Wednesday, August 13, 2008

If I Had Known Then: Food and Financial Advice for the College-Bound (Also, a Story)

As summer draws to a close, gazillions of monumentally stoked 18-year-olds are preparing to leave the warmly comfy, comfy warmth of their hometowns for four years in cinderblock lecture halls. Yet college isn’t all reading, studying, and sporadically penning 25-page papers on FCC v. Pacifica (1978). It’s also occasion to figure stuff out – like how to seriously manage your adult life for the first time.

Fortunately for this blog, that adjustment period has much to do with frugality, food, and health. High school grads everywhere will soon be budgeting and cooking for themselves, and the initial months won’t be easy. I know, because once upon a time (the year 45 BC) I was there.

Looking back, I think I did okay. Still, there are quite a few CHG-type things I wish I had known before I left home. Like…

How to feed myself competently and frugally. My parents were excellent providers and decent cooks who fed us rounded meals from birth through late adolescence. Yet somehow, after 17 years, I never picked up on simple concepts like, “eat a vegetable, doofus,” or “an all-mozzarella stick diet will bankrupt, then KILL YOU.” If I had paid attention or done any research, the road to good health might have been an easier and cheaper one.

How to cook. In my small college town, it was ritual for students to eventually move out of the dorms and into run-down off-campus housing (owned by a landlord who worked nights as the anti-Christ). Of the eight kids who shared a single kitchen my junior year, only one knew what she was doing. The rest of us bought overpriced convenience food from the local superstore and/or made do with whatever she (note: me) could glean from her night job at the donut shop. In retrospect, an elementary grasp of basic cooking skills could have saved both time, money, and lots of donut indigestion.

How to avoid buying worthless junk. Every semester, I subsisted entirely on a few hundred dollars earned over summer or winter breaks. It was barely enough for textbooks and food. Yet, I still bought 14 tons of useless crap for no other reason than I COULD. Once, it was pair of vintage jeans. Another time, a Phish album (which, ew). And another time? I blew $7 on a vial of colored dust from a local tchotchke shop. To repeat, I spent SEVEN DOLLARS ON YELLOW DIRT. I wish I had read a finance book at that point, or even had any clue about maintaining a budget. At the very least, I wouldn’t have bought any beaker soil.

How to read nutrition labels. Oh man. How many muffins did I think contained only 220 calories, when it was actually more like 660? Duh.

How to care about my body in the right way. This is a tricky subject, because on the whole, universities are sadly rife with eating disorders. Too much self-scrutiny can land one in Bulimiatown, and too little will make the Freshman 15 seem like a fond memory. So, I’ll say this: I wish I had spent less time worrying about my weight (which nobody cared about half as much as I did), and more time investing in my health (which … it wouldn’t have hurt to hit the gym once or twice). Negative body images are endemic to teen girls – in America especially, and applying my energies the correct way (to eating right and exercise vs. stressing out about my butt) would have helped me greatly down the road.

I might also add “how to enjoy inexpensive beer” to this list, but I actually learned that part kind of quickly. And it still wasn’t half as valuable as the single best lesson I gleaned from my parents during college: namely, there are no second chances with real world money.

Let me explain.

Back in the spring of (DATE REDACTED), I was accepted to the aforementioned semi-affordable public institution in upstate New York, where the seven-month winters were matched in intensity only by my need to GET THE CRAP AWAY FROM HOME. I adored my Long Islander parents (and still do), but the prospect of living 400 miles away from them excited this lifelong Girl Scout to no end. So, I sent the “yes” letter, got my roommate assignment, and spent the rest of the summer earning textbook funds at the local Wendy’s fryolator.

For the most part, Ma and Pa were incredibly supportive. Besides making the obligatory trips to Bed, Bath, and Beyond for girly-blue shower caddies, they also offered to pay my tuition until my little sister entered school, two years hence. Being good parents and savvy businesspeople, they had one condition: I had to maintain a 3.0 average.

“No problem,” I thought. “Bs are easy.” I’d breezed through high school (for the most part - damn you, Physics), and wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of a higher, harder education. Subsequently, when I entered school in the fall, I devoted most of my time to … um … not schoolwork.

It went fine for the first few weeks, until I received a string of fairly awful grades on papers and tests. Those Cs (and in one or two cases, Ds) were both tremendously humbling and a serious wake-up call for my stupid (drunk) ass. So, I cut back on the excess, buckled down, and soon, most of my class marks had morphed into semi-respectable Bs and B-minuses.

Except Basic Musicianship.

Though the class was taught by the sweetest man alive, I didn’t understand a damn thing. Nor did I make any effort to, whatsoever. I missed a bare minimum of one class per week, never read the material, and probably took a combined total of three pages of notes. In retrospect, I’m surprised the professor didn’t hurl me out a window, smug attitude first.

By the end of the semester, I somehow pulled a C-minus out of the air (note: my butt). It was better than I deserved, but still brought my overall GPA down to a grand ol’ 2.99. (Seriously! A 2.99! I didn’t even know that was possible!) When my parents saw, I expected them to gush, “2.99! But that’s SO CLOSE to a 3.0! We’ll pay your tuition FOREVER.” To my then-consternation and their never-ending credit, that didn’t happen.

“Kid,” they said, “we asked for a 3.0. Here’s the bill.”

