Saving Money For College Does More Than Pay Tuition #FinHealthMatters

The Teen Years

Saving your own money for college does a lot more than just paying the tuition. Spending your own money teaches you about the value of money, provides a safety net, and gives you a preview of the working world. I’ll tell you my experience of going to college as a low-income student and how I navigated my way through. You might think this story starts at age 18 but my college prep started long before 18, and I didn’t even know it.

I held two multimedia based internships from the time I was 16 to until I went off to college:

*During my first internship, my class was paid to learn how to make our own video game in Maya 3D. I designed a 3D island and animated my own space station on giant Mac OS X Leopards. I also came up with the phrase ‘pinwheel of death‘ long before it became popular. It was an amazing opportunity. We were allowed to enter the UbiSoft office in San Francisco and poke around after school. We were given free video games! I was very paid well for that 8-week internship.

*My second internship was at an independent advertising design studio. Our medium was Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. A year later, when I was offically in college, my late mentor told me that my (and other students) design was being hung in the streets of New York City for the Urban Forestry project. The project was successful funded and I was paid $600 for completion.

The College Years

College Lily

As an 18-year-old college freshman, I had around $5,000 in my saving account that was 100% my own money and no one had a clue I had any.

Even more importantly, that money in my bank account gave me the seed money that I needed for school books and dorm room furniture -without- having to touch the credit card my mom opened for me.

It would have been really hard to ask my parents for money. At the time (around 2009), my mom was let go from her nursing care agency due to a workplace injury she sustained at a client’s house. Money for everybody was only getting tighter during the Great Recession.

Thanks to the $5,000 in seed money, I never had to touch that credit card very much. Because a lot of transactions were never as easy as swiping a card. I saw the money leave my checking account almost immediately; it did not take long for me to realize I hated the feeling of my cash leaving. I was naturally frugal during school, I never felt tempted by cars, and I did not have to pester my parents for money.

Related: 8 Money Tips For College Seniors That I Wish Someone Told Me

By junior year, I was able to score another temp media gig in the university computer lab. That stint replenished my diminished savings which were down to a little over $3,000 back up to $5,000 and beyond. I sustained that amount until the end of my university career.

The Adult Years

I met my school credit requirements and chose to graduate early in 2012 in an effort to curb my college costs. The end was in sight. I decided to skip the formalities of graduating with my peers. I gave myself a head start job hunting before every new graduate hit the job market.

Related: How I Paid Off $20,000 In Student Loans Working Part-Time

When my first loan repayment arrived, I was able to create a soft landing with that $5,000 in between my first real-world paycheck and my first student loan payment. 

first desk job
First desk job

It’s hard to imagine how ugly things could have turned out if I was not so fortunate to have learned the value of money early on.

*Did you know that the average household with revolving credit card debt pays $904 in interest only per year?1

*Dropout rates of 16 to 24-years-olds who come from low income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from higher incomes families.2

*50% of students who drop out of college have income under $35,000/yr.3

Being in control of finances, making and saving your own money should start long before students enter college. Unfortunately, this is lesser known advice compare to the general pressures of going to college felt by teenagers everywhere. A good college education serves enormous purpose in educating the young but I do wish financial education was taught beforehand.

I was told over and over that without a college education, I would have no future. But I was never told that without a financial education, I would never know the beauty of a sound night sleep or the comfort of monetary stability without a life of servitude to creditors.

This post was written for this year’s CFSI: #FinHealthMatters as an effort to curate student financial awareness.


35 thoughts on “Saving Money For College Does More Than Pay Tuition #FinHealthMatters”

  • Great post! I’m strategizing ways to teach my daughter (now one month old) about money at an early age since I think it’s important. Unlike you, she will grow up very privileged, financially very comfortable, and will likely want for nothing. I think it’s paramount that parents take the responsibility to teach their kids about finances since they won’t get educated about money in school. I will try my best for her 🙂

    • Congrats on your new babebebebebe girl <3 I hope she doesn't grow up like I did and I'm glad to hear she will be born comfy. I was always secretly jealous of girls who had knowledgeable fathers and role models.

  • Great story Lily, I love the hustle. I was fortunate to learn Illustrator and Photoshop in college for the job I held at the university while attending. Now I use those skills to make extra money in my side-hustle!

  • Great points on the value of cash savings in college beyond just room and board considerations. My savings meant that I was able to pay out of pocket for my first car at 19 and paid for all of my books and sorority fees myself instead of adding to my student loans.

