25 Life-Changing Things I Wish I Knew Before College

Ever look back at a period of time in your life and think if only I knew then what I know now…I’d have done a lot of things different?

We’ve all been there.

Today, I’m talking about college.

College involves a lot of decisions that impact the rest of your life.

So read on for the things my closest friends from The Common Cents Club and I wish we’d known before we went to college.

25 Things I Wish I Knew Before College:

things I wish I knew before college

I’ve been doing this adult thing for a while now. “Adulting” has brought marriage, mortgage payments, and student loans. Two careers. Two homes. Two kids. And a dog.

When I look back at the college decisions I made, there is a list of things I wish I’d known before I went to college.

Because my brain is usually fixed on money matters, many of the items on this list focus on college choices and the big impact those things have on your adult finances and what lifestyle you’re able to create for yourself.

I’m keeping this list for things I plan to teach my kids before they go to college, and I hope you share this with those you care about before they go to or graduate from college. It could change their whole adult life.

Things To Know About Student Loans & College Tuition

These are things to know about student loans and tuition.

1. Student loans are not “good debt.” 

I’m in the camp that believes there is not “good” debt. All debt comes with risk and stress, usually for decades. Starting your adult life leaving college with a massive pile of student loans –without a guaranteed job & paycheck– is setting yourself up for a difficult uphill battle financially.

2. College debt is not a necessary evil that everyone has to have. 

Even if your parents can’t foot the bill for your college tuition, as mine couldn’t, it doesn’t mean financial aid is your only option. Savings, grants, scholarships, assistantships, and even employee programs are some of the options out there.

3. The effect of compound interest. 

Somehow this one didn’t sink in until I was on track to graduate with $50,000 of student loan debt. When I realized $50,000 of student loans was going to cost $100,000 to repay on the standard repayment plan, I finally understood the effect of compound interest. (You can read more about my journey to repay this debt and how you can save thousands on your student loans in my book Pay Your Student Loans Fast.) I also wish I’d used compound interest in my favor and put my savings bonds (gifted from my awesome grandparents) in something that could have earned a lot more interest over time. We’ve started an Educational Savings Account invested in mutual funds for our children.

4. You can decline some of the financial aid offered.

I didn’t have any money saved for college, and I was told to take as much as they would offer. Sometimes this meant I’d get a check for a few hundred dollars because I was borrowed more than I needed for tuition, room, and board. I pocketed this money for living expenses but should have used savings or worked for those living expenses instead. I wish I’d figured out the minimum amount I needed just to cover my classes, and declined every extra penny so I didn’t later have to pay it back plus interest.

5. You should make payments toward your tuition even if you can’t pay it in full. Every little bit helps. 

My parents taught me to save young. I saved and bought my own car, paid for many of my vehicle expenses, cell phone, and clothing in high school. But saving for college was never on my radar. As I referenced above, I just assumed and let financial aid cover the bill and figured I’d figure out paying for college later (you know, after I had an amazing job that paid a ton of money because I had a college degree…). I wish I’d paid even small amounts toward my tuition throughout my college years. Every little bit that you don’t have to borrow and repay later seriously adds up and makes a difference.

6. Some colleges offer tuition assistance or discounts for employees.

I found on campus jobs in both undergraduate and graduate school. I did not know some colleges help pay tuition or reduce the fees for their employees. Working through college is wise, but researching to find colleges or employers that offer assistance for tuition is even wiser.

7. Think outside the box for Scholarships

I had no idea how much scholarships and grants can help reduce the burden of paying for college. It’s huge! I barely knew there were scholarship opportunities in my own high school, much less opportunities outside of my school. In fact, there are lots of unique places to apply for scholarships. This was another thing I didn’t realize until I already had a pile of student loans. I found and was given a scholarship from the local newspaper two years in a row. It’s also important to know the requirements of any scholarships you are offered, such as which universities, majors, GPA, or documentation requirements they have.

8. The Return on Investment (ROI) of your degree. 

Find out what the average salary earns before choosing a degree. If the average pay is $30,000 per year and the degree is going to cost you $45,000, that is not a good return on your investment. Find a cheaper school or choose a career path that pays a lot more to make your college investment worth it.

