What I Wish I Knew About Money in College


Oh man, the things I wish I knew about money in college! I’m very lucky in that (in my early 30’s) I have completely paid off my student loans. I made my last payment about one year ago. I racked up a good amount of student loan debt by attending two different small private universities, and taking longer than 4 years to complete my degree. I received some good advice upon graduation – to pay my loans early and often!

I handled my student loan debt well, but I made tons of cringe-worthy financial mistakes in my twenties! As a 30-something, I’m on a quest to become debt-free and I almost don’t recognize the girl I was a decade ago. Knowing what I know now, here’s a list of a few things I wish I knew about money in college!

what I wish I knew about money in college

You don’t need a credit card!

I wish I could have told my college student self to avoid credit cards at all costs! I started young with credit cards and had one for almost every store in the mall, the beloved Target red card, and an American Express card that I used for textbooks and a few tuition payments. I blindly signed up for credit cards not considering how much interest rates were, or how long it would take me to repay my debts. I overused the cards, buying whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I only paid the minimums due and often missed payments or was late. The amount of money I paid in interest and late fees due to credit card use in college would probably make me sick today!

Live below your means

This is excellent advice for all stages of life, not just college. But the younger you can start living below your means the better. By not spending all of your earnings, you free up more money to save, invest, and give. If you need to use a credit card or a loan to buy something – you can’t afford it, and you’re living beyond your means!

Money doesn’t happiness

Or friends. Or love. Or self esteem. I tried to solve a lot of my college problems by using the above mentioned credit cards. Maybe a cute new outfit will help. Or offering to pay for dinner, or a round of drinks. Maybe if this course is too hard I can just blow it off and buy concert tickets this weekend instead of studying or asking for help.

You have options!

Student loans and eventually drowning in debt aren’t the only option for paying for college. You can work your way through college, maybe even going part time in order to avoid loans altogether. There are scholarships, grants and work study programs. There’s the option of military service in exchange for schooling. You can save up cash for college expenses in advance – maybe starting in high school, or even delaying the start of college until you have worked for a few years.

You should consider your options when selecting a school. Every school has a different price tag and more expensive does not mean a better education.

Also research and explore all of your options for paying off student loans if you do use them. Make sure you know the details, like that student debt will accumulate interest while in college. Can you start making payments early? Can you pay extra each month? Should you refinance your loans? Do you qualify for some sort of student loan debt forgiveness?

Personal Finance is cool!

No really! 😉 Seriously! Learn about money! Start reading books about personal finance, listen to podcasts, and share what you learn with your friends! You could be a millionaire someday, but only if you make the right (informed) choices with your money. Financial success is not dependent on your college major, grades, and what job you land after graduating. There is much more to it. Learn about money now so you can take good care of and enjoy every cent you earn in your lifetime!

Are you (or your kids) headed to college?

Open your mind. Do your research. Don’t collect credit cards, go shopping as a hobby, choose the most expensive school or refuse part time work opportunities because “that’s what everyone else is doing.” Graduating college debt free, or with as little debt as possible, will be one of the best gifts you ever give yourself.

What do you wish you knew about money in college?

what I wish I knew about money in college

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  1. Love this post! I didn’t have any student loans in college and am so thankful for that! I think students only see that 1st year of student loans and don’t realize they need at least 3 more years. Then it just adds up so quick…I am all for making freshmen (or seniors in high school) take a class on finance!
    chastity recently posted…Caramelized Onion BBQ Grilled CheeseMy Profile

  2. As a mom of a future college students we are so looking into scholarship no matter the amount adn grants. We are hoping to help put son through college with as little out of pocket expense as possible.

  3. These are all great tips. That is awesome to have your student loans paid off. Our son and daughter in law are just starting on that.
    Lory Robinson recently posted…Comment on Wood Cutout Sign Giveaway by Rebecca BryantMy Profile

    • Thanks Lory! It’s a great feeling to not worry about student loans anymore. I wish your son and daughter in law the best of luck!

  4. College me wasn’t so bad. I worked most of the time, and stayed within my means (but didn’t maintain my car.) I do wish I’d strayed outside my academic comfort zone a bit more: an accounting class might have been great for numerous reasons, but I was a liberal arts major!

    Grad school me needed a crash course in budgeting, eating cheaply and more nutritiously, prioritizing exercise, avoiding debt, and walking away from a dead-end situation. (I knew early in I wasn’t meant to be an academic, but it took me 3 1/2 years to admit it and start finding plan B.).
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Sometimes Frugality is HardMy Profile

    • That’s tough Emily! I do wish there was a better way for students to evaluate the programs they were in for long term success potential

  5. Brilliant post Erin! College is when we first get out on our own, and we can make so many financial mistakes that way. I’m happy I have my own student loans paid off, but my husband still has 5 separate loans. We’re working on those. Maybe I need to post about our financial journey too hehe
    Julie S. recently posted…Tea Lovers Rejoice, and Celebrate my Birthday with meMy Profile

    • You should! I say the more people talking about finances the better! 🙂 We can all learn from each other. So awesome you paid off your loans already. Don’t worry, you’ll get there with your husband’s too.

