College didn’t change me, but the difficult grind and grueling process of getting better did.
Sitting in a stadium filled with 2,000 other graduates. A special moment for anyone finishing college. Lining up, receiving diplomas, and taking pictures with a cap and gown with a string on the cap (why the tassel?). Friends and families celebrate the long nights and difficult tests. The events leading up to this moment are filled with difficulties and a process of learning not to give up.
Six months ago, I finished my four-year college degree and celebrated two weeks ago. I’m proud of it. But, I wouldn’t have done it if I had to borrow student loans. The process was anything but easy and I’m going to share with you some of the challenges I faced and what my thoughts are about higher education.
My college experience
My grandma graduated from the University of Utah years ago. She has around 300 grandkids (I don’t know the exact number and that’s not a typo), and because of that, an army of fans was created. It was always a dream on mine to graduate from the U. It was on every vision board I have created. Looking back, it was because I wanted my family members to feel proud of me for doing something difficult and I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible.
When I finished high school, my grades were average and my ACT score was poor. I didn’t put a lot of effort into getting good grades. I was focused on my free throw shot and how many dances I could go to with a different girl. I wouldn’t change it because I learned a lot and made many good friends.
I was excited to attend college. But was disappointed when a letter came in the mail saying I wasn’t accepted to my first choice of schools. I attended my local state college to complete my associate’s degree. My mother was single with five kids, so I qualified for the maximum Pell grant for those two years and left with no debt and a large amount of savings. The decision to go to a state college saved me $24,000! I wouldn’t change that either. Anyone looking to attend an expensive four-year college should consider going to a two-year school first.
In college, I became a different person. I’ve never slept through any college classes, I read books in between classes, and aside from my girlfriend, I didn’t have a social life. I did well and was enjoying the learning process. I reapplied to the University of Utah and was accepted.
In business school, the classes were competitive. Classmates were so focused on getting straight A’s that they put all their time and energy into it. I found it difficult to compete, especially because I was working two jobs. Meanwhile, many were not working but student loans were stacking up. I’m not saying the way I did college was right. I wasn’t trying to work for a big company or get into a prestigious school. I was focused on practicality and doing everything I could to graduate debt free. Working two jobs makes it difficult to get straight A’s. But who cares? I didn’t mind getting a B in some of my classes.
I love to learn. I would go to class hungry to learn new things. Monday mornings I can’t wait to wake up and get the week started. In all of my classes, I may not have had the highest test scores, but I was focused on the real world application of what I was learning. Not simply regurgitating memorized information and forgetting it the next day. I asked the question all of the time, “when am I going to use this?” I used my classes to actually learn and get an education. You could go four years memorizing flash cards and not learn a single thing.
In my finance classes, students would pride themselves on getting the highest grade on the test and in the class, yet they’ve never invested any of their own money and don’t know a lick about personal finances. Finance in business school is filled with useless formulas. Learn something, apply a formula and you get an answer. But in the real world, that doesn’t work and most of those formulas are crap. Professors make the class more difficult than it needs to be with pointless formulas because it’s fun to teach and it’s hard for students to learn. In reality, a professor could spend the first class talking about what really works in finance and then have nothing else to teach.
Students with business degrees leave school and don’t know how to manage their own finances.
Are we living in a student debt crisis?
Having a four-year degree isn’t all that special anymore. It’s equivalent to a high school degree twenty years ago. My class was the largest class to graduate in school history.
I was in a unique situation during college as a financial counselor. I learned what other’s financial situations were. Not a lot of people get to know that. I’ve seen the number of kids coming out of college with massive debt. And then coming out of the school system with nothing of an opportunity for it.
In the end, is a college degree worth it? I don’t have the answer. I’m certainly not opposed to it. But we need to scrutinize college.
Our economy collapsed on the housing crisis of credit before. You all remember. This country is going to crash on the college debt lending we have right now. You may not know this but tons of kids in their 20’s and 30’s are getting tons credit and borrowing a lot of money to buy a fancy car and vacation because in America you want “nice things.” We’re in huge debt. With insane college interest rates and you’re making no money to pay it back. Our country will go into a recession on the back of the college debt crisis. I think college is broken.
It could happen tomorrow. It could be next year or ten years from now. No one knows when but it’s going to happen. I’ve met with undergrad students with $100,000+ in student loans. Who let them borrow this much money, how are they going to afford the payments? Our education system does not care how much money you borrow. They want you to finish your degree. That’s it! They are a business and you are the product.
