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- My private college in Minnesota cost $25,000 a year, which I financed largely with student loans.
- Even though I graduated a year early, I still owe more than $40,000.
- If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to work more, spend less, apply for scholarships, and make other smart financial choices that would have left my bank account in much better shape.
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I was 17 years old when I decided to go to a small, private school in Minnesota. The $25,000 annual price tag didn’t matter to me; all I saw was an opportunity to escape my small, Wisconsin town with some of my best friends from high school, who were also moving to Minneapolis for college.
I’m 31 now, and I’m still paying for that decision – literally. It’s been 10 years since I graduated, and I still have almost $40,000 in debt to pay off.
While I definitely don’t regret going to the college I chose, I do wish I would have known how much the student loan debt would impact me later on in life.
Here’s what I would have told my 17-year-old self, had I known what I know now:
Don’t be afraid to take a gap year
When I realized how much college would cost me, I contemplated taking a year off to work, save money, and rethink my future plans. I was young for my grade anyway, and there was really no pressure to jump right into college.
But I didn’t want to miss out on what my friends were experiencing. Had I taken a year off, I probably would have opted for a less-expensive school and saved money on tuition.
I still wonder if I’d have debt today had I taken a step back to evaluate what I really wanted to do.
Take general courses at a community college
When I arrived at my school, I was surprised to learn that there were a lot of students in my class who had either earned college credit in high school or taken their general (non-major) courses at a local community college to save money.
If I’d spent my first year somewhere else or taken more AP classes in high school, I probably could have saved $25,000!
Apply for more scholarships
I applied for one scholarship, through my college, and I was awarded $5,000 for my first semester. That’s a good amount of money, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t have applied for even more scholarships to cover my tuition.
If I could go back, I would have worked harder to get free money toward my schooling instead of relying on my future self to pay it all off.
Don’t spend the extra money from your loans
At the beginning of every semester, I got a check from my lender for my tuition costs. Typically, there was several hundred dollars extra in the check, which I should have put back toward my tuition or books. Instead, I spent it on coffee, eating out, and clothes.
It probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference in the long run, but I wish I would have used that money more wisely – as a poor college student, I didn’t take the time to think about where the money was coming from, or how it would impact me later on.
I earned minimum wage working a few hours a week at the college writing center. I could have picked up a second job or worked more hours, but I didn’t want work to interfere with my social life.
I’m not sure if it would have been possible to graduate in three years like I did if I had another job, but making more money would have made a big difference in my loans later on.
Take summers more seriously
Maybe I couldn’t have worked a ton of hours during the school year, but I definitely could have taken advantage of the summer months, when I didn’t have school.
Instead of working higher-paying jobs during the summers to save up for school, I traveled with friends and worked minimal hours, which was a really bad decision.
Instead of saving money, I ended up racking up credit card debt instead, which only added to the problem I was facing.
Look at all your options
Things were rocky with my parents when I moved away to college. They were in the middle of a divorce, and they told me they weren’t able to contribute at all toward my education, even though they’d previously told me they would.
I didn’t ask them if they would be able to take out PLUS loans in their names because I didn’t want to cause any more conflict, so I just took out private loans in my own name.
I think if I had sat them down and asked, they would have been likely to help how they could.
Listen to older, wiser people
My grandparents, who had set money aside to help pay for my first semester of school, cautioned me about my decision to go to a private school. Like any 17-year-old, I got defensive with them and assumed they didn’t understand my dreams.
Looking back, I know they were looking out for my future self, but I couldn’t see as far ahead as they could. I wish I would have heeded their advice to consider a less-expensive alternative.
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