How I graduated college with savings


graduated college with savings

When I was in high school, there was no way around it: I was college-bound. I always had pretty good grades but never was really passionate about any topic. I liked languages the most, because I was almost traveling away from the classroom. But math, literature and history all got me really bored.

So when I had to chose a major in college, I went for economics, which in France is the “middle way”. Not fancy like med school or law school, not too artsy like philosophy, which would have given my parents a stroke. My dad had lost his job the year before, so based on his income, I was lucky to get the highest state scholarship available.


I didn’t pay a cent for tuition and got about $400 to live per month. That is not a lot, but my rent at the university dorm was $150 and the rest went to food and leisure. I lived 800 miles away from my family and still managed to visit often. At the end of the first year, I passed, not because I loved it but because I hated to lose time, and working extra. During the summer, I applied to the Sorbonne University in Paris, and was accepted for second year.

I also started working at McD in Paris. While most people hate that job, I think I’ve never been happier as an employee! We were a good team of students, all enjoying the little extra income and happy to be there. Our boss was fun and often taking us out for drinks or paint-ball.


I knew life in Paris would be more expensive that second year, so I kept my job and still managed to get the scholarship for tuition (which is only about $1,000 per year anyway), and I lived for a few months in a very, very, very small room, on the 6th floor with no elevator, and no shower, that my grandparents offered me for free while I’d flat hunt. It was great to save money, but far from the university, my job at McD, and I had to shower at my dad’s or my mum’s, so that was an extra hassle. But Mid City University Accommodation was way out of budget so there was no other way around.

Soon I was able to rent a small studio for about $500 a month, complete with shower and kitchen, another luxury my little room was lacking. Joy!! I couldn’t be happier. When I look back, I think I would be unable to live where I lived today, but getting to be independent at 17, a college girl with a little extra income on the side, I felt like the queen of the world.


I spent my third year at the Sorbonne and got an equivalent to a Bachelor Degree in Economics. During that year I left McD to follow my boss at Haagen Dazs and scooped ice cream on the Champs Elysées. I also took a few extra shifts as a waitress in Disneyland, and tried telemarketing for three months. I worked in a sports store during the sales season, and often helped my mum supervising at her school, I also worked for 2 months for my aunt entering data in her database. That was a crazy year, with all those little jobs, and I was taking an extra load of classes, and sometimes my shift would finish at 2am and I would be in class the next morning at 8am.

I was close to burning out. So I looked for options for grad school. I could go to business school, via a pretty difficult exam, and spend the next two years there. They had a reputation that it was hard to get in, but a cruise once you were a student there. And there was an option to find a company that would sponsor your master and work for them in exchange, three days a week. The classes would be held the other two days. And I would get weekends again, instead of working 7 days! I dreamed about how nice it would be for a few days, and then put a study plan into action. Whenever I put my stubborn head to do something I really want, I succeed.


So my last two years as a student were spent in bliss. Working only 35 hours a week, including classes, for a big blue chip company that treated me really well, and paid fully for my $12,000 a year master in business. I know it seems really cheap but that is what top business schools run for in France, and to us, used to subsidized tuition, it is a lot of money.

In my class of 20, many did a first year in business school, while I stayed at university and joined them for the second and third year. Most of the students had taken on debt to finance the first year, when part-time company internships aren’t available. Some of them are still repaying their loans, 9 years out of school.

In my case, on the other hand, having that company pay for my tuition and give me about $1,200 per month as a stipend felt like a dream. I was used to my small student income from odd jobs, and it almost doubled in my last two years of business school. I spent those two years living much better than the first three, yet I always somehow kept a student’s way of life. I invited friends for dinner instead of going out, looked for free or cheap things to do, and in Paris it’s really easy to find, and traveled cheap, camping or couchsurfing.

At the end of those five years, I had about $30,000 in savings. I decided I had worked enough and deserved to see the world for a year. I chose to invest about $25,000 of those savings in a flat that would give me some $300 in rental income and live off my savings for twelve months.


