Out of all the reasons that people go to college it seems that two tend to top the list: the love and pursuit of knowledge and a means of upward financial mobility. For institutions so concerned with knowledge and money, you’d think that most graduating students would know all there is to know about their own personal finances, venturing into the world well-equipped to become productive members of society, and get a solid grasp on this “adulting” business. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t seem to reflect as much.
As it sits only 17 states currently require students to take a course in personal finance sometime in K-12 and according to one study, 43 percent of students couldn’t name one difference between a credit and a debit card. With how important tax returns, credit scores, and all other sorts of financial data are to the average adult’s fiscal life, it seems absurd that so many come out of college knowing so little about them. Whether you’re intent on amassing a small fortune or content with living simply and frugally, there are certain financial lessons you shouldn’t leave college without knowing.
1. No Matter What, You Have to Pay Your Taxes
- For some people, the fact that you have to pay taxes is a no-brainer–personally, I’ve had to fill out tax returns since I was about 16 years old. However, many of the people I went to college with–particularly athletes and high-performing academics who’d never had the time to hold a job throughout either high school or university–hadn’t the slightest clue about 1040s or 1099s or any of the other tax forms that income-generating Americans should.
The good news is this: taxes usually aren’t as complicated as people make them out to be. They can be, but at the end of the year, the average citizen will be filling out a 1040EZ which has line-by-line instructions (in fact most tax forms come with a set of instructions). Difficult or not, taxes are time consuming. The Motley Fool estimates that it takes 5 hours for the average 1040EZ filer, so make sure you set that time aside and get it done. Owing the government money is never a good thing. Another reason that tax awareness is as important today as it ever was is that more graduates are going into business for themselves, either as business owners or as part of the gig economy. Without knowledge of the tax code, how do you avoid running afoul of it and owing the government money? Unfortunately, not knowing the rules doesn’t make you exempt from them, so brush up on your tax knowledge. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.
2. Your Credit Score is Probably More Important than You Realize
Credit scores were invented shortly after the Civil War to indicate how trustworthy a person is in terms of paying back debt, and everybody–unless they’ve never opened a bank account, applied for a loan, or owned a credit card–has one. Your credit score is going to range anywhere from 300 to 850, and the lower the number is, the less likely that somebody will trust you with their money. The higher your credit score, the better chance you’ll get a good deal on your mortgage, car loan, and basically any other major life purchase you might be thinking about. On the other hand, if your credit score is too low, you may be flat-out denied a loan.
A better credit score means you have more buying power, but more importantly that you’ll have to pay less interest on those big life-purchases (more on that in a moment). The weird thing here is that you have to use credit to build credit–a slippery slope if I ever saw one myself–and it’s easy to get carried away with all of that unchecked power. It’s good to keep in mind that you’ll build credit quicker by managing your debt more strictly; keeping your credit balance below 30 percent of your credit limit is recommended for building credit. It’s all about balance!
3. Debt Compounds Quickly–So Pay It Off Just as Quickly
- You wouldn’t just hand over money would? Only paying the your minimum amount on your installments can cost you big in the long run.
This is one of those things that I wish I would have realized sooner. Due to rising costs of tuition ($19,548 per year on average for in-state tuition including room and board), many students are taking on massive amounts of debt with the hope that they’ll land a good enough job to pay it all off later. Unfortunately, many of these students take on that debt without fully realizing how debt and interest actually work. Whether it’s credit cards, student loans, or your car payments, it’s almost always worth it to pay off your principle sooner rather than later. Here’s a quick example to illustrate what I mean:
Let’s say your loan balance is $40,000 at last year’s current average interest rate of 4.29%. You’d have to pay at least $410.52 a month consistently to pay your loan off in 10 years, and you’d still be paying $9,261 extra in interest–meaning your $40,000 worth of debt is closer to $50,000 when it’s all said and done. If you commit to paying off an extra $100 a month, you’ll save approximately $2,200 overall and pay off the loan in 7.8 years. Bump that up to an extra $200 a month and you’re looking at being debt-free in 6.3 years and saving approximately $3,600 on interest charges. It’s worth noting that certain loans, specifically mortgages, may have penalties associated with paying them off early–however, the overarching lesson is this: if you can pay it off early, do it! You’ll thank yourself later on. Seriously.
4. It’s Never Too Early to Save for Later
Of course, the reason that we take so long to pay off our student loans and other debts is that we’re a culture focused on living in the now. We’re not great at recognizing our future needs over our current needs, and add to that economic strains and pressures and you see why young folks like Millennials put off saving for retirement, let alone drawing up a will or living trust. Beyond taxes and debt, this is probably going to be the least of most students’ concerns–but if there’s anything I’ve learned personally from paying off debt, it’s that it’s easy to underestimate how appreciative your future self will be for the actions of your past self. Any amount put away is better than nothing and will make your later years that much more comfortable.
Of course, there are more obscure things that college students might want to know about finances, and this list is by no means definitive–but the lack of rhetoric in high school and university concerning the financial aspects of everyday life is somewhat concerning. At least here you’ve learned the basics, and can take fiscal agency over your own life.
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