Working through college may put students at risk for a more expensive and longer education experience, but a part-time job after class can do more than soften the financial blow of rising tuition costs.
I worked at least one part-time job throughout most of my college career to supplement financial aid and live independently from my parents. While working made finding the time to study harder and led to many long, coffee-fueled days, I graduated with less student loan debt, developed better time management skills and, above all, learned vital financial lessons that continue to help me every day of my postgraduate life.
If you are weighing the costs of picking up a part-time job while in school — or maybe you don’t have a choice — keep in mind how it can make you a more financially savvy adult. It’s not all bad.
Here are the three most valuable money lessons I learned as a working college student:
1. The value of a dollar
If you’re in college, living the sweet life on financial aid, savings or family contributions, it’s easy to lose track of the dollars you are spending on pizza, coffee or outings with friends. The money is there and your focus is elsewhere — or at least that’s how I felt my freshman year.
I picked up a $9/hour office job my sophomore year to help pay for my books, cellphone bill and coffee addiction. After just a few paychecks, I began to think twice before spending money.
Having that part-time job really put into perspective how much my time spent working — which now couldn’t be used for studying or extracurricular activities like my first year — was actually worth. And as the years went on and I had to work more hours to pay for off-campus housing and additional bills, I began to value every dollar even more.
Now living on a post-grad, full-time income, this perspective keeps me grounded and focused on paying for the essentials first: bills, student loan payments and savings. Understanding what it takes to earn your money makes smart financial decisions easier.
2. Manage a budget on a fluctuating income
My last two years of school I waitressed on the weekends and a couple of nights during the week and faced varying shifts each week — and inconsistent income, since I relied on tips. I could estimate how much I would bring home each night based on the weather, day or time of my shift, but it was never reliable.
Because of this I was forced to make a budget that worked with a fluctuating income. I always budgeted for the low end of a possible week’s pay and if I ended up with more, then it was a cushion for the next week. I learned to pay each bill as soon as I was able instead of waiting until the month’s end or a due date to ensure I’d have enough to cover everything if I experienced a slow week at work.
While such planning was sometimes a pain, it taught me a lot about money management and helped me improve my saving habits. Even now that I’m done with waitressing (thank goodness), I still pay my bills as soon as I get paid and always set aside a little extra from each paycheck for “just in case” situations.
Full-time employment may mean more consistent pay, but it still never hurts to be prepared for life’s inconsistencies.
3. How to use credit effectively
If I didn’t have a job in college, I wouldn’t have been able to open my first (and co-signer-free) credit card.
My first card was a small, store-only line of credit for the retailer that sold my favorite jeans. An occasional shopping trip with the girls seemed like no big deal, but when my budget didn’t allow me to pay the full balance that month, I realized the importance of paying it off fast to avoid unnecessary interest costs that can quickly add up — especially with a high-interest retail card.
I got back on track with that store card and before graduating, I had built a strong enough payment history to open a general purpose card and an airline miles reward card. The benefits of establishing good credit early on really became clear when I applied for my first “big girl” apartment after graduating and was approved on the spot after an instant credit check.
Opening a credit card while in college may not be right for everyone, but if you have a part-time job and the budget to charge $30 each month that you pay off right away, I highly recommend exploring your credit options. Learn how to manage your finances — and credit — now before you are thrown into the “real world” and have to face everything at once.