Paying for College: What NOT to Do

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I loved college. I lived with a fantastic roommate who is still a close friend and I even met my husband there. I learned a lot and still have fond memories of that time in my life. I’ve also spent more than a decade paying for it.

Before I share my mistakes, here are the things that I did right:

  • I took college courses in high school. They were general education classes (English, French, etc.) that knocked out a few of the required classes I would have otherwise had to take my freshman year. It was also cheaper to take them while in high school.
  • I went to community college for my first two years, even though I had good grades in high school. During that time, I worked several jobs to pay for school and I lived at home. I also took summer classes in order to finish in a year and a half so that I could work for a semester before transferring to a 4-year college.
  • I chose to finish my bachelor’s degree at a state school. It was a very highly-regarded school in a small, semi-rural town (Its nickname is “Harvard of the Cornfields.” I kid you not).

That all sounds great, right? Well, if you’ve read some of my other posts, including this one about paying off almost $100,000 in debt, then you know that I still ended up with a massive amount of student loan debt. Some of that was from graduate school loans, but a great deal of it was from my last two years of undergrad. Looking back, I wish I could give myself a solid roundhouse kick, a la Chuck Norris, because…

Here’s what I didn’t do right:

  • I didn’t apply for scholarships. At the time, I made every excuse in the book: it took too much time to apply, there were too many people applying and I would never be chosen, the amount for a particular scholarship was too little to matter, etc. But you know what? It takes a lot more time to pay off student loans. I had good grades, was involved in extracurricular activities, and could write a decent essay. And $500 IS NOT A SMALL AMOUNT OF MONEY (in 2003, that would have bought me at least one semester’s worth of books).
  • I didn’t get a job while I was at school. Although I did work when I came home during breaks, I chose not to get a job during the school year. I believe it had something to do with “cramping my style” (a.k.a. “preventing me from being able to go out with my friends.”) I also didn’t save any of the money that I earned during breaks, nor did I use it towards tuition or books (see: “going out with friends”). Between the hours that I worked during the holidays and the summer, I could have easily paid for a semester of classes.
  • I didn’t plan my classes well. I originally went to school to become a teacher. Imagine my surprise when, while planning my classes for what I thought was my last year of college, I realized that student teaching would add an extra semester. If I had planned out my strategy on day one, I could have loaded up a couple of extra courses throughout the two years, maybe taken one or two summer classes, and graduated on time. Instead, I had to pay for an extra semester.
  • I took out the full amount in student loans. Instead of taking out just enough to pay for classes, books, room, and board, I took out every last penny. After tuition was paid, I used the rest of the money to rent an overpriced apartment and to pay for groceries, going out, clothes, and anything else I wanted.

What about you–what money mistakes did you make in college?

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