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A debt-free college degree? It’s possible

Globe Staff/File

WASHINGTON — My husband and I have been sneaking high fives because, come this fall, all three of our children will be in college.

And, here’s the sweetest part: They’re all going to school with no debt.

We don’t come from money. We didn’t inherit cash because a relative died. There were no lottery winnings or strike-it-rich stock picks.

My husband and I were raised in low-income households. We’re first-generation college graduates. But as important as college was in pushing us up economically, we felt strongly about avoiding student loans for our children. Debt is a cuss word in our house.


Yet, I understand that, for many families, our pact of no student loans may not be realistic. There’s not enough money left over after the necessities to save for college. I get it that they see no other way than to take out loans.

But right now I’m appealing to the folks who have more than enough and whose children are still young. You know you earn too much, like we do, to qualify for need-based aid. And despite your hoping, it’s not guaranteed that your child will get a full ride to college based on merit.

You can experience what it’s like to get the college-account statement at the end of the summer and not have to sweat about where the money is coming from to pay it. You have time on your side.

You don’t have to be crazy rich to send your children to college debt-free. Here’s how we did it:

We lived well below our means. My husband and I are first-generation career professionals — he’s a manager in the federal government. As our income rose, we didn’t sacrifice saving for college (or our retirement) by elevating our lifestyle. We didn’t stretch our budget to get into the biggest house the bank said we could afford. We didn’t sink a lot of money into upgrading to new cars. We limited our eating out. We didn’t use shopping as a form of entertainment.


We used a tax-advantaged savings vehicle. Our first child was born in 1995, and two years later the 529 plan was created. We could set up an account, maintain ownership, and reap tax-free earnings as long as the money was used for qualified educational expenses.

When we started investing for college, our older daughter was 5, our son was 2, and we had a baby girl.

With $7,500 we pulled out of savings, we set up three 529 plans, putting $2,500 in each account to start.

We were dogmatic about saving. Using a college-savings calculator offered by Vanguard, we figured we would have just enough for a state school if we put away a little over $200 a month for each child. (For the oldest, since we started later than we should have, we made a one-time lump-sum contribution a few years after opening her account.)

After that, however, for the last 18 years we stuck to the calculated contributions for all three kids, never missing any payments. In fact, to make it easy for us, the 529 contributions were automatically withdrawn from our account twice a month.

We invested for growth. We knew the cost of college was increasing faster than inflation, so we couldn’t park money in a simple savings account.


Within the 529 plans we used age-based portfolios, which meant in the early years the money was invested aggressively (more stocks than bonds), and our investments became more conservative (shifting to more bonds and cash) as the children got closer to starting college.

By the way, as soon as they were old enough, the kids got summer jobs and were required to save their earnings to cover their books and most of their personal expenses.

We didn’t view in-state schools as a backup plan. Our children weren’t limited to where they could apply to college. However, we made it clear they couldn’t take out any loans and we weren’t going to either.

Our youngest is an incoming freshman at Towson University in Baltimore. She wants to be a special-education teacher. As she was applying to colleges, she told us that she didn’t see the point of spending all that money to go out of state when there were so many good colleges in Maryland that could train her to be a teacher.

Our son is returning to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County as a junior math major. And our oldest completes her social-work graduate program next May at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. A year and a half ago, she graduated from the University of Maryland-College Park. She wants to go into therapy helping troubled children.

We recently attended the new-student orientation at Towson. And when the administrators got to the financial-aid session, the discussion was dominated by questions concerning student loans. I teared up. I was just so grateful.


It felt incredibly liberating to be free from that worry.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.