To My Younger (Just Starting off at University) Self, and To all The New and Returning Students…

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I am privileged enough to say that I have a Bachelor of Arts in English from York University. I say that I am privileged because I know that post-secondary school (although almost necessary today to get a decent job) is really expensive. School is getting so expensive that some people just can’t afford it or the debt that comes with it (and they can’t even land a job that pays enough to chisel down the debt that they were allowed to take on while paying to live).

I love my degree, and I think I use it every day, but if I had the chance to do it over again I would probably do creative writing. I say this because I am really passionate about creative writing, and I heard amazing things about that program. I remember being jealous to hear that creative writing majors were studying Harry Potter one week or another amazing book the next (while I studied the great classics/western literary canon). I was in the wrong major and switching into English allowed me to transfer my social work courses into electives, and doing that allowed me to take more and more English courses as an English major.

However, as they say, everything happens for a reason: I met some really cool people in English. I also had some amazing profs and teaching assistants (T.A’s). I do like the literature that I studied, and I feel like I have a well-rounded education. And anyway, everyone knows that school is 50% the degree or diploma and 50% the experience. I had an amazing experience (especially when I moonlighted as a residence/rez student every time that I stayed in friends dorms on campus).

Photo by Cynthia del Río on Unsplash

Am I going back to school to further my education? No. Not anytime soon, anyway. Being debt free is liberating. Also, I always joke, the only way I will ever get another degree is if it’s an honorary one. I have done my time (and I loved every minute of it). I worked my way through school, and I would rather pick up internships (as needed) instead of doing a diploma or another degree.

I love learning, I’m just not willing to go down the rabbit hole of debt again – which I kind of did when I racked up some debt by semi-partying, buying breakfast, lunch, and dinner on campus, and buying other things on credit. I understand that school debt is the best kind of debt to have (if any), but I’m not willing to owe anybody anything anymore (unless I don’t strike it rich as quickly as I hope, and I have to take on a mortgage).

So, with all that said, this post is designed to offer tips and advice for new and returning students. Chances are I won’t cover everything ( but honestly, who could?). Our school experiences are personal, and this is me sharing mine with you. I know that I’m not an expert, and not everyone will have had or be currently experiencing the same things or even programs in their university or college lives, but I hope you take from this what you can. In listed form, my advice (which I wish I knew before entering university) is the following…

1. Credit is not free money

I know this might be a tough one to swallow, especially if you got a big deposit in your bank account or a credit card with a large spending limit on it, but I beg you to reconsider going wild with credit (and if you have already I ask you to stop it). OSAP here in Ontario, student aid in other parts of Canada, or Financial Aid (if you’re in the United States) is for school and school-related expenses (like tuition, eating, an apartment or rez, some clothes, and books).

If you spend like a wild person it can become a pretty reckless thing. School is supposed to be fun and educational ( I will continue to stress this because it is a social and informative experience in and out of the classroom) but it’s not supposed to put you into debt that you carry for the rest of your adult life.

Here in Canada, for a lot of jobs that you qualify for (with a good degree or diploma in say English, Communications, Marketing, or Public Relations), salaries are reasonable (and hit at about $40-45,000, or lower in some cases). Benefits may or may not be there. Imagine being saddled with a mountain of debt while trying to save money towards your future or pay your rent. Imagine living in a crap box, well into your 30s, because that’s all you can afford with your debt. You don’t want that kind of lifestyle for yourself. You deserve better than that.

So whether your credit is in the form of financial aid, OSAP, student aid, or a plastic credit card, remember that your credit is not a money tree. You’ll have to pay it off at some point (so don’t spend like you just won the lottery).

2. If your workload allows, work and go to school

That’s right, I’m telling you to get a job (and keep one) while going to university or college. It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? I know, I know. You already have your classes to worry about, and you also have to find time to do your homework, see friends, eat, and sleep. I’m only suggesting that you do it because I did it and I don’t have any debt. You might still have some debt at the end (if you didn’t get some help like I did), but it won’t be nearly as much as it might be if you were to just go to school.

Working and going to school requires a lot of time, balance, and persistence. It won’t be easy, and it won’t fun all the time, but it will give you skills that are highly transferable (especially if you work in retail or food – whether you’re customer-facing or not). Working also allows you to put some money away into a savings account (which everyone should do) and that is good for emergencies. I highly recommend it.

