The Road to Financial Armageddon #3: Cash & College

Last time, we reviewed the mistakes I made during my earliest days of dealing with my own finances, and it was clear that I was already showing some grave errors in financial planning. After high school, however, I found my way into college, an environment where I would have an opportunity to learn many things, including the meaning of financial planning. Unfortunately, I made just as many mistakes there as I did in high school.

I would have never gone to college if I had not been blessed with a four year full tuition, room, and board scholarship. I had no college savings at all, so my opportunities for education boiled down to burying myself in financial aid, praying for scholarships, or preparing to directly enter the workforce.

Yet this was the source of my first mistake: I had no idea of the value of my college experience. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I went to college. My belief was that you just took a few classes and goofed off a lot, because this is usually the “pop culture” attitude towards college. So (for the first few years, at least), that’s what I did. I goofed off and took classes and really didn’t think about what it all meant.

What I should have done with this huge financial gift is spend my first year really focusing on determining what I really enjoyed doing, then spend my remaining years working to excel in that major. Instead, I almost completed a major in a half-hearted fashion, realized it wasn’t for me, and finally started to get my head on straight by about the end of my fifth year.

That was my second mistake: I went for longer than I needed to, and I let the student loans finance that extra time. I spent two extra years in college after the end of my full scholarship, completing two full majors and building up a substantial amount of student loan debt. I took out the biggest loans that I could in order to be able to prop myself up in a very nice apartment with only one roommate, which is still perhaps the nicest place I’ve lived in in my life. It was all financed by loans.

My third mistake was not taking advantage of all of the opportunities the college experience gave to me. Rather than seeking out interesting meetings and organizations and extra classes that could have personally and professionally benefited me, I spent my spare time in the dorms playing GoldenEye or out on dates. Given the opportunity again, I would have loved to invest time in organizations where I learned how to speak in public and debate or attended some of the countless free talks and seminars or volunteered my time to a worthy cause instead of burning days sitting at a computer playing Warcraft II, but I didn’t know any better.

The end result is that I left college two years late, saddled with two years of student loan debt, with only my education and nothing extra to show for it. I did manage to not put myself into credit card debt during my college years; those stupid moves were yet to come. How did I start down that path? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Want to jump quickly to the other Road to Financial Armageddon posts? Here’s an index to help you out.

#1: The Earliest Mistakes
#2: Early Profits … Lost
#3: Cash & College
#4: The First Taste of Real Money
#5: Love & Marriage
#6: The Yuppie Years
#7: Here Comes Baby
#8: Meltdown
#9: The Road to Recovery
#10: What I Learned