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How to Send Two Kids To College on a Teacher’s Salary

  January 12

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college on a teacher's salary

Please welcome my friend Jenna to the blog, who has a great story about how her parents sent her and her twin sister to college even though they both made low incomes.

Twenty-six years ago, my parents were in for the shock of their lives. Five months after saying I do, my parents found out they were pregnant – with twins!

Higher education has always been very important to both of my parents. My mom and dad were the first people in their families to go to college. They even went on to complete master’s degrees.

It wasn’t easy for either of them to make it through college. Both struggled to pay for tuition and even switched schools. Even though it was difficult, it was a valuable experience that helped them create a better life for themselves. It was important for them to help my sister and me through college in whatever way they could.

They Never Had High Salaries

With jobs as a teacher and a mental health professional, my parents never had high salaries. College was important, but the question was, how was our family going to pay for it?

Setting Expectations

Our parents told us from the very beginning that paying for college was going to be a team effort. They were going to support us as much as possible, but it was also very clear we were going to have to do our part with regular jobs and scholarships to be able to afford college.

This was a crucial piece of the puzzle. All four of us – my mom, my dad, my sister and I – were on the same page.


Paying for college was much easier with the help of scholarships. We were grateful to receive two types of scholarships, merit and need based scholarships.

My sister and I were complete nerds in school. We were incredibly grateful to each receive a 100% tuition scholarship. Not only that, we applied for additional scholarships to cover living expenses. There is a ton of scholarship money out there!

We also applied for need-based scholarships by submitting the FAFSA application. One of my best friends didn’t know about FAFSA and ended up using private loans for her first year of college. Missing this one piece of the puzzle can make a huge difference.

Part-Time & Full-Time Jobs

Paying for college would have been much more difficult without our part-time jobs during the school year and full-time jobs during the summer. While our parents did help us with a small monthly allowance throughout college, it was just enough to cover living expenses. Our jobs gave us the opportunity to really take advantage of the college experience.

Our sophomore year, my sister and I even saved up enough money to take a trip to Ireland. We hopped on the plane and then took buses around Ireland for 10 days in the freezing November weather. Our mom was so scared she cried in the airport, but my sister and I made great memories together.

Our jobs were also a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable work experience. I was able to start a job in undergraduate research in my freshman year. While my sister was unable to find a job in her major, she did gain basic experience as an employee. Sometimes, my sister felt frustrated at not being able to take unpaid internships like her other classmates. However, she did use the money to fund her study-abroad experience. Even better, she used her study abroad experience to start her current dream career!


My parents used loans to manage cash flow during our college years. They used the loans and their monthly salaries to give us regular allowances. This made it easier to give us the same money every month, even when things changed month to month in their own lives.

We ended up graduating with $10,000 of debt between the two of us. While my sister and I would have gladly paid the loans off ourselves, my mom and dad paid them off within a year of graduation. They told us it was just something they wanted to do.

A Great Experience

While not every moment was easy during the four years, my sister and I had a wonderful college experience. Even with the salaries of a teacher and a mental health professional, by working together as a family, we were able to graduate on time with a strong financial foundation. I am grateful to those who gave me scholarships, jobs, and of course, the support of my parents.

It helped launch us into the lives we imagined for ourselves. My sister was able to take a low-paying international job right after graduation to get valuable experience. I was able to save right out of school and then pursue my career as a freelance writer.

Do you worry about putting your kids through college? How do you plan to tackle college costs?

Jenna VanLeeuwen is a freelance writer who blogs with her twin sister Brooke about managing money to create the life you want over at PF Twins. You can find her around the web on Twitter and Pinterest.

Editor’s note: Thanks so much Jenna for your contribution to the site. Your parents sound like an amazing support system and how awesome that they knocked out your student loans for you. I agree that students should have jobs in college to get valuable work experience and to generate their own spending money. I also love that your parents gave you just what you needed and it was your choice to work so you could travel, etc. Such great inspiration for me as a twin parent. Thanks again, Jenna!

35 responses to “How to Send Two Kids To College on a Teacher’s Salary

  1. Love this, Jenna! In fact, I just shared similar tips at Wise Dollar today! Sounds like your parents did an awesome job of preparing you guys and making sure you knew up front what the game plan would be. And great job on graduating with so little debt!

    1. By prepared, you mean drilling it into our heads starting in the third grade — you need to get good grades so you can get a scholarship and go to college! Yes, it was helpful. πŸ™‚

  2. My parents also sent two of us to private colleges on relatively low (artsy) incomes. We mostly did it by leveraging federal programs and by being really good students. The latter is important, because to maximize this kind of thing, you need to go to a college wealthy enough to be “need-blind” — which pretty much means some of the hardest colleges in the country to get into. But we both did get into need-blind schools (that we loved). So, we submitted the FAFSA, and were offered a package consisting of: some money my parents paid straight up (much less for me than for my younger sibling, because with me, the package took into account that they were paying tuition for him too; when he went to college I was out of the house and off the books, so they paid more for him); the federal maximum in *subsidized* loans only (no interest while we were in school; relatively low amounts when we got out — I had $14K total from four years, which my parents and I both paid down); a work-study guarantee (I worked about seven hours a week and that gave me most of my spending money); and then grants to cover the gap. There were a LOT of grants in that package πŸ™‚ So, while paying for college wasn’t painless, it also didn’t send us into catastrophic debt; really good students from much lower-income backgrounds than mine can do even better — if you can get into Harvard, you can go for free if your income is low enough and they don’t even do loans any more (neither does my alma mater.) Focus on being a kick-ass student and the money will take care of itself, is my advice πŸ™‚

    1. Being a good student makes things so much easier! It sounds like you had a hodge-podge of ways to pay for college like I did.

