What I Wish I Knew About Money BEFORE College

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I really wish I knew more about money before college. When I stepped foot in my freshmen dorm for the first time, I had no worries about how hard my classes would be, how much student loan debt I might graduate with, or how I would manage a heavy workload while trying to stay social.

Instead, I was concerned about meeting new friends, where we would be partying that night, and how to start a conversation with that cute girl down the hall.

Sure, every other overly excited freshmen moving in that day was probably in the same boat, but there are a few things that I wish I had considered before I left for college – especially financially.

In this post, though, I reflect on my financial mindset going into college, the (often hard) lessons I learned along the way, and where I’m at today – about a year and a half after graduating.

Every Student Needs to Take a Personal Finance Class in High School

When I lived at home during high school, my parents always knew how much money I was spending and where at.

Though I wasn’t a crazy spender by any means, they often encouraged me to save more for college, be conscious of where I was spending my money, and to look for deals and discounts.

Once I hit college, though, it was a whole different ballgame.

Before college, I paid for some things myself, but my parents helped me out considerably so I could focus on doing well in school. Now though, I was now out on my own and had real expenses – like rent, textbooks, food, drinks, etc. – that I had to use my own money for.

The problem was, I never was required to take a personal finance class in high school.

I had no idea how to budget. I had no idea how credit cards worked. I had no idea how to save money on my student loan debt. And I had no idea about so many other money topics that I had to learn very quickly.

Now I don’t want to blame it all on my high school – I definitely could have done some research on my own – but it would have been nice to be introduced to some basic personal finance topics. In fact, only 17 states require it! This is pretty absurd to me. I mean, we take these classes and go off to college at least partially to make some money. How are we supposed to know how to manage that money when the very basics of managing it are never introduced in formal schooling?

If you happen to be a high school student or even a college student, I encourage you to try to take a personal finance course at school or take some time to research online and educate yourself.

It will go a long way in helping you figure out how to manage your money once you’re out on your own – especially if you had to take out student loans like me…which brings me to my next point.

Learn How Student Loans Work and Create a Plan for Repayment

Much like every other personal finance topic, I didn’t have much of an idea of how student loans worked once I entered college.

My parents briefly explained how interest worked, how I would be required to repay them after graduation, and what I could/couldn’t use the money for, but I kind of had an “I’ll deal with it later” mindset.

Needless to say, this is costing me some extra money today.

Instead of rambling about how I should have taught myself more or how my high school should have taught me more, I will instead just talk about some of the lessons I wish I learned before college:

  • You can (& should) pay interest while in school ­– I never considered making student loan payments during college because, well, it wasn’t required, so why would I?!?! I wish I did though. Since my loans were unsubsidized, interest accrued during college increasing my loan amount a few thousand dollars. If I had just put $50 a month or so towards my loans I could have reduced this amount drastically, making repayment for myself much easier after graduation.
  • Just because you have student loan money doesn’t mean you have to use it – When I saw some extra money in my student account from my student loans, I just assumed that I had to spend it. This led me to use some student loan money on unnecessary expenses, such as eating out and on new clothes. Instead, I should have just sent the money to my servicer as a payment to help save me some money in the long run.
  • Building credit in college can lead to serious savings later on – I had a credit card in my later years in college, but I wish I had used on (wisely) the whole time. You see, when I graduated, I had a little credit history. This caused me to be rejected for student loan refinancing which could have saved me thousands of dollars in interest if I received a lower rate. Luckily, I learned the value of building credit and am well on my way to an 850 (one day!).

Look Into Free Activities on Campus Before Spending

At the beginning of college, I always assumed the free activities that my university-sponsored would always be lame. Instead, I went out with friends and spent unnecessarily.

At the beginning of my Senior year, I accidentally walked into a free improv show and decided to stay and check it out. I’m not ashamed to say it was one of the most entertaining events I ever went to through all of my four years.

While I don’t like to live with regrets, I do wish I had given some of the free on-campus events more of a chance. Not only could I have met some other friends and experienced some new things, but I could also have saved tons of money along the way.

Final Thoughts on Money and College

Whoever told me “college is the best four years of your life” definitely wasn’t lying. I loved every minute of college – from the football games to the late nights studying to having one (or five) too many drinks.

If you are about to go to college or have recently started, first off, I am extremely jealous. It really does go by too fast. Enjoy it while you have it because before you know it, you’ll be in the “real world” like me.

My one piece of advice is to try to be smart about managing your money – especially if you have student loan debt. You might have to sacrifice a tiny bit while you’re in college, but you’ll thank yourself in a few years.

Joe is a personal finance blogger. When he’s not working, you can find him doing fantasy football research, reading a good book, or playing lacrosse. 

