simple finance for an extraordinary life

What You Should Know Before Starting College

It’s been exactly 20 years since I was walking across that stage to accept a piece of paper that would be the dividing line between not having a care in the world and having to get my shit together quick.

I remember it being an exciting time, but back then I knew very little about college and even less about money. I just knew I needed both.

Unfortunately for me, I was only one of a few people in my family that even pursued education beyond high school, and Dave Ramsey wouldn’t come along in my life to teach me about money until two college degrees and several jobs later -which wasn’t until 2016.

In a nutshell, I had virtually no influence in either of these areas. I was winging it at best. There were many mistakes made along the way.

It’s a bit cliché, but if I had known then what I know now, perhaps I’d be much closer to Financial Independence than I am today. But, I suppose there are many of us that feel this way.

The hard reality is that you can’t change the past, but you CAN change today and every day going forward. And, through your failings and lessons learned you CAN help someone else change their life today as well.

Here are a few things that I wish someone would have told me before heading on to college.

Skip the Name Brand School

A school with a prestigious name on the door doesn’t always equate to a better education or even a better job in the future. There may be a couple of slight exceptions to this but for the vast majority it’s just not the case.

Back in 2006 when I made the decision to get an MBA, instead of just sucking it up and going to the school where I received my undergraduate degree (which would have been a much more sensible and economical plan), I opted for a more well-known private university.

I thought surely the name would stand out better on a resume and put me ahead of other potential candidates – so much so that I convinced myself it was worth taking out loans to cover the higher tuition.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. No one cared. Over the years I have been on many interviews and have been asked numerous times about my MBA, but not a single time has anyone given a damn about what school I attended.

Think about this:
When was the last time you went to the doctor and asked her what school she graduated from? 

I’m guessing the answer is likely NEVER. As long as she is a board certified physician and in-network with your insurance why look any further?

Before you go trying to work your way into a fancy pants school, give a second thought to what you are looking to achieve. In-state universities and even community college in some cases are just as good, have similar programs, and won’t break the bank. Don’t allow yourself to go into debt for a name.

Don’t get me wrong, if you have the cash or scholarships to go to one of these schools and it’s your dream, then go for it! But, if you are taking on debt hoping a little name recognition will help land you that dream job, you might find yourself severely disappointed.

Experience is King

Employers want experience. Plain and simple.

Fancy credentials look good on paper, but at the end of the day companies want someone who has a proven track record. It’s all about what you bring to the table.

So how do you land that first job out of college with experience AND something to bring to the table?

It’s simple. Start while you are in college!

Instead of scheduling afternoon classes everyday so you can party all night and waste away your mornings, start looking for opportunities to break into your field/industry before you ever earn your degree.

I am not sure these are even around any longer but consider a co-op program if available, where you alternate semesters between taking classes and working at a job in your field applying what you’ve learned while simultaneously getting paid.

Another option is to find a job or internship that is in close relation to your field of study. This will put you closer to professionals in your field and give you more exposure to the environment where you may one day find yourself working. Who knows, you might find out after all its not the type of career you want. Better to figure that out sooner rather than later!

I had a good friend that decided to go to nursing school some years ago. He had an idea that he wanted to eventually work at a particular hospital near his home when he graduated. He decided to apply for a job at this hospital in patient registration as a way to earn money and make connections while he was in school. Through this process he met an unlimited number of doctors and nurses and other hospital staff. After graduating he quickly got a job offer and has been there ever since.

In the real world experience matters.

Put yourself in a position to begin rubbing elbows with future colleagues and start gaining experience. It will undoubtedly pay dividends not too far down the road.

Happiness Isn’t Everything

Of course you want to live a happy and meaningful life! But, I’m guessing you would also like to eat and have a roof over your head. And, preferably not have to beg your parent’s to let you move back in until you “get things together.”

I don’t think anyone would argue that finding a career that is fulfilling and that makes you happy is of the utmost importance. However, happiness alone does not necessarily equate to success.

You need a marketable degree!

Majoring in Underwater Basket Weaving for instance, may impress your friends and make for interesting conversation, but it’s very likely to leave you empty handed in the job department.

I’m not saying you should choose a degree that makes a certain level of income (it is NEVER worth it to choose a field of study based solely on money), but you should be looking at the overall demand for that field.

Far too often people choose majors in subjects that interest them without ever asking themselves the most important questions:

What type of job is this going to lead me to when I’m done? What is the demand for that line of work? Do I need to go on to a master’s or PhD program to advance or obtain employment?

Do your research. Don’t wait around until your junior or senior year of college to get started.

This all needs to be figured into your plan – especially your financial plan

Avoid Loans Like the Plague Covid

When my wife and I got married in 2010 we were both about a year and a half out of our graduate programs.  

Collectively, we had amassed about $105,000 in student loans in total.

To make matters worse neither of us were working a “dream job” as the world was still reeling from what some say was the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression.

At the beginning of 2010, I was fortunate to at least get back on full-time with a company I had previously worked at after spending almost a year working at a job I highly disliked.

My wife, on the other hand, had her share of challenges in finding stable employment in the few years after graduating, and it was sort of a roller coaster there for a while.

It was just unfortunate bad timing, but nothing either of us could have ever predicted.

The student loan companies were kind enough to give us a 6-month “grace period” after graduation but once that was over it became REAL, really fast. Whether you’ve found your dream job or not, it doesn’t matter. They want their money.

That said, they are happy to let you apply for a forbearance or hardship deferral. However, this only means the interest on your loans will continue to accrue, and if not paid during the forbearance period, in some cases it could be capitalized onto the loan. This means you’ll be paying your original principal and interest as well as interest on the accrued interest while you were in deferment.

The minimum payments on our combined loans added up to $853 per month. The mortgage payment on our first house was only a few hundred dollars more. It was like paying two mortgages essentially, but only owning one home!

I don’t recommend it!

For several years that minimum payment haunted our budget, and whenever I would look at the principal vs. interest each month it was a sinking feeling. We were only slowly chipping away at the principal, and the majority of every payment was going straight to interest. It felt hopeless at times.

Don’t let yourself fall into this trap. Avoid loans at all costs!

Apply for scholarships. Look for student worker opportunities to reduce tuition. Work while you are in school. Work more when you are out of school or in between semesters. Cash flow as much as humanly possible – even if it means taking less credit hours per semester and adding more time to complete your degree.

It will be worth it in the end!

You will finish college ready to take on the world. And, if it takes you some time to find that perfect job so be it. You are debt free!

Remember, going to college is more than just getting a degree and finding a job. You are making choices and decisions that will affect your money and your life for many years to come. It’s important to choose wisely.

Of course you’ll make mistakes along the way. Who doesn’t?

However, in this moment time is on your side. Make the best use of it!

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