What I Wish I’d Known About Money in College


This time of year always makes Johnny and me nostalgic for starting a new school year. Buying new pens and a planner, spending $500 on textbooks… each. We loved school, but financially it was kind of rough. Here’s what I wish I’d known when I was a student.

It’s okay to get loans and be poor.

I was kind of embarrassed by how poor I was, especially as a freshman. I wanted to have fun and give off the impression that I had money to spare. I wish I’d been more open with my financial situation with friends and been more responsible with the money I had. College is one time when it’s almost romantic to be poor… someone even coined the term “starving student” because it’s what you’re expected to be.

Pay attention to the details.

Rather than shy away from all there is to know about student loans, researching terms like “subsidized,” “unsubsidized,” and “pell grant” is a must. I made mistakes because I didn’t do my research. First, I had a couple unsubsidized loans, rather than subsidized, which meant they were accruing interest while I was still in school. (Subsidized loans don’t accrue interest until after you graduate.) Soon after we got married, I corrected my error with subsidized loans, and paid off my my unsubsidized loans with them.

My next, very costly, mistake came when I signed up for my first pell grant. Johnny and I were getting married before the upcoming semester, and so I signed up for the pell grant just a few days before Johnny and I said, “I do.” Much to my horror, the pell grant was rejected for the semester because I wasn’t married on the day I signed up for it. Despite multiple phone calls pleading for them to look over my minor clerical mistake, I still had to get a loan the first semester we were married. Shoulda coulda woulda wish I’d done my research.

(Financial) Ignorance is not bliss.

One of the Harry Potter books was released at the beginning of my freshman year, and when I went to buy it, my debit card was rejected because I didn’t have enough money in my bank account. As you can imagine, it was a rather embarrassing moment. And I left Harry Potter waiting, which was unforgivable! I’d had no clue how much money was in my bank account because I didn’t want to know. I wanted to avoid thinking about finances at all costs and live as if my money situation was better than it actually was. In retrospect, I wish I’d been checking my bank account every day and keeping an itemized budget. I thought that would cause me more stress, but it would have slashed my financial stress in half.

Good Grades Equal Money.

I’m going to tell you a tale of two students. One is me. The other is my roommate. We were both given scholarships to attend our university. Once we got to college, one of us (possibly me), squandered my scholarship and lost it after my freshman year. My roommate, er, I mean the other of us, maintained a 4.0 and had her scholarship renewed every single year, never having to pay a dime in tuition.

And even if I hadn’t started college with a scholarship, I could have been offered one after my freshman year if I’d gotten straight A’s. By our second year of marriage, Johnny was on the dean’s list, and we got a scholarship for one of his internships, which saved us poor kids a couple thousand dollars. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I wish I’d opened my textbooks a few more times so I could have had a little less debt on graduation day.

A Personal Finance Class Is a Must.

One awesome aspect of college is the chance to take elective courses. And while fencing or basket weaving may be right up your alley, be sure to take a personal finance class, too. The stuff you’ll learn in that class will be more useful than almost anything else you learn in college. Neither Johnny nor I took any personal finance classes at our college, and so we didn’t get our financial heads on straight until we’d almost graduated. Our school did offer a financial seminar one Saturday, and we attended several classes and took pages and pages of notes. I can still remember specific stuff I learned that day because it was so eye-opening to me.

My poor children will hear me drone on and on about all this throughout their teenage years. Anything you’d add to my droning?

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  • Reply Kirsten August 25, 2014 at 7:56 am

    I can remember going to the grocery store and going through the self checkout aisle because I didn’t want to be embarrassed if my card was declined. And I was always so stressed about checking out because of it.

    This is a good list, but I’d add that it really is possible to mostly avoid loans. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need them, but try working and getting scholarships and grants instead. Our six figure student loan debt just hadn’t been worth it to us!

    • Reply J.Mill August 25, 2014 at 10:41 am

      I agree. My dad (who’s salary was less than I make now at 28) required my siblings and me to graduate without loans. He had to help each of us a bit right at the end of our schooling, but mostly we made it with scholarships, grants, summer and school-year jobs and living very frugally. We also went to in-state schools that offered great education to locals for cheap! My husband was SO happy that my dad forced us to not accrue debt and I think it was the best thing he did for my education.

      • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm

        That’s a great thing your dad did. I didn’t qualify for any grants at all until after I was married, but I do wish I’d tried harder for scholarships. Thanks for your perspective!

