Common Sense Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to College

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going to college

It’s the end of July, which means that in a few weeks there will be an influx of new students going to college. I could not find a specific number as to how many will be starting college this year, but I did find that 21.6 million students were enrolled in a college or university in 2012. We can surmise off of those numbers that there are likely at least several million students will be going to college for the first time this year.

Stop and think about that for a second. Millions of teenagers are about to face new challenges, especially if they’re away from home, and will likely encounter some growing pains. Even though it is has been WAY too many years since I first started college I look back at some of the mistakes I made, and see how the years have added a certain level of common sense that I wish I could instill in my younger self.

With that said, I have come up with a number of things I wish I knew before I started going to college, but I’d love for you to add to the list in the comments as my list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive in nature.

Student Loans/Credit Cards


As I’ve written before, I discovered credit cards while in college and graduated with roughly $25,000 in credit card debt. If you’re on campus and offered a “free” T-shirt or water bottle, my suggestion is that it’s not worth it. If you do want/need a credit card then I’d suggest one with a very low credit limit. That way you’re able to start to establish a credit history while also not opening yourself to too much risk.



On-campus housing is often as much as tuition, if not more. This was the case at the school I attended and while I made some lifelong friends as a result, ask yourself if the cost is worth it. If you’re going to a larger college then it’s likely there are a number of options for off campus housing.

Investigate those options if you’re going to college and find some roommates. That alone has the potential of saving thousands of dollars off your overall bill.

Go to Class!


Ok, I know this should be a given, but I shudder as I think back to how many classes I missed. The older version of me wants to shake the other silly as that was simply money thrown out the window. I know that it may be tempting to skip class, but I doubt many Dean’s List students skip class regularly.

Know Yourself


This sort of goes back to my last point, but I think it deserved its own section. Are you not a morning person? If not, then booking yourself with 8:00 am classes every morning may not be the best choice for you. By learning more about yourself you’ll set yourself up for success and thus be more effective when going to college.

Student Loans


Student loans are free money, right?! I hate to break it to you, but they’re not.  If you do find yourself needing to take on loans, then only take what you need to cover expenses and not beyond that. That extra $1,000 for the semester might seem like nothing, but added up each semester can mean serious money.

Politely turn down that extra money to the financial aid department and get a part-time job instead and you’ll be happy you did.

Take Advantage of Your Career Center


If you’re going to college, then it is somewhat of a safe assumption that you have a plan for your life after college. As you advance in your years in college, help yourself by becoming a frequent user of your campus’ career center.

*Related: Looking for income options? Check out our guide on ways to make money as a college student anyone can do.*

Many offer mock interviews, sessions to help build resumes, and help with internships. In my opinion, the career center is one of the most underutilized buildings on a college campus. I know that I did not use it enough, and I still regret that.

Don’t go to Grow Up


Many students go to college to grow up or to find themselves. I understand that to a certain point. I also think it’s natural to do so, to a certain extent at that stage of life. However, viewing it the main reason behind going to college is a very expensive endeavor. Do yourself a favor and balance the self-discovery out with coursework that leads to a practical, employable end and you’ll help yourself in the long run.

Learn From Your Failures


I HATE failing and I always have. It’s probably because of the embarrassment aspect, but as I grow older I see failure as a great learning opportunity. You’ll likely make mistakes while going to college so capitalize on them by turning every failure into a learning opportunity. Failures can provide invaluable insight to you that will only help you not make the same mistake again.

Beer Can Be a Drag on the Budget


I know, another no-brainer! I shudder to think of how much I spent on beer while going to college. Unfortunately, beer is not free (unless you have very wealthy friends) and does cost money. Do yourself a favor and drink within reason.

Get Involved


Mrs. Frugal Rules likes to tell me about how surprisingly difficult it was to make connections in college. She remembers flyers being taped to the sidewalks because so many students walked around with their noses stuck in books. She tried club sports, intramurals, wilderness activities, got a job on campus and eventually joined a sorority. She learned that clubs and on-campus activities can help you get the most out of your college experience.

