When people ask me where I went to college, I don’t have an easy, one- or two-word answer.
Same goes for “What was your major?” and a host of other networking questions to which it would pay to have canned responses lined up.
That’s because I did a terrible job of going to college — especially from a penny-hoarding perspective.
I transferred not once or twice, but three times (yep), and changed my major even more. As a result, many of my credits didn’t transfer over easily, and I ended up retaking — and re-paying for — simple, pre-req classes again and again.
Oh, and the majors I finally settled on were humanities: not particularly well-known for translating into lucrative career opportunities, to put it gently.
I won’t say I regret my non-traditional college path. I learned a lot I don’t think I necessarily would have if I’d simply gone with plan A — that is, spending four years on one campus.
But one thing’s undeniable: I wasted a lot of time and money.
If you’ve yet to graduate, you still have time to learn from the mistakes kids like me made. Here’s what not to do if you want to make the most out of the time — and money — you spend on college.
10 College Fails You Can Totally Avoid
Let my mistakes be your cautionary tale.
1. Don’t Apply for Scholarships
I know, I know: writing more essays and filling out more forms is a time-intensive pain in the butt.
But scholarships and grants are literally free money — and that’s not something that comes around every day. It’s well worth the time and effort you spend to apply for these opportunities, and you can (and should) do so even after you’re already in school.
2. Take Out Private Student Loans
No matter how much you scrimp, save and apply for scholarships, it’s possible that you’ll be forced to take out loans to afford college.
But not all loans are created equal. And not understanding — or paying attention to — the differences could end up costing you thousands.
Generally, private lenders will charge much higher interest rates than you’d find in your federal loan documentation. After all, even the wealthiest bank in the world doesn’t have the power and at-least-in-theory wealth of the U.S. government.
That’s why you should always start your loan application process by filing the FAFSA, which the government will use to qualify you for any need-based financial aid it can supply.
If federal aid won’t foot the whole bill, you may be forced to take out private loans, in which case you’ll benefit from shopping around.
Although a number like 6% might seem small, an interest rate that high can make a huge difference down the road. Take the time and effort to find the lowest possible interest rate — and major bonus points for loans that don’t accrue any interest while your payments are deferred.
3. Take Out Unsubsidized Student Loans
Even when it comes to federal loans, some situations are much better than others.
Our writer Dana Sitar breaks down student loan deets in full in this comprehensive post (go read it!), where she explains the difference between these two types of loans like this:
Direct Subsidized Loans help cover costs for undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. Payments are due beginning six months after you leave school or drop below half-time enrollment. You won’t owe any interest for the time you’re in school, during that six-month grace period or any periods of deferment.
Direct Unsubsidized Loans help cover costs for undergrad, graduate or professional students regardless of financial need. Payments are due beginning six months after you leave school or drop below half-time enrollment, but you’ll owe interest that accrues as soon as the loan is disbursed.
4. Take Out Loans From Lots of Different Lenders
Student loan payments are already awful. With high totals driven ever higher by always-accruing interest, you could be paying those bills for years.
Don’t compound your suffering by borrowing from multiple sources, leading to a confusing pile of paperwork at best… and forgotten or lost-track-of accounts going to collections, at worst.
If you’ve already gotten yourself into enough debt you’re not sure how much you owe, start with the National Student Loan Data System — it’ll reveal all the federal accounts in your name.
But if you took out private loans, too, there’s no way around it: You’re gonna have to do some detective work to get everything organized and under control. Checking your credit report will definitely help.
Once you track down all your debt, track your payments in a good, old-fashioned spreadsheet. Just think about how good it’ll feel once you see “$0” in the “Total Debt Owed” column!
5. Don’t Get a Job
We all know the jokes.
In college, it’s not about whether or not you’ll have to make sacrifices, but rather which category you’d like to forego: grades, money, sleep or a social life.
But as busy as you may be, making the time for a side gig is imperative to getting ahead of the student debt hamster wheel.
And I promise it’s doable: This student worked a waitressing job and a 20-hour-per-week paid internship while maintaining a full-time course load — and she assured me that she still found time to sleep, and even travel.
The key is finding flexible work that you can organize around the immovable parts of your schedule. Luckily, we’ve got lots of resources to help you land those gigs. Here are 25 of them now!
6. Don’t Have a Plan
I would like to preface this point with the caveat that I believe college should be about figuring yourself out.
You’re (usually) young and surrounded by experts in virtually every field you can think of. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity to discover and explore your passions.
That said, for most of us, college is way too expensive to waste on youthful experimentation.
