Written by: Erin Roethlisberger
Confessions of a Recent College Graduate
I’m a recent college graduate (bet you figured that one out by the title), and there are a lot of things I wish I had known or advice I had listened to when it came to finances in college. As an 18-year-old going off to live on my own for the first time, I thought I had it all figured out…yup, I was wrong. I should have listened to my parents for all those years at home; it was almost like they knew what they were talking about or something.
When I was in college, in the middle of it all, I wasn’t really thinking ahead. I wasn’t concerned about paying bills or loans in the future; I was more concerned about the everyday expenses. “Can I splurge and get this Chipotle with guac AND queso?” “How many drinks can I buy at the bar this weekend?” You get the picture. My financial plan and vision went as far as the end of the week… If I could make it through the end of the week and to my next paycheck, I was doing okay.
And you know what? In college, that plan was good and got me through without any real financial stress. However, upon graduating and getting out into the real world, I quickly realized my week by week plan would no longer cut it.
So without further ado, here are the (financial) things I wish I could do-over in college.
Scholarships and grants are your best friend. And guess what, they aren’t just for incoming freshman! I know, this was news to me, too. If you’re like me, you got your high school scholarships that lasted one school year and then had my renewing academic scholarships through the school. However, after freshman year was done, I said sayonara to scholarships and was done with them. Partially because I didn’t think that there were any available for students that weren’t incoming freshman.
Looking back I should have done my research, put in a little more time and effort, and found scholarships that could have helped offset the costs for the rest of my three remaining years. It would have saved me a lot of student loan dollars (thanks private liberal arts college!)
SallieMae, The U.S. Department of Labor, and other sites have great scholarship search tools that have scholarships available for sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students, returning adults, etc. You name it, they probably have a scholarship out there for it. You just need to be willing to search for it and fill it out. I know this takes a little extra time away from your summer or winter break, but let’s be real, setting aside 30 minutes now could save you months of payments on your student loans down the road, and you’ll feel good knowing you at least tried.
Final tip: don’t ever pay to register for a scholarship site. There are plenty of free ones out there, so chances are if they are asking you to pay to search or apply, it’s a scam (let’s not get into how we have to pay to even apply to a school, that’s a whole different blog post).
2. Text Books
I’m not going to lie to you, textbooks are expensive and buying or renting them sucks. A lot. It’s like having a dementor suck the life out of your wallet. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but just like conjuring a Patronus (thanks for the analogy Mr. Potter), there are ways to fight back against high-priced textbooks and make them slightly more affordable.
Don’t just buy from your school’s bookstore assuming it’s the cheapest.
Shop around on some different sites to see if you can find a better deal. If you do, check to see if the bookstore offers a price match. Mine did, and all I had to do was provide proof of the cheaper price (thank you Amazon), PLUS I got the difference in cost as a gift card to the bookstore. Hello textbooks for next semester.
Check your school’s library or any nearby community libraries to see if they have any of the books you need.
Checking out books from the school library is free, and many times a library card to the local library is also free or extremely low cost. They may not have the textbooks, but often times they have some of the lighter reads you need for class. I saved hundreds of dollars by doing this. You can check out the book and renew it until you don’t need it anymore. If the library has a limit on renewing, you can explain that you need it for a class and they’ll likely allow you to borrow it until the end of the semester.
Rent your textbooks whenever possible, unless you know it’s something you’ll want in the future.
Generally, if you’re a Business major you’re probably not going to want to hold on to that Intro to Chemistry textbook. Renting is almost always cheaper in the long run, even if you think buying and then selling the book back will help you recover some of those funds. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that $200 Spanish textbook with the special online code may be bought back for $10. If that. My advice, just rent.
3. Credit Cards
Credit cards are tempting to get and can be a great way to start building credit young. However, credit cards often can be very scary and it may seem at times like there is this credit card monster looming in the dark waiting to get you. And you know what; most credit cards have an extremely high interest rate that can leave you paying waaay more than you initially charged. You may think it’s doable (like I did), but in reality, you really need to be cautious and careful about what you put on a high interest credit card. I definitely learned the hard way how quickly credit cards can add up and how stressful interest can be.
I got my first credit card as a freshman in college. Over my four years at school, I tended to use the card for “extra” things I knew would financially hurt me if I took it straight out of my accounts. Things like textbooks, the occasional gas fill up, extra meals, “treat yo’ self” purchases, etc. When I graduated in May 2018, I had racked up close to $4,000 in debt just on credit cards alone. I was making my minimum payments every month, but if I continued making only those minimum payments (and making no other purchases), I would have been paying that amount for 11 years and a grand total of just under $11,000 after all of the interest. Yikes, right?
Now thankfully, I was able to get my “stuff” together and figured out how to rework my budget so the credit card debt doesn’t exist anymore (again that’s a whole different blog post). I’m not trying to make it seem like credit cards are horrible and to stay away from them at all costs. In fact, that’ll be worse for your credit when you are looking to take out a bigger loan or open up credit lines in the future. What I’m trying to get across is the big, bad credit monster doesn't exist, you just need to be sure to spend within your means and make sure you aren’t putting purchases on the card just because you can.
Also, truly understanding how credit cards and interest on credit cards work is extremely important, so you don’t get stuck paying for some textbooks and late-night Taco Bell runs for the next 11 years.
4. Student Loans
I don’t think it is any secret that student loans can be a huge source of stress and anxiety. Approximately 70% of college grads have student debt, so you are definitely not alone in this boat. However, it doesn’t need to be scary and keep you awake at night worrying about how you are going to provide for your future family (or dogs, if you’re like me) when you are 40 and still paying off your student loans. You can take steps to reduce the amount you actually need to take out, making it more manageable.
Fill out the FAFSA.
You may think you’re not going to get much (or anything at all), but it’s free to fill out, it’s not too difficult, and you may be surprised by what you can receive. They even have an app now for smartphones for you to fill out the FAFSA.
I stopped filling out the FAFSA after my sophomore year. I figured I wouldn’t get anything since I hadn’t in prior years. But there’s a reason that they have you fill it out every year. Things may have changed and there might be something out there that you’re eligible for now that you weren’t a year ago. It used to be a hassle to get all of your tax information in one place, but now they have a tool where you can transfer your federal tax return info right into the application by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. There you go, one less thing you need to do!
Apply for scholarships!
I know I already talked about this one in length so I won’t talk you ear off again about how important they are. We know parents, teachers, and other family members already do that enough. But seriously… Scholarships.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.
Loans can sometimes be scary and confusing, and you don’t want to sign for something you don’t fully understand. Chances are, if you have a question about it, someone before you has, too. So come on in and talk to us, we are more than ready and willing to walk you through how loans work and what will be best for you.
Start paying tiny monthly payments on your loan from the minute you take it out.
I’m talking $15, $20, or maybe $25 dollars a month, whatever you realistically think you can afford. Even if it seems a little silly to be making such a small payment on such a huge loan, that amount goes directly to your interest, essentially lowering how much you pay in interest over the life of the loan. Even though it may not seem like much, over the course of 4 years, it does really add up. It also was nice to know that my small $25 a month was already starting to pay down my loan, even though it was just a small drop in the bucket.
Let’s Wrap This Up
Now obviously, I’m no financial advisor. I’m an English and Communications major who took two required finance courses in my whole educational career, so this whole thing is written from first-hand experiences. Some I went through and learned along the way, and some I came to realize - often the hard way. It may not be the most technical advice you’ve ever read, but if I could go through college again, these are the things I wish I would have paid more attention to.