It took getting “thrown to the wolves” for Casey Webster to figure out a better – and cheaper – way to get a college degree.

Get a job where the boss foots the bill.

After an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern Maine left her with $37,000 in student loan debt, Webster didn’t want to end her schooling. But she also didn’t want to go any deeper in debt.

As an out-of-state undergrad, she paid higher tuition, and her family made too much money to qualify for financial aid. For her first year at USM, she used a healthy scholarship package and took out private loans. Her sophomore year, she moved out of the dorms hoping to save money.

“I just got thrown to the wolves when I got off campus,” she said. “I couldn’t pay for heat. I was eating ramen noodles all the time.”

It was a major financial wake-up call, she said. She realized she needed a job, a savings account and a better plan to pay for college.

“I couldn’t get work-study and couldn’t find work. I ended up working at the deli counter at Hannaford – and I’m a vegetarian. It was the only job available,” she said. Later, she got work at the USM library, graduating in 2009 with a bachelor’s in business administration.

Then she got a permanent job at USM, and took advantage of the school’s tuition reimbursement program, which allows employees to take two free courses a semester.

Six years later, this May she earned her master’s in public policy and management from USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“I got a whole master’s degree out of it, and I’m going to get a law degree out of it,” said Webster, who made arrangements with the University of Maine School of Law to take the unorthodox slow-but-steady approach to getting a law degree. “I think it’s one of the best things you can do.”

During the six years it took to get her master’s, she’s managed to pay off about $30,000 in student loan debt. She had already been paying the interest on the loans as an undergraduate.

Webster, now 28 years old, credits her mother with giving her solid financial advice.

“She’s the one who told me to start paying my interest, and when I complained about having no (spending) money she told me to go get a job,” said Webster, who hit another rough patch when she was laid off at USM during her graduate program.

Luckily, the tuition benefit continues two years after a layoff under the union contract, she said, so she kept going to her graduate courses. A year later, the university hired her back.

“I was miserable at the time. It was like being thrown to the wolves again, but it helped me,” she said.

These days she has emergency savings set aside, she said. Just another lesson learned.

– Noel K. Gallagher