Going to College is Fun, Enjoy it


I look back on my years attending college and they were some of the best years of my life. I made lifelong friends and had a blast. Remember that amidst all the hard work and all-nighters to allow yourself to enjoy it a little as well. You’ll never get that time back, so why wouldn’t you want to enjoy it?

What is something you wish you knew before you started going to college? What did I miss?


Photo courtesy of: Tax Credits

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Great post, John! I would say for me taking advantage of the career center and on-campus interviews EARLIER in my college career would have greatly benefited me. At the same time I think I turned out okay πŸ˜‰

  • Jon @ MoneySmartGuides says:

    Ha!! I skipped one too many classes myself. I think in one semester, I made it to roughly half of one of my classes. No wonder why I did horribly in that one!

  • Adam @ Money Bulldog says:

    I often wonder what grades I could of achieved if I’d have taken school more seriously and actually went to class! I always did ok and knew I would get the grades I needed so I didn’t try all that hard. Now I’m a little more driven and feel embarrassed when I look at my attitude back then.

    • John says:

      I am in the same boat Adam. If I would’ve focused a little more then I would’ve done much better. Thankfully I matured quite a bit before getting my MBA and the grades proved it.

  • pauline says:

    I was surprised at the number of classmates who had to have XYZ, generally a big apartment, a car, etc. because they had to focus on their study in good conditions. That is a time everyone lives lean so you can save a lot by doing so, instead of buying a ton of stuff that won’t make your grades better.

    • John says:

      I didn’t see that so much in college, but I did in high school. The sad thing is the parents bought all the stuff their kids wanted.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    There are definitely things that we both would’ve done differently. Greg always tells people to get a degree in something that makes sense instead of getting a degree in theatre like he did.

    • John says:

      I was sort of in the same boat – my undergrad was in History and I had no intention of becoming a teacher, so it was pretty useless.

  • GamingYourFinances says:

    Get involved! That one piece advice is so important. I met so many new/interesting people from the few student groups I was involved in. It was also a big factor in how I got my first job directly after school.

    Take a leadership role, practice those new skills/ideas that you’re learning in school. It’ll be one of the most valuable learning experiences in your life!

    • John says:

      I agree. I was involved in a few groups on campus and in leadership in two of them. It was a great way to get involved and made some lifelong friends out of it not to mention the learning opportunities that came from it.

  • Mark Ross | Think Rich. Be Free. says:

    I’m a college student now and I’m glad I read this kind of post. Thanks John! I will surely enjoy my college years and not skip classes. πŸ™‚

  • Michelle says:

    While I don’t regret anything now, sometimes I do wish that I actually would have taken time to enjoy school. I worked full-time and took anywhere between 18 to 24 credit hours per semester, so I had absolutely no time to enjoy myself.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Michelle. There is definitely balance to be had, especially if you’re not allowing yourself time to enjoy the experience.

  • Matt Becker says:

    I wish that I had worked for a year or so before college so that I could have had a better sense for what I wanted to do. I had a blast in college, but I really had no concept for what the working world was like or how to prepare myself. As a result, I really for the most part didn’t take courses with a coherent purpose or take advantage of the incredibly resources the school had for learning outside of the classroom.

    • John says:

      That’s a good point Matt. I sort of wish I did that myself as well. I went to community college my first two years, so it lowered my overall cost, but working a year prior could’ve helped out a lot.

  • Andrew@LivingRichCheaply says:

    Another way to save on housing is being a residence assistant (RA)…my wife did that and got free room and board. I lived off campus my last year since I had a car. I also agree that you should get involved and tap into the college’s resources. There were so many events where you can network, learn about careers or other things which I skipped because I just wanted to hang out with friends…or just watch TV. There is definitely a lot of downtime in college unless you’re a pre-med or maybe engineering major…I don’t know. I wish I was more productive with my time.

    • John says:

      I had a few friends that went the RA route, and it can work out to be a pretty sweet deal – especially in terms of overall cost. I agree, there was a lot of down time, though I tended to keep myself pretty busy with being involved in stuff on campus.

