One of my cousins is heading to a Seven Sisters college this fall. I am unbelievably excited for her. When we were little, I’d braid her hair and play dress-up. One summer, we made tents in the family room with chairs and sheets, and “camped” at night. How the years have flown.
In college, I didn’t have a good idea of details of personal finance and investing – all I knew was to spend less than I made. I had an emergency credit card that Mom cosigned. Senior year, I got my own credit card to begin establishing credit. I worked part-time as a research assistant, and I was fortunate enough that the money I made can be used for discretionary purchases.
There weren’t that many things I would’ve changed in college, but if I can go back in time and counsel my 18-year-old self, this is what I would’ve done a little differently:
1. Opened a Roth IRA earlier. It would be nice to have another thousand or two in Roth right now. Although I can’t feel too badly about this one. I opened, and maxed out a Roth the first year I was able to. Frankly, despite PF tributes to the amazing wonders of compound interest, there’s usually not a huge difference if you started saving at 20 vs. 25, especially if most kids have only savings in the hundreds or low thousands. Earlier is better, sure, but it’s definitely not an insurmountable amount.
2. Valued money less. Let me explain: in college I won a fellowship to study in Europe for a summer. While I was there, I had the chance to visit a friend in London. I didn’t take that trip because I thought it would’ve cost too much. If I can go back, I’d hop on a plane in a heartbeat. That’s not a mistake I lose any sleep over, exactly, but I knew it would’ve been a great, great experience with a good friend that now I’m no longer close to.
3. Taken even more time to get to know professors as people – as really successful, top-of-their-field professionals who have found their calling and who somehow manage to be good and genuine at the same time. One of my professors still give me alumni contacts when I have questions, and wrote me a thank-you card for a measly $10 donation that I made. Another one of my professor is a phenomenal woman who speaks 5 languages, has 3 kids, and is by far one of the most eloquent and thoughtful speakers I’ve ever known.
4. Stop stressing out so much. I once called Mom in tears because I was certain that I failed an economics exam (luckily, I didn’t). But in the grand schemes of things, feeling stupid because I didn’t understand a lesson or feeling bad because I got a B+ on a presentation when I expected at least an A- or feeling worried because I had the worst registration time in my class didn’t matter. What mattered was that I had amazing classroom experiences, did to the best of my abilities, and made some really good friends.
5. Taken more time to ponder. Think about not just how do I make a living, but also, how do I live a life. In between the classes and internships, I wish I would’ve spent just a bit more time thinking about the “bigger questions”: What kind of person do I want to be? How do I define success? And how can I achieve it? What do I need to do to build the best life that I can?
College has taught me a lot. But as I’m discovering, many of the lessons it is still teaching require perspective to appreciate and understand. As I move farther away from my college experience, I imagine I’ll be learning that much more.