How to Avoid Student Loans

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We all read about the student loan debt crisis, or near-crisis, and still, business is booming. Student loan debt stands at over $1 trillion across 40 million Americans, and debt has climbed 84% since the recession.

But it's not just the paying it off part that hurts. It's the fact that if you're paying student loans, you're probably not saving money for other things, like retirement. Almost 70% of people under 29 have yet to start saving for retirement, which is a really bad thing considering that this generation is facing a total absence of defined-benefit pensions and, if you ask me, a questionable future for Social Security.

It might seem like a long way off and not that important, but considering how many years of your life debt payment can drain away, it's something to think about. The fact is, student loans, which can seem like a panacea that will help you be awesome and successful, can have seriously negative consequences for your financial future -- especially if you really want to do cool, fun things that don't always pay very well, like become a writer, start a charity, or work as a photojournalist in Botswana. 

But what are the alternatives? Here's how to avoid student loans, in five difficult but worthwhile steps. 

Step 1: Steel yourself 
Now, you might be thinking that education is immeasurably valuable, and thus it's worth it to suffer with the burden of loans. I agree with you wholeheartedly that school is worth suffering for, but the stress of an unmanageable financial burden can be too much for even the most resilient person to bear. 

And people are really struggling. Borrowers between 25 and 49 have a 12% default rate on their loans, and that doesn't include the people who are suffering in silence and just barely getting by. 

There has to be a better way. It's not easy, but it's there. Keep in mind that you can do it, and with consistency and the right strategy you will succeed. 

Step 2: What do you really need? 
Now is the time to separate the nice-to-haves from the desperately needed. Do you need to eat? Yes. Do you need to go to your dream school? I don't know, but at least try to think about it objectively before saying yes. Do you need to live on campus and pay exorbitant prices for a meal plan? Perhaps not. 

After you whittle away the luxuries -- and these might encompass all of the above or something completely different depending on your life and needs -- you can realistically determine how much money you'll need and what exactly you'll need it for. This amount should cover everything: living expenses, tuition, commuting costs, books, etc. 

This is really just a sneaky way of telling you to make a budget. How much money will your dreams cost you? 

The more money you can put toward your education, the better. So, focus on the critical stuff and forget about the rest. This should give you a pretty solid goal to work toward. 

Step 3: Find alternatives 
Once you have a number, you can get to work. 

Your first order of business should be to exhaust every conceivable source of financial aid and scholarships you can find. Whether you get a full ride or a $1,000 check for your books, free money is definitely worth your time.   

Call your financial aid office and ask them about aid programs or scholarships you might qualify for. If you've gotten a better offer from another school, go back and see if you can't renegotiate the package. You would be amazed at what asking nicely can achieve. 

An outside scholarship search is also critical. There are countless scholarships covering every possible demographic and area of study. Find them online (Google is a great starting point) and apply with enthusiasm. You might just find yourself awash in funding.

Step 4: Consider a job 
For many adult learners, this is obvious, but depending on your situation it might not be (and if you're a medical or architecture student, the idea itself might cause your blood pressure to spike). 

Need inspiration? Philip Glass, the now-famous composer, worked as a cab driver until he was 42. Anything helps, whether it's a job at the campus bookstore or a side-business as a virtual assistant. Especially if you're just starting out, working can not only help fund your education, but it will help you build some seriously useful skills, like time management, resilience, and the ability to have small talk around the water cooler.

I would advise against working for free, unless it's the equivalent of interning for Karl Lagerfeld. Even then, see if you can't squeeze the guy. After all, company names on your resume are great, but the demonstrated ability to hold down a job and make a meaningful contribution (and take home a paycheck!) are even better.  

Step 5: Struggle
None of this will be easy. You might have to revise your plans, and you might feel like you're in a constant uphill battle for several years. Finding alternative ways to finance your education will take time and effort, and will probably involve far fewer spring break parties in Mexico than you might have liked. But it will get you what you want in the end, and it will get it for you without the agony of debt hanging over your head.

That way, when you're done with school -- no matter what your degree -- you will finish with the greatest, most potent luxury of all. You will have options

And let me tell you, that is what's truly priceless. 

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