Many people have a tale or two to tell about how they messed things up in college – taking too many student loans, abusing credit cards, taking too long to graduate, or getting the “wrong” degree. But college isn’t a trap waiting to happen. It’s an opportunity to explore, learn more about yourself, and set yourself up for the remainder of your life. On this note, I wanted to share some of the better personal and financial moves I made while I was in college – and as you’ll see, my college experience was far from traditional. But that was part of what made it such a valuable experience.
Get a credit card – but use it wisely
How is getting a credit card a good move? I learned to use it properly and I used my credit card to build good credit. I only bought something I knew I could afford to pay off easily (actually, I didn’t buy anything I couldn’t afford to pay cash for). Then I stretched the payments out for a few months to prove I could make payments on time. I never made late payments, and I always paid well over the minimum. Yes, I paid interest, but only to establish credit. It was a small price to pay.
Let someone else pay for your college
After graduating high school, I went to a state college about 2 hours from home. I had a small academic scholarship and my parents covered the remainder of my costs for tuition, room, and board. I admit, I had it good.
But after my first year, I was restless. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life, other than I knew what I didn’t want – a generic degree with an entry-level desk job and no experience to back it up. I knew guys with college degrees working 50-60 hours a week as a department store night manager because they didn’t have any other experience. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I was extremely thankful for my parents’ support during the year I went to school, but I didn’t feel right having them pay for my degree when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to see the world and experience life. Only, I didn’t know how to do that on my own.
So I enlisted the US Air Force and let them pay for my chance to see the world and gain experience that I wouldn’t be able to gain as a 20-year-old taking classes in rural Texas. I also knew the USAF would pay for my college, either through tuition assistance or via the Montgomery GI Bill after I separated from the military.
Experience life to the fullest
My Air Force career was stellar. I lived in England for almost 3 years, I traveled to over 30 countries, and I was able to gain an understanding of people and cultures that you can’t learn in college classrooms. To top it off, I was paid to do this. Though I never earned a lot of money while I was in the military, I kept my expenses low and learned to live on modest means. This is something I continue to do to this day.
Sacrifice, but never lose sight of your goals
I met some great people during my time in the USAF (including my wife), and I had some great assignments. I was lucky. But I also made my own opportunities. In my last assignment, I volunteered to work night shifts (11:00pm – 8:00am) so I could take night classes. I was single then, so this was my opportunity to use this time for the things I wanted to achieve in life. Instead of going to the bar at night, I studied, and then I went to work.
I lived like this for two years while I went to school, with the exception of the times I was deployed overseas. I continued to take online courses while I was deployed, even though I worked 12-14 hour days. Attending college courses on active duty isn’t easy, but it was worth it. I had a deadline I was working toward – I wanted my bachelor’s degree before I separated from the military.
I accomplished my goal of completing my bachelor’s degree with over a year left on my enlistment in the US Air Force, and the military Tuition Assistance Program covered 100% of my tuition costs. This gave me something very valuable when my enlistment ended: options. I didn’t need the job the Air Force offered me because I had a degree and skills I could utilize on the outside. I also didn’t have any student loans or consumer debt tying me down. Having those options gave me the opportunity to say thank you to the Air Force and leave on my terms.
Never stop learning
My Air Force and college experiences taught me that completing your goal doesn’t mean you should stop working, learning, and improving. My military years were filled with constant training and exercises. Since then, I have continued to take additional training courses and certifications to gain skills and improve my resume. Though it has nothing to do with my day job, I also started this blog to learn more about managing money, building a small business, and more. Continual learning and applying new skills has done wonders for my financial situation.
Create your own path
When I hear people talk about their “traditional” college experience, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like had I done that. But then I think about how wonderful my experiences were and how much I gained from them. I didn’t need to pay for college. Instead, I worked full-time and my employer paid for everything. I graduated without student loans. I saw the world. I graduated with life experience that would take many new college grads years to acquire.
I graduated approximately 2.5 years after I would have had I remained in college and not joined the Air Force. But my career experience started immediately, so I have 2.5 years more “experience” on my resume. This actually looks better, and many employers are impressed with the fact that I worked a full-time job while I completed my degree. I would say my salary is comparable to what it would be had I graduated a few years earlier.
Was my experience perfect? No. I made my mistakes along the way. But that is what life is. Taking the good with the bad and always trying to improve.
Are all of these really money moves?
Having someone else pay for my college tuition and establishing credit history are definitely good money moves. But I think the other things I mentioned are as well. I learned to live frugally, I increased my skills and knowledge, I learned people skills, and I learned to never stop learning. These have all had a direct effect on my post-military employment, my current financial situation, and the way I live today.
What was your best financial move in college?