What Do You Wish You Could Teach Your College-Age Self About Money?

Each week the Tiller team answers a new question about our individual approaches to money, budgeting, and finances. This week we answered, "What is one thing (big or small) you wish you could teach your college-age self about money?"


Edward: I actually had better money habits in my early 20’s than my early 30’s. I took pride in making due with less in college and the years following. But as the years went on, and I started earning more, I rebelled against my stingy younger self. I felt that I could afford to splurge a bit, and so I did. I also started to focus more on the earning side vs the saving side of personal finance. Looking back, that was a bit of a mistake. The urge to earning more doesn't need to inhibit the desire to save more.

The message to my college self would be a warning - “In a few years, resist the temptation of the dark side! You can earn more and save more.” (I might also leave a few warnings about certain chapters of my future dating life, but that’s a different column.)

Tom: I was a tightwad in my college age years, but I worked hard and made a bit of money. And because I didn’t spend a lot on other things (I was a saver), I was able to buy a sailboat and sail around the Puget Sound. I was able to fly, spent money on flying and got my Private Pilot’s license and flew around Washington State. I was able to travel, and visited friends in Colorado and skied Vale. But I didn’t have the big idea of investing in real estate. I was great at saving, but investing was far from my mind.  I was too worried about risk in investing back then, which is a little strange because I took risk every time a flew an airplane.

If I were to go back and give myself some advice, I would suggest looking into buying a fixer-upper house. I had the skills in carpentry, plumbing and electrical that my father had taught me as we finished our home in Renton. And the way I got my first car was to buy one for $45.00.  It was REALLY in bad shape. It barely ran on 4 cylinders, had no brakes, tires were shot, but I took it on as a project.  I rebuilt the engine and transmission. Put on new brakes and tires. And did the body work to get it back on the road.  It was a great, reliable car after I was done.  If I had only taken that paradigm and shifted it over to a house. Especially knowing what happened to housing prices here in Seattle, I would have advised myself to buy some property and fix it up. So in hindsight, invest in something that you can also pair with your skills and interests. And... just go for it.

Heather: I'd say, "Heather, one day, not too long from now, you'll come to realize that the "The American Dream" is not right, or feasible, for all."

When I was trying to choose a degree as an "undecided" college freshman my decision making train of thought was "I need to make a lot of money so I can provide for a family, and I don't want it to take eight years to get there."

My first choice was a degree related to environmental and forestry studies. I had this ideal picture of myself getting paid to protect the forest. When I looked at the average salary for a park ranger, I left that dream behind. Next, I thought, therapist. I'll be able to help people and make a lot of money doing it. Human behavior fascinates me. Oh, wait, that will take me eight years or more. That's way too long. I'll be married and having kids a few years out of college, maybe by the time I'm twenty-four. That's the dream, right?

I settled on a Media Arts and Design degree. It was one of the shorter paths, a growing field I knew would be in demand when I graduated, and there was a potential to make a lot of money. I could be creative and still help people. Yea, I'd be sitting in front of a computer all day, but everything else lined up.

If I knew then at age twenty-nine, I'd be living a minimalist lifestyle, unmarried with no children, and essentially a nomad without regard for having a lot of money, I'd probably have picked the forestry degree or something focused on protecting the environment.

Fortunately, I work for an awesome company that affords me lots of flexibility to volunteer, travel, take time to be in the forest when I need it, and still apply my creativity in a way that legitimately helps people. Thank you Tiller!

Tim: I was lucky; I have an Aunt who was watching out for me, and my lesson comes from her patience and persistence. I paid for college through a combination of work, Montgomery GI Bill, and especially the Texas Army National Guard’s Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP). The work part was hard, but straightforward, and indeed fun. The biggest challenge there (and perhaps a story for another day!) was trying to coordinate my work schedule around the university’s cafeteria hours.

In addition to working, I was also enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard throughout my college career. After a few months of initial entry training, drilling one weekend a month, and spending two weeks of active duty for training each summer, I was eligible for the GI Bill and SLRP. Here’s where the luck (and my aunt!) came in. The GI Bill gets a lot of hype, has straightforward eligibility requirements, and is easy to apply for -- but it turns out that for National Guard soldiers, there was an even more beneficial program.

It turns out that the REAL money (I had NO idea!) was in the SLRP - I don’t remember the maximum payout at the time, but today the same program pays up to $50,000. There was a boatload of esoteric criteria to meet - and paperwork. Loads and loads of paperwork. Paperwork for the soldier, paperwork for the soldier’s chain of command, and luckily for me -- paperwork for my aunt Agnes, who happened to work at Camp Mabry processing all this stuff, and therefore knew all about it! Given the complex eligibility criteria and MASSIVE paperwork hassle, I was initially inclined to ignore the SLRP. I’m so glad that I did not, after some persistent encouragement from my aunt.

I was lucky, and am extremely grateful for my aunt’s insight into the SLRP; and persistence. My lesson to myself is this: when looking for funding for college -- dig deep, do the detective work, do the homework, and don’t get discouraged or give up. There ARE tons of college funding sources out there, but unless you happen to have a relative who’s intimately familiar with a program, they’re not likely to jump out at you.