College is an exciting time, and it seems to end just as quickly as it begins. I had the pleasure of attending UC Santa Cruz – if you’ve never seen the campus, it’s absolutely gorgeous – and I still benefit from so many of the experiences I had there: great friends, a degree program I truly enjoyed, valuable job skills, and the beginnings of financial wisdom.
For many of us, college marks some of the most significant times we are entrusted with our own financial future instead of our parents taking care of everything – it varies for everyone, but I know it was the first time I was in charge of paying my own rent, budgeting food money and fun money, as well as getting my very first credit card. Excitingly (and terrifyingly), my parents were no longer overseeing every move I made…which, sometimes lead to them helping me fix a mistake or two. For better or worse, it was a valuable learning experience.
If I could go back in time, here are the three pieces of advice I would give myself as I embarked on my college adventures:
- Pay your student debts as you go
If you’re taking on any student loans for college, paying some off along the way would be my top piece of advice. This was something I never once considered doing – you pay back your debts after you graduate, right? Well, that’s just one option. For many loans, your interest doesn’t start accruing until six months post-graduation, which is when you’re on the hook to begin paying those back. You can wait until that grace period ends (which is exactly what I did), but if I could do it all over again, I would have used some of the money I made at my part-time job to chip away at those debts over the four years I was in school. As a bonus, those payments go directly toward the principle of your loan, so you save yourself money in the long run by avoiding interest!
- Learn to budget sooner rather than later
Fortunately, I was a very responsible credit card user, even when I just started – I never put more on my credit card than I had available in the bank to pay off my balance in full. That was a good call, but an even better call would have been implementing a more sophisticated budget than “swipe until you hit $0 then stop”. It’s great not to over-spend, but it’s even better to over-save. I would definitely have tried to practice better money management and staying on top of the details of my finances, and maybe have had a more generous savings which would have been a very nice resource for the post-graduation job hunt. On a related note, many jobs now look at your credit score as a part of your pre-employment background check, so consider that just one more great reason to practice responsible money management.
- Don’t ignore problems you don’t know how to fix
I know, I know, this one may seem terribly obvious. But I can admit that on at least a few occasions I stuck my head in the sand for financial problems I had never encountered before and hoped they would just go away. Whether you receive a parking ticket, a medical bill, or some other complicated letter that just shows up at your house claiming you owe someone money – ask for help! Call your parents or someone you can trust and ask them how to work through it. If it’s a problem you’re uneasy discussing with family or friends, your college will likely have professional resources who are there to help (and I promise, have seen much worse). Or, you can always visit or call a knowledgeable SAFE representative to help you create a plan of action. No matter who it is, be sure to reach out to someone if you’re overwhelmed, because these things have a tendency to spiral out of control if left unaddressed.
College is the perfect time to make tons of great memories – most of which will likely have nothing to do with finances. But, it’s also a perfect time to make responsible financial choices that will leave you feeling even better about your experience when you’ve graduated, knowing you’ve done everything you can to set yourself up for the best future possible!