The Article About Money I Wish I Read Before College (Open Letter to All Students)

“How did I get here without ruining my life by doing something stupid or going broke?”

I ask myself this all of the time. I’m just lucky that I was always greedy and I really wanted to party. This is why I got into personal finance as a college student. I know that there’s advice that I wish someone shared with me at a younger age.

This is why I feel obligated to put together the most comprehensive article for all college students on what I wish I knew about money, life, and making it out alive to the next stage of life.


Advice for college students

Let’s paint the picture here.

You’re about to begin college or are a returning student. You don’t care much about personal finance, but you do know that you don’t want to be a broke joke in your 20s. You especially don’t want to be stuck posting motivational quotes all day in your 20s because you can’t find a job. You also want to have money to have fun in your 20s. Nobody wants to have to explain to their Tinder date that they still live at home at 26.

Does this sound familiar?

Perfect.

We don’t know much about life in college. All we know about and care about is the next big party. That’s okay. You don’t have to care about much else. I just want you to try some of the tips in here so that you’re not behind when you graduate.

What should you know as a college student? What do I wish I knew before I started college? Let’s get started. The advice comes from my own experiences and my expert friends (other personal finance writers).

Go to class.

“Go to class, go to class, go to class. That’s like 90% of it.

Write a schedule that helps you go to class. For example, I discovered that I wouldn’t go to the three classes in a row without a break, so I stopped scheduling my classes that way. If you’re not a morning person, do not sign up for an 8 am class that you don’t love unless you have no other options.” — Kate Horrell.

When you skip class you’re throwing money away. You’re paying for this (or your parents are sponsoring you or you’ve racked up student loans).

I only attended class so that the professors would know who I was and so that I didn’t have to spend so much time on homework. I also knew that I had no discipline. I couldn’t study at home. I had to go to that 8am class if I actually wanted to learn and have a clue of what was happening.

Plus, you can meet some cute girls and new drinking buddies before you even go out for the night.

You don’t have to get into debt to earn a degree.

If you leave this site and never come back, I want you to remember this.

You don’t have to get into debt to earn your degree. You don’t have to borrow a single penny.

How’s this possible? I won’t leave you hanging like that date that never showed up even after she liked all of your Instagram pictures. I show you exactly how I finished college with zero debt. Read that article. Save it. Bookmark it. It will help you save thousands of dollars.

“I wish someone would have showed me my repayment schedule after 4 years of taking out student loans. Taking it a step further, base that against income projections for my major so I could see what a struggle it would be to pay those loans. This would have been a life-saving exercise.” — AJ Mac of Principles of Increase.

Make some friends.

I sucked at this in college. I’ve made way more friends post-college/outside of college than I did in college. I never got too involved in the college scene. I went to my classes and left. I have a few friends that I’m in still in touch with, but there’s no daily-text friends from my college days. I hung out with my high school buddies and friends from the gym instead of attending events on campus.

I leave it to my friends here…

“I wish I would have known that some of the most valuable people at my college were not just professors. They were mostly the staff. These people later gave me job recommendations, helped me apply for scholarships, and walked me through stressful times. In short, treat everyone who works at your school respectfully and professionally. You never know who may end up being your mentor.” — Michelle Diamond of Fit Is The New Poor.

“I wish I would have realized that college is about networking as well. I spent all of my time at work and in classes (although I did skip way too many classes), but hardly any time on connecting with others.” — Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of Making Sense of Cents.

“Your college classmates will be part of your professional network forever. Nurture those ties. And I echo those who say go to class and focus on academics. You’ll never get a learning opportunity like this again. Take classes in subjects that interest you, even if they’re not related to your major. Explore wildly. Live in the dorm if you can your first year, because otherwise you’ll never have those late-night discussions about whether there is a God (at least women do this) anywhere else. And, for anyone of that age, start paying attention to health and fitness. Your body will never be this young and agile again.” — Teresa Mears of Living On The Cheap.

“College is more about the people you meet than the grades you get. Once you get your first job, your college grades are meaningless (unless you want to get additional degrees). The people you meet and relationships you create can last the rest of your life. Work hard, but don’t sacrifice this time by spending it all in the library. You have 4 years to make the most of your future, use it wisely.” –Kirk Chisholm of Innovative Wealth.

