This Financial Mistake I Made in College Has Haunted Me for 20 Years

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  • I had the option to graduate college early and save money on tuition.
  • Instead of doing that, I took classes I enjoyed and hung out with friends, which wound up costing me a lot of money.

It's a move I very much regret to this day.

The high school I attended had a rigorous curriculum that, at times, had me taking upward of 10 classes -- not including extracurriculars. As such, by the time I got to college, I was no stranger to loading up on classes, and I was comfortable with a larger course load than many of my friends.

Because of this, by the time I finished up the first semester of my senior year, I had accumulated more than enough credits to graduate. I had also, at that point, completed all of the required courses for my majors.

At that point, I had a choice -- graduate early and try to find a (low-paying) job in the college town I lived in, all the while losing health insurance (because back then, you couldn't just stay on your parents' plan if you weren't a full-time student), or pay for an extra semester of school, take fun classes, and hang out with my friends.

I ended up opting for the latter. My logic was that I was locked into a year-long lease for my campus-adjacent house, and the job market in my college town was so weak that I wouldn't end up making much money by going out and working full time. Instead, I figured I'd keep my existing part-time job and my health insurance.

But in reality, I knew that paying for another semester of college was not the most cost-effective solution to that situation. And in hindsight, I regret not graduating early.

I could've carved out a smoother financial path

The summer before my senior year of college, I worked a finance job that paid me generously. As such, I earned enough to cover college tuition and living costs for the upcoming year.

Staying at school for that extra semester didn't cause me to rack up any debt -- educational, credit card, or otherwise. But by spending the money on classes I didn't need, I put myself in a position where it would take me that much longer to pay off my existing debt from previous semesters, and also, where it would take me longer to build a solid emergency fund.

Also, while the job market in my college town wasn't wonderful, when you're 21 with limited work experience and money, a job is still a job. Had I gotten one, I would've perhaps had a more robust resume at the ready once it came time to seek out full-time work.

Learning from my mistake

I can admit that back then, I didn't want to commit myself to a full-time job while my friends were taking a handful of classes at college. That would've meant having a much more rigorous schedule at a time when I wanted an easy one.

But also, a big reason I paid for an extra semester of school was to take fun classes that interested me. And while I'm a firm believer in getting an education, the reality is that those classes were really an indulgence -- not a necessity. I could've instead worked part-time, which I was already doing, and "self-taught" myself some of that material instead.

Years later, I was a little lost career-wise and toyed with applying to graduate school. I even studied for and took some exams to make that possible. But ultimately, I opted out of grad school because I realized that it wasn't going to further my career. And I'm glad I didn't spend the money on a degree that wouldn't have done much for me.

As much as I think I made the wrong call staying in college that extra semester when I could've graduated early, it helped me avoid making a similar mistake later in life. So to that end, I can at least say that something good came from my blunder.

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