7 things I wish I had known about money before I graduated from college

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Me and graduation day.
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Jessica Mai

In college, getting my degree was the priority.

Repaying my student loans, filing tax returns, and saving for retirement never even crossed my mind.

However, these are supposed to be the fundamentals of entering the “real world” – and I did not have the slightest clue about them.

My parents, who are immigrants, didn’t teach me about them. I was basically on my own … but I had no motivation to learn about things not directly related to my degree and always put it off.

Looking back, these are the things I wish I had known about money when I was still in college:


Nothing is free in college

The plethora of activities offered by your university are not free. That might come as a surprise, since it’s all included in your tuition.

When I was in college, I never thought about it that way.

In fact, I used to think these activities were lame, because who actually went to school-sponsored events? But in reality, they weren’t school-sponsored. They were me-sponsored.

I’m probably still paying for them in my student loan payments!


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Saving doesn’t necessarily mean penny-pinching.
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Renato Guerreiro / Flickr

It’s never too early to start saving

Retirement, student loan debt, an emergency fund – there are so many things you can put money aside for, especially when you’re not burdened with other financial responsibilities.

And when you start earlier, you get more out of it.

I recently stumbled upon a page from Beth Kobliner’s upcoming fourth edition of “Get a Financial Life,” and one piece of advice she gave really made me realize the need to start saving for retirement. Right now.

“If you don’t start saving in a tax-favored retirement account while you’re young, you’ll miss out on perhaps the best investment opportunity of your life,” Kobliner writes. (You can see the math here.)

No pressure.


Part-time jobs aren’t all the same

During my early years in college, I had a part-time job working at the Starbucks on campus. Sure, I got a paycheck and free caffeine fixes, but it was also taking a lot of time out of my days. And rather than putting it towards studying or assignments, it went towards coffee beans.

Finally, after working there for a year and a half, I realized I messed up.

This part-time job had no value in my academic career and it was taking up crucial study time. So, I finally quit the job and looked for one where I’d be able to learn and get paid at the same time.

I ended up getting a part-time job with my major’s department where I was able to gain valuable experience working in my field. Ultimately, it worked out for me – I just wish I had done it sooner.


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If you know you’re good at something, it could be worth pursuing.
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Thomson Reuters

You can make money out of nearly anything

Whether it’s a sport, photography, or even making graphics, if there’s something you love to do and do particularly well, you could make money.

I’ve seen many of my peers pursue their hobbies by freelancing, and they are essentially getting paid to do what they love. Even if it’s not your main job, you can do it on the side, for additional income.

For example, my friend who loves basketball has a Youtube channel, Beyond the Game, and it features him playing, practicing, and even doing product reviews. Though he only gets about $50 every month from Youtube/Google for ad views, he’s adding on to his portfolio and creating a web presence.


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Reuters

Just because you have money doesn’t mean you need to spend it

Working a part-time job did mean I had a steady stream of income, and since I wasn’t investing or saving, it was just sitting there.

I only made minimum wage, but some people didn’t even have part-time jobs.

I felt a need to spend the money, whether it was going out to eat when I already had a meal plan, going shopping at the mall, buying groceries I didn’t need since I didn’t have a kitchen, and even buying random things off Amazon … just because.

I was especially ashamed the day I moved out of school. Even with dozens of trips to the trash room, I still needed two cars to hold all the junk I had purchased with my earnings.


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Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

It’s ok to say ‘no’

College is the perfect ground for socializing, since there’s always something going on.

Your friends might want to squander their money away on things like nights out, weekend getaways, or concerts, and you might feel pressured to do the same, even if you’re not actually financially capable or don’t want to spend on those things. If the event is free, that’s great – but you’ll likely still be spending on snacks, drinks, and transportation to get there.

It might be tempting to just say yes because all your friends are going, but if you do that over and over again, your bank account will be drained as well as your physical well-being. Or it could even develop into a habit that sticks with you even after college, like it did for me.

Just because you’re invited to everything doesn’t mean you have to go. Don’t be afraid to say no. If and when you do go, it will be even more special and memorable.


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Make it your responsibility to learn about money.
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Peter Macdiarmid / Staff / Getty Images

Educate yourself, because no one else will

College is a lot about being responsible for yourself, from managing your time to getting the assignments done on your syllabus. No one is going to baby you or remind you of your due dates.

And just like assigned readings listed on your syllabus, picking up books to learn how to manage your money – retirement accounts, investments, and even tax returns – is really up to you. Otherwise, like me, you’ll graduate with no idea.