Figure yourself out.

“College does not guarantee success. Your attitude does. A degree is only worth as much as the attitude of the person behind it.

Network like crazy, your colleagues will be your biggest allies in the workforce, and staff and professors can be your biggest advocates.

Don’t wait until graduation to start your dream job. Build something (blog, product, etc) while still in college, and gain as much real world experience as you can. Some of the biggest world changers built something in college that caused them to pursue it full time even before getting a degree!

Be passionate! College is a place you can discover what you were meant to do. Don’t just go through the motions, but live through the EMOTIONS of pursuing a profession that you love!” — Jacob Wade of I Heart Budgets.

What excites you? What bores you to death?

Figure this out right now before it’s too late and you’re stuck with a mortgage.

Don’t do anything just to make your parents or others happy. This is YOUR life. I’m sure that your parents are great people. It doesn’t mean that you have to live your life the way they want you to.

This is the best time to figure yourself out. Why? Because the stakes are low. You have nothing to really stress about. Nobody is all that impacted by your decisions and what you do. The world is yours.

It’s okay to switch majors. It’s okay to apply to new programs. It’s okay to do what makes you happy.

Please, do NOT ever do anything to please others. Don’t take a program just to please your parents. Don’t pursue a career path because your family wants you to.

That’s not how life should be lived. You’ll be miserable and mad at the world. Don’t be that miserable jerk at work who ended up in a job that they hate.

“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” — Frank Zappa

Use college to figure yourself out. Be selfish. Stay up late. Make lots of mistakes while keeping the future in mind. Have fun. 

“It’s quite fine to switch majors. I switched 4 times after I completed my first two years of general requirements and still graduated in 4 years. Choose your electives wisely that exposes you to different areas of interest. College is about exposing yourself to potential different career paths. You might think you’re passionate about one subject but realize you may be much more passionate about another.” — Jason Vitug.

Watch out with student credit cards.

Full disclosure: I write about student credit card and I believe in them. I built my credit in college with a credit card and then used that to improve my credit to the point that I could buy a rental property.

However, I do realize that they can ruin your finances in college. I don’t want you to be drowning in debt because of a piece of plastic.

My advice here is: know yourself. If you overindulge, don’t get a credit card yet. If you sort of trust yourself, start off with a $500 limit.

If you don’t have a job, don’t apply for credit. Get some money coming in first. You shouldn’t have access to money if you don’t make any money.

“The one thing I wish I knew before college was the importance of building your credit score at an early age. I immediately assumed things like loans or credit cards were evil and had no benefits, when in reality, if you use them correctly and pay them off in full and as soon as possible, they can not only build your credit score for things like a mortgage further on down the line, but you can also gain great rewards for using these cards. Because of my initial misconception, I got a late start building my credit score.” — Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers.

Speaking of that…

Learn a skill.

Do you have any skills? Are you good at anything?

Picking up chicks or chugging a beer in 20 seconds is cool, but not a real skill, unless you become a professional at either (both are possible).

I highly recommend picking up a skill or a dozen skills.

For example, my brother has learned how to become a barber. He has all of the tools and can do any hair cut on the market. This is a skill that leads to money.

“I wish I had known that it was okay to have diverse interests and foster different skill sets while I was in college. Taking the time to learn a hard skill, like coding, that’s highly in demand and can be applied to just about any field, also would’ve been incredibly valuable. I know the workload can seem overwhelming when you’re in the thick classes, but getting into the habit of carving out time for yourself and prioritizing your ongoing development- be it fostering of a new skill set or implementing healthy habits like cooking and meditation – can prove invaluable in the long-term.” — Stefanie O’Connell of The Broke and Beautiful Life.

My suggestion: Think of a skill to learn and become an expert at it. Master this skill so well that you would be comfortable with teaching it.

This will pay dividends in the future. Don’t ask me how. Just let it play out.

Get a job.

“First and foremost, and almost unfortunately, college seems to be about getting to graduation, getting that degree, and moving onto “real life.” In reality, college is about experimentation, challenging, and learning about yourself. Graduation will happen, but how you get there will help shape who you are.

I pushed myself harder than I ever did before (educationally and socially!), got a few low marks, had a blast the whole time (punctuated with moments of unimaginable fear), and learned that given enough work and time, I can overcome anything.