3. Bring food from home (if you go to school from home) or go home and eat

In university my schedule was nutty: I had class at 10:30 am with a huge break between my morning three-hour class and my evening three-hour class (which started at 7 pm). I did this three days a week. I also worked at a department store and hung out with my friends. If your schedule is anything like mine was, and your lucky enough to live close enough to your school that you can come and go as you please, then go home for lunch in the middle of the day. You likely have a monthly pass that allows for unlimited trips back and forth between school and home, so take advantage of it! If eating out on campus is a social thing for you (as it was for me) then bring food from home. I promise you that no one will laugh at you either way, and your bank account will thank you later.

4. Good food is fuel so utilize online websites for ideas on how to eat well for cheap

Eating well from home can be time-consuming and expensive, we all know that. Luckily enough, for all of us, there are websites out there that offer recipes for foods that are cheap and tasty. All you have to do is head over to Amazon or your local dollar store, find the cheapest lunchbox you can find, buy your groceries in advance (on the day of the week that your local grocery store starts their new week of sales – most places in Canada start their week on Thursday), and meal plan. There are great menu planning journals available on Amazon (or you can buy a notebook and write down what you want to eat for each day of the week). Be sure to include treat days (where you buy out a couple times a month) because you deserve it. Here are some really good cheap and healthy eating recipe blogs:

Budget Bytes

BrokeAss Gourmet

99 Cent Chef

$5 Dinners

I will also be sharing cool (and cheap) recipes in the near future, so look out for them.

5. You won’t keep all your friends

You start off uni or college and you’re pumped: maybe you had frosh week, where you met everyone, or you clicked with people in your lectures or your classes connected to your lectures (where you have a T.A), and everything was magic. You were sure that you’d stick together like glue forever, and that you would always keep in touch.

So sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no way you’re going to be tight with each and every single person you have magic with at university or college. Maybe your not surprised by this (especially if you went through high school), but I thought I would let you know. Don’t be heartbroken about the fact that you won’t keep everyone with you every step of the way: some people will walk with you forever, some won’t, some will be in and out of your life, and some will be gone for a while and then come back and stay. That’s the way life goes.

6. Have a balance

You can’t go to university or college and not set out to have a good time (whatever that means to you), and you can’t just party all the time and ignore the fact that you’re also there to get your degree or diploma. You’re there to learn, meet people, and experience things you probably have never experienced in your life (without parents breathing down your neck). But the thing about having a lot of freedom is that you have to learn how to manage it: there are no professors who will convince you that you shouldn’t waste your money and fail out.

There are no profs or T.A’s who are going to call your parents and tell them to tell you to take your work more seriously. Similarly, there are no people who will tell you to put down your books and take a load off sometimes.

Your friends will always want you to come out with them (even when you have an 8 am class the next morning or an exam the next day). It’s up to you to find the balance, and that takes time. How do you find the balance? I don’t know. That’s between you and your books. However, I will say that booking fun into your schedule is equally as important as fitting in studying, school, or work. Live fully.

7. Keep track of what you are spending

Similarly to keeping a menu planner or a food journal, I would also advise you to keep track of your spending (whether it’s credit, job money, or the money you get from your parents. Money management is a life skill, and it is mightily important that you pick it up quickly. Some great sites, that offer money spending and saving tips, include:

Canadian sites:

Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Money Sense

Young and Thrifty

Give Me Back My Five Bucks

Get Smart About Money

Half Banked

American sites:

Get Rich Slowly

Wise Bread

Money Crashers

20 Something Finance

I will also be sharing a money post in the very near future.

8. Put yourself out there

I couldn’t come close to the end of this message without saying (one more time) that university and college are where you meet people, and learn more about who you are. Whether it’s taking that internship or a part-time job (so you get the contacts and experience that you need to land the all-important career job), or going to a party where you’ll meet a bunch of new people…do it. University and college is an equal opportunity experience, where you can meet the most amazing people, so you have to take advantage of it. Don’t be afraid to ask your T.A., prof, or academic adviser where you can find resources and help in school, and don’t be afraid to join a group or club that connects with your interests. It’s all there for you if your willing to reach out for it.

So, that’s it. I had a lot of fun writing this post. I can only hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it. I hope that my tips and tricks will be of help to someone out there, and I hope that you remember to enjoy the hell out of your college/university years because most people only get one go of it. I hope that you learn a lot in and out of the classroom, and I hope that you remember to be kind to yourself (because post-secondary is a fun, exhilarating, jarring, and life-changing experience).

Also, in case you’re interested, here’s a picture of me on my graduation day (which took place on June 9th, 2011):


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