper is just not happening. Instead of ordering pizza, pull some leftovers out and you will be grateful you took the time to freeze it!

Do you have any tips to cut down on expenses for the big meal? Share on Twitter or leave a comment below!

If you need to save a dime while planning a meal you probably need to save more when grocery shopping. This one shopping hack will save you money at the grocery checkout.