Today, New York University costs around $43,000 annually for tuition alone. When I attended over 10 years ago, it was closer to $30,000 annually. If either of those two numbers make you feel short of breath, join me on the floor.
I was able to attend such an expensive school through a couple of scholarships, my parents’ generosity, and student loans. Hella student loans. These days, student loans dominate my entire life. I wish I were joking about that. While I sometimes feel regretful about making such big financial choices when I was young, dumb and 17, I try to remind myself of all the opportunities that I’ve had in life because of those choices. Maybe if I had gone to UCONN, the state school in my home state, I would have gotten a full ride or paid off any loans by now — but I also can’t say how my career would have gone.
But I certainly do wish I had gone through college behaving differently towards money. Here’s a couple of things I wish I’d known so I didn’t have to learn myself the hard way:
1. Save more. I’ve never been a saver, because I put all my money towards paying off student loan debt and other debt. But when I was in college and didn’t have to hand over my hard-earned change to Sallie Mae, I wish I had socked away some more dough instead of spending it on crap.
2. Get jobs where you earn tips instead of minimum wage. If I could do college all over again, I would have waitressed more or (like my smart friend Ashley) gotten a bartending license so I could have made tips. Instead I worked a series of jobs that were all either minimum wage or on a stipend. They were great jobs that gave me fantastic experiences — I tutored in a New York City public school English class for two years, I taught writing at a summer camp, I interned at New York magazine — but they didn’t pull in tons of money. Had I earned more, I could have saved more.
3. Take advantage of all the “free” stuff on your college campus. You’re paying for it! If I could go back to college, I would go to a different club meeting every night and live off all the free pizza. And I’d spend every weekend in the library, watching hard-to-find films. I’d pick up free condoms at all the campus health centers. I also would have spent less time paying for movie tickets and instead gone to more free events on campus and used more student discounts. One of the reasons that I LOVED attending NYU was because the school is so deeply steeped into the arts and culture of New York City and there are one million resources at your disposal, many of them deeply discounted for students. Take advantage of it! You’ll miss “free” shit when you don’t have it anymore.
4. Even though it’s cheaper not to have a meal plan, if you just eat non-perishables you can keep in your dorm room you will only be eating shit. College tuition was so expensive on its own that adding the dorm room, the meal plan and books on top of it spiraled into Batshit Insane Territory. I felt extremely guilty about the cost of college, so my sophomore year, I told my parents that I wouldn’t need a meal plan and instead I’d just cook meals in my microwave in my dorm room. BAD IDEA. I mostly ate ramen noodles and microwaveable mac ‘n’ cheese. Not the healthiest stuff. Thankfully my junior and senior years I lived in suites that had kitchens and my nutrition improved.
5. If a guy offers to pay for drinks or dinner, let him. You don’t need to make a feminist statement to prove that you can pay for yourself. I used to really dislike chivalrous behavior, like men pulling out a chair for me when I sit down or offering to pay on dates. As I’ve grown older and come into contact with a lot more boorish, rude people, I now appreciate anyone who has good manners and particularly want to date men who are chivalrous. Most guys offer to pay for a date because they want to. Most of them don’t expect to pay always, but will treat you for the first couple dates and then happily go Dutch when you really insist upon it. (And any guy that complains to you about women “using” him for free dinners is a big red flag. Run!) Paying for myself was more important to me as a feminist statement but that went over most guys’ heads, I think. I wish I hadn’t insisted on paying for so many dinners and movie tickets just to prove a point.
6. College is really the last time it is socially acceptable to ask your parents to borrow or give you money, so take them up on it if you need to. Trying to do everything on your own can drive you crazy. When it came to my living expenses, I had way too much pride invested in not asking my parents for money at all, ever. The only thing Mom and Dad paid for was my cell phone bill; I paid for all my groceries, transportation, clothes, school supplies and nights out. Perhaps that’s the way it should have been — a grown-ass adult paying for things her grown-ass self. But my parents are comfortable and they could have helped me if I had asked them for money . They probably would have paid for stuff like groceries happily (nights out, no). Alas, I just didn’t ask and they didn’t offer. But I think I ran myself ragged trying to be academically successful AND finally supporting myself. That was to my detriment.
7. After graduation, don’t take job you are offered with a TERRIBLE salary, just because you’re afraid you won’t find something better. When I graduated college, I still had this insane drive to financially support myself and not be dependent on my parents. (Even though I moved back in with them after graduation, in part because I was suffering from a bout of serious depression by that point.) I began having serious panic attacks in the August of my senior year, which continued to happen all throughout the year. My particular, irrational fear was that I would flunk my required math class, not be allowed to graduate, and not be able to get a job in journalism. That was a pile-of-crap fear. But I did throw myself into the job search during my senior year and had a job lined up right after graduation. The problem? It paid only $21,000 a year. Not only was it difficult to save any money when I was earning so little, but that salary set a low threshold for future jobs. I was supremely stupid about this; I should have turned down that job offer and waited for something that paid a living wage.
8. If the idea of paying back student loans FOREVER is not something you’re even remotely okay with, then attend a less expensive school. When I applied and got into NYU, I told everyone — “But it is so expensive!!” naysayers especially — that attending this school was my dream and I would pay back my loans until old age if I had to. Attending that school was my dream. And it really looks like I will have to pay back my loans until old age. If you are going to put yourself into student loan debt and earn a middle-class salary to pay it off, realize the tradeoff you are making: not going on fancy vacations, not buying expensive clothes or shoes, not driving a nicer car. You have to be really, really OK with living like this because it will be set in stone.
What do you wish you had known about money in college? Tell us in the comments.