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Things I Wish I Knew About Money in College

Here’s something I learned, the hard way, while in college. The “real world” does not necessarily begin after graduation. Getting a full-time job or your own apartment does not define the “real world” and all the responsibilities that go along with it. As soon as are earning, spending, and/or saving money, you alone are responsible for those decisions. And they do matter. Here’s why—and a few other things that I wish I knew when I was a college student.

Whether you’re working two jobs to put yourself through college or are fortunate enough to have your tuition paid for and even a little spending money from mom and dad—chances are you’re not thinking about your money the way most people do. (Maybe you’re wondering if you have enough to make the next tuition payment or at least to pay for beers this Friday).

That’s how I thought about money in college. I was fortunate enough to have financial aid and family pay for most of my tuition (though I had some student loans). I worked part-time and during the summers to buy things like textbooks and pizzas, but I was always focused on short-term financial goals: Do I have enough to pay for this weekend, my next trip home, etc.? I never thought about saving. I never thought about avoiding debt.

Why? Because I was a student, and I figured I could worry about that once I was in the “real world” with a” real” job. The reality is: I was earning money, and my expenses were as low as they were ever going to be. I should have been saving most of what I was earning!

Instead, as I racked up more and more charges on my credit card, my thinking about money became even scarier. By my junior year of college, I was funneling almost every dollar I earned to credit card minimum payments. If I had hit my credit card limits, my gig would have been up. I would’ve had to buckle down and get out of debt or face major credit problems or bankruptcy. Unfortunately, my credit cards’ limits were so astronomical I still had years to go before maxing out and hitting bottom.

Looking back, there are a few other simple personal finance rules that I wish I had known in college.

It’s not what you earn, it’s what you spend.

When I started to get panicked about money in college, I looked for ways to work more hours and earn more money. There’s nothing wrong with earning more, but sometimes earning isn’t the problem. I was a full-time student, and the jobs I was working at the time paid about $6 an hour. It would’ve been far easier to stop spending so much money

Saving matters, no matter how little.

I didn’t save a penny until I was 24. By contrast, I had a college friend who tucked away whatever he could into savings accounts and even IRAs the minute he began earning money. Years later, while I was still living paycheck to paycheck, he already had thousands in his bank account and thousands more already saved for retirement. How much you actually save is far less important than the act of saving.

It’s never going to get “easier” to get out of credit card debt.

During my years living by my credit cards, I kept telling myself: “Once I get a full-time job it will be easy to pay all this off.” Ha! It’s never easy to pay off credit card debt. And guess what: When I was in college, I didn’t have any real expenses. After school, I was working full time but I also had to pay for rent, utilities, and groceries, and it actually got more difficult to make progress on my debt. If you have credit card debt…even if you’re still in school…you have to start dealing with it now!

Ignore everybody else.

Think “keeping up with the Jones’” only happens in upper-middle class suburbs? Not quite. Colleges enroll poor students and very very rich students and every kind of student in between. A student with a million dollar trust fund and a brand new Lexus may be roommates. It’s never to early to learn that money and possessions don’t make you who you are, and trying to “keep up” with friends or peers will only leave you farther behind financially.

What About You?

Published or updated on August 19, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. Kerri says:

    Great post, David. You are right: there is never a good time/better time than NOW to start paying off debt. Same with savings, no matter how small the amount. I especially enjoyed your comment about the temptation to “keep up with the Joneses.” This is a real problem in our society that starts as early as childhood. It is the culprit of many financial disasters! Ultimate satisfaction from acquiring things will never be realized. We always end up wanting more, and leads so many to experience financial hardship.

  2. Silena says:

    If only I’d known about financial control and credit card spending when I was still in school!! I’d be so much better off and with about 1/3 of the debt.

  3. Ellie says:

    Great post! About to begin my senior year at University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. This fall will be my third unpaid internship, and wondering when the money will start flowing. I’m having trouble putting any money away when I am not making any money!

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