I know that I am incredibly lucky, especially when comparing to students in the US who graduate with so much debt. I don’t think I would have gone into debt to finance any education, because the money you spend is pretty hard to make back. I would probably have started as a clerk in a bank instead of going to college and worked my way up from there, reaching after five years of hard work a higher level than a college graduate, and all of this debt free. The only reason I stayed in school was because it was free and I could see a value, but I find it hard to see value in a $150,000 degree.

This post was featured on the Save and Conquer, Financial Camaraderie, The Frugal Farmer, Everybody Loves Your Money, Carnival of Money Pros, Everybody Loves Your Money,Carnival of Personal Financethank you!

A 30 something French girl embarking on a journey towards Financial Independence. I blog about money, travel, simple and deliberate living, freedom and choices. You can find me on Twitter, Google+, or Reach Financial Independence's Facebook Page

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  1. jefferson says:

    i spent the majority of my college years working multiple jobs.. but i did manage to graduate with zero debt. for that, i feel very blessed.
    jefferson recently posted..Paying Off Debt – The Definitive GuideMy Profile

  2. moneystepper says:

    Great story Pauline – leaving university debt free (or with minimal student debt) is absolutely amazing. However, it is important not to work too hard in a part-time job that it negatively impacts your grades in college.
    moneystepper recently posted..10 Personal Finance Quotes to inspire you to financial freedomMy Profile

  3. Pauline,
    This is why I enjoy your blog because you went to college the right way. I never understood how people could take out a $100,000 loan and make $40,000 a year or worse end up at Starbucks. College is not a right, often it is the worst path if you’re deep in debt.
    charles@gettingarichlife recently posted..10 Questions With Mr. 1500 And Other Good ReadsMy Profile

  4. Great story Pauline! It’s good to graduate without any debt, right? and it is indeed great when you can also graduate with savings.
    Mark Ross recently posted..Why You’re Having Trouble Saving Money And How You Can Fix ItMy Profile

  5. Very impressive story. I can understand your hesitance towards debt financing an education, but I really do think it can be a good investment. Even if you work full-time in the US it can be hard to graduate debt free these days (or impossible if you don’t get assistance from various sources, which happens to some people). It’s a risk because it can be hard to pay back if you don’t get a higher-paying job, though.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted..A Better Way to Do the 52-Week Money ChallengeMy Profile

  6. It’s always amazing to me to hear how financially focused you were right from the start. I was pretty clueless for a long time, and while I didn’t really get myself into trouble I definitely could have put myself a lot farther ahead if I had had your awareness.
    Matt Becker recently posted..How to Choose the Right Type of Life InsuranceMy Profile

  7. That’s awesome! You are in the minority for sure! We had some student loan debt but were able to pay it off a few years ago. It felt good to send that last payment in.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Credit Card Rewards: What I’m ChurningMy Profile

  8. Pauline, what I just love about your story is that you did what you needed to do. You didn’t whine or complain or say “I can’t” or “I’m too busy with school” or “It’s too inconvenient.”. You just did it!! This, IMHO, is the difference between success and failure, in any realm.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted..Can You “Bootstrap” Your Way Out of Poverty?My Profile

  9. You’re lucky, yes, as some of the things that happened were a product of being at the right place at the right time, but you also worked hard for what you got! You should be proud of yourself. This is very inspiring.
    Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter recently posted..Want Better Productivity? Stop Multi-Tasking!My Profile

  10. I like this because sure… anyone can graduate with little to no debt, with savings. They just have to do all the really hard work, all the time. Like you did. Guts will get you through.
    Kathleen recently posted..An AnnouncementMy Profile

  11. What a great story. That sounds like such a smart way to get a graduate level education, and to work your way through it. Sounds like the French have this thing figured out: even if you hadn’t been able to locate that kind of work-study, the cost is just so much lower than the typical education in the states.
    Done by Forty recently posted..Did Americans Really Overpay by $1B at Tax Time?My Profile

  12. This is very inspiring stories Pauline. I hope a lot of guys can read your experience/strory to motivating going to college even without spending too much money. In my country most of people did not earn college degree because of financial problems. I believe that if we want to pursue or get an education there is a way.
    My Wealth Desire recently posted..Late Credit Card Payment Worst ConsequencesMy Profile

  13. That’s a great story, thanks. I think it can be done in the US too, it’s just a matter of making it happen like you did. When I was in grad school I almost took a job at UPS sorting packages in the evenings (because they’d pay for school). I didn’t do it, but that was my choice, and it meant borrowing more money.