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      Definitely! I wish I’d worked harder at getting scholarships That said, even still, I don’t think I could have gone without some student loan debt. But, like you said, the less debt, the better!

  • Reply Michelle August 25, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Sadly, there weren’t any classes on personal finance at my college and I wish there were! It’s great to see all of the personal finance resources available to students-now, we just need to get them to use the resources!

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:17 pm

      Yes! I wish there were a way to put more of an emphasis on that in our schools!

  • Reply Lara August 25, 2014 at 9:30 am

    I wish I would have applied for more scholarships. Although, I am glad I was able to work part-time throughout college (even a few years at the college) to help with some of my personal expenses. I do wish now that I took a course in it, too!

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      At the time, it seemed like such a boring, unimportant topic! It’s crazy how your perspective changes!

  • Reply Little House August 25, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I wish my college had offered a personal finance class close to my graduation day. If they did, I had no clue about it! I had to learn through the school of hard knocks, unfortunately.

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:20 pm

      I think that goes for most of us. It’s a pretty effective school, though :). But I wish it were a required class for all kids!

  • Reply Miranda August 25, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Sigh. I think I could write a book on this topic… Amen on the ‘it’s okay to be poor’ thing. It was really hard for me to watch friends who were going to school with the help of a sizable college fund from their parents be able to participate in college life the way I thought you were ‘supposed’ to. Not that having help from your parents is a bag thing. I plan to give that to my kids one day.

    It’s so comical to me that college is the time in your life when you are (theoretically) supposed to be able to focus most of your energy on your grades and having fun (referring to the endless ‘it’s the best four years of your life/enjoy it while it lasts’ rhetoric), but any adult can tell you that when you are having financial issues in your life, you aren’t able to focus on much of anything other than your current economic situation. It makes sense then, when we consider that a large amount of college-aged young adults, who are usually already lacking in financial smarts, are dropping out, flunking out, or racking up thousands in debt, due to lack of funds. Most have no mental/emotional margin left over to focus on school.

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      Seriously, that was me at the end of my freshman year. I honestly didn’t think I was cut out for college because my stressful financial situation made the rest of it almost too much to handle. I’m glad I didn’t drop out, obviously, because I was able to figure things out my sophomore year, but something’s gotta give with current college students. I think it comes down to helping them be more financially educated so it’s not so overwhelming.

  • Reply Retired by 40 August 25, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Good grades definitely =’d money for me! On my ACT score alone I receive a $40,000 scholarship, which amounted to about half of my tuition. Between grants and working, I covered $25,000 and I have $15,000 in loans. Even with all of that, I still feel like I could have done better during college! BTW, that picture is adorable 🙂

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      That’s awesome, Gretchen! Way to use your smarts to pay for your schooling!

  • Reply Megan August 25, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Hi there! I am a new reader, but I already just cannot believe the similarities between us and myself and my husband! I graduated school with over $65,000 of debt in 2012, after which I spent one year working as an RN while my husband finished his graduate degree in engineering. Since then, my husband and I have found the GOD GIVEN GIFT of YNAB and have used to to pay off all but one $6,500 of my loans, as well as purchased a home.
    My mom is a high school math teacher who recently lobbied to bring a financial planning class into the mix at her school, based roughly on Dave Ramsay. I would have LOVED to have that as a high schooler!

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Way to go, Megan! Way to take control of your money! We’ve heard from many readers who have found the golden ticket with YNAB. And your mom is awesome. She is giving a great gift to those students!

  • Reply Rob August 25, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    “College is one time when it’s almost romantic to be poor”

    Very true, Joanna, but it’s often even better if the parents weren’t all that well off as well. Back when I was a “starving student” my parents couldn’t help me out very much (except provide me with a place to sleep and food to eat). Back then our family had no car (we all walked and took public transportation), had bills to pay, etc. So I had to somehow fund my own post secondary education. Not being the “smartest crayon in the box” meant no chance of a scholarship but just live on what I could earn on my own. It did however teach me early about working hard (both in and outside of school) and the value of a buck. Back then I knew a guy whose parents paid for his entire 1st year education expenses – big mistake. He just goofed off all during the first semester and, “not having any skin in the game”, he flunked out at Christmas time, never to graduate. So yeah, we all make mistakes at times (especially when young) but don’t worry about the past, especially if eventually you were able to turn things around – which you guys definitely did do (and very well at that). And although “your poor children” might hear you drone on about what is right, me-thinks your actions will have more of an impact on them (for the good) than any of your droning words! 🙂

    • Reply Joanna August 25, 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Loved reading about your college experience, Rob. I’m hoping Johnny and I can find a good balance between helping our children in college while also ensuring they learn to work hard for themselves. It sounds like your experience really helped shape you into the hard-working, financially savvy person you became!