  3. Congrats on receiving full-tuition scholarships–that’s fabulous! It’s awesome that your family communicated so openly about how to make college happen for the two of you. I feel like too often, the cost of higher ed is sort of shoved under the rug with the tacit implication that kids should go to the best school they get into and worry about paying for it later. Your story is really inspiring!

  4. My best friend is a teacher, and while she doesn’t have kids yet, I think should would love this story. I’m going to pass it on to her. Also, I personally like it because it shows an excellent example of how you can plan ahead and be successful with money while making a lower salary. The planning and open communication is priceless. If nothing else, I hope to pass that on to my kids one day!

  5. Great story. It really is a struggle these days to put people through college without having the whole thing get racked up to student debt. I’m so glad my wife and I started 529 savings for both our kids the year they were born.

  6. This is great! My parents didn’t help me with school expenses (which didn’t bother me), but I definitely want to provide at least something for our kids.

  7. Awesome post. That is fantastic that your parents were so supportive and helpful. This just goes to show something I’ve been saying for years — you can manage on a low salary. It just takes some creativity!

  8. Great post Jenna! I like how your parents made a realistic plan to help you and your sister through college and explained what they expected from you early on. I worked part-time and took advantage of scholarships and grants to reduce the cost of college but still winded up with some loans unfortunately. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to completely fund my son’s college education but I’d really like to give him some decent funding for it. So I’ve started a college fund so I can make monthly deposits early and I plan to set expectations just like your parents did πŸ™‚

    1. That’s great that you are starting a college fund! My parents didn’t have very much saved for us and they still made it work — I’m sure you will too.

  9. How cool! I can’t believe how many kids don’t know about the FAFSA – I was kind of in the same boat as you two, in that my parents made it abundantly clear they couldn’t pay for anything for my college except helping with living expenses (which I was very grateful for!) I received scholarships and applied on January 1st to get the most from my FAFSA. It helped me get work-study, where I was able to work on campus (hey-o, work experience!) and get paid for it… and not have to drive to work in the snow! πŸ˜‰

    The only thing I wish I had more proactive about was scholarships for grad school. My loans from grad school are by far my biggest debt, and for some reason I was under the impression that grad schools didn’t offer many scholarships. I was probably wrong about that!

    1. I was grateful for the help with living expenses as well! That’s part of why my parents struggled so much to make it through their own college years — they were working all the time to pay for tuition and living expenses.

      My sister does have loans from grad school, but it would have been very hard to swing graduate school if we hadn’t made it through undergrad with minimal debt.

  10. I love this story Jenna!! My hubby and I were both fortunate to have college paid for by our parents and it’s something we want to do for our son. I know it will set us further behind in our journey to financial freedom, but it is a detour we are more than willing to take.

    1. Thanks Shannon! We will be helping our future children with a significant part of college as well — it’s something we just want to do.

  11. What a wonderful story. I was fortunate enough to have parents that were able to send me to school without incurring loans. My husband did not have the same luxury. We are planning ahead for the minis with a 529 plan. We will also expect our children to contribute with scholarships and jobs. I want them to get their education without a huge burden, but also understand that the things you want in life don’t come free.

  12. We will be in he same boat in about 3 years, hopefully sending our twins off to college as well. We are planning on helping as much as we can, but agree on the team effort. Our Son and daughter will pitch in whether by scholarships or working P/T during college.

    1. The team effort was everything for my family! I’m sure you guys will rally together as well.

    1. With your business skills and financial savvy, I’m sure you all will make it work for your daughter when the time comes.

  13. This is great inspiration, thanks for sharing your story Jenna! My daughter isn’t even a year old yet, but I’m already concerned about how we’re going to afford college for her. I think setting expectations is going to be crucial!

  14. If funds are limited, it can be really important to pick the right school for undergrad. My wife and I went to private colleges and let’s just say that we have some debt πŸ˜‰

    1. I agree! My scholarship dictated I go to a public school, so I didn’t have much of a choice. For many states, public in-state schools are way cheaper.

    1. Thanks Kayla! It wasn’t always easy to balance everything, but it’s so much easier to keep going when you feel like you have others rooting for your success.

  15. This is a great story. I love that your parents were very open about the expectations about paying for college for you and Brooke. My parents never had that conversation with me, and during my senior year of high school I learned that I was expected to pay for it! I went to a community college, receiving a small scholarship and paying cash for the rest from my part time job. When it was time to transfer to a four-year university, I applied for every scholarship I could find and ended up getting enough to cover tuition and books. I worked a part time job (and had an amazing husband) to help cover the living expenses. College can be completed debt free with a lot of planning and work.

    1. Man that sucks that your parents waited so late to tell you their expectations. Senior year is too late to prepare for many scholarships! I’m glad you ended up making it work.

  16. My husband and I did not discuss our visions for our children’s post-secondary education, and that was a mistake. He paid his way through 100%. My parents paid my way through 99%. Needless to say, we had different ideas about “the way it should be”. As it turned out, unexpected unemployment and lower income made it impossible for us to pay for everything, and we’ve ended up doing what your family did – the big difference being that we haven’t all been on the same page in sorting it out. Our first daughter graduated without student debt, and our second one is hopefully on track to do the same. (Our third daughter is still in high school.) In the end, I think it is best for kids to take some responsibility for their post-secondary education. It gives them practice in saving, budgeting, and being mindful of expenses – skills that serve them well in the future.

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