9. School choice will impact far more than your college years. 

You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school or pay for out-of-state tuition to get a great education and foundation for your future career. Some jobs require a certain degree, but they don’t require a degree from a certain school. You have an important choice here. Don’t justify an extra $60,000 in debt for the “experience” of a more expensive school. Graduating with $15,000 in student loans creates a much smaller burden and opportunity for a drastically different lifestyle than graduating with $75,000 in college debt. Be wise about which university you choose to attend.

10. Switching your major can cause serious damage to your finances. 

Switching your major is common. After all, not many of us know exactly what we want to do with our life at age 18. But it’s important to know switching your major can do serious damage to your finances for the rest of your life. Most of the time, switching your major leads to years more of schooling. More years of college means more tuition and oftentimes, more debt. This is especially true if you switch more than once. So before you switch your major, consider the financial impact.

11. Understand the breakdown of where your money is coming from.

 Know where all your money is coming from each semester. How much are scholarships or grants? How much are student loans? What is the interest rate on the loans? When does the interest start accruing? What needs to be repaid and when?

12. There are legit options besides the 4-year degree.

I used to think a bachelor’s degree from a 4-year university was the only “real” option. Now I know that is far from the truth. There are associate degrees and apprenticeships that can lead to incredibly fulfilling and well-paying careers. There are even examples of successful entrepreneurs without any degree. These options result in a lot less debt and stress about finances. I’m not saying a 4-year degree is bad, so don’t get me wrong. I am saying it’s not the only option.

13. A 2-year degree can cost you years and thousands of dollars.

Even if you decide to go the faster and less expensive route of earning a 2-year degree, it can still take more years and money than anticipated if you do not do your research and create a detailed plan. Some schools are prone to waiting lists or frequent policy changes that can get in the way of your graduation plans. To avoid this, research schools and ask students a few years older than you about their experience with the program you’re interested in. Choose a school that doesn’t make it a huge obstacle to graduate within your desired timeline or price range.

Things To Know About College Lifestyle

And here are the things to know about money and college lifestyle choices.

14. Amazon Prime has a FREE 6-MONTH membership for college students.

I’m a big fan of Amazon Prime. Regular old adults can try it free for 30 days, but college students can get a free trial for six months! After a trial, your membership will upgrade to Amazon Prime for 50% off. Of course, if you don’t want to pay for the membership, all college students can try it free for six months and then cancel. You’re free to cancel anytime.

You’ll get:

  • Free 2-day shipping on thousands of products
  • Free TV shows, movies, and music
  • Exclusive college deals
  • and more!

Start your FREE six-month trial of Amazon Prime today.

15. How to budget! 

This one gets an exclamation point. Seriously, probably the greatest skill for being in a good place with your money is knowing how to budget. Know how much you earn. Know how much you spend. Know how much you save. That is the only way to save money for anything or get rid of pesky debt.

You can use the budgeting template I use in The Free Resource Library:

16. Not to buy books from the campus bookstore. 

You can save a ton of money if you can find used textbooks instead of buying them from the campus bookstore. Here are some places to check for cheaper textbooks:

Also, consider borrowing from a friend or upperclassman who already took the course or renting instead of buying. This is especially true if it’s for a general ed. class you don’t think you’ll use the books for after class is over.

*UPDATE* I just found an AWESOME site that has online textbooks for FREE!

It’s called Open Textbook Network, and over 500 universities across the country are participating, including schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Tennessee, Ohio, California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado, and more! See if your college is participating. Before you or your child buys another college textbook, check and see if the book is in this online library.

17. That I could study, have a social life, and work at the same time.

I earned better grades during the semesters I was working during college. This is probably because I knew I had dedicated hours for work, and I wanted to set aside certain hours for play, so I couldn’t procrastinate as much with my schoolwork. I also wish I knew about the massive number of opportunities to work from home on your own time, like becoming a virtual assistant, freelance proofreading, starting a blog, online tutoring for VIPKID, or working as a Pinterest virtual assistant. Whether you work for yourself from home or work for someone else, it is totally doable to work, play, and do well in school at the same time. Plus, work = more money for playtime (or for books, rent, and tuition…).