21 thoughts on “What I Wish I Knew About Money BEFORE College”

  1. Yes yes yes yes. I wish I could crawl into a time machine and slap my 18-year-old self with this knowledge. I was never even OFFERED a personal finance class that I could take. These courses need to at least be offered to young people to get correct information. I was so stupid about debt during college. I didn’t have a job and didn’t make any payments on my ~fancy private school~ loans.

    I wish I would have lived with my parents and gone to community college for a few years. Then I could have transferred those credits to an affordable public university. But nope! I had to go to a fancy private university that cost $25,000 a semester.


    • I feel your pain. There’s so many things I wish I knew before college that my parents and high school never taught me.

      Luckily my in-state school didn’t cost that much but I hope you got a handle on those loans now!

  2. I was lucky in that aside from summer jobs, I never had to work during college and was financially supported. But, I think I took it for granted. Not on purpose, but I didn’t know any better. I just assumed money flowed. It paid for my school, my sorority, etc. but I never learned those valuable money lessons either for a different reason. While I appreciate how supported I was, if I ever had kids I would make sure they really understood how money doesn’t grow on trees. lol

    • I think I used my student loan money on fraternity dues one semester as well. I wish I knew that it would end up adding a few hundred bucks to the total. I definitely agree with making sure my future kids know about money as well. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Oh gosh. I wish I’d known a bunch of stuff before I went to college. My most expensive lesson, although I didn’t realize it until late, was “Why cars have maintenance schedules and why you should follow them,” which led to “Why you need an emergency fund,” and “Why you need to limit your credit card purchases to what you can pay off in a reasonable amount of time” and “Why you shouldn’t spend everything you make.” LOL.

    Yeah, it took a while for those lessons to sink in.

    • Haha those are definitely some great lessons to learn! I’ll need to make sure to keep the one about car maintenance schedules in mind because thats definitely something I could see myself skipping.

  4. These are some great ideas! I have two kids in college right now – and I’ll share your thoughts.Anything we can do to prevent them from leaving college in debt and with bad habits is always important to us! Good luck with your blog too!

  5. Some of the most important lessons in life we tend to learn the hard way. I believe there’s starting to be more focus on personal finance for students, so hopefully with posts like this and more classes in school, our future students will be better prepared.

    • That’s what I’m hoping for Gary! It really is crazy how little personal finance education there is in high schools and colleges these days. Thanks for reading!

  6. Thanks for the great post and honesty Joe! I wish I knew more and paid more attention to my money in my 20s. It’s certainly something I’m talking about with my two college freshmen.

  7. “I kind of had an ‘I’ll deal with it later’ mindset.” That was a mindset that I carried with me long, long after I’d finished university. One of my daughters in university (all 3 are) is now carrying student debt. I’m going to share this post with her. I really like what you have to say about the free events and being proactive in reducing the total debt load while still in university. The “if it’s in my account, I have to spend it” mindset is widespread. All the best to Joe in eliminating that debt.

  8. “When I saw some extra money in my student account from my student loans, I just assumed that I had to spend it.” Boy, did that statement bring back some serious memories!! I remember getting my loan checks for tech school, paying my tuition and book fees and feeling “rich” because there was several hundred dollars left over, which I promptly blew on stupid stuff.

    Joe, great job on seeing your mistakes early and correcting them early too. You’re setting yourself up for great things!!

  9. How many high school seniors will read this post? Chances are that most of the people reading it already graduated college, and will just reflect on their college days.
    It is a great post to force your high school age kids to read. The discussions afterword would be beneficial.

    • It’s important we as parents continue to spread the word to our kids. It one of the reasons I got involved locally with my school district, I notice a lack of this type of education.

  10. Thankfully I didn’t have any student loan debt when I graduated college.

    The one thing I wish I’d understood is: Lifestyle inflation. Every year when I got a raise, I spent more money. Bigger houses, newer cards, nicer vacations. If I’d maintained a steady lifestyle I could have easily retired 10 years earlier.

  11. It is great that 17 states now offer some personal finance education. The push back in the past was that it was not an academic class. When it comes to student loans, a student should be aware of how much they will have to pay per month for the next 10-15 after they hopefully graduate. I think that would help students in selecting majors as well as schools.

  12. Man I love and hate pretending I could relive the past. Like you mentioned, those really were some of the best years, but I feel like I could’ve done so much more to put me in a better position today had I known about personal finance back then. There really needs to be a personal finance class offered in the transition period from high school to college. Luckily for up and coming freshmen these days, there are so many of these informative blog posts out there, if they just read a post each day of their summer vacation, they’d be light years ahead of someone with no prior knowledge!

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