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When I left off, I had just finished high-school early. Here’s how I did undergrad with no student debt.
Check back on the first post in this series to see how early money responsibilities and extreme drive set me up on my low school debt path.
I was lucky to go to high school in a state that offered scholarships to most students who graduated high school with a decent GPA. At least a few states have this program.
When I attended, I believe you had to have something like a 3.0 GPA coming out of high school to be eligible for the scholarship. And of course you had to attend a state college. Over time, the GPA requirements have increased, either due to increasing student interest or decreasing coffers of the scholarship, maybe both.
That wasn’t a problem for me. I don’t remember for sure, but, if it wasn’t for a few B’s in physical education classes I’m sure I would have had a 4.0. Maybe I did.
I forgot to mention this previously, I also managed to get out of traditional PE by taking the bus to a giant city pool and taking “diving.” I got a B in that in high school because I wouldn’t do backflips. I had my only ambulance ride as an elementary school age kid from doing backflips at a hotel pool. They thought I broke my neck… I didn’t, but I got stitches and still have a giant scar on the crown of my head to show for it. I also took yoga and pilates at the community college charter high school to satisfy PE requirements.
State College Scholarships
Anyway, I was eligible for the scholarship which paid something like $3,000 a semester for tuition and books. Maybe it paid a bit more, but, I know I didn’t have to pay anything out of pocket for a full course load. I may have paid a bit for some of the books.
I figured out quickly that the books they tell you to buy often aren’t needed. So I was cautious in buying textbooks. I would wait and see if it was really needed, and if possible, I would use a library version if only needed a few times.
I did have to buy things like a parking pass. It was important to me to be able to park close, and not have a 40 minute trek to campus. My laptop was HEAVY back then. Speaking of a laptop, that was my high school graduation gift from my dad. That thing had to have weighed 20 pounds.
Early planning, setting goals, not wasting time
Sometime while still in high school I decided I would be a pharmacist.
It was not my dream job. I had no dream job.
I have no idea how I managed to be so practical. It’s kind of sad in way. I knew at 16 that work sucked. This probably speaks to why the FIRE community grabbed my attention so easily.
So I knew work sucked. But I knew I would have to work. My father is a pharmacist also, so I had some introduction to the profession. Based on my experience, pharmacist seemed like the best job to guarantee a good salary without loads of debt and tons of years in school.
I didn’t want to be a nurse because…”touching” people (little did I know the transitional phase pharmacy was in). And poop.
I didn’t want to be medical doctor, because that just seemed like too much of a commitment for something I wasn’t that excited about. Eight years minimum (an undergrad degree then med school)? Loads of debt? Hugely competitive? Nah.
But I liked science and medicine. I thought I wanted to live forever and maybe I could be a research scientist who helped destroy Alzheimer’s and made people (myself included) live longer. You could go into that kind of science as pharmacist. Plus, the money was good.
Of course, there’s more to the picture that I would consider if I had it to do all over again. There’s a good chance I would pursue nursing now as there are many more career paths (and income levels).
So I made up my mind. Pharmacy it was to be.
Before I had even started college, I started planning. I realized that it was possible to only do pre-requisite requirements for pharmacy school without a requirement for an undergraduate degree. I mapped out exactly what I would need for the only school I planned to apply to. I could do it in 2 years if I did it right.
Now, in theory, it’s 2 years worth of classes. In practice, it’s a different situation (and today, probably nearly impossible). Many of the classes I needed to take were actually traditional 3rd year classes based on prerequisites.
Luckily, based on the workload I had completed at the community college charter high school, I didn’t have to do many of the basics. For example, I had taken a sign language class at the community college satisfying my foreign language requirement. All those ceramics classes fulfilled another “well rounded” part of the prerequisite requirements, though I can’t remember what.
My math classes at the community college (and skills testing) placed me into only needing calculus as a university level math class.
I declared a biochemistry major as it was closest to the track of classes I had to take.
