College Saving Inspiration: How This Family Worked Together to Save for College

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Zina Kumok

By Zina Kumok

September 3, 2020

Having student loans almost seems inevitable for college students, and in 2020, the average student loan debt was $32,731. 

But some students, with the help of their families, manage to avoid student loans altogether and graduate debt-free. Here is one woman’s story.

How Tori Dunlap Saved for College

When Tori Dunlap was nine years old, her dad approached her with a business idea. A colleague of his was trying to offload a gumball machine, and Tori’s dad asked if she wanted to buy it and start her own business.

He lent her some money to buy the machine, which would be placed at a trucking company. It cost $350, and it took her more than a year to pay him back with proceeds from the machine.

About a year after she paid him back, she bought another machine. She continued buying more as her business flourished. By the time she graduated from high school, she owned 15 in total. 

Tori put most of the profits from the gumball machines toward her college fund, which was kept in a savings account. After high school, she sold the machines to another little girl – coincidentally also named Tori – who is currently using the revenue for her own college fund.

How Tori’s Parents Helped Her Pay for College

Tori wasn’t alone in contributing to her college fund. Her parents invested money regularly in a 529 account. They also lived modestly, staying in the same house her whole life and driving older cars. 

They talked about personal finance often and taught her about investing, negotiating bills and saving. Tori’s dad had to take out student loans, and he wanted her to avoid them.

“They didn’t want me to start in the hole,” she said. “We really dedicated ourselves to avoiding student loans.”

Tori earned good grades in high school to improve her chances of earning college scholarships. She also worked a job year-round and saved most of that money in her college fund. 

She kept up that work ethic in college, working as a tour guide for the admissions department, a staff member for the yearbook and a pianist for the school’s church during Mass – all at the same time. 

She worked between 12-15 hours a week while taking a full course load as a double major in Theater and Communications. But she still had the full college experience, having fun with her friends and studying abroad in Ireland her junior year.

While her family didn’t qualify for any need-based aid, Tori earned more than $60,000 in merit-based scholarships. This also helped her avoid student loan debt since her college, the University of Portland, cost about $52,000 a year including tuition, room and board.

Before the fall semester, she would sit down with her parents and calculate how much she needed for the next school year. They would go through her total projected expenses, scholarship money and savings. Every year, she managed to put together enough money to avoid taking out loans. 

“It was very much a collaborative process,” she said.

See also: How to find scholarships for college

More College Savings Tips from Tori

Tori said many students apply for university-wide scholarships, but often don’t realize their specific department has its own scholarship program. These usually have a separate application and deadline. 

Ask your advisor if you’re eligible for any department-level scholarships. Because Tori was a double major, she was able to apply and receive scholarships from both departments.

Tori was responsible for all her own living expenses in college and lived a frugal lifestyle. 

“I went out to eat maybe once a month,” she said. Now, Tori works as a financial educator and blogger at Her First $100K, where she teaches other women how to save, invest and pay off debt.

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