  • Mrs. 1500 says:

    The thing I think is so funny about college is that you are asking mostly immature 18-year-olds to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I know very few people who are working in the field they studied in college. I, myself have a supremely useless degree in Fashion Design. Choose a general field such as business or engineering, and you will have more opportunities.

    John, I wish I had read this post about 25 years ago… I wish my sister-in-law, who just graduated with $50,000 in unsecured college loan debt would have read it, too.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Mrs. 1500. That’s why I think taking a year off prior, or even starting out down the community college route can be so helpful. My degree was in History and, other than a pricey piece of paper, it was useless.

  • Tara says:

    Taking advantage of the great internships your school can help you get is one of the best tools. And don’t just intern once… I suggest doing an internship a few semesters to get great experience.

    Also, don’t forget being an RA to save money if you have the personality. I was an RA my junior year of college (and would’ve done it senior year if I didn’t study abroad) and my school offered full free room and board plus a living stipend for RA’s so it was a great way to cut costs in college.

    • John says:

      Those are both great points Tara! I think both can really help prepare you, to some extent, of having more responsibility and getting exposure to what life may be like after college.

  • Jake @ Common Cents Wealth says:

    These are great tips, John. I think it’s easy to overlook a lot of these while you’re in college, but then they make so much sense as soon as you graduate. Looking back at my college career, I wouldn’t change anything. Could I have spent less money? Sure, but all of it taught me valuable life lessons that I may not have learned elsewhere.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jake! I had a blast in college, though I think I’d still change a few things – though they all taught me invaluable lessons.

  • anna says:

    I agree about credit cards, though I think there’s some sort of law or something now that prevents credit card companies from coming on campus (or at least providing an incentive to sign up for a credit card, I forget the details). I had to laugh at the beer thing – I got a ‘head’ start since I was close to TJ, but thankfully the partying was out of my system before I started my third and fourth year upper courses! πŸ™‚ Great list, John!

    • John says:

      Now that you mention it, I seem to remember hearing about that Anna. Nice play on words there…my wife “enjoyed” some time in TJ as well her first year or two.

  • Nick @ says:

    It is amazing how much easier college became when I learned to go to class. πŸ™‚

  • E.M. says:

    Getting involved definitely changed my college experience. Unfortunately I did it a bit late. At the end of my second year I joined our orientation team and it was so rewarding to be able to help out the incoming freshmen and be mentors to them. We also went away on a 3 day trip to bond as a team, and I made a decent amount of friends that way.

    Subsequently, that led me to joining one of the bigger clubs on campus and I even held a position in the club for a semester before I graduated. Due to this I was able to take a trip to DC for a conference. If I had to do it over I would join clubs sooner – people are always looking for new members and there’s so many opportunities there.

    • John says:

      That’s awesome you got to do that E.M. I did something very similar myself my final two years and really enjoyed the experience. I could not agree more on starting earlier, I transferred in to where I got my undergrad from so I was a bit behind the 8 ball myself.

  • Anne @ Unique Gifter says:

    Going to class is a balance. Not everyone learns best that way, so I recommend figuring out what works best for you. If you have 45 hours/week of effort in you, then you may need to pick and choose which classes you go to, versus attending them all and not getting your projects/reading done, etc.

    • John says:

      I totally agree Anne, which is part of the reason behind knowing what kind of schedule works best for you. If it’s not meeting how you work best, then change is likely needed.

  • Justin @ The Family Finances says:

    I strongly suggest taking advantage of the networking opportunities. Your professors can play a great role in finding a job after college by being a great reference. At the same time, keeping in touch with your classmates can help alert you to future job opportunities as you all move forward in your careers.

  • Chris @ Stumble Forward says:

    Never went to college but if I did I’d be on a big time frugal budget. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in all the college fun and spending and before you know it you’ll have a pile a debt. However being a bit older now I could see how I might be a bit wiser now to avoid all the costly college expenses.

    • John says:

      It is very easy to get caught up in that trap Chris. I know that I did and a budget would’ve been immensely helpful towards that end

  • Broke Millennial says:

    Great list, John. I think credit card vendors are no longer allowed on campuses and people under 21 need someone to co-sign for a credit card. Maybe that’s just in the works, but it could help curb consumer debt! The career center is one of the best points on this list! I really wish I had taken better advantage of ours before graduating.

