How I Graduated from University Debt-Free

This is an article from Sean Cooper, Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer.

Saving for university is difficult, especially in Ontario, which has the highest tuition fees in Canada. In 2010, undergrads in Ontario paid average tuition fees of $6,307, a 5.4 per cent increase from 2009. When I started university I had no savings and I didn’t have a part-time job. So how did I manage to graduate debt-free? Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.

Part-Time Jobs

Working two part-time jobs is a great way for students to earn income. By working 25 hours a week you can earn $300, which will help pay for next semester’s tuition. While going to university I worked on campus – the pay was great, the hours were flexible, and it was a great opportunity to network. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement, so be sure to take advantage of that, too.

Summer Work

The bulk of my income came from working full-time during summer. By working 50 hours a week, I was able to earn $10,000, enough to cover next year’s tuition fees. Be sure to attend career fairs and apply for internships. Internships are great because they pay better than part-time work and can potentially lead to a full-time job.

Buying Used Textbooks

You can save 50% off retail prices by buying your books second-hand; I saved $300 a semester. My university, Ryerson, had a used book store where students could buy and sell textbooks. Be sure to sell your textbooks at the end of the semester; that way, depending on how much you sell them for, the textbooks may not cost you a dime in the end.


If you have strong grades, tutoring is a great opportunity to get paid to share knowledge with fellow students. Most universities hire tutors for difficult subjects like finance and accounting or have a tutoring service where you can set your own hourly rate and schedule.

Eliminating Wasteful Spending

Being debt-free requires discipline. Two of the biggest expenses for students are food and transportation. While some students can spend $100 a week on fast food and coffee, I brown-bagged my lunch and saved a bundle – I estimate I saved $5,200 a year. Transportation is another way you can save. Instead of buying a transit pass or driving, why not bicycle or walk? Besides getting exercise, you can save over $1,000 a year.

Bursaries and Scholarships

Don’t be shy to apply for scholarships or bursaries –they are a great way to help with the steep cost of education. While scholarships are only awarded to a select few, bursaries are great because they are awarded based on financial situation, not just academic performance. I applied for bursaries and received $500 each year.

Closing Thoughts

Through hard work and careful spending, I was able to graduate with money in the bank; meanwhile, some of friends will be paying off their student loans at least for the next five years. Graduating debt-free is a rewarding experience, and now I can concentrate on buying my first house and planning the rest of my life.

About the Author: Sean Cooper is a single, 20-something year old, first time home buyer located in Toronto. He has experience in the financial sector as a Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce in business management from Ryerson University.

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Sean Cooper

Sean Cooper is a single, 20-something year old, first time home buyer located in Toronto. He has experience in the financial sector as a Pension Analyst, RESP administrator and Income Tax Preparer. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce in business management from Ryerson University. You can read some of his other articles here.
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Dean Jones
4 years ago

I think it’s awesome that you graduated debt free. I agree that students decline getting part-time jobs when they totally can! But to each their own. Some people are go-getters, some people just aren’t. Capitalism paves its way and the people who actually work rather than complain aren’t left to live on the grubble! Anyway, I think you should be proud of yourself. Students who work hard during university will be the ones who buy their first investment property before others, and in the long run will be less stressed financially.

7 years ago

“While going to university I worked on campus – the pay was great…”

“In 2010, undergrads in Ontario paid average tuition fees of $6,307, a 5.4 per cent increase from 2009.”

Hmmm…wonder what the correlation is…

(Hint: you paid for your own great pay.)

7 years ago

I know this is an old post, but Sean, isn’t your biggest expense Rent/Shelter?

Poor Student
9 years ago

I am only in first year but my first goal is to graduate debt free. I have additional goals of having savings and investments left over but first and foremost I do not want any debt when I am done school. I would love it if when I go to buy my first house that my mortgage will be my only debt.

10 years ago

Graduating debt free is possible for some. However, the basic costs for university are: 10k for tuition (engineering at u of Toronto), 6500 for residence, 2000 for food(250 per month), 500 for books and other incidentals. Maybe 700 for a laptop, 500 for transportation back home… You get the idea. 10k is a GOOD summer income, but what about the other 10k? These campus part time jobs are only for people who can generate financial need…. And apparently going 40k in debt is not a need. Lastly, some students must study during the summer, purely because there was no space in the class during the school year. In short, the author was really lucky, because I did the exact same things. Keep in mind, I have no animosity here, I just want people to be realistic. The only thing that saved me was a year off internship that paid real market salary.

Frugal Greenie
10 years ago

Because it hasn’t been mentioned…I had a fulltime job and completed both my BSc undergrad as well as my MBA while I was working. How? Join the military and get a free education, they pay you to go to school, and employ you during the summer semesters. (There are of course caveats and qualifications, etc, etc etc). I then completed the mandatory work committment and then got a job with an employer that felt that supporting employees’ personal development was important. I got my MBA paid for too by my employer as well. If you think I’m unique – my spouse did the same thing for both his undergraduate (Engineering in the military) and his MSc as well. Opportunities do exist – you have to find them.

Never have had a bit of student debt. Did have to do one hell of a lot of work though. It was really ugly at times. Glad to have both the work and life experiences that came with it.

michael lee
10 years ago

The key is to take as many AP classes as you can in high school so you can get the credit in college. This way you eliminate a lot of the extra classes you would have to take that has nothing to do with your major.

In high school I took AP Calc, AP Bio, AP Eng, AP History and took all my SAT II for math, science and japanese. During my last year in high school I took math classes at Stanford for college credit.

I was able to go to UCLA as a sophmore right off the bat. Saved my parents a LOT of money, but I worked my butt off in high school.

10 years ago

I went to school full time and lived at home, and still left with a debt. the good part though, is the debt was fairly manageable, and I’m a couple months away from it being gone for good

My biggest thing from university, was the text books. I’ve never flushed so much money down the toilet then buying books that you “HAD” to have, and the “NEWEST” edition. My advice? Grab last year’s version, for the firesale price, and work from that. Unless your in a bleeding edge field, the information is the same!

10 years ago

I agree that engineering can have a higher workload, which makes it difficult to hold down one or two part time jobs during the school year.
During the summer break though, the sky’s the limit. Engineering student or co-op positions start out at $18/hr and I’ve seen them as high as $30/hr with accomodation allowances.

10 years ago

Food and transportation can be big expenses, but only after accommodation. The lucky ones (like me) that can live with their parents while they get their degree will save thousands on rent or mortgage payments. It also drastically reduces the food bill since parents usually provide meals. A monthly student buspass only cost me about $60/month. I bought all my books used whenever possible, and sold them for very little loss. There were a few books I couldn’t sell so I lost maybe about $200 per year.
In Alberta we are fortunate to have the Rutherford Scholarship, which pays up to $2500 if you can maintain your grades over 80% in 5 courses throughout high school. High grades also qualified me for a scholarship offered by the University that paid for half my first year’s tuition. So doing well in high school meant all I had left to pay in tuition fees was about $13000, which I easily earned working part-time during the year and full time during the summers. I didn’t party much or buy a lot of drinks, and mostly brought my own lunches.

So that’s how I got my Bsc debt-free. And bought a car partway through as well. Hard work, and living with parents are the key things.

My wife also worked hard in high school and got some scholarships, but being from Saskatchewan she didn’t get the big Rutherford one. And since she had to stay in residence, her costs were a lot higher. Still, she graduated with only a small student loan which she quickly paid off before interest began to accumulate.