Five Options for Living Rent Free While You Pay Down High Student Debt

In my last blog, I talked about how to afford a house even when you’re in high student debt. Now, let’s discuss other options for living rent- and mortgage-free so you have more cash to pay down your six-figure debt.

Let’s first discuss the options you probably think I’m talking about, but am not. I’m not talking about couch surfing. And for many of us, living in our parents’ basement is simply not an option.

What I am talking about are organizations you can join that provide free living arrangements in exchange for work. But let’s look at these options closely, because there’s a difference between living for free, barely scraping by, and living for free the smart way.

  • WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, wwoof.net) 

How it works: You join the site, look at opportunities in 120 different countries, and then look at opportunities within those countries which describe what you have to do and what your accommodation would be like.  In some places you would be expected to work 8-9 hours per day, five days per week and live in a barn. In my early 30s, this is before I was on a student-debt-paydown plan, I worked on a farm in Malaysia, putting in about 3.5 hours of work a day and living at a tropical resort on an island, in one of the rooms. It was great, but it didn’t help me pay down my debt.

Why it’s not a good debt payoff strategy: You are not paid for your work but given accommodation and food. It is actually a pretty cool way to travel, but I don’t see anyone paying off six-figure student debt this way.

How it works: You join the site, look at opportunities to live in someone’s house for free while they travel. You will probably be expected to deal with house maintenance and pets if they have any. You are not paid to work, but you get free housing.

Why it’s not a good student debt payoff strategy: You’re still going to be working another job to pay your living expenses and pay down your high student debt, right? It’s just too hard to work a job while constantly moving and looking for more living opportunities.

How it works: You join these sites, communicate with other members, stay for free at their homes as you travel through the area.

Why it’s not a good student debt payoff strategy: It could be, if you found someone cool, with a cool room and bed that didn’t mind how long you stayed. However, the mentality behind these sites is that people who offer their spaces want to help travelers and meet different people, so I’m not sure how easy it would be to find someone open to long-term-free living situations.  And without a long-term option, you’ll still have the same problem: how can you work if you’re constantly moving?

How it works: These situations are very nuanced and individualized, so it’s hard to completely explain, but the basic scenario is that one joins, finds an arrangement in their area, and gets free or very cheap housing in exchange for some help around the house.

Why it could be a good debt payoff strategy: The placements are long-term, and some that I read about didn’t sound that bad. One person was able to live with an elderly couple for free on the condition that she drove them to the grocery store twice a week. Another guy acquired a long-term free room in exchange for house- and pet-sitting every time the owner travelled, which was a lot.

Why it’s not a good student debt payoff strategy: Not everyone wants to work a job and come home and work more. I don’t. I also don’t want to live with people I’m not totally comfortable with.

  • Property or Apartment Manager

How it works: You work as a property manager, living in an apartment complex for free and dealing with tenant move-in, move-out, maintenance issues, lease paperwork, etc.

Why it could be a good debt payoff strategy: If the money you earn and the rent you don’t have to pay puts you in a financially better place than your current situation, it’s a win.  It would be an even better payoff strategy if you could actually work a normal day job related to your career, and somehow pull this job off to get the free housing. (I almost feel like I could do it!)

Why it’s not a good student debt payoff strategy: Some people would find it just too depressing to work at a day job all day, then have to work maintaining a property every evening and on weekends.

Some of the above may be good for experimenting with in your 20s, but if you’re truly serious about paying down your six-figure debt, you’ll have to go bigger, dig deeper and think more long-term.