After purchasing my cap and gown, they included a card that said, “thank you for your business.” I thought, “do I really have a choice?” “Haven’t I paid them enough already that the cap and gown should be included?” “I’ll wear it once for three hours and never touch it again.”
You don’t need a college degree to be successful. What are your skills and what can you do with them. If you want to work for someone, you may need a piece of paper. But, no one cares what grade you got in your history class.
Again, I am not opposed to college. I understand you need a degree for certain professions. Just understand the opportunity cost of going to college and realize that four years could really set you back.
The number one concern for employers when hiring new graduates is they don’t know how to critically think. They expect to be fed the information, given the formula, and viola, they get an answer. You’ll learn nothing in college that will change your life. It’s the application of what you learn and the skills you apply that will set you apart and give you the life that you want to live.
Four strategies to graduate from college debt-free.
Last week, I wrote a post on ways to pay off your student loans. This is part two of that post on how to avoid taking out loans in the first place. There are many ways to graduate debt-free but these are strategies I used to obtain my undergraduate degree for free. I’ve met only a few people who have done this successfully.
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the most expensive college in my state with zero debt. My cost of attendance ended up being close to $50,000. I didn’t have an athletic full-ride scholarship, help from parents or an employer. I worked full time, between 40 – 50 hours a week with two jobs while taking at least 12 credits a semester. I worked my way through college.
This happened in four ways: The FAFSA, scholarships, an IDA account (if you don’t know what that is google it and see if your state offers it), and my personal savings.
What is the FAFSA?
Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the official form used to request federal, state and school assistance in paying for college. The FAFSA asks questions to determine the student’s level of financial need and establish his or her expected family contribution, or the amount of money the student and parents are expected to pay out of pocket for the student’s college expenses.
Based on your situation you could have up to $5,800 per year in grants. I qualified for the full amount of Pell Grants for the first few years because my mother was single with five kids. I’ve heard of way too many students not filling out the application and have missed out on a ton of money!
Should I attend community college?
I went to my local community college for the first few years and finished my associate’s degree for free. A decision that saved me $24,000. I then transferred to get my bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah.
Can I really get scholarships?
I was worried about how I was going to afford my bachelor’s. I knew I couldn’t afford to pay for it out of pocket. So I went crazy applying for scholarships. I didn’t want to waste time so I made a small investment of $7.99 and ordered a book off of Amazon called “How to Write an Award-Winning Scholarship Essay.” I ended up receiving over $13,000 in scholarships. It was the best $8 I’ve ever spent! A 162,400% ROI. If I didn’t apply what I learned in that book, I wouldn’t have graduated debt-free.
What is an IDA?
An Individual Development Account (IDA) is an asset-building tool designed to enable low-income families to save towards a targeted amount usually used for building assets in the form of homeownership, post-secondary education, and small business ownership.
Because my wife and I were newly married and I only worked half of the previous year because I was on a church service mission we qualified to participate in the IDA. Over a two year period of saving money each month, I was able to use $4,500 towards college.
Can you do it with a Master’s Degree?
I finished my bachelor’s degree with no debt and I am starting a Masters in Personal Finance in the fall and already have a plan in place to not have to borrow loans.
I have taken a challenge upon myself to graduate debt-free with a master’s degree. I picked a master’s degree that will cost me about $19,000. I already have $9,000 secured in scholarships, $4,000 covered because I will be working for the university, which leaves me with $6,000 out of pocket. I will pay for that by working and my last semester of college I’ll wipe out any loans I may have from my savings.
College is time to learn and grow, but personal finances seem to get put at the bottom of the priority list.
Not every college student is in the same financial situation. Each one has the difficult task of trying to pay for school and cover living expenses, all while trying to enjoy college. It’s no surprise why so many college students make mistakes when it comes to money. Unfortunately, these mistakes can cause damage that lasts for decades. Making sure your finances are in order while you’re young will go a long way in helping you get a good start after school.
I’ve met with hundreds of college students and learned their financial mistakes and setbacks. Hopefully, you’ll be able to learn from their mistakes. These are real situations I have observed working with students.
1. Waiting to Save
College is not the time to be raking in the big bucks. But, a common phrase I hear is, “I don’t save money because I don’t have any.” They say, “when I graduate and start my career, then I will have enough to save.” They wait for the perfect time to start saving, which unfortunately doesn’t always come.
