Our Family’s Strategy for Paying Cash for College

Paying for College / Monday, August 12th, 2013

For those of you who are visiting the blog because you saw our appearance on the Today Show…welcome!

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Some Background

Family Day at KU

When our oldest daughter, Lindsey, went to college three years ago, we had the goal of putting both her and her younger brother through college using as little debt as possible. Ideally none. That was a big goal because we had very little saved for that purpose.

Lindsey is now entering her senior year of college, and we’ve been able to meet our goal. We’ve paid cash for her first three years of school, with enough set aside for the fourth.

For us, the key to having done that is what I think of as our All of the Above Strategy for paying for college. Meaning it wasn’t one big thing, but a combination of different money-saving and money-making methods. And while many of them don’t seem significant on their own, taken together they’ve resulted in a debt-free college education.

What Our All of the Above Strategy Looks Like

The All of the Above Strategy involves combining as many money-saving and money-making methods as possible. Think of it as a check list, and the more boxes you can check, the greater your success in keeping college costs to a minimum.

For our family, the All of the Above Strategy has included the following:

Choosing an Affordable School

An affordable school has probably gone the farthest in keeping our college expenses in check.

Lindsey chose The University of Kansas, which has both affordable tuition and a 4-year tuition compact, which guaranteed her tuition wouldn’t rise while she was there. She didn’t choose KU solely for financial reasons; it was a good fit for her in a number of ways. And she had at least one less expensive option on the table. But KU’s affordability was a big part of the equation when it came time for her to make a final decision.

If every available University seems to be way out of your price range, and you’re not sure about getting a loan, then online school may be the answer. This is an alternative that allows you to save a significant amount of money on room and board as well as commuting prices. If you’re already traveling to work and making payments on a vehicle, the last thing you want is a massive loan for room and board on top of it. Going online will allow you to obtain high-level degrees and to save money in the process.


Lindsey developed the ability to research and skillfully apply for scholarships, which made a big impact of the cost of her education. She earned one large, renewable scholarship from KU that covered about half of her tuition. She supplemented that with smaller KU scholarships (from the School of Journalism, Honors Program, & Office of Study Abroad), and also with outside scholarships from her sorority and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters.

(Note: For a great book on paying for college with scholarships, see Ben Kaplan’s How to Go to College Almost for Free.)


Lindsey has worked summers during both high school and college. She’s also had part-time campus jobs during the school year. That income has allowed her to cover all of her personal expenses, like gas, clothing, eating out, entertainment, Target runs, etc. Basically, my husband and I pay for the large expenses like tuition after scholarships, room & board, books, and fees, and Lindsey covers the day-to-day stuff.

Extra income

About the time Lindsey started high school, I began blogging and eventually I began to earn a small amount of money through my blogging and some other online writing I was doing. Since this was new income for us, I consistently deposited my earnings – no matter how large or small the amounts – into an online savings account earmarked specifically for college.

(This practice of giving different streams of our income different jobs to do is part of our found money strategy, which has it’s own category on The Family CEO. You can read more about it here. You can also read a Q&A about how I make money blogging here.

Where That Left Us

A combination of the above strategies brought the net cost of college down to a manageable enough level that we’ve been paying for the balance out of our regular income.

We’ve taken this pretty much a semester at a time, and we’ve been able to stay ahead of the costs.

KU Dyche Hall Flickr photo courtesy of ensign_beedrill
KU Dyche Hall Flickr photo courtesy of ensign_beedrill

Other Boxes to Check

I’ve outlined the boxes that our family checked off in order to pay for college for our daughter, but there are others that can be part of the All of the Above Strategy as well. A couple of those include:

Community College

Community colleges are an especially affordable way to get up to two years of college credit. By combining two years at a community college with two years at a 4-year school, you can lower the cost of an education significantly. You can also earn community college credits in the summer, or in some cases through your high school, and these can shorten

Need-Based Financial Aid

While we didn’t qualify for any need-based aid, such as grants or need-based scholarships, some families that will be able to make that a part of their strategy; in some cases a very big part.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be important in determining how much need-based assistance your family will qualify for.

Family Specific Situations

Be sure to explore all options available to your particular situation. For instance, I’ve heard from some parents who work at a college that offers free or reduced tuition to their children.


So there you have an All of the Above Strategy for Paying for College.

While it may not be necessary or possible to check every single box, the more you can check off, the more success you’re likely to have.

The key is to get creative, don’t overlook small amounts of money, and take it one step at a time. That’s what our family has done so far, and that’s what we’ll be doing with my son’s education as well.

What are your thoughts and questions on paying for college? Do you have a strategy to add?  

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4 Replies to “Our Family’s Strategy for Paying Cash for College”

  1. Thanks Julie! I love all your posts, but I love the college cost-focused ones (we send my son off on Friday!). Our oldest isn’t currently in college, but did attend his freshman year. I think I’ve blurred over how much that one cost, but I’m pretty sure I can tell you off the top of my head almost down to the dollar what we’ve spent on this semester!

    Do you think that book would be helpful for parents with kids IN college (as opposed to planning while in HS)? We’ve got a really good start for our son, but we’ll need some focus and the “all of the above” approach to make it to the finish line.

    1. Hi Eileen. Yes, I thinks the book would be helpful. It’s a lot of information about scholarships and there are scholarships available no matter what year in college you are. My daughter has earned more scholarship money for her senior year than any other year.

      Good luck to you guys! And thanks for your comment and for being a reader. :)

  2. Julie, great piece and of course a wonderful appearance on The Today Show. Lindsey will be a great broadcaster!

    Books — one thing I did in college was to check my text books out at the library. Our library had many copies of each text book and you could check it out for the semester. Of course, that was long ago, and now most books might be electronic. You may be able to use your student login to the school library and access them.

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