Hey MaiFIFam,

Mr. MaiFI here. I’m here to tell you how I graduated with a bachelor’s degree with no debt. My hope is that my experience can help you or someone you know.

I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Riverside (UCR). I attended from 2012-2016. The yearly “projected” cost of attendance was roughly $30,000/year, or $120,000 for a 4 year degree.

Despite that projection, I found the cost to be lower for me, as many of the projected expenses are not fixed expenditures (textbooks, personal care, transportation, etc.).

Before we get started, it’s important to note that there are four main ways to pay for college. I’ve ordered them in order from most ideal to least ideal. 

  • Grants (merit or financial need based) – Don’t need to be repaid!
  • Scholarships (merit or financial need based) Don’t need to be repaid!
  • Your own money
  • Student loansNeed to be repaid!

Let’s start with my freshman year (2012-2013):

Here’s a screenshot of my financial aid for that year:

As you can see, the majority of my freshman year was funded with grants and scholarships.

The Federal Pell Grant ($4,800) and Cal Grant A ($12,192) were financial need based and did not need to be paid back. 

How’d I get that? I filled out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which is used to determine if you’re eligible for any financial aid in the form of grants or loans. 

Our household was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. My dad lost his job and was out of the workforce for awhile, which meant my mom supported us with a $40,000/year clerical job. As a result of falling below an income threshold of $80,100 for a 4 person family, I became eligible for the California Grant A (state grant) and Federal Pell Grant (federal grant). Here’s the income ceiling for Cal Grant A eligibility for 2019-2020. The Cal Grant A is only available to California residents – other states have their own form of financial aid. 

I was awarded a UCR Grant ($5,600), which was based on family income and financial aid. 

I was awarded a Chancellor’s Scholarship ($2,500/year), a merit based award offered to incoming UCR freshmen with a distinguished academic record. 

I also was awarded a handful of scholarships ($3,500) during my junior and senior years of high school. I filled out around 30 local scholarship applications, won some, and was awarded anywhere from $250-$1,000 per scholarship. 

How’d I find them? My high school had a career center with posted information about college and local scholarship opportunities. I checked in with the career center lady weekly to learn about scholarship opportunities. 

I highly recommend that you fill out these local scholarships as they usually have few applicants. I remember filling out a scholarship and later learned that only one other person had applied. Ironically, I didn’t win that one! There are interesting opportunities — I won one scholarship for being part Italian. Ms. MaiFI won one for being part Filipina (yes, we went to the same high school!). 

Unfortunately I did take out one loan ($2,218) during my freshman year. Luckily, I ended up not needing the money, so I just wrote a check and handed it back to them as all of my grants and scholarships were enough to cover my costs for the year. 

Freshman Year: $0 owed.

Let’s take a look at my sophomore year:

Similar to my freshman year, I qualified for Cal Grant A ($12,192) and the Federal Pell Grant ($4,095), both of which did not need to be repaid. I also was given the UCR grant ($2,740) and Chancellor’s Scholarship ($2,500). I applied for and won the Honor’s Scholarship ($2,000), a merit-based scholarship for students in UCR honors.

Despite all of that aid, I still needed to take out a loan of $5,500. 

Sophomore Year: $5,500 owed

Let’s take a look at junior year: 

I again qualified for Cal Grant A ($12,192) and the Federal Pell Grant ($5,280). Unfortunately we were above the income ceiling to qualify for the UCR grant, but I still had the Chancellor’s Scholarship ($2,500). I was offered a $3,600 loan, of which I accepted $2,500. 

I still needed more money, about $6,000 more, but opted to pay using my own money instead of taking out a larger loan. I spent $2,000 of my own savings, which was earned from my high school jobs of being a paintball referee and youth golf coach. The last $4,000 came from working 15 hours/week on campus in a biogeochemistry lab at minimum wage ($8/hour at the time). 

Junior Year: $9,100 owed. $5,500 from sophomore year + $3,600 from Junior year.

Let’s take a look at Senior Year:

I again qualified for the Cal Grant A ($12,240), Federal Pell Grant ($4,725), and Chancellor’s Scholarship ($2,500). I was just under the income threshold for the UCR grant ($420), so was given a small amount of money. 

I did not take out any loans this year. Why? Well, I was much smarter in my senior year. I decided to live off campus and rent a house with my buddies. I only paid $500 plus utilities per month for 1 bedroom! It was much larger than my dorm rooms and cost less. 

I paid $13,000/year for on-campus housing (including food) and only about $7,500 (including groceries) for the year I lived off-campus. If only I had done this in my sophomore and junior years!

Living off campus meant that my grants and scholarships were enough to cover my school expenses! I was still working too, so the $4,000 I earned from my on campus job went to paying off my debt

During the second semester of my senior year, I learned about Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). I wrote a brief description of FBA in the Everyday We’re Side Hustlin’ post. Essentially, I discovered that you could sell a large variety of items on Amazon and make money. I sourced items to sell from garage sales, thrift stores, and even some clearanced textbooks at the campus bookstore. I earned about $10,000 that year, which was enough to pay off the remainder of my debt.

Senior Year: $0 owed. I paid off my $9,100 debt through my on campus job and FBA!

So there it is! That’s how I graduated debt free with a bachelor’s degree!

But that’s not where the story ends — I went on to earn my Master’s degree at UC San Diego and also graduate debt free!

I think that story is a bit more interesting, as I really ramped up FBA and started making t-shirts with Merch by Amazon (MBA). That’s for another post!


The main source of my aid was due to my family having a low household income.

The second largest source was from merit-based grants and scholarships for having excelled academically in high school (I had a 4.22 weighted GPA).

The third largest source was the money I had saved from working during high school and college.

How’d you pay your way through college?