“I don’t save money because I don’t have any.”
Expenses tend to rise with income. It’s basic human behavior and it’s called lifestyle inflation. The average household savings rate in America in 2017 was 2%. You’re never going to get anywhere saving 2%. The way you manage $100 is the same way you’ll manage $100,000. If you’re not willing to take $10 out of $100, how are you supposed to take $10,000 out of $100,000? I don’t care if you have $10 and you decide to save $1, the habit of saving is more important than the amount.
To get in the habit of saving, you need a separate savings account. If you try and save what is leftover in your checking account at the end of the month, it will get spent. Guaranteed. To create a consistent savings habit, transfer money to a separate savings account each time you get paid.
Don’t hold off saving your money just because you are in college. Even if it is a small amount. More important than the amount is the habit.
2. Living at home while working and blowing money
There is no easier time to save money. You live with your parents, you don’t pay for food, rent, or other things, yet you somehow find a way to spend your money on things that won’t benefit you in the future. What do you spend your money on? Many can’t answer. If your parents are going to allow you to live with them during college and provide for your basic needs (which I think is a smart idea for a period of time) and you are working, you can be saving a huge amount of money. I’m sure you don’t want to live with your parents in your thirties. You also don’t want to move out broke because you spent all your money at Starbucks and an expensive car.
Don’t blow all your money because you don’t pay for rent or food. Things will change real quick. I’m not saying you can’t spend money in college to have fun. But what I tend to see is students living like rich college students and then later have to live like broke professionals.
3. Spending money to impress others
It feels good when we have things that show our success. We think other people are impressed with our accomplishments when in reality most people don’t care. I see college students spend money on things they don’t need to impress others they don’t even like. Parks and Rec seem to have influenced the phrase, “treat yo self” which permeates college campuses.
“Treat yo self.”
This is common among college students and their friends. They borrow money to impress their friends and later find out just how hard it is to pay back. That $6.00 Jamba Juice could end up costing a lot more if you pay for it with student loans. They drive nice cars, go on fancy vacations, eat out every day, and wear the trendiest clothes, all to impress their peers who will most likely disappear when college is over.
Not all college students are like this, but I see it all too often. One of my favorite sayings, which are lyrics to a country song says, “big hat, no cattle.” I meet students that wear a “big hat” bought with their credit card and they don’t have a plan to pay off because they don’t have the money, instead of saving up and paying cash for it.
4. Taking too long to finish
Some degrees take longer than others, and many people drop out of school for personal reasons. But students who have been pursuing a four-year degree for the past 10 years and still have not finished are spinning their wheels.
The problem with taking too long to finish is the cost of tuition goes up 3% every year. So the longer you are in school the more expensive it becomes. Second, once you reach 183 credit hours for your undergraduate degree the government will cut all financial aid, leaving you to pay for school entirely out of your pocket. Third, the longer you are in school, the higher your lost earning potential is. You are forgoing all of the money you could have been making in a career.
To finish a four-year degree in four years, you need to take 30 credits a year. That’s 15 per semester or 12 per semester and 6 during the summer. By the way, every class you take has to go towards your degree. That is the reason students don’t graduate in four years. They don’t know what they want to do so they take classes that don’t count. Plan before you enter college instead of going to college just to go. College is an expensive place to find yourself.
If you’re behind in college, finish in the most reasonable amount of time possible. No one wants you to be in school longer than you have to. Not the government, not your parents, not your future employer and certainly not you.
5. Not working
College can be a heavy load. But is it so heavy that you can’t have any kind of job until you graduate? Everyone’s preferences are different and if you don’t have to work, why work? I’ve met students working full time in school that are able to graduate with great grades. I’ve also met students that have never worked but have poor grades. They say, “I don’t work during school because my grades will suffer.” But, some of the most successful students I have met are balanced with work and school. They leave college with little or no debt.
Don’t work more than you can handle. The college student pursuing an electrical engineering degree trying to get into an Ivy League school may not be able to work at all. But, most students can work part-time or have a side hustle to cover living expenses and gain experience in their field of interest. Don’t wake up the day after you graduate and say, “ok, time to start looking for a job.” They will be gone. Work part-time, start your own business, do freelance work and you will come out of college with experience, no or little debt, and a piece of paper. Do some sort of work in college even if you don’t have to.
