College is expensive. Depending on where you go and how long you stay, the amount of debt you’ll owe varies. The Wall Street Journal named the class of 2015 “the most indebted ever.” How indebted? A little over $35,000 on average. Each year that number increases. Still, accepting loans is not the worst financial mistake an undergrad will make. The number one mistake undergrads make with their finances is ignoring them.
The truth is it’s easy to push finances from your mind. Most people encourage you to do just that. When I was nervous about taking out loans, I had people I respect tell me, “Don’t worry. You pay the monthly payment and you don’t even think twice.” While that might have been true for them, they had full-time jobs that paid. That’s not the case for everyone. Millennial graduates make up around 40 percent of the unemployed in the United States, according to research done by Anthony Carnevale for the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
I’m not telling you to be overly stressed by your finances. Enjoy your college experience, but maintain a healthy relationship with and knowledge of its costs. When you look at schools, consider the tuition. Not every school is going to be an option, nor should they be. When looking for a car, you aren’t going to use the money from your summer job at Dairy Queen to buy a Porsche. Similarly, choosing a school should be a realistic process. It’s important to set limits.
When you decide on a college, file your FAFSA. You’ll get a number back, and it’s going to be either more or less money than expected. If it’s more than you expected, only accept what you need. It may feel like you’ve won a game show, or like Oprah is handing you one of those supersized checks with your name on it. The big difference is that Oprah doesn’t knock on your door in four years to ask for it back, with interest. Federal loans often give money for books, housing, food and other expenses. It’s an estimate, and they don’t know about Grandma’s offer to pay half, or the scholarship your church gifted you. Be responsible and only take what you need, Spring Break trip to Mexico not included.
When you get to college, there will be people from all walks of life. Some will struggle to afford each semester. For others, college is completely paid for, and you might hate them. And then there’s the majority that exist somewhere in the middle. They’ll have scholarships and loans and checks from Grandma, all combining together to pay for the best years of their life. No matter where you fall in these categories, don’t ignore the dollar signs. Develop a relationship with the school’s financial aid center. Even if Mom is the one managing the different forms of payment, ask her to keep you informed.
College is a test-run of adulthood, like bowling with bumpers. If you ignore the debt you’re accruing, real life will hit you hard. Most schools require exit counseling, which is really just you clicking through slides on the financial aid website. Then you’ll come to a screen with fill-in-the-blanks. Projected income. Total loan amount. Cost of living. Gentle reminders that you don’t have a job yet. You’ll enter in estimates and then they tell you the strain of paying back your loans. My personal financial strain? A little red flag with the words “VERY HIGH.” I called my dad that day and cried, because really, I had no idea.
Information about finances is available to students. Some students, the smart ones, take advantage. The government’s Student Loan website (studentaid.ed.gov) has so many resources—it keeps track of your loans, informs you about the different types and counsels you on what you’re getting yourself into. Until the day I did my exit counseling, I didn’t even know my login. That’s something I regret.
For those of you lucky enough to not need loans, there are still ways to stay informed about your finances. Schools often have work-study programs, and I’m sure your parents would be more than impressed if you pitched in. Or maybe just get a part-time job to pay for weekend activities and the nights the cafeteria sounds less than satisfying. Use this time of bowling with bumpers to get a better understanding of financial responsibility. Don’t ignore the dollar signs, be grateful for where you are and how you got there, and take personal responsibility for your finances.