To make the most of your college budget, you should have a pretty decent idea of what you want to study, or at least a general field. It’ll help you pick the right program the first time, thus avoiding the expensive hassle of unplanned transfers, taking an extra semester or three, or changing majors late in the game.
All to say nothing of the fact that choosing the right major can have a huge effect on your eventual career and income level — although I still contend you shouldn’t pick a course of study just for its earning potential.
(Then again, I was an English and philosophy double major and it’s kind of amazing I earn enough money to live on, so feel free to take that advice with a grain of salt.)
Basically, you shouldn’t go to college just because you feel like it’s what you have to do. If you’re not sure what you want to do, heading to school could mean diving into a ton of debt for no good reason.
Even if you decide that college is the right path for you, strategizing your college career can save you a giant wad of cash.
Ideally, plan to start saving for college long before it’s time to begin classes.
You might consider going to a cheap community college for the first two years before transferring to a state university — after all, the latter school’s name is the one that’ll land on your resume.
Pick a state school or one of the best value colleges, which offer generous financial aid to incoming students — plus, some of the schools on the list might surprise you!
Finally, be sure to take any regional offers into consideration.
Florida offers scholarship money to students with qualifying grades and test scores through its Bright Futures program, and New Haven, Connecticut guarantees its public school students free tuition at state universities or assistance for nonprofit schools. It’s worth doing some research to find out if your area has any similar offerings.
7. Buy All Your Textbooks at Full Price
When you’re facing down a four- (or even five-) digit tuition payment, the money you “have to” spend on textbooks might not even seem that bad.
But $500 is $500 — and that’s a ton of money to drop on books every semester, especially when you might not even need them.
Do everything in your power to avoid paying full price for textbooks. Here’s our ultimate guide on how to do just that.
8. Don’t Go to Class/Do Your Homework/Take College Seriously
It’s cheesy and you’ve probably heard it a lot, but it’s true: If you cheat in college, you’re not cheating anyone but yourself (and your own wallet).
If you or someone who dearly loves you is spending a fortune on putting you through school, for goodness’ sake, pay attention. Go to class, do your homework and make the most of your time in school.
That’s not to say you should never take the opportunity to party and have fun — you can totally do that without sacrificing your studies. Like everything else in life, it’s all about balance.
But college is an unprecedented opportunity to learn stuff, and you should take advantage of it.
I know I wish I’d done more with my time in college: I’m reminded of the fact every time I open my Duolingo app in my vain attempts to teach myself French. And since I’ve already got my degree, no one’s going to hand me free cash to attend classes at the local university, where they’re over $300 per credit hour.
9. Compound Your Debt by Using Your First Credit Card Terribly
Credit cards can be amazing financial tools, getting you free travel, giving you back a portion of your expenditures in the form of cash-back rewards and building the healthy credit history you need to make major purchases.
They can also destroy your finances with the ease of a few quick swipes.
Going off to college at 18 or 19 is already a lot of novelty and responsibility, especially if you’ve always lived at home. Add your first credit card to the mix, and you might just have a perfect recipe for disaster.
If you’re just getting your first credit card, please, please do yourself a favor and resist the urge to max it out.
Credit card debt is both wholly avoidable and uniquely crippling. If you find yourself unable to make more than the minimum payments each month, you might be paying almost double for every single thing you charge.
Instead, take advantage of the credit card companies — rather than letting them take advantage of you — by buying only what you can afford on credit and paying it all the way down, every single month.
You’ll get all the rewards, pay none of the interest, and still bolster your credit score. #winning
10. Live a Lifestyle Way Out of Your Budget in the Vain Pursuit of #Adulting
Here are some things I did in my early 20s while I was earning little more than minimum wage:
- I lived by myself…
- … in a downtown apartment…
- … that cost way more than 50% of my earnings to rent.
- I got a dog.
- I bought a brand-new car.
- I blew a bunch of my savings on a trip to Europe.
- I went out for drinks every weekend at the fanciest craft cocktail bars I could find.
(How, you ask? Please see item #9.)
It happens to the best of us. Hey, you’re in your 20s! You’re young and (finally) free.
But taking the YOLO advice to live it up without so much as a second thought toward your finances is dubious advice, at best. And no matter what anyone tries to tell you, you can save money in your 20s without giving up fun.
You’ll definitely thank yourself later — and nothing’s more sophisticated and grown-up than a healthy retirement plan. Not even a Bulleit rye old fashioned.
Your Turn: What mistakes did you make in college? Help young Penny Hoarders avoid following in your footsteps!
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.