    • John says:

      I think you may be right Erin, Anna had mentioned something similar. I had heard ramblings about that, but wasn’t certain. I wish I would’ve taken better advantage of the career center as well.

  • Shannon@TheHeavyPurse says:

    Great post, John! I really think understanding student loans is so important. And honestly, if the kids won’t take the time to do so then the parents must take the responsibility. Because it DOES feel like free money. Without doing anything (besides filling out forms) you get this big sum of money to spend. As a kid, why wouldn’t I take all the money they offer me? I’m not thinking about repaying the loan (which I assume will be easy, otherwise they wouldn’t have given me the loan, right?). I’m thinking about how much fun I can have with the extra money I got. Ack! Overall, I think I had a good balance of school and fun. Okay, maybe I could have skipped a beer or two. πŸ™‚

    • John says:

      Thanks Shannon! Those were the exact thoughts I was having as I received my financial aid – all the things I could do with it. I just wish I could smack my younger self silly. πŸ˜‰

  • Budget & the Beach says:

    I have to say that I was both very fortunate to have my college paid for (and a partial scholarship) and actually made good choices as far as making sure I got through college quick, going to classes, taking it seriously, etc. I did get a credit card but never did any damage till after college. I do think parents need to be aware of the lure of credit cards and talk to their kids about that. I did have a lot of friends though do the 5-year-plan which to me is sad to watch them waste all that time and money…or their parent’s money.

    • John says:

      That’s awesome Tonya and I agree about making kids aware of credit cards. I agree about the wasting of time. My roommate was in a 5 year program and he took 8 1/2 years.

  • Girl Meets Debt says:

    College was SO MUCH FUN for me but I wish I took it more seriously at the time. Life in the “real world” is totally overrated lol. I was shaking my head in agreement throughout this whole post. Great work John πŸ™‚

    • John says:

      I was In the same boat GMD. I had a little too much fun, but hey isn’t that what college is all about?! πŸ˜‰

  • The First Million is the Hardest says:

    Oh yes, going to classes was something I didn’t do too much of for my first few years of college. Knowing what I know now I’d definitely focus more on classes from the start!

  • jim says:

    The only thing I regret about college was that – EVEN THERE – there were no classes on how to live financially responsibly. That’s it. That is the one and ONLY thing I regret about college. DUH! Where the hell are/were the fiscally grounded profs????

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Jim. I think, as a whole, we suffer with that throughout the educational system. We wonder why we have the financial literacy issues we do.

  • C. the Romanian says:

    I was a real wreck in college and I would love to go back in time to change things. I did skip a lot of classes, I did most of the sleeping during the day and the partying during the night, threw all of my money on beer and fun and I can say that those years are the blurriest period in my life. I did some really bad decisions back then.

    And I would add to the list: pay attention to what you eat! My “diet” was almost entirely fast food and snacks and beer so after college I was about 50 pounds heavier and with a bunch of nutrition-related problems I am still fighting off today.

    • John says:

      Sounds like you and I did a lot of the same things. πŸ™‚ That’s a great addition to the list – I could not agree more. You’ll likely see that regardless, but having a balance is key.

  • Monica says:

    Yes! Go to class! Haha, this is important to remember. Don’t let your college experience get in the way of your college classes.

  • Daisy @ Everything Finance says:

    I paid my way through my education. As a result, I was terrified of skipping class. I went to all of my classes, did well, and graduated with little debt and a job, so I learned a hard lesson from it.

  • Derek Chamberlain with says:

    Great post!

    I think one thing parents can do to help their kids out before they go off to college is to get them a “shared” credit card while they are still a sophomore or junior in high school. This can help teach them responsible debt management before they leave the nest.

    This will help them to develop good practices with some guidance.

  • SavvyFinancialLatina says:

    Definitely get involved! Some of the best memories were from participating on on campus activities. Plus, you get to know administrators, and they can help you out.

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