I will be starting my freshman year at Northwestern University this fall, and, as it is one of the most prestigious universities in the nation, it will be a significant financial undertaking for myself and my family – expected between two hundred and three hundred thousand dollars. Since middle school, I have expected that college would be a sizeable investment, and have taken a variety of actions to improve my ability to pay it off in a reasonable time and manner.
I began my employment experiences by volunteering at multiple summer camps – one at a local YMCA, the other at a local elementary school in a weeklong camp, called Camp Invention, focused on innovation, recycling, and teamwork for young students. At these camps, I served in the role of a camp counselor or counselor in training, watching over a group of 15-25 children to make sure they stayed safe while under my care, showed respect for every other child and adult present, and enjoyed their time with each other every day. From there, I took up a year-round job at a local pizza chain restaurant, working five-hour shifts at night making just above minimum wage. This was the first job I held during the school year, and by losing most of my evenings for work, this job forced me to learn a new type of time management to ensure I could keep up in my homework along with other extracurriculars, including four sports, playing the violin, earning the Eagle Scout award, and captaining my school’s math and science teams.
In June, I decided to wrap up my employment at the pizza chain after two years to try out a new occupation, this time in construction. My new job in construction is my first full-time position and pays nearly double what I earned in my previous position. Nevertheless, even a quick calculation will show that my carpentry job, along with every cent I’ve made from previous employment, can make only a tiny dent in the overall cost of college. However, I derive the primary future benefit of my high school employment not from the monetary gain, but in necessary experience I acquired through them that I will need for any higher-paying occupations I pursue in the future.
Working for multiple summers with young children built up my patience and ability to keep my eyes on many people and places at once. Working in the fast-paced food service sector as a cook tested my capacity for multitasking and weighing the relative importance of various tasks (i.e., a pizza burning in the oven needs to be addressed before a phone order should be prepared) and brought me my first experience of communicating directly with my employer and recognizing and completing all my necessary nightly duties without explicit instruction. Working for three months in my carpentry position has improved my mental resilience against laboring for long hours in the heat, day after day, and has developed an internal rhythm for my on-site jobs and the schedule I base around it. These skills and mindsets will no doubt be of great value to any future employer I have, increasing my chances that I can exit college and find a more permanent position that pays well and offers work that I will genuinely enjoy.
Even though my parents have been saving for college for both myself and my younger sister since they first got married, they still expect me to pull my own weight in paying for my education – a fair agreement, in my opinion, for my father loves to comment, “Hey, we still need to retire!” So, as many other post-secondary students do, I plan to take out student loans for a substantial portion of my college costs, which I will repay after my graduation with a more stable and reliable source of income. Through my parents’ long-term savings in a 529 plan, my own prior investments into the stock market, and my prospects for a future career, I feel confident that I can manage these loans without terrible stress or burden.
For as long as I can remember, I have seen my family display good habits of saving bits and pieces of our earnings whenever possible. Two of my grandparents grew up and came of age during the Great Depression; with one out of every four Americans unemployed, everyone had to save their money and resources whenever possible, for there was no telling if tomorrow would bring food to the table and hold the roof over their heads. My grandparents had to learn how to make the most of what they had, and even after the Depression had long ended, they continued the same practices which were imprinted upon them while they were children. Watching them was, in turn, how my father learned to be thrifty. I have watched him scroll through page after page on eBay, Amazon, and other online marketplaces, searching for the best possible prices on tools and car parts for his two old spider convertibles, which he fixes in his free time. Besides those convertibles, he uses the skills he learned from his father to fix our family’s other cars and appliances and perform routine care whenever they need it, saving us from exorbitant bills from mechanics.
On many nights, I have walked into the kitchen to find my mother sorting through coupons, cutting out each and every one she can find that will be useful for her next trip to the grocery store and scroll through page after page on online coupons site like Retailmenot, Couponfollow, Couponvario. Despite being frequently enticed by the word “Sale!”, most of the time, my mother maintains responsible spending habits. Between her and my father’s influence, I have similarly developed habits of saving my money in my day to day life: searching databases for the lowest prices on my textbooks, avoiding name brands when I buy food for my Boy Scout troop's camping events and only purchasing what I need (A Scout is Thrifty is the ninth point of our Scout Law!), learning how to change my tires and engine oil – the list goes on and on. Even though I may only save a few dollars at a time, those dollars add up, and these good habits will help me significantly with my financial wellness in the years to come. As poet George Herbert wisely pointed out, “A penny spar[e]d is twice got” – that is, a penny saved is a penny earned. Yet, at the same time, I realize that bargain hunting cannot be the only form of thriftiness that I should consistently practice in order to keep my finances in line.
My most recently adopted method for contributing to my portion of my college tuition has been applying for as many scholarships as I possibly can with the remaining time in my busy schedule. To this date, I have applied for more than 40 unique scholarships, with awards ranging from one hundred to forty thousand dollars, and have been successful in winning parts or the whole of a few of them. Scholarships are unwieldy. Many people apply, but few people win. Yet, I continue to apply for more and more of them because of this mindset: winning a scholarship will always net me a greater pay rate per hour of time spent on it than the pay rate of any job I have had so far. I will continue seeking out opportunities for college funding in between homework, studying, and extracurriculars because every bit of money I can earn helps.
Finally, my most ambitious plan to save money in my college expenses is to graduate in three years instead of four. Through four years of high school, I took 17 AP exams, and have received a top score of 5 on 16 of them, with one score of 4. Northwestern University will accept these AP scores for general education requirements, so between those tests and the two college courses I have excelled in through the University of Wisconsin Online Colleges system, I could enter my freshman year with more than 30 credits under my belt. I plan to manipulate those credits in any way possible to allow me to complete my major in Physics and my Integrated Sciences Program, a selective direct admission, math-oriented general sciences curriculum, in a year less than an average student. This demanding plan may require me to take more than the normal number of classes each quarter, but that is a challenge I am more than willing to undertake if I can cut a quarter of my postsecondary education costs through it.
After college, I plan to enter a career in academic research, whether it be in a university setting, a national institution, or in a private facility. Even though research may not be the most lucrative career option I could pursue with a degree in Physics or Mathematics (salaries for academic researchers can fluctuate in a wide range depending on area of expertise, employer, and other factors), I do not wish for much from my job after college beyond maintaining financial stability for myself and my future family and paying off my education investment. Rather, I hope the greatest reward of my scholastic career will be in the contributions my work offers to the general scientific community and future progress for our planet and humankind.
As a new adult, managing my personal finances has assumed one of the central positions in my daily tasks. The skills in monitoring my spending and investing closely, actively and enthusiastically participating in the labor force, and utilizing my academic prowess to whatever potential possible, which I have begun to develop over the last four years, will be of great assistance as I work to fully pay off the costs of a rigorous and irreplaceable education.