  • Reply Alexis August 25, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    I love reading about these college posts because I just enrolled into a university (transferred from a community college) and the costs are definitely more expensive!

    • Reply Joanna August 27, 2014 at 12:38 am

      Awesome! Good luck with your new semester!

  • Reply Elise August 25, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    I’m a junior in high school and I feel like reading your blog is like a glimpse into the real world of finances… that being said, I’m probably going to be paying for college life on scholarships and loans. My sister is currently in college out-of-state and she had to have three part-time jobs last semester to survive. I know it’s not really relevant to you right now, but if you could post more about scholarship/grant/loans/college finances I would really appreciate it! Thanks for sharing all your wisdom and experience with the world!

    • Reply Joanna August 27, 2014 at 12:40 am

      The fact that you’re already reading up on this kind of stuff makes you way more prepared and responsible than Johnny and I were as juniors! We’ll try to do a more in-depth post soon, Elise!

  • Reply Downstairs and in Debt August 26, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Oh no! Poor Harry Potter!! Loved this! Getting student loans is a little different in Canada. I agree with Megan’s comment about financial planning being added at the high school level. No one tells you in high school how expensive post-secondary can get!!

    • Reply Joanna August 27, 2014 at 12:41 am

      I know… I really don’t get why it’s not a required class in high school. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Reply Wade August 26, 2014 at 8:29 am

    I attended a smaller private college. The tuition is now up to $40k per year. The #1 major is Elementary Education. Where we live an Elementary Ed major won’t see a $40k salary for many years. These kids will come out of college with $30k, $40k or much more of debt. Starting your life deep in debt. Ouch.

    On a brighter note, have you 2 considered being “blog models”? You could be the stand ins on my Contact page. 🙂

    • Reply Joanna August 27, 2014 at 12:44 am

      I feel like Johnny and I lucked out on the amount of debt we ended up with when I see how much student loan debt a lot of people have fresh out of college. It’s rough.

      Oooh, blog modeling! Maybe that’s where we’ll finally strike it rich! 😉

  • Reply Michael August 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I wonder what you mean by “it’s ok to get loans.” Even though most just accept student loans as “the way things are” it seems like those who are careful with their money would do everything they can to avoid borrowing.

    Maybe you mean it’s ok to not have cash coming out your ears (like some students seem to) but that’s way different than saying it’s ok to get loans.

    Just seems like an odd statement that’s not clearly supported or explained in the following paragraph.

    • Reply Joanna August 27, 2014 at 12:48 am

      Yes, I can see how that could be misinterpreted. And you’re right… I meant it more as a support for those students who are poor and have loans and feel really lame for it, like I did. As a student, I felt surrounded by people who were living off of mom and dad’s dime and not working while in school. And that just wasn’t an option for me. I think there are a lot of students who are in the same boat I was in, but they feel alone. So, yes, I want them to know that it’s okay to not be a rich kid in college. Loans are not something to be ashamed of.

  • Reply Farrah September 1, 2014 at 8:52 am

    All very good points! I was really lucky in that my parents helped me out for undergrad and I was able to graduate without any debt. I didn’t want them to have to work so hard though, because my brother was also in college at the time, so I worked 3 part-time jobs (unbeknownst to them because I just told them my rent/tuition was cheaper than it actually was) and managed to get 2 scholarships, which definitely helped out a lot.

    But then I did graduate school and am now at a medical school where out-of-state tuition is $50k/year. Debt is just something I’m going to have to live with for at least the next decade or so. But like you said–as a student, there’s no shame in being poor; you’re pretty much expected to be! I wish I’d had a chance to take a personal finance course somewhere in my life (I’ll never understand why it’s not a required class), but my schedule unfortunately didn’t allow for that. Instead, I just keep track of everything I spend and pinch pennies like nobody’s business. 😛

  • Reply Myles Money September 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    College education costs are something which I’m researching at the moment: my friends are all headed to college in the next few weeks and many will graduate with debts of around $100k but they haven’t considered how that’s going to affect them later… it’s crazy.

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