Somehow my science background hadn’t gotten as much attention through the charter high school. Likely because I completed all that was required in my first two years of high school (and I hadn’t taken anything that was NOT required). So all of my science classes were started at the 101 level (chemistry, biology, physics).
Continuing on the scholarship track
On top of my state academic scholarship, I continued to apply for and earn other scholarships. I earned one through my college at the university based on GPA, maybe $500-$1000 3 out of 4 semesters of undergrad. My economics professor nominated me for a scholarship through that department as well. I think these things kept all of my extra expenses covered (even the parking tickets when I was running late and parked at a meter.. which would expire while I was still in class).
I’m not going to say that everyone would be so lucky. Yes I worked really hard, and was fully deserving based on the qualifications. But, I was also something of a minor novelty. Having started University shortly after turning 17 (I couldn’t even, technically, sign my own legal documents, luckily no one noticed) the professors who I always made a point of interacting with noticed my being different. I’m sure that helped in say, my economics scholarship.
This wasn’t all a smooth ride. Trying to cram 2 years of full load coursework in mostly sciences, many of which were third year level classes wasn’t easy.
On more than one occasion, I ended up on waiting lists to get in to classes that I had to have to keep myself on track. I would panic! God forbid I miss out on ONE single class that would set back this entire carefully crafted plan!
Typically, this is where my relationships with my professors came in handy. I had always made a point of trying to speak to professors. Use their office hours, clarify questions in class, etc. I would let them know the trouble I was having and they would help to make sure if a spot opened up I got it (and people drop out of classes like flies, so a spot always did come open).
These same relationships I established are also what I called on to write recommendation letters for pharmacy school. Being so young, I didn’t have a lot of options on who to ask for recommendation letters from.
And then there’s always risking that you’ll not do well on a class. I think I failed my first physics test (I’m not sure what was up with this class, but the people who had taken physics in high school did ok, those who hadn’t, bombed). It was my first semester. If I remember right I dropped that class and quickly picked up something else (maybe that public speaking class I hated?).
You can’t afford to do this many times if you’re keeping on a strict schedule. The next time around I took advantage of any free tutoring offered, and I think squeaked by with a B.
And of course, I was steering this ship all on my own
I did the planning. I did the paying. If I were to fail, it was all on me. At least until I was 18, I continued to get the allowance type stipend through my grandparents via my Dad as described previously. Actually, because “I was doing so well and being so responsible” this stipend situation continued even in to pharmacy school. I think it was about $300 a month. Planned correctly, and without rent, that can go a long way.
I definitely had help from parents and grandparents, but it wasn’t anything crazy. I still had to do a lot of planning and budgeting on my own. All that really helped set me up to make good money decisions ongoing. I was always acutely aware of what I would be giving up by making certain money choices.
Outside of school I continued to live cheap
While doing this I still maintained my “living” with my grandparents. That mostly meant sleeping there. I did the bulk of my “living” at my now husband’s place. I’ll admit, he paid for most of the dinner groceries. I’d buy the grocery load now and then. I continued to buy items for meal prepping and carried around a giant lunchbox so I could take food to school without having to buy from cafes or whatever.
My favorite place to study (and this continued through all my educational years) was coffee shops. There was a particular coffee shop with wifi I would park myself at. I’d buy one cup of coffee and pay 50c for a refill now and then. I spent a lot of time there.
I did have a job… which I’ll detail in my next post.
Regina is That Frugal Pharmacist. She’s a PharmD, mother to a son with cancer, breadwinning wife, personal finance enthusiast, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. Regina’s single-income household has been debt-free, including her home, since she was 28 years old.
Her money approach is “holistic financial health.” She encourages mindful spending, awareness of the non-monetary costs of choices, and aligning personal values with money habits. Regina sees a frugal lifestyle and mindset as an important part of environmental stewardship. As such she’s interested in ongoing efforts towards self-sufficiency and sustainability.