  • wow – college Lily looks so different. Was that the anime phase?
    I was the same in college. Stayed really frugal, but didn’t turn down the occasion dine out or boba with friends after finals. Somehow I managed to get thru by just doing some random jobs here and there – call centre for a semester, teaching piano half a year, working at the airport in the summer or winter breaks – and living off of the <$5 meals on campus. Even working in downtown now, I still try to keep my lunches <$5 . Old habits die hard
    Financial Orchid recently posted…LaLaLand Day 1 – A taste of upper middle class Malibu

  • Ahh I had bangs in college too! You look great in the photo. I know it has nothing to do with the topic, but I just had to say it 😉

    You got such amazing internships! I didn’t know you designed video games and art work. But now that I think about it, you did say that you inherited the artistic talent from your mom, so that makes perfect sense. I took a photo of my desk on my first day at my first full-time job too 😀

    • Yeah that was a phrase that I was still trying to go after art. I quit super soon after (the Urban project lost funding for a year and I was like…yup, artist life be poor.)

      Also, 12 lbs of makeup!!!! God I was so insecure back then.

  • I love this story! Thanks for sharing! My first job was as a camp counsellor taking care of kids all day for 10+ hours. I did it for an entire summer and only got paid $500! That job definitely taught me the value of money.

  • i came from a pretty unsophisticated rural place and family. on the one hand you had good grades and enough ability to do the college work, but on the other the upbringing came with no useful information on how to navigate to those good internships where you build skills for the future and get paid decently. i remember getting near minimum wage at mcdonalds a couple of summers and being summer help at the vermont highway department flagging cars. it feels satisfying all these years later having figured it all out on my own and being pretty much self made. oh… and i had a chemical company pay my tuition the last 2 years of a fancy private college.
    freddy smidlap recently posted…The Silver Lining of a Late Start to Financial Independence

    • Yes when I was writing this I realized how lucky I was to be in a large city with so many flashing signs and big companies flushed with cash. Coming from smaller rural towns is probably one of the hardest pots to crawl out of. Now I don’t mean that in an offensive way to anybody but we’ve all seen how hard it is to get away from a place where everyone knows each other. That mentality is hard to break. So is the economics behind it, it’s harder to move to somewhere even more expensive.

  • I hope my two boys have the same money awareness as you, but I fear they won’t. Every cent they earn is spent like it is burning a hole in their pants. They are still preteens so there is time to teach them about personal finance, hopefully. I fear that our ability to completely fund their college will lead to them not needing to learn about managing money or personal finance. Thanks, Lily.
    Shawn @ ThesmartFi recently posted…Digital Detox Day

  • Like you, I knew that coming from a low income family, I will have to depend on myself to put myself through school. I rarely get any allowances from my parents and that concept was a bit foreign to me when I heard some of my peers were getting allowances at a young age.

    I learned the value of money when I got my first job delivering flyers for $5/hour. After that job, I realized that the only way to make more money is to have a higher education and I never want to work my a$$ off and get paid peanuts again.

    In terms of money lessons, I definitely agree that we should be taught at a young age. I started to brainwash my kids at three by giving him a piggy bank and often try to incorporate money concepts into our conversations.

  • Ok, first of all, college Lily was hot!! 🙂 (College Laurie may have been but it was so long ago we didn’t even have digital cameras so few pictures remain for the interwebs). I am so impressed by your story. I was an entitled princess in college and spent money like it was water. Then when I ran out of money I got a job so I could spend some more. Savings? Ha. Your frugal habits have served you well and now you’re a frugal millionaire! I’ve had to slog through my adult years learning frugality and cleaning. Such is life. 🙂 I think my boys will be more frugal than I was though. Thank goodness for Mr. ThreeYear!
    [email protected] recently posted…On Continuous Improvement

    • You are way to hard on yourself Laurie! You’re 40% to your location independent goal! In like 1.5 years! Humans can even barely talk in that short time frame!!! Most people never slog through the years, to begin with. I think you’re incredible Laurie!

  • Way to take the financial bull by the horns at an early age! I didn’t start taking personal finance, savings, and financial independence seriously until my 20s, and even then I made a LOT of mistakes.
    Thanks for sharing Lily! Hope to instill a similar financial ethic in my (eventual) kids one day.

    • Thanks GYM, I have no idea what you look like but I’m sure you’re a hot momma. Half the comments from girls are about that picture hahaha 😉

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