Personally, the most valuable thing I got out of college was confidence and perserverance, even if it took the form of a diploma.” — Jim Wang of Wallet Hacks.

You’re never too young to make money. You’re also not too busy to work.

Start making money right away. Apply for every job and any job. Get a job. Get paid. Learn how it feels to have to multi-task and manage time. Don’t make any excuses. Find work. Miss out on sleep. Chug too much caffeine. Walk around like a zombie. You’ll get over it and I promise that it’s all worth it in the end.

Start making some money right now! You can start an online business or apply for every gig in town.

“Student loans aren’t the only way to pay for your degree! Scholarships, part time jobs, and freelancing (tutoring, babysitting, dog walking) will all go a long way to decreasing your debt burden when you graduate.” — Jordann Brown of My Alternate Life.

All that matters is that you get into the habit of working.

If you want to have anything in this world, you have to work for it. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself while playing video games all day. This won’t get you anywhere.

It doesn’t matter if you’re at level 200 in some game if you’re at level 0 in life.

Developing a strong work ethic in college will set you up for success. Showing up to work hungover will build character. Working insane hours while your friends sit around doing nothing will get you ahead financially.

“The best thing to learn in college is work experience AND education matter. When you graduate, your potential employer not only wants to see your education history, but also wants to see your work experience. So, don’t just focus on classes – get a job, get an internship, get some experience.” — Robert Farrington of The College Investor.

What’s next?

“Now’s the time to travel over breaks, start a business, work the wacky job that may lead to something, fill-in-the-blank with whatever weird but not totally off-the-charts thing you want to do. At least that is what I tell my college-age kids; interestingly, my youngest has decided he wants to travel more but each trip must be filled with purpose. On the other hand, my oldest doesn’t think that way but the random stuff he does seems to have helped him anyway.” — Julie Starnes Rains of Investing to Thrive.

You can start off by chugging a beer or applying for a job (or maybe consider getting an early start on that assignment?).

Our goal is to be financially free by 30 without missing out on the fun stuff. This will be impossible if we spend all of our money on student loans, random crap in college, and end up in debt for years to come. Get the most out of college and don’t have any regrets. Learn from others so that you don’t end up broke and confused. I want you to have a blast in your 20s.

I wish that someone had written this article for me when I was starting out in college. It’s okay to party. Just try to plan for the future. I promise you that life in your late-20s is amazing when you have the money to do whatever you want to do.

12 thoughts on “The Article About Money I Wish I Read Before College (Open Letter to All Students)”

  1. All very good points. I think for college students there are some that will get this right away and some that will ignore all of the good advice that they get because they just don’t want to hear it. I’m lucky that I was in the former group

  2. I can’t even count how many people I know that decided that they were going to go do an MBA or some other type of post graduate work a couple of months after graduating. They realized that they had no actual skills pertaining to a workplace or any type of work environment so they decided to “hideout” for a few more years.

  3. Good post Martin. It is very important to know what you like and go ahead with your passion. You are not here to please everyone around you and it is quite impossible also to do so. Finding out what you are good at will help you to improvise that skill and pursue a career in that. You will definitely do well when you take up your hobby as your profession

  4. I honestly wish I had stumbled on this article just a couple years back. Darn, I would be telling a totally different story 🙂 For one, I’d have done more to realize my passions and strengths and play to them instead of struggling with something I wasn’t clearly cut out for, that frustrated me and that ultimately cost me!
    Secondly, I would have picked a valuable skill…all that free time I had…lol.
    Well then, no need crying over spilled milk, I can only man up and do my best to recover lost ground.
    Wonderful post Martin!

  5. Here’s the biggest thing I didn’t think about enough in college… the fact that you CAN WORK FOR YOURSELF! Everyone always talks about taking internships/classes/volunteering in the hopes you get picked for a good job. I should have scrapped all that crap and realized I should only do things that I enjoy – not do things because they could land me a job. Here I am a few years out of college and I realize working for yourself is a real possibility. Hush the people who tell you to do things just because it may get you a boring desk job. Life’s too short.

    1. I agree totally here. I’ll take it one step further: college is the BEST time to start a business. You have all the time in the world and nothing to lose.

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