If you could go back to college and do it all over again, what sort of things would you change? The MyBankTracker team recently got together to talk about our experiences at college — what our money situations were like, our spending habits, and how we would do things differently.
Before we dive into the conversation, to give you an idea of where we come from, here is some background information on the MyBankTracker team:
Claire: Attended a public, four-year university in California and majored in English, graduating in five years.
Daryl: Attended a public, four-year university in California and majored in English and communications, graduating in four years.
Destiny: Attended a private, four-year art and design university in California and majored in digital media, graduating in four years.
Kat: Attended a private, four-year university in New York and majored in communications and media studies, graduating in four years.
Gerry: Attended a public, four-year university in California and majored in English creative writing, graduating in five years.
Simon: Attended a public, four-year university in New York and majored in health sciences, graduating in four years.
Theresa: Attended a public, four-year university in New York and majored in psychology and anthropology, graduating in four years.
What was your financial situation like in college?
Claire: When I was in college, I was broke.
Destiny: I think a lot of us were.
Claire: I took out as many loans as I possibly could, including loans for my parents. But back then [in the late ’90s], the Internet was not a wealth of information as it is today, so I had no idea what I was supposed to do in terms of financial aid. The financial aid counselors were no help and kept telling me that I did not qualify for any type of free loans. Most of my money went to housing and tuition, as well as books. I don’t remember how I managed to party and have a life!
Destiny: I went to school in the early 2000s and worked part time in retail while going to school full time. I was renting a single apartment and ate out a lot, so I was broke most of the time.
Daryl: Did you take out any loans?
Destiny: Yes. I took out federal loans and I’m still paying them off. Between the interest and length of the loans — plus the fact that I took out loans for grad school — I just can’t imagine a time when I won’t be paying off those loans.
Claire: I know exactly how you feel. For years I was only paying off interest.
Gerry: I took out loans too. I received help paying for housing the first two years of college. After that I was on my own. I used government aid and grants, worked part-time, and of course my loans. Most of the money went towards housing and the general cost of living.
Theresa: I was lucky because my parents helped me out, so they took care of my tuition and housing costs.
Daryl: So you took out no loans?
Daryl: I’m jealous. My parents helped me out a bit — giving me money here and there. But I still took out thousands of dollars in loans. I also worked part of the time I was in school.
Kat: My parents helped me out a bit too. I also earned some money during the summers as part of a work-study program. I received some financial aid from my school and the state, which covered half my expenses. My dad worked at Columbia University, which helped pay for the rest of my expenses. I have just one loan now that’s a little over $2,000, which I’m paying monthly.
Gerry: Nice. My goal is to pay off my student loans before I turn 30.
Destiny: Good luck! I want to grow up to be you.
Daryl: What about you, Simon?
Simon: I lived on campus all four years while taking out financial aid and federal student loans. My parents often gave me about $2,000 per semester for everything else. I did not get a job until the last year of college, which was a desk monitor job for the dorms. I had a part-time job in my last two years of high school and during the summers in college, so I did save up a little money for discretionary spending.
What were your spending habits like?
Claire: I was awful with money. I opened my first credit card on campus with Citibank — before it became illegal for credit card issuers to enter college campuses — and I was two months late making the first payment. Somehow I convinced myself that it was “free” money. My credit limit was $500 and once I started swiping, I maxed it out in a month. I think I bought a few pairs of shoes and lots of food.
Daryl: Oh wow. I wasn’t that bad, but I wasn’t a good saver either. My mom gave me a credit card with a low limit that she paid for, which was only supposed to be used in emergencies. But you know I bought food and went shopping on that card sometimes!
Claire: I probably would have, too!
Gerry: It’s so easy to spend money in college with a credit card. For a lot of people, it’s the first time they ever have a credit card.
Daryl: So were you good or bad with money?
Gerry: I was good for the most part, but I definitely could have been better. I always paid my rent on time, and never missed a payment on any of my bills; yet I gave in to splurging from time to time and just bought clothes, movies, games, or treated myself to eating out. I have no regrets though, you’re supposed to have fun in college.
Simon: I’d like to think that I was pretty good with money back then, too. The lack of a steady income really makes you think twice about frivolous purchases.
Daryl: What kind of frivolous purchases were you making?
Simon: My meal card.
Simon: For instance, it’s easy to use your meal-plan card to buy more food than you need. But you really have to think about the end of the semester when that card eventually runs out of money. So there were actually many semesters when I actually had a little too much money left because I was being overly careful.
Daryl: I never had that problem. Trust me. I was using that card to eat more than enough each quarter.
Destiny: Me neither! That’s crazy. I loved eating out. Eating out was my weakness, but I was good with paying bills on time.
Daryl: What about you, Kat?
Kat: I’m pretty lucky. I think I was $1,000 in credit card debt each year in college. I know there are people who have experienced worse.
Theresa: I was really lucky, too. I was able to do everything I wanted without ever feeling like I was short on money. Not necessarily because I was given a large allowance or I saved up so much from my summer job. I think I just figured out a way to live below my means and manage my money well enough to live comfortably throughout college.
If you had to go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Destiny: I could have been better with savings. Any little money saved for a long-term goal would be spent, so I had no safety net for financial emergencies. I didn’t know how to say no to certain things like social events. The older I got, the more comfortable I became declining events that I could not afford.
Gerry: Yeah, I think we would all save more, right? I know I would have.
Daryl: Yeah, I would save more and just take advantage of all the resources and opportunities that you have in college.
Claire: I agree. I would’ve researched more extensively on all of the different kinds of loans and scholarships out there. I would’ve bugged my financial aid counselor a lot more often and used more school resources to help me stay informed about how to pay for my education. Obviously, I would’ve tried to spend less money… but then again, I don’t remember having any!
Theresa: I wouldn’t have spent so much time pursuing a career that wasn’t right for me?
Daryl: What career?
Theresa: I was pursuing dentistry once upon a time. That cost me a lot of money and time. I also would have studied abroad. Even though I was pursuing dentistry at the time and it wouldn’t have made much sense, it would’ve definitely been an awesome experience and a relatively cheap way to travel. I really regret that one.
Daryl: What about you, Simon?
Simon: I would downgrade any required campus meal plan to the lowest level and cook more often.
Destiny: Yes, definitely cook more! I would have saved so much money cooking at home than going out all the time to eat.
Stay tuned for part two of the conversation, where the MyBankTracker team discusses their regrets and offers advice to college students.