  14. I don’t know if you’re “incredibly lucky”. It seems to me you were smart, prudent, and worked your butt off while many other students take loans and then party like rockstars.

  15. I think the key was your overall tuition cost. In the US, universities and even smaller colleges charge enormous fees. I love the way you worked through college. I think that experience helps round out your education a ton so that when you get out of school you “get” what the real world is looking for in an employee.
    AverageJoe recently posted..How the Repo Guy Nearly Took My CarMy Profile

  16. Wow Pauline that’s amazing! I worked 2+ part-time jobs through undergrad and grad school and still left with student debt though I don’t think I planed as well as you had. I wish I knew then what I know now… but strong work ethic and determination go a long way!
    Mrs. Snarkfinance recently posted..College Student Loan Debt Info GraphicMy Profile

  17. I think many college students could certainly do better at working and saving money during college. I think graduating from an undergraduate state school without debt in the US is entirely possible, but you’d need to have a good foundation. So many people have no idea about money at that age… A medical graduate type degree could be harder to pull off debt free unless you join the military or similar program for a commitment of service. You really can’t do much work because you are already and intern that is full time with no pay! I do think after graduation you should work hard to pay the loans off quickly. So many of us get caught up in lifestyle inflation, then you look up and it’s been 10 years and you’ve hardly paid off any loans!
    Kim@Eyesonthedollar recently posted..Does Renting a Car For Long Trips Save Money?My Profile

  18. Awesome story Pauline. I think you did it right. You worked hard and got the right scholarships. I worked in college and think it was a great move. It gives you the right mindset to succeed and get ready for the real world.
    Grayson @ Debt Roundup recently posted..Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard Review – 40,000 Bonus Miles OfferMy Profile

  19. I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate debt free, but I definitely could have graduated with a lot less debt. I worked all through college and for two and a half years, I had good paying internships. But I blew the money. Silly college Erin…
    Erin @ My Alternate Life recently posted..Staying Minimalist in a 3-Bedroom HouseMy Profile

  20. FANTASTIC story!!! I have so much to add! But rather than look like I have an extreme case of ADD, I’ll just say a few bits:

    1) Your dad’s job loss definitely had a silver lining. My parents are self-employed so they kept their salaries super low which helped me get scholarships as well.

    2) ‘Invested $25k in a flat to make $300/month’ How did this work? You paid cash for an apartment for $25k and it yields $300/month? Sounds pretty good to me.

    3) I like how stubborn you are
    Will recently posted..Become Frugal with 1 TrickMy Profile

    • Thanks Will, please add away! It was great to get the scholarship, I think if my dad had kept his job, he may have given me more monthly to pay for board and tuition, but I would probably not have learned money management the same way. When it is “your” money, it hurts more to spend it!
      I did pay cash for a small apartment 15 miles away from Paris, in a run down neighborhood with a lot of delinquent tenants, so the rents were yielding over 10%. I had tenant insurance thankfully because my tenant died, the widow refused to leave and the eviction process (thanks to tenant protection laws in France) took over 18 months, during which the insurance paid the rent. He still stayed 10 years, so paid over the purchase price in rent, then I sold a few months after the eviction for twice the price. It was a risky move that turned ok, but I was more careful with the next properties. As a student with a part time job I tried to get a mortgage in college to get a bigger, better property instead, which would have been jackpot considering how property prices soared in Paris, but hey, that’s life. So I had my rental income with no mortgage and set off to travel the world for a year after graduation, which was awesome.
      And allowed me to visit Guatemala and decide to settle there, and put my stubborn head to other interesting projects :)


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