My callowness (and let’s be honest - newfound love of cheap beer) cost me upwards of $4,000, which I finally finished paying off last year, after more than a decade of interest had accrued. (P.S. I never got below a 3.3 again.)

But you know what? I’m glad it happened. I’m glad Ma and Pa stuck to their guns, because it taught me the three of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned:

1) There are no second chances with real world money.
2) There are no second chances with real world expectations.
3) My parents don’t mess around, ever.

Thanks to that inglorious 2.99, I pay bills on time. I don’t miss deadlines. I try to exceed what people ask of me. Sure, most of it’s out of sheer terror of the consequences, but I like to think I learned a microscopic smattering of responsibility along the way. (Note: It’s mostly the terror.)

Readers, how about you? Whether you went to college, your own apartment, or a marriage, what food/health/economic things did you wish you knew before leaving home? Bring on dem stories (and I promise next week, there’ll be an article with real research and actual learny-type things).


If you like this article, you might also dig:
(Photos courtesy of generalsarmory and lizblog.)

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Sara - pension comparison said...

Great article, and so very very true!

Anne said...

I put myself through college by taking out loans and working part time, so I was always pretty cheap. However. I also had an unlimited meal plan my freshman and sophomore years. Instead of eating salads and cereal, which were pretty much the only healthy options (I'm from the south, okay?), I ate grits and bacon and pizza and brownies and tons and tons of soft serve ice-cream. Even though I was going to the gym for an hour every day, I still gained 30 pounds my freshman year, lost 10 when I moved back in with my parents that summer, and then gained it all back and then some over my sophomore year. Eventually, I realized that the dining hall food was crap, but since it was *there*, I kept eating it. My junior year, I ditched the meal plan and basically lived off of stir fries and beans and rice. At this point, I would die a happy woman if I never saw a vegetable stir fry again, but it taught me that cooking is easier than I though and that you really don't have to spend much money on food if you buy mostly vegetables and beans and I'm thankful that I never had to live off of easy mac like so many of my suitemates did.

kmbarnhart said...

I guess my advice is geared to the parents and the college-bound kids. To the parents: PLEASE don't expect your children to just "get" the basics of finance, especially if you don't get the basics of finance. My parents were and are no dummies in the area, but they missed a crucial step -- actually talking to me and teaching me about money, so I entered college clueless and, OK, a little spoiled. Bad, bad, bad, bad combination. (I'm sure I went into debt for things even dumber than a $7 bottle of colored dirt.) To the college-bound kids: BEWARE THE CREDIT CARDS. Just stay away from those tables at the student center and spring break where they offer you a T-shirt to sign up for their cards with ridiculously inflated interest rates. Yes, you need to build credit, but do some reading and research and find the best ways to do that. Trust me, just take $20, go into the student bookstore, buy a T-shirt of decent quality. That "free" T-shirt is the most expensive T-shirt you'll ever own and the quality is crap. It's. Just. Not. Worth. It.

The Femmes Frugal said...

Great Post!

Jessica said...

I never learned to saved. My parents never emphasized putting away part of my paycheck for things like college. So, when it came to paying for college, I took out loans. And I took out as much as I could and spent a lot on stupid stuff.

Now, I have a lot of debt to pay but at least I've learned to save. Part of my paycheck now goes to straight to savings. I'm dogsitting for free rent (also working full time) so I put my "rent" money towards my loans. I still have a long way to go but I've learned my lesson! Just because they offer you loan money, doesn't mean you should take it (same goes for credit cards)!

The Q Family said...

Great story! That's one of the main thing for parenting.. You have to follow through with your condition. It will teach your kids that responsibility to their actions. Kudo to your parent for sticking to their gun!

-Amy @ The Q Family

Steve G. said...

I wish I had understood more about nutrition and realized the importance of weight lifting. These two things transformed my life in my late twenties, resulting a loss of 80lbs estra pounds (which I'd had for over a decade) and a new level of confidence.

Had I made these changes earlier I could have enjoyed the college years a lot more. They were still pretty good times, though.

Anonymous said...

"Except Basic Musicianship.

Though the class was taught by the sweetest man alive, I didn’t understand a damn thing."

As a music major, I just had to laugh -- and sympathize. It's harder than it sounds, and there are plenty of our own who don't get concepts as freshmen, even though they may have been practicing since they were six years old.

Kris said...

You guys, these are great. Thank you.

Anonymous - I had NO IDEA a music class would be so hard. I played flute for four years growing up, and STILL had no clue. Nuts.

aymelovestrees said...

For my brother's recent high school graduation, I wrote him a (rather hilarious) instruction manual called "How to Wipe Your Own Ass: a mama's boy's manual for independent living". It covered all the things I wish I would have known before I left: what to do if you get in a car accident, what to look for in a landlord/roommate/apartment, what to pack when you move out of mom's house, the most candid and explicit sex advice he's ever heard, etc. Every day I think of more things I wish I could tell him, but I guess the best-learned lessons are the ones we learn ourselves, eh?

Dyer said...

itis so very hard to eat healthily on a college campus

LC @ Let Them Eat Lentils said...

@aymelovestrees What an AWESOME idea for a graduation gift. I'm definitely doing that for my sister.

How credit cards work. As soon as I left college, I read all these personal finance books, which, if I had read them BEFORE, would have been second nature to me. I didn't spend much in college, but when I was making jacksh** out of college, I still tried to live my life like it was funded by my parents. Bad idea.