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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5 Ways to Save Money with a Baby

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When I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember having several all-encompassing panic attacks about how we were going to afford to have a child. Friends and family assured me that it would just work out, but that’s not my style. I need a plan.

Fast forward to today, and while our budget is noticeably tighter with an 8-month-old in the house, I’ve picked up a few strategies for saving some cash.

  1. Skip the name brands: After repeated reassurance from our pediatrician that yes, our daughter would live and grow just fine, we chose to skip the name brands for formula. The ingredients in her generic formula are very similar to those in the name brand formulas and the generic is a fraction of the cost.
  2. Request coupons: When buying wipes and diapers, we go the cheapest route. Sometimes that means generic, but if I have a good coupon that I can pair with a sale, sometimes the name brands are cheaper. Even if you don’t subscribe to the newspaper, you can still get coupons by emailing the baby supply companies directly to request coupons. We received a “welcome home” kit from Enfamil just by signing up on their website–it came with a few different types of formula (a whole canister of one) and some good coupons. We don’t still use the name brand formula, but that kit did help us save money for a month.
  3. Make your own baby food: Once our daughter began to move on to fruits and veggies, I decided to make all of her food. At around $1/jar, baby food can become very expensive very quickly. We buy a variety of fruits and veggies, some of which we mix with rice cereal, depending on the consistency. Sometimes I boil them in water first (e.g. sweet potatoes) and sometimes they’re already soft enough (e.g. bananas).  There is NO NEED to purchase one of those expensive baby food blenders. We use this stick blender and it works perfectly. I can usually make enough food for one week in about 1-2 hours.
  4. Use consignment stores to buy and sell: I talked about this one in a previous post. We have a local consignment store where I sell clothes and toys that my daughter won’t need or use. I’ve purchased some clothing and books for her at the same store, all of which look brand new. They also have a small selection of toys, cribs, high chairs, swings etc. that are in great shape and that cost much less than buying new. For instance, my mother-in-law just purchased a used high chair for her house that was $50. We have a nearly identical high chair that cost about $150.
  5. Check out mommy blogs: There are a handful of blogs that I will occasionally check for deals on baby items. This is a great way to find out what the current deals are in stores and online for baby food, diapers, wipes, clothes, books, toys…and the list goes on. One of my favorites is Money Saving Mom.

How have you saved money with a new baby in the house?

How Scaling Back T.V. Time Has Improved My Life

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I grew up during the prime of old-school Nickelodeon shows (Clarissa Explains it All, etc.) and TGIF. Many hours were spent learning how to best wear my stirrup pants, scrunch socks, and all that neon. Later, teen shows (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five)  kept me busy when I’d get home from play practice in high school. During college, there were days when I would watch t.v. for hours on end, starting at 4 p.m. (hey, Oprah) and not ending until I went to bed. As an adult, I curated a massive list of “my shows” that I hated to miss every week.

Then about a year ago, we decided to get rid of regular cable and just keep the basic channels. However, we still had access to Netflix, and Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and Apple T.V., and…oh my.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that turning on the t.v. felt more like a habit, and less like a decision. I would turn it on to watch one of the morning shows at 7:00 a.m., under the premise of “watching the news.” I don’t know if you’ve watched one of these shows lately, but “the news” lasts for about 5 minutes and “the not news” lasts for about 4 hours. I don’t need to know 10 different ways to curl my hair, or what Justin Bieber is up to, or what the medical scare of the week is. At night, the t.v. would go on starting with the (actual) news, and wouldn’t get turned off until bedtime. I was becoming increasingly irritable and feeling short-changed on free-time until I realized, oh. I don’t HAVE to watch t.v.

<insert image of mind being blown>

I know, right? It had become such an ingrained habit, that I didn’t realize that I was no longer consciously choosing to watch it. It’s just what I did each day.

I decided to experiment with cutting back: no t.v. in the morning, and at night, no turning it on unless I know that there is something specific that I want to watch. Here are 5 ways those simple steps have improved my life lately:

  1. More time to relax: Instead of watching t.v. before bed, I’ve been sitting on our back porch with a book and a beer or a cup of tea.
  2. Less of a desire to spend money: For every 30 minutes of television, there seem to be about 10 minutes of commercials. Add that to product placement in t.v. shows and movies, and you could be watching hours of ads each day. Cutting back on t.v. has drastically limited my exposure, and as a result, has made me want to make fewer purchases.
  3. More quality time spent with my husband and my daughter: This has been one of my favorite results. Instead of being distracted by the t.v., we’ve taken family walks, played board games, cooked, spent time with friends/family, and read books to the little peanut. It’s so much better than simply sitting in a room together, staring at a screen.
  4. More time to tackle projects: Many of the projects that I thought I just didn’t have time to do have suddenly become..do-able. This blog? I “didn’t have time” to write it a month ago.
  5. Healthier lifestyle choices: On the nights that I don’t watch t.v., I tend to go to bed earlier. I also move around a lot more, spend more time outdoors, and give my brain a rest.