  6. I always found it frustrating how colleges let credit card companies set up tables on campus giving away freebies for the kids to sign up for their cards. Easy pickings for them to get these kids into debt to them. I know a few people that were shackled with debt graduating from college not from student loans but from credit card debt. So important for parents to make sure their kids are ready to handle these responsibilities when they leave home for college.

    • You are so right Geek Daddy! They still have banks and credit card companies at college orientations, it’s terrible! I racked up tons of consumer debt during that time in my life!

  7. Great advice. My daughter graduated a few years ago and is paying off some debt. Luckily not too much. I made sure she was knowledgeable about finances when she went to college and learned to live on a tight budget. This helped in the lean years after graduation.
    Cynthia L recently posted…Grilled BBQ Country Pork RibsMy Profile

  8. Love this post and ALL of this info! I am still learning this and it is way later in life. I want to teach my kids these lessons and hope they apply them as they move forward. Thanks

  9. Yep…. Stay away from the credit card tables at orientation!!! And living beneath your means I unfortunately didn’t get this concept until my late 20s!!!!
    Kelli recently posted…I Haven’t Bought Myself Anything in 4 YearsMy Profile

  10. All these things you listed Erin are true and valuable lessons. We all made these mistakes, but it’s great when we recognize them and turn around, and hopefully we can teach our kids:)

  11. I remember when I was in college, credit card companies were always signing us up and you could easily qualify for many cards. It is so easy to get into trouble with cards and I would say to my college self, WALK AWAY from the cards!

  12. I wish I knew back then how to live below my means! I had no idea how to budget and manage my money. I made some really bad financial decisions in my 20’s! I have since started my own blog that helped me get out of debt and learned a lot about personal finance and money management along the way. I wish they taught it in school.
    Eva @ Girl Counting Pennies recently posted…The Financial Benefits of Being a Stay-at-Home ParentMy Profile

    • I’m glad you’re so successful with finances now Eva! Better late than never. And I agree that it should be taught in school.

  13. These are some great tips! My dad had to pay child support until I was done post secondary school, so I was able to use that money and then I worked full time in the summers. Luckily I was able to finish school debt free! Didn’t have much to my name though and ate a lot of KD!

  14. I definitely wish I knew this when I was younger, especially “personal finance is cool!” At least now I can be a little more responsible, and teach my children how to handle their money.
    Samantha @ Momma Wants Java recently posted…Sweet & Spicy Lettuce WrapsMy Profile

  15. I wish I would have taken high school more seriously. I would have gotten more scholarships. Now I have a ton of student loans.
    healing mama recently posted…Why Staycations Are Good For FamiliesMy Profile

  16. The thing that I used to hear all the time was that you have to pay a minimum on your credit card to establish credit (or rather, not to pay it off right away), which is rubbish, because on a Gold Amex, you can’t even have a balance. You can still establish credit when you pay it off. I always did. The thing is to NEVER BE LATE.
    lana recently posted…Doodle Bomber : mirrorsmeMy Profile

  17. I wish I’d started learning about personal finance in college! And I really wish I’d just opened an IRA when I got my first job. I’d be way ahead of the game by now.
    Mel @ brokeGIRLrich recently posted…Financially Savvy Saturdays #138My Profile

  18. I wish I knew that I could apply for more scholarships rather than just take out loans.

    I also wish I knew about budgeting, saving up for a down payment on a house, paying down existing debt, how retirement plans work, etc…

    I wish I knew how powerful compound interest was back then!

    So many things I wish I knew then…at least I know them now! 🙂

  19. It always astounds me that college students can get credit cards when they have basically no income. That’s when I got my first one, too… I just paid it off and closed it last month. When they saw how long I had been a cardholder they tried to keep me… NOPE. Thanks for linking up at Frugal Fridays!!
    Ann recently posted…Where Am I Important?My Profile

    • Isn’t that mind blowing Ann? I got so many credit cards in my early twenties and I wasn’t making much money or even consistently working full time hours – yikes! Congrats on closing that card!

  20. The best advice my parents ever gave me was never to get a credit card. I have debt, but it’s nowhere near as bad as a lot of my friends’.

    Thanks so much for sharing at #FridayFrivolity
    Jess Powell (Babi a Fi) recently posted…Friday Frivolity: Lip Sync BattlesMy Profile

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