Five Things I Did Right

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My undergrad experience was riddled with moronic behavior. I fact, I left a real Sherman’s March of damage to my spirit, relationships and brain cells. But I was fortunate, by very little providence of my own, to graduate with a manageable amount of student loan debt.

My heart breaks for students graduating with tremendous debt loads because I know the struggle that lies in their future. While I haven’t done everything right, there were five specific things I did that made my post graduate life far easier than if I had graduated with the large amounts of debt common to students today.

First, I went to a Community College for a year before transferring to a traditional liberal arts college. Many people go to a Community College for two years, then transfer – I think that’s great. With the low costs of Community College and the financial aid (not loans) available based on income, many local Community Colleges are, or nearly, free to attend. Because I took very generic prerequisite type classes at the Community College, those credits all transferred, and I was able to take more major specific classes at my liberal arts college.

In his book “Debt Free U”, author Zac Bissonnette recommends this route as a way to cash flow the entire college experience. Two years of Community College gives additional time to shop for a College to transfer into, time to refine your choice of major, time to work and save, and essentially reduce the cost of attending a state university by half.

Second, I chose a school based on cost. I applied to a handful of schools, and ultimately chose one that offered a very good package of grants and scholarships. It wasn’t the cheapest school based on advertised price, but it was one of the most affordable after I had met with the school and received their financial package offer. The idea that you have to go to a particular school because of a specific major they offer, or a geographical constraint, or their football team is just stupid if it’s going to double the cost.

Third, I graduated on time. For me that was one year at the Community College, and three years at the liberal arts college. The costs of education, not just in tuition but in time, are very high. An extra year or two in school when you could be making 30-50k a year is a luxury most of us can’t afford. Graduating with a degree is far more important than graduating with a particular major. Even if you decide to change trajectories midway through your education, it’s often easier to graduate, get a job, then take additional classes in the new bend. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ major for most – some estimates have the average employee changing fields about 7 times in their career.

Fourth, I strongly recommend working through school. I did the work-study program while classes were in session, and I worked a variety of full time jobs over the summers. I worked second shift in a radiator factory, I worked in commission sales in the electronics department of a department store, and I worked in the marketing department of a pool table manufacturer. Studies show students earn better grades if they work while in school, and in my experience this is true.

Lastly, once I graduated my wife and I made paying off our student loans a high priority. I’m not sure I can take a lot of credit for this. I was raised assuming that paying off your debt as fast as possible was the smart way to go. One of my financial principles is capturing your ‘unexpected lumps’ of money – not just letting those monies slip through your finances. Because we had predetermined that being debt free was a priority, my wife and I were able to take the majority of the money from our wedding, our first few tax returns, and a work bonus and put a big dent in our student loans. Because this was ‘unexpected’ money, not spending it didn’t affect our lifestyle at all. Now a decade after paying off those loans, being debt free has had a tremendous effect on our life.

This is an incomplete list – more of a personal reflection on a couple of things I did that correlate with what financial experts are teaching. It worked for me, and I would encourage others to follow my example –perhaps on these five things as opposed to my model of brain cell management.

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