6. Borrowing too much
After you have exhausted all means to pay for your education, you have to take out student loans. But you wouldn’t believe the number of students who borrow more than the cost of tuition and use it to buy food, go on trips, pay for a fancy car, or buy a big screen TV. That money has to be paid back. Plus interest.
You’re going to be in for a rude awakening when your student loan payment becomes due and you don’t have the money to pay off those loans. That Jimmy John’s sandwich you bought with student loans becomes a lot more of a burden when you tack interest on it. Borrow what you need to pay for your education and no more. Figure out other ways to pay for your living expenses because your future self will thank you.
Another scenario that leads to borrowing too much is picking the wrong school. You don’t need to go to the most expensive four-year school in the country. Why not start out at a community college for two years and then transfer to a school of your choice. This will save you so much money while you complete your basic education courses. It’s worth mentioning that college is not always worth it. You may be better of starting your own business or working in a manual labor job.
7. Maxing out credit cards
Emergencies happen. But, why rack up a big credit card balance on clothes, vacations, and food, that you are going to be paying 10% – 25% interest on? Not only will it be a big burden causing you to lose sleep, but a maxed-out credit card will hurt your credit score. This will affect your ability to borrow money. Use your credit card responsibly. Pay of the balance in full. Oh yeah, and don’t buy something if you can’t afford it.
It happens all the time. College students love cars and they overextend themselves by paying for a car they can’t afford and end up being upside down on it. Being upside down is when you owe more on your car than it is worth. If you were to sell it today you’d be paying someone to buy your car. Essentially paying off your car loan and getting less money for it than what you owe.
The reason for being upside down on their car happens because they are too eager to buy a used car without negotiating the price, buy a car they can’t afford or they drive a new car and it loses ⅓ of its value the second they leave the dealership. Don’t buy a car you can’t afford.
9. Not working towards homeownership
You want to buy a house one day but you know that won’t happen for along time. Purchasing a home is not like going to the phone store and signing a two-year contract for a phone. It takes years of preparation. You need a solid credit history, two years of employment, a down payment and understand all of the real estate terminologies so when you do buy a home you don’t get taken advantage of. You may not have extra money to put towards a down payment on a house, but if you do, why are you not saving now? You can’t just decide one day you want to buy a house, it takes educating yourself and preparing in college.
10. No financial goals
Financial goals can include buying a car, or a house, getting out of debt, going on a vacation, etc. At the beginning of most of my meetings, I ask what their goals are and they often have none or have never thought about it. So we spend the majority of the appointment talking about what they are working towards. If they do share with me their goals, they are vague and not specific.
When do you want to buy a car and how much? How much do you have to pay off and by when do you want it gone? Every time we discuss goals, there has to be a date and a number attached to it.
Don’t look at college as a time you don’t have to worry about your finances because you’re not working in a career. Decide your goals and figure out how you are going to get there. The decisions you make and the habits you create at this stage in life will follow you for the rest of your life.
11. Not knowing where their money went
Many smart individuals do a great job keeping track of their expenses that I will never meet because they have their finances under control. A lot of college students don’t feel like they have control over their spending. They say, “I don’t know where my money went. I feel like I make a decent amount of money each month, but I can’t figure out why I have no money left over at the end of the month.”
“I don’t know where my money went.”
There is usually more month left than there is money. This leads them to seek help. What you focus on expands. If you are not focused on how, where, when and why you spend your money you will have no idea where the heck it went. By simply creating a budget and going through an entire month’s worth of transactions, it will really open up your eyes as to where your money went.
12. Spending too much on eating out
College life can be difficult to eat healthy on a budget. From grocery shopping to the meal prep, ain’t nobody got time for that! So what do you do? You eat out, oh yeah, and you’re also a bit of a social eater so you love to go out to eat with your friends. The highest expense that college students don’t realize they have is eating out. Decide how much you want to spend each month and figure out how to stick with it.
Avoiding these 12 mistakes in college can be difficult. But with a little planning and discipline, you will find yourself way ahead of your peers when it comes time to graduate. You won’t be burdened with student loans, you will have savings in the bank and you will get to the point where you don’t have to worry about money a lot sooner.
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Hi, I’m Scott. Welcome to my website! I’m an Accredited Financial Counselor, husband, and father. I hope you’ll join me on the journey of reaching financial independence through simplifying how you manage your money.