This is not to say that I’ve quit t.v. entirely. There are still a few shows that I enjoy watching, and on a rainy day, there are few things that feel better than curling up in front of a good movie. It’s all about being conscious of the entertainment I’m consuming, and making sure that it doesn’t consume me.

7 Easy Ways to Save Money This Year

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Over the years, I have saved and scrounged for money in some pretty interesting ways, some of which I’ll explain in a future post (a small preview: I lived rent-free in the maid’s quarters of an old mansion in exchange for ironing and cooking on the weekends). In the meantime, though, here are a few creative ways I’ve put together some extra cash to pay off debt this year:

  1. Returning unwanted gifts for store credit: A well-meaning family member had purchased a maternity clothing item for me on clearance towards the end of my pregnancy. The clothing item was about 2 sizes too large, and sat in my closet for months. I decided to return it, and the store clerk gave me the full price back on a store credit, since the clothing item wasn’t on clearance at our store. The store credit went towards our next baby formula purchase.
  2. Selling at consignment stores: We have a children’s consignment store nearby. We also have a 6-month-old baby girl whose length seems to increase at a giraffe-like rate, and family members who like to buy her A LOT of clothing and toys. Every few months, a trip to the consignment store nets us another $30 or so on unused items that we would end up giving away anyways. I’ve also tried my hand at selling back my own clothes at stores like Plato’s Closet and Clothes Mentor, but they don’t usually take most of what I have because *gasp* I purchased it earlier than last season. I am so uncool.
  3. Buying at consignment/secondhand stores: When I do need an item of clothing, secondhand stores are usually my first stop. We all buy SO MUCH MORE than we need these days, so a lot of the clothes in these types of stores either look brand new, or even still have the original tags on them. It’s an awesome way to get something you need for 90% off. Some of them even run special sales promotions—Clothes Mentor just had their entire store marked down 25% last week.
  4. Meal planning/freezer meals: My husband travels frequently for work, and often at the last minute, so we can’t really plan a week of meals ahead of time. What I have started doing, though, is taking stock of what we have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and then I brainstorm a list of meals that I can make from those ingredients (Pinterest is a HUGE help if you need meal ideas. Just type in one of the main ingredients, and voila! Ideas galore). If I need something last-minute, I’ll pull out a freezer meal. Otherwise, I’ll make something off of the list. Using up our existing ingredients saves us a ton on groceries.
  5. Bottles and cans: We had a huge pile of bottles and cans in our basement. I hauled them to the bottle return and in 10 minutes, made about $35.
  6. Coupons: I am not a voracious coupon-clipper, but there are a few things that we purchase regularly with coupons. Instead of buying the newspaper just to clip coupons, I use a variety of other strategies, including: clip-to-card store coupons (from Tops Supermarket), coupon apps (like Target’s Cartwheel app), coupons that come in the mail or to my email, and others that I ask family members to save for me (primarily for diapers). I will also occasionally send a quick email to manufacturers of items we use a lot and request coupons (I did that for Blue Buffalo—the brand of dog food that we purchase).
  7. Loose change: We have a large yard on our property, and my husband has been waiting to buy a weed wacker since we moved in a few years ago. I REALLY wanted to get him a good one for Father’s Day this year, but wanted to stick to our budget. I gathered all of my loose change, had him gather all of his (even my sister pitched in with hers), and took it to a Coinstar machine. Coinstar charges a fee if you change the coins into cash, but if you turn them into a giftcard, there’s no fee. The end result? I used the coins to purchase an Amazon giftcard, and when I combined that with another small Amazon giftcard, I was able to cut the cost of the weed wacker by more than half and keep the purchase within our budget.

The bottom line is to be creative. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on any of these ideas. I just looked around at the resources I already had and tried to figure out how I could squeeze a little more money out. While each strategy might seem relatively small, if I add up all of the savings, we’ve netted at least $500 this year with very little extra effort.