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If you think the road to prosperity starts after college graduation, you’re in for a surprise.

Most future millionaires lay the foundation for financial success in their college years. And it all comes down to how they pay for those years.

Many students finish college with thousands in debt, but most future millionaires avoid this. You can put yourself in a better position when you graduate by minimizing how much you borrow while you attend school.

The ramifications of student loan debt

Student loans may be a necessity if you want to attend college. But the resulting debt can have a long-lasting impact on your ability to accumulate wealth.

Leaving school with a lot of student loan debt is like starting your career in a giant financial hole. Unfortunately, that’s the reality many students face after graduation. The average student loan debt is $33,654, and a One Wisconsin Institute study found that the average time to repay student loans is 21.1 years.

Here’s why that much student loan debt is a problem:

  • Your loan payments cut into the amount you can save each month. They could even have you living paycheck to paycheck.
  • You won’t be able to contribute as much to retirement or investment accounts. This limits how much you can grow your money.
  • You may need to postpone important milestones like buying a home. The One Wisconsin Institute study mentioned above found that home ownership rates were lower among those still repaying their student loans.

What future millionaires do differently when paying for college

Future millionaires don’t allow themselves to get deep into debt during school. In a millionaire study Thomas J. Stanley did for his book Stop Acting Rich, he found that only 1 in 9 millionaires graduated with a negative net worth.

That’s not the case with the average student. Among adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with student loan debt, the median net worth is negative $1,900. That includes adults who have been out of college for years. Those fresh out of school often have a negative net worth of significantly less.

You might think that future millionaires had more help than other students, but the data doesn’t bear this out. Among the group in Stanley’s study,

  • 32% paid 100% of their college costs on their own,
  • 56% paid at least 50% of their college costs, and
  • 11% paid none of their college costs.

While there were some who didn’t have to pay a thing, 88% paid at least half, and most still managed to graduate with a positive net worth.

How to minimize your debt while in school

You may not be able to complete school without any debt, but there are ways to ease your burden. Here are the best ways to do this:

  • Save as much money as you can before college. You could live at home and work full-time for a year or two before starting school, for example.
  • Get all the free money for school that you can. Submit the FAFSA every year, claim any grants you’re eligible for, and apply for scholarships.
  • Work while you go to school. A part-time job can cover at least some of your expenses.
  • Only borrow what you need. Compare interest rates and fees for federal loan options and the top private loan providers to get the best deal.
  • Make student loan payments while you’re in school instead of waiting until six months after you graduate. Doing this could save you thousands on your student loans.

Get an early start on becoming a millionaire

None of the information above is intended to make you feel like you shouldn’t get student loans or that you’re doomed if you graduate with a negative net worth. Both are fine if that’s what you need to get your education.

The point is that you should do your best to avoid unnecessary student loan debt. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll borrow now and figure everything out after graduation. Now is the time to get on the right track with your finances. It can pay off in a huge way later in life.