18. Do Not use credit cards for everything.

Do not get in the habit of using your credit cards for everything. Pay off your balance in full every month. If you can’t pay off your balance, you’re spending money you don’t have AND you’re losing even more money because of interest charges and maybe even late fees too. This is a recipe for complete disaster. After learning how to budget (refer back to #1 of this section), this is the next most important habit to learn in my opinion.

19. Find restaurants and businesses that offer student discounts.

There are 100+ stores and restaurants that offer discounts to college students. You can even get discounts on insurance, technology, and travel. So if you’re going to eat out, go shopping, or travel you better check if there are any college discounts first. Here are two great lists I found about brands and stores that give student discounts.

20. Take advantage of the free gym membership on campus.

This might be your only opportunity to have a free gym membership. And it’s available at a time when “The Freshman 15” is knocking at your door. Use it! Start or keep good habits of being active. Take care of your body. And don’t pay for a gym membership if you have access to a free workout center on campus.

21. Get any on-the-job experience you can.

One of the best ways to know if it’s the right job for you is to gain real experience in your field of interest. Do internships, volunteer, or work as soon as possible. It’s devastating personally and financially to dig yourself into a huge pile of student loan debt only to find out upon graduation that you can’t stand the work you got a degree in. Gaining real work experience early can also help you avoid switching your major three times or having to go back to school again later in life. Plus, when you’re applying for your dream job, those who are hiring love to see related work experience, so internship, work, or volunteer experience will help you get hired too.

22. Ask for help.

Ask your parents, advisors, professors, mentors, boss, or those in the financial aid office or career services until you understand your loans, scholarships, options, and opportunities. That is exactly what those people are there for. They want to help. And the only way for you to learn is to ask. Learn as much as you can so you don’t have such a long list of things you wish you knew sooner…

23. Ask about the professors.

When you’re signing up for your classes, it’s worth a little time investment to find professors who make the class worthwhile. Sometimes you only have one option and that just is what it is. But sometimes there are a bunch of professors who teach the same class. Finding professors who are enthusiastic about their topic and find engaging ways to teach you something is worth it. Don’t just sign up for the professor whose class is easy to get an A in. You’re paying big bucks for your college education. Get everything you can out of it.

24. You don’t need to know your exact dream career as a freshman, but you do need a plan.

It’s ok if you don’t know “exactly what you want to be when you grow up” as a college freshman. Many change their minds. But you do need a plan. Know your areas of interest and have a plan for how you’re going to figure out what the right path is for you. Maybe you can take general classes your first year and volunteer in the areas you’re interested in to see which is a good fit. But taking random generals for three years while you “figure it out” is not a good plan. It can be a waste of time and money.

25. If you aren’t ready to make a plan, don’t be afraid to take time off and wait.

It’s ok to wait to attend college until you have a plan. Maybe you want to work for a year and learn more about your options. Research salaries. Learn how many places are hiring for the positions you’re interested in. Maybe you want to work a few years while saving like crazy to pay for tuition with real money instead of debt. Going to college right after high school just because that’s what “everybody” does isn’t a great plan. You need a more clear plan or you’ll accidentally graduate with $120,000 in student loans and still unsure what you want to do with your degree. A well-researched plan will help you get the most out of your college years, and improve your chances of snagging a job you enjoy that supports a lifestyle you love.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Follow the 25 things on this list to get the best return on your investment of a college education. These things can change your life and help you avoid looking back at your college decisions with a bunch of debt and regret.

If you already have student loans and want to get rid of them as fast as possible, check out my book Pay Your Student Loans Fast. With this book, you’ll have a step-by-step, proven plan to get rid of your debt fast. Seriously, my husband and I were ordinary, rookie public school teachers, yet combined we paid off over $60,000 in 4.5 years. There is hope, my friend!

Share this list with anyone you know who is planning to go to college or is in college right now. You’ll help them truly make the best of their college years and start their adult years on the right foot financially.

They will thank you for your guidance…just maybe not right away.

Cheers to your financial freedom!

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Free college textbooks and other things I wish I knew before college

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Val Breit

Val Briet helps women create a life they love with money hacks, productivity tips, unique gift ideas